Taking a Swing at the Century

For the twentieth century, it's suddenly the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and that fact has unleashed a wave of nostalgia in the nation's baseball fans unmatched since, well, since Big Mac hit number 70.

For instance. Prior to last week's All-Star Game in Boston, current players from both teams mobbed Ted Williams's golf cart to wish the ailing Red Sox slugger well and to collect his famous tips on hip turn, timing and hand position. Like Freud at a convention of psychiatrists, Teddy Ballgame still packs in the acolytes (even those riding a cloud of andro fumes), and the Fenway Park infield was said to be sprinkled with big-league tears by the time Williams lobbed the ceremonial first pitch at Carlton Fisk and was wheeled off to the box seats.

On the living-room couches of America, the Williams Effect was likely no less pronounced. At least four or five twentysomethings got choked up because the TV told them to, but even Yankee fans who detested Ted in his playing days and native Beantowners who booed him for his cool distance were transformed the other night by the man's presence via orthicon tube. Their lives, too, are almost spent. They, too, have got dewlaps and tremors and a clear view of the sunset. But how many of them dream, as Williams recently professed to have done, of facing flamethrower Randy Johnson and eventually stroking a line-drive single up the middle?

As for the ghost of Joe DiMaggio, well, fans close to his vintage aren't about to get over that one...

But before everyone's carried off to the boneyard with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" warbling away on a lone violin, there's some unfinished business that needs tending. Everybody's favorite corporate baseball fan, MasterCard, in conjunction with Major League Baseball itself, has just compiled a list of a hundred players from which voters (alias You and Me) are instructed to choose two at each infield position, two catchers, nine outfielders and six pitchers. These twenty-five players will then be declared the All-Century Team, and everybody will go home.

Naturally, The List has already started expletive-hurling, bottle-smashing arguments in thousands of the nation's saloons. If there's one thing the pride-blinded, belligerently-inclined American sports fan likes to get hot and bothered about, it's any cockamamy list of the Best This or Most Outstanding That. Joe Budweiser, who last played ball in the seventh grade, may agree with his old pal Tommy Pabstblueribbon that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron both belong on the All-Century Team. But don't ask them to debate the merits of Wee Willie Keeler versus Ralph Kiner unless you want a visit from the paramedics.

As if to inflame the current argument, the guardians of statistical truth at the Society for American Baseball Research, wormlike creatures who believe baseball is played in a library carrel, have come up with a Top 100 List of their own, beginning with Ruth and ending with Joe "Ducky" Medwick. The Lists don't agree, of course. For starters, the MasterCarders have Cub standout Billy Williams and such Negro League stars as Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige on the ballot, while the SABR-maniacs, who insist that Negro League statistics are unreliable, have simply excised Cool Papa (who ran so fast, they say, that he could flip off the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark) and opted for fellows like Hoyt Wilhelm, Willie Stargell, Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins.

Not only that, both lists include the names of the great Cincinnati Red Pete Rose (the all-time hits leader, brought low by a gambling scandal) and Chicago Black Sock Joe Jackson (brought low by an earlier gambling scandal)--despite the fact that Rose has been excommunicated from baseball and both players have been barred from the Hall of Fame. Shoeless Joe's case is under review; Charlie Hustle's is not.

In any event, as fans gaze through the mists shrouding their own fields of dreams, they probably see Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and the Bambino out there. Isn't that Nolan Ryan on the mound, throwing heat, or is it Walter "Big Train" Johnson? And if we're not mistaken, that's Pie Traynor over at third--although in this light he starts to look a lot like