The Greatest?

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In the interminable weeks between the end of the conference championships and the start of Super Bowl LII sports commentary waxed hyperbolic, having no real reporting to offer, resolutely chewing on the same theme hour after hour.  Tom Brady, The Greatest Quarterback of All Time, would carry the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory, despite having recently managed to wedge his throwing hand into a crevice in running back Rex Burkhead’s helmet, despite the likely loss of  Brady’s favorite target, a man described as “a self-aware lump of protein powder”, pass catching Golem Rob Gronkowski, despite the glaring weaknesses in the Patriot’s defense, and despite the best efforts of the talented and well-coached Philadelphia Eagles.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is also Greatest of All Time, an honorific now somewhat diminished when squashed into the acronym and meme GOAT.   The Patriots themselves are occasionally termed the Greatest Football Dynasty of All Time, and in empty hours in sports journalism, strident argument rages as the case is made for LeBron James or Michael Jordan as, you know, the Greatest of All Time.

We (sports fans) were charmed by the effrontery, the chutzpah, with which a young Muhammad Ali declared himself The Greatest, but cringe a bit when Wayne Gretsky is still termed, The Great One.  Those who survived the Depression and fought in World War II are the Greatest Generation, and I’m told Alexander, Catherine, and Gatsby were all pretty Great.

Then, in addition, Time, I believe, is something of a mystery, perhaps vulnerable to manifold topology, but maybe not, an obscure way of observing that even the most prescient of us has a fairly limited set of experiences against which to judge the absolute standard of performance in any sport.  The same holds true for actors and entertainers, but we seem less compelled to deify even the most obviously superior.  Is Meryl Streep the Greatest Actress of All Time?  Dunno.  Maybe.  Doesn’t seem to matter as much as the LeBron/Jordan battle.

I’m not sure why this need to wax hyperbolic has set in; perhaps having known what might have been the best of times and now sliding into what feels like the the worst we find comfort in speaking with absolute certainty ?  Maybe the ferocity of competition and the necessity to keep score inherent in sport as we know it demands final judgment.  My guess is that since we experience the great moments of sport from a distance, second-hand, our sport becomes the championing of one athlete or team over another, a game that never ends.

In those long weeks before the NFL championship game, sports outlets routinely drag out whatever football footage they happen to have in the can.  Over a period of two days, I saw clips of Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Jerome Bettis, and Earl Campbell. Nobody’s screening O.J.’s scrambling breakaways at USC, but I remember them well.

Want to pick one as the greatest?

Go ahead, but don’t forget the runners whose feats may not have been so meticulously preserved on film.  I’ve seen grainy footage of Red Grange breaking loose for a touchdown, but only have the sportwriters’ words to describe the heroics of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Doak Walker.

I keep my collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia close at hand in case someone drops by and wants to see a copy of his rookie contract or my well-oiled 1959 Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove, and I treasure my memories of him in the field and at bat, but is he the greatest of all time?  A version of this sort of question came up as a friend of mine who had attended Bolles School in Florida as did Chipper Jones asked if Jones, a first ballot Hall of Famer, had a place in my list of the ten best third basemen of all time.

I have two lists, of course, the best to play the position for the New York Yankees and the ostensible best to have played in the major leagues.  In responding, I was aware once again that I take a player such as Adrian Beltre for granted as I took Paul Molitor and Ron Santo for granted.  I knew Wade Boggs was a heck of a third baseman, but thought of him primarily as a hitter as I did George Brett.  The Braves weren’t on television every day back when they played in Milwaukee, so I didn’t see enough of Eddie Matthews.  Writers assure me that Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and Jimmy Collins should be in the mix.  In the end, however, it comes down to my memory of Mike Schmidt’s dominance in his era, particularly in the Phillies’ world series victory in 1980, and my reverence for the fielder known as “the vacuum cleaner”, Brooks Robinson.

All of that said, Chipper more than earned a spot in the top four or five.  Will Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson make the cut twenty years from now?  I hope so.

As for the Jordan/LeBron argument, the game is still afoot.  Steak or lobster?  Pie or ice cream?  Valhalla or Olympus?  I have only this to add to the conversation:  Jordan played on his high school’s junior varsity team until his junior year; LeBron averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman.  I saw LeBron play for St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.  In my mind, case closed.

Except … I also saw Jordan literally fly.

 

 

Ichiro

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I’m writing before Ichiro Suzuki, now largely a pinch hitter, reaches the 3000 hit mark.  If the stars are aligned and the baseball gods awake, his 3000th will be a ground ball up the middle, a ball an acrobatic shortstop could spear and peg to first.  The play should be close, but, as he has on most of the 3000, Ichiro beats the throw, hitting the bag just before the ball slaps the first baseman’s mitt.

