TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, 1988, SPORTS
Copyright 1988/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
This Selection Didn’t Just Come Out of Left Field
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — I half expected Babe Ruth to come down off the wall and say, “Get that guy outta here!” I thought Ty Cobb would spike me. I figured Don Drysdale would throw at my head.
I would expect an alarm to go off or a wake-up call to sound. Except, I wouldn’t even dream this.
What am I doing in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown? I mean, there goes the neighborhood, right?
Me! One of the great non-athletes of our time. I was practically born with one foot in the bucket. I couldn’t hit a curveball if you diagrammed it for me beforehand. I wouldn’t recognize a slider from 10 feet away.
I’m the guy who used to get a headache the day fastball pitchers were going to throw, a guy who’d pretend to fall down under hard line drives. I’d wait for a walk. I don’t think I got to third base five times in my life. Some guys have been on the moon more than I’ve been on third.
You’ve heard of people who couldn’t hit the curveball? I couldn’t hit a straight ball. You’ve heard of guys who couldn’t hit the fastball? I couldn’t hit the slowball. To tell the truth, I couldn’t hit, throw, or catch anything going more than 5 m.p.h.
So, what am I doing here in a shrine with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax?
Good question. I’m glad you asked. If you’ll get my guitar, I’ll sing you the haunting ballad of that most long-suffering, patient, loyal group of people who ever stood and served–the baseball fans.
You see, baseball is not all hits, runs and errors, ticker-tape parades and the keys to the city. Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? Would Shakespeare be Shakespeare if no one came to hear the lines?
Baseball is a guy sitting with a beer and a hot dog and a bag of peanuts in the third deck hollering, “Call yourself a pitcher, Drysdale? You couldn’t get a fastball past Helen Keller!”
Baseball is love. Baseball is probably the ultimate in sports caring. No one bleeds like the baseball fan whose team is in a long slump.
Baseball is an affection, but it’s also an affliction. The home team loses and the coffee tastes bitter, food becomes cardboard, life becomes a study in the morose.
It’s no accident that the most famous poem in baseball history is about defeat, failure. Baseball fans understand. Baseball fans deal in disappointment. Baseball fans jeer so they won’t sob. They boo to insulate themselves against disappointment.
It has been said that to be a baseball fan is to remain 12 years old all your life. It’s to have heroes, and no one over 12 has room for heroes.
The baseball writer is the ultimate fan. He’s the surrogate for the fan. He’s as important to the game as umpires. He and the fan are a partnership. The fuel that drives the ship.
Baseball was built by Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Willie Keeler, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. They are American royalty. They should be buried in a Westminster Abbey when they’ve gone.
But who would they be if there were no one to tell you about them? Would there even be this magnificent Hall in this picturesque little town in Upstate New York, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ country, if there hadn’t been a Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon or Jimmy Breslin to tell you about them? To bring imagination, a sense of the dramatic?
Would you know that Willie Keeler once said he would “hit ’em where they ain’t” if a reporter hadn’t had a nice ear for a quote? Where would the game be if us guys grew up?
What’s the sense in Ruth “calling his shot” if there’s no typewriter present? Who called him the Sultan of Swat? How did Gehrig become the Iron Horse? How come so many people, when Mickey Mantle struck out, feel as if they had struck out?
I rest my case. If love of baseball gets you here, I should have made it long ago. I should have gone in with Ruth and Cobb.
Baseball is not about winning. Baseball is about “Wait till next year!” Baseball is about hope, if not charity. And faith.
I told the Hall of Fame crowd I didn’t see how Yankee fans stayed fans all those years when they won everything — in four straight. What fun is a game when every card you pick up is an ace? How do you recognize joy if you never experience adversity?
That’s how baseball hooks you. Losing is such sweet heartache. Losers close ranks. There are no bonds like those of the bleacher crowd of a losing team. There are no tears as salty as those of the fan whose favorite pitcher just walked in the winning run — and maybe the pennant.
Even the players learn to live with frustration. Even the best of them fail seven of 10 times with the bat. Even Sandy Koufax gave up home runs with the bases loaded.
So, I like to think they put writers and broadcasters in this thing as stand-ins for the fans. We also stand in for every beat writer who ever had to go down to a locker room and ask a pitcher who has just thrown the home run ball that lost the World Series why he didn’t curve it and got told, “Take a hike, ya four-eyed creep, before I curve you!”
Together, we form a partnership that has made child’s play into a billion-dollar industry. As far as I’m concerned, the writers’ wing has its own Murderers’ Row. Lardner, Runyon, Grantland Rice, Bob Broeg, Dan Daniel, J. Roy Stockton, Jack Lang. I’m just glad to be in there to bunt them along, pinch-run for them, pick up the bats.
We are all boys of summer. The years drop off, the step gets lighter, the heart beats faster when we step through the turnstile and hear the bats cracking and smell the hot dogs cooking. It’s summer again and Casey’s coming up and the bases are loaded and this time he’ll hit it. “Outta the lot, Hack?” implores the fan.
I once said to Pete Rose, everybody’s kid brother and the next unanimous Hall of Fame inductee-to-be, “Aren’t you glad, Pete, there’s a game like baseball that lets you make all this money?”
Pete looked at me as if I were a 3-and-2 pitch and curving. “Yeah,” he said. “Aren’t you?”
You better believe it, Pete.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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