Taking a Swing at the Century

Of Grove, a teammate once said: "He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf." Of Junior, almost everyone says he could be the greatest player of all by the time he's done.

One last story before you set out for the polls.
The place is the Polo Grounds on a steamy July day in, let's see, it must be 1954, maybe 1955. On the strength of two Stan Musial home runs, the visiting Cardinals have taken a 9-1 lead into the seventh, or a 10-2 lead, something like that, and with the game surely lost, the home-town fans have fallen glum and mostly silent in the late-afternoon heat. One overheated dump-truck of a guy--I can still see this--fans himself with a half-folded Journal-American. A beer vendor huffs past wearing a sweat-drenched paper hat, and the empty brown bottles rattle in their wire tray. Flies buzz. A lone muffled shout erupts from the deck above, and a knife-edged shadow bisects the vast greenness of the Polo Grounds outfield.

It's a commonplace moment near the end of a meaningless game. So when Ruben Gomez winds and throws to Kenny Boyer and Boyer swings and lofts a flyball to left-center field, the eye follows the flight of the ball lazily, beholding nothing more than another minor phenomenon of physics. Monte Irvin drifts over from left as Willie Mays closes from dead center, but just as the ball reaches its zenith Irvin takes a bad step and sprawls full-flat onto his chest.

A commonplace moment? No longer. Even while Boyer's fly is arching down through sunlight and shadow, the lean, young Mays sweeps his fallen teammate onto his feet and hands back to him his black-and-orange cap. In the next seamless motion, Mays glances skyward and gloves the fast-descending ball as though it were a wad of paper tossed across a table by a child. Together, the two outfielders trot to the dugout, smiling and joking.

Of all the things I've seen in baseball, which is a heartbreakingly beautiful game, that is the most beautiful, the most graceful. It says the most about the ease of great players, and it is what I'll always remember about Willie Mays. Not the .302 lifetime batting average, not the 660 home runs, not the famous catch and throw on Vic Wertz's liner, not the 338 stolen bases. Not even the sad final at-bat in the 1973 World Series.

Here's to you, Willie. You've got my vote. Fact is, you've always had it.

They look like beer trucks, think like cops and have been convinced they don't get due respect ever since Roberto Alomar spit in John Hirschbeck's face in 1996. The public notices them only when they screw up, and even their bosses are quick to criticize--especially over the uncertain definition of what used to be the strike zone.

Major-league umpires are being booed in stadiums from Seattle to Boston because of the ultimatum they presented to the game last week. All 68 umps have resigned, effective September 2, and formed their own "corporation" with which baseball must now negotiate if it expects to retain their services.

Screw you, baseball's response seems to be. Yer outta here. Take your severance pay and get on with your new careers as bricklayers and bartenders. The fans aren't much more sympathetic.

Well, here's a word of support for the men in blue.
Sure, they're more stubborn than ever. You'd be stubborn, too, if you were surrounded by belligerent 23-year-olds who dispute every third call. Sure, they miss one now and then. But these are not the blind men of myth: Compared to hockey refs or the befogged zebras of the NFL, major-league umps are strictly 20/20. They are professionals, and it would take big-league baseball years to bring replacement umpires up to their level.

Yeah, they make a good living--$150,000 a year or so. What a top-of-the-heap pitcher gets for a few innings' work. But the time they don't spend on airplanes they spend in the menacing company of abusive drunks and furious club managers. The reasons why anyone would choose to work as an umpire are beyond most of us--but there could be no game without them.

Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward said it best, more than a century ago: "He is of flesh and blood and has feelings just the same as any other human being," Ward wrote of the ump. "He is not chosen because of his dishonesty or ignorance of the rules of the game, neither is he an ex-horse thief nor an escaped felon...indeed, in private life he may even pass as a gentleman.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help