Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools who run it.
--Bill Terry, New York Giants, 1923-41
Like many baseball fans, my love of the game predates memory.
Between1943 and 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a first baseman named Howie Schultz.
Ineligible for military service because he was too tall, Schultz also played in the NBA.
A .241 hitter, he hit 24 career home runs. I'm told I used to impersonate Schultz's
rarely-witnessed home run trot in my grandmother's living room when we still lived
with her after WWII. Evidently Howie went deep during my first visit to Ebbets Field,
which I do not recall.
My father switched his allegiance from the Dodgers to the New York Giants
manager Leo Durocher changed teams. So my first conscious baseball memory is of Russ
Hodges describing Bobby Thompson's playoff-winning 9th inning home run off the
unfortunate Ralph Branca in 1951. If I close my eyes, I can still see the Old Man standing
in front of the bathroom mirror in a sleeveless undershirt with shaving cream on his face
when I burst in whooping that the Giants had won the pennant.
That was Willie Mays's rookie season, the idol of my youth. Debating with
the relative merits of Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, the three Hall of Fame
centerfielders who played for New York teams in the Fifties, was how I learned to argue.
Incidentally, I was right about that too.
The only Proustian moment of my life came about five years ago when
acquired my biggest best friend, Rusty, a quarter horse. The first time I rode him outside
a fence was on a hot afternoon in August. We were trotting along a dusty farm road through
a new-mown hay field when I was struck by a wave of feeling so strong it's a wonder
I didn't fall off.
Like music, scent triggers memory and emotion. I have always loved animals,
realized it was partly the way horses SMELL that made me unaccountably happy around them.
Especially in summer, horses give off a pungent odor of dust, grass, sweat, and, of course,
horsehide. That's the smell of baseball. My happiest days as an American boy were spent on
standing on the pitcher's mound or scuffling the dirt around third base inhaling the
neatsfoot-oil and leather scent of my mitt, with the Old Man on the bench flashing signs.
My wife's father George Haynie coached the Little Rock Doughboys. Diane
settled for me
because she was too young to get Brooks Robinson's attention. Of the million reasons why
marrying her was the smartest thing I've ever done, the fact that she still can't understand how
the Cubs let Greg Maddux get away ranks high.
Given all that, it shouldn't have surprised me that I slept fitfully last
Thursday before the
Major League Baseball Players Association strike date, and dreamed all night about losing
the game. My friend Steve Fehr, part of the negotiating team for the players union, urged me
not to panic. This year would be different. Both sides in baseball's long, acrimonious history
of labor disputes understood that they had to settle. After many failures, the owners had given up
on breaking the union, and the players knew that the sport's economics needed fixing.
Fehr also reminded me that while sports reporting may be marginally less
American political journalism, it too features a lot of stylized posturing by people who love to
play 'Let's you and him fight.' Doomsayers on the sports and editorial pages could scarcely
conceal their wish that the MBPLA would call a strike so they could keep launching
Even though I expected it, the settlement announcement still gave me goosebumps
saw it on CNN. There was my pal Steve, exhausted from round-the-clock bargaining, sitting on
the dias next to Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine. While not a Braves fan, I'm a National League guy.
I've probably pulled for or against Glavine 100 times over his 16 year career. What separates a
pitcher like him (and Maddux) from the others isn't size, strength or overpowering physical gifts.
It's his fine-honed skill, intelligence, determination, and, yes, character.
Given that millions are willing to pay to watch Glavine perform, how much
SHOULD he earn?
After the settlement, a Republican friend asked why I thought his 'Cro-Magnon' friends were
privately disappointed that the strike hadn't happened. Mostly envy, I said. Less for the fame or
the money than the players's collective ability to stand the normal American order of things on its head.
In a country where some Wal-Mart managers felt free to lock employees inside
and make them work overtime without pay, the success of the MBPLA can't help but evoke
resentment. Everybody else has to suck up, why not them?
On Sunday, I watched the Cubs' improbable eighth inning rally against the
Cards. As part of
my playoff preparations, I also saw exciting ninth-inning comebacks by the Diamondbacks over
the Giants and the Oakland A's over Minnesota - all in front of big, roaring crowds. Rumors of
the greatest game's demise have been greatly exaggerated.