I hear a lot about baseball having slipped out of the public’s attention, about the NFL and the NBA, maybe even MLS Soccer winning the hearts and minds of sports fans today, about baseball joining boxing, horse racing, and yachting as sports few people care to see.  I’m not going to rhapsodize about the clean geometry of the game, or of the legacy of fathers playing catch with sons, although I start to tear up when I remember my own pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa (midway between Luxemburg and Worthington), standing on the first base line when my son said, “Want to play catch, Dad?”  No, I’ll put the drama in baseball up against any other sport, especially in this era, when we see pitchers routinely throwing strikes at a 100 miles an hour and offering up curve balls that seem to drop off the edge of the table, facing batters whose reflexes are incalculably quick.  Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and a dozen others combine power and grace at the plate, and the current batch of daredevil fielders put on a display of acrobatic gymnastics in grabbing sure hits out of the air, catches that the barrel-chested shortstops of the Golden Age would have watched screaming past their outstretched gloves.

This is a golden age, and Ichiro will play his final games , stretch out his final hits, as the next generation of athletes come to plate.  Others hit the ball farther (Stanton owns 20 of the 21 longest home runs in the history of the Home Run Derby), but none combine the craft with which Ichiro approaches hitting and the reverence with which he approaches the sport.

I’ve never been a Marlins fan, or a Mariners fan, or a fan of the contemporary celebrity warehouse known as the New York Yankees, but I consider myself fortunate to have seen Ichiro play in person and on tv.

I’m not a bandwagon fan (sorry Cubs/ Nats/ Sox).  I was lucky in growing up in a small town in Connecticut that happened to get WPIX, Channel 11, from New York City, the station that broadcast the Yankees’ and Giants’ home games, and so got to see Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in their prime.  Hard not to be a Yankee fan during those glory years.  The Yankee-Red Sox duels were not as heated back in the 1950’s, so it was possible for a Yankee fan to appreciate Ted Williams and to enjoy the spectacle that was Jimmy Piersall.  Piersall and Yankee second baseman, Billy Martin, were a matched set, both combustible with a very short fuse. They saved their best battles for after the game, fighting to a bloody draw in the tunnel under the stands. Good times.

I do admit to falling away from the Yankees as an adult, not in reaction to their lean years, but in response to what I saw as lapses in character.  Look, Mantle, Ford, Martin and Bauer were bad boys; I know that now, but I did not then.  The Bronx Zoo was too much to take, Steinbrenner was too much to take, and I’d spent years in Michigan by that point and had become grotesquely fond of Michigan football.  Moving back to Michigan in 1980, I decided to get behind the Detroit Tigers.

Again, I got lucky.  Sparky Anderson had just left the Reds to join the Tigers, and a roster that would take the team to a championship in 1984 began to coalesce, and the Tigers picked up  Willie Hernandez, one of three pitchers to win the Cy Young Award, MVP, and a World Series Title in the same year, joining Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain in that select company.  Great days for Tiger baseball.  Then in 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost the most games in a single season in the history of the American League, but even in that year, the seeds of a contending team were starting to emerge, waiting for Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander, and centerfielder, Curtis Granderson, to pull Los Tigres back to the top of the league in 2006.  Hard times as they lost to the Royals at the end of the season to give up what looked like a certain Divisional title (don’t talk to me about the Royals), good times as they played their way as they beat the Yankees as the wild card team, and familiar times as they lost in the World Series to a Cardinal team they should have slaughtered.

So where does Ichiro Suziki fit into this narrative?  My son and I got our first look at Ichiro in person during Spring Training in 2002, Ichiro’s second season with the Mariners. The Padres and Mariners shared a ballpark close to our home base, and as we tried to get in two games a day, we’d get seats for the first game and sit on the lawn behind center field for the evening game.  Ordinarily, the best thing about seeing the game from the lawn was in being able to watch pitchers warm up in the bullpens, but on our first night in Arizona, we sat directly behind Ichiro, who played deep, almost to the center field wall.

I explained to my son that Ichiro was out of position, that he’d have no chance for balls hit just beyond the infield and would have a tough time trying to get off a satisfactory throw to any base but second.  As I spoke,  the leadoff batter for the Angels cracked a line drive over second base.  Ichiro somehow got to the ball on the first hop and rifled a throw to first in time to nail the runner.  I had seen Roberto Clemente’s arm on television, but I had never seen a throw such as that in person.  A frozen rope.

Ichiro played a stunningly effective defensive game from center field that night.  We had come to see the AL Rookie of the Year hit, and he was a spectacular hitter, but it was the completeness of his game that most impressed me.

A few words about Ichiro as a hitter.  Everything about his stance and batting ritual is distinctive.  Most fans are aware of his stretching and squatting before he steps into the box; he takes sweeping practice swings as he steps in and then out of the batter’s box.  As he assumes his stance in the box, he twirls the bat in a giant arc, stopping the bat at the top of its second circle, tugging at his sleeve as his bat is effectively pointing at the pitcher.  When he first came into the American League, after having been a superstar in Japan, that batting ritual seemed an affront to the pitchers he faced, and they tried to brush him back with what old timers call, “chin music”.

