Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

This has been a sad time for baseball fans.  A couple of weeks ago, we lost the great Harmon Killebrew, that gentle, unassuming bear of a man who hit 573 home runs without ever injecting steroids or pausing at home plate to admire the ball’s trajectory.

Now we hear that Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter has inoperable brain cancer—The Kid, famously ebullient, ferociously competitive—and a mere 57. Nonfans may not relate, perhaps—but for many of us, particularly in New York City, this is personal. It always is when the heroes of our youth (and beyond) confront mortality.

We reeled in shock, and many of us wept, when a plane crash took Thurman Munson in 1979. But at least we could explain that away—private planes are dangerous things. I wrote the cover story for PEOPLE magazine when Mickey Mantle died (yes, PEOPLE once did covers like that—and it actually sold pretty well). Mantle’s death resonated deeply. When I came to baseball as a small child in the mid-late 1960s,  we were Willie Mays fans—too mild a word, perhaps, for he was the closest thing our family had to a formal religion. So, naturally, we loathed The Mick and the Yankees. But passions faded, and I grew to appreciate his aw-shucks charm, and self-deprecating wit. And, ultimately his courage and grace in the face of death.

But we could explain away Mick’s loss, too—all that drinking and carousing. Gary Carter’s brain cancer, on the other hand, is terrifying; it seems so random and arbitrary. And cruel.

I only got to see my idol, Willie, in the twilight of his career and after he retired—the same year of my father’s sudden death—I drifted away from baseball. But my interest revived in the mid-1980s—rekindled by the resurgent New York Mets. It was the team of Strawberry and Gooden, of course—with their astonishing talent and seemingly limitless potential. But what made the Amazin’s into contenders was the acquisition of two “club pros,” a pair of “gamers” who excelled at bat, afield, and in the clubhouse—Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.

The Kid’s sprawling smile and clutch play were as emblematic of the 1986 World Champions as were Straw’s towering homers, Dr. K’s Ks or Mex’s golden glove and swarthy glare. In the sixth game of the World Series, in that remarkable 9th inning—the Buckner inning—it was Carter whose two-out, bases-empty single kept the Mets alive.

Now he has to do it again. And with the stakes so much higher, literally life-and-death, the millions who hoped against hope for a miracle that autumn evening 25 years ago would do well to offer up a prayer for The Kid.


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We don’t age, really. It’s the folks around us who mark our years. The toddler down the hall who’s suddenly off to college. The classmate who’s gone bald, and paunchy; the first kiss who let her hair go snow white. Or the athletes we worshiped and admired.

Within the past couple of weeks, this last has struck home. On May 6, my childhood hero Willie Mays, the baseball player against whom all other baseball players are measured, the closest my family came to a formal religion, turned 80. He’s nearly blind now, but sharp, still the thoughtful man and diamond genius—(as opposed to his cliched image as a childlike “natural”) that he was at 35–back  when, as an elementary school student, I took up the family faith.

Now, today, we hear of the death, at 74, of Willie’s contemporary and fellow Hall of Famer, Harmon Killebrew. “Killer,” his obvious nickname was, but never did a monicker more poorly reflect the character of the man. The balding, 5’11” 210-pounder from Payette, Idaho was as gentle as they came, a mild-mannered family man who just happened to hit crushing  home runs, 573 of them over 22 seasons with the Washington Senators-turned-Minnesota Twins. He compiled a fairly modest batting average (.256 lifetime, albeit while playing much of his career in a pitcher’s era) but made up for it by drawing walks (1559; his .376 OBP was higher than Roberto Clemente’s). And he hit the first home run I ever saw, in the first game I ever saw, at Yankee Stadium—a bullet to left center.

Mr. Killebrew was one of a dying breed, the modest, underpaid gamer. Old School. And while I was busy living and dying for Willie, there were a few other ballplayers I followed with affection. Number 3, Harmon Killebrew, was one of them, ever since that magnificent drive he launched in my very first game, ever since he appeared in one of the first sets of Topps baseball cards I purchased from Seldow’s Stationers in Metuchen, N.J.

Rest In Peace, Harmon Killebrew. You brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

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Given today’s bleak political news, it might be a good time to focus on one of the day’s other major stories: The election of Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The results of this year’s BBWA voting have triggered the usual debate about the Hall’s standards—mainly because of who was left out (e.g. Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmiero and the whole steroid issue). Of course, volumes have been written on this topic, using subjective analysis and, more recently, the complex, objective statistical models put forth by sabermetricians. For the finest book on the topic, I’d recommend Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?: Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory by the erudite Bill James—master statistician and deft, witty writer. Supplement that with The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, one of the best and most entertaining baseball histories.

I won’t parrot James here, and I’m no sabermetrician. In a nutshell, he subjects the HOF to incisive analysis, and comes down hard on much of the voting—in particular, the Veterans’ Committee selections, so shrouded in politics and sentiment, which yielded such questionable inductees as George Kelly and Lloyd Waner. (The BBWA elections have plenty of petty politicking and personal grudges, to be sure. Consider that 23 electors did not vote for Willie Mays, arguably the greatest all-around player who ever lived (and, full disclosure, my family idol). One fascinating exercise is the “if… then” argument. e.g. “if Ray Schalk is in the HOF, why not Ted Simmons?” That is, What is a bottom-rung HOFer?  And “if” we adopt the “if…then” approach, “then” won’t the institution’s standards only deteriorate?

Another debate: Is a first- or second- ballot HOFer more or less deserving than a 10th—or in Blyleven’s case, 14th—year inductee? That is, is Bert 14 times less worthy than first-balloter Dennis Eckersley? Do Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, (both mildly debatable picks) who edged in ahead of the Dutchman last year, have just a little more luster?

Personally, I think Blyleven is a solid choice who should’ve made it to Cooperstown years ago. A mass of data suggests he was much better than his 287-250 record, .531 won-loss pct. and 3.31 ERA indicate. Few would place him on a par with his contemporary, Nolan Ryan—a near unanimous pick; still, if you look at the most superficial stats, Bert’s numbers compare quite favorably to Ryan’s 324-292 .526 and 3.19 ERA.  Bert had just one 20-win season, Ryan only two. Ryan has all the no-hitters and strikeouts, but glance at their 162-game average K-BB ratios and Blyleven (183-65) doesn’t look all that shabby against the Texan (246-120).

Again, few would equate the two pitchers, but it doesn’t seem quite right that Ryan waltzed in, and Bert spent 14 years twisting in the breeze.

A larger point: When we think of a true Hall of Famer, I’d bet most of us envision that freshman class of 1936: Cobb, Johnson, Mathewson, Ruth, Wagner. Or ‘37’s Lajoie, Speaker and Young. Or Gehrig or Hornsby or Williams, Musial and DiMag, or Willie, Mick, Hank and F-Robby. And the elite Negro Leaguers, Satch, Josh, Smokey Joe, Oscar and Cool Papa.

You can’t—or shouldn’t—eject the bottom-tier players from the Hall, anymore than you can un-elect Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush. But I’ve often wondered if there ought to be a Hall of Fame within the Hall of Fame—a pantheon to separate Gehrig from Highpockets Kelly, Mays from Tommy McCarthy.

Of course that would add more voting disputes and another layer of bureaucracy.

But hey, I’m a liberal.

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