But this is where the Ichiro story takes on a different dimension.

The frenzy with which Japanese  photographers flooded the sidelines as Ichiro became the first position player from Japan to hit the big leagues was compared to the pandemonium meeting the Beatles at Shea Stadium.  The temptation was to write the guy off as a publicity hound, but Ichiro’s gravity and seriousness of purpose quickly convinced real baseball fans that they were watching something special.  He went on to earn a place as an All Star seventeen times, also winning seventeen Golden Gloves.  He was Rookie of the Year and American League MVP in his first year, added four batting titles and three more selections as MVP, and holds the single season record for most hits (262 hits in 2004 while a Mariner).

Stunning.  And yet, what sets Ichiro apart in my mind is the ethos with which he approaches the game.  It’s hard to remember just how spectacular Ichiro was in that first season; 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, batting average of .350, Gold Glove, and the best arm in the game.  He was given the number 51 by the Mariners, and on learning that the number had belonged to Randy Johnson, a player Ichiro respected greatly, the rookie wrote a note to Johnson promising not to “bring shame” to the uniform.  Ichiro’s fielding was so effective that his corner of Safeco Field was called “Area 51”.  No shame in that.

Before facing the Red Sox’ s Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro famously announced, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul.  I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”  I think I knew he was an uncommon ballplayer when he refused to give the press the name of his pet dog, explaining that he didn’t have the dog’s permission to make the name public.

I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, but aside from the moment on the Field of Dreams with my son, the memory that lingers is of Ichiro, moving fluidly and with deceptive speed, snaking a ball from the turf and releasing a strike to first base without seeming to have moved at all.

Is This Heaven?

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I watched The Field of Dreams again tonight.

No reason, really.  I’ve seen  it six or seven times, usually late at night, never intending to watch it all the way through, but losing track of time, staying up too late.  It’s fanciful, and fun, a little heavy-handed at times, but good-hearted and hopeful, and restorative.

And sometime, after the field has been built in an Iowa corn field, sometime after the field works its magic, sometime when dreams take hold, I tear up again, as I always do, and again I am surprised and confused by overwhelming emotion,  by hope and loss and reconciliation.

It’s about baseball, of course, and baseball is just a game, although for some of us there’s something sustaining about the game, not necessarily, the day-to-day ballgames, but the game itself.  It’s no accident that it was this game that first lived beyond the season in what were called Hot Stove leagues, allowing coots such as I am to huddle for warmth and swap strongly held convictions about what pitcher could mow down what batter in what situation, and who was the greatest, and which line up could prevail in any situation.  Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame infielder who holds the record for the highest batting average in the major leagues, .424 in 1924, put it this way:

“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

It matters that baseball keeps track of itself with an earnestness that other games do not.  Live ball or dead ball, spitball, raised mound, designated hitter – we know some things with certainty.  So, for example, we know Lou Gehrig batted in 185 runs in 1931 as part of the Yankees Murderer’s Row.  Why is that an important thing to know?  Well, the National League leader in RBIs this year, Nolan Arenado,  knocked in 133, and two years ago, Mike Trout took the American League title with 111.  It’s not the records themselves that are important, although it is difficult for purists when steroid use jumped up the number of home runs in a season; what matters is the conversation, the continuum, the community that experiences the game as an inheritance.

George Will, the crusty and often curmudgeonly political analyst, grows positively rhapsodic when writing about the game.

“Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”

The film touches on all of that but also allows the field to call to other, perhaps deeper, emotions.  It’s about dreams deferred, about investing heart and soul in unlikely causes, about faith, about making amends, about longing for gifts we could not dare to request.  It is about fathers and about sons and about the rituals that allow fathers and sons to connect with each other despite the strictures of being a father or a son.

I’m snuffling almost from the start but lose it all completely when Kevin Costner, who as a son had turned his back on a father who died too young, picks up a ball and asks a father returned, “You want to play catch?”

Here’s how poet Donald Hall recalls his own experience with his father.

”Baseball is fathers and sons.  Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard, violent and superficial.  Baseball is the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls. . . . Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death.”

It’s complicated.  I never had a father, never played catch.  That still hurts, could be the sort of wound that festers and embitters.  But I have sons, and I have a daughter, and I did play catch with them.

One summer I took one of my boys on a Hall of Fame pilgrimage.  We stopped in Cooperstown and Canton and Springfield, and South Bend.  On the way home, we stopped in Iowa.

We drove right up to the edge of that field, parked, took out our gloves, and walking toward the first base line, I heard what I had longed for without knowing it was a longing.

“Hey, Dad.  Want to play catch?”

In the film, players come to the field and ask, “Is this Heaven?”  and the answer they receive is “No, it’s Iowa”.

I sit today feeling grateful that for me it has been Iowa, or Michigan, or California, or Oregon, or wherever I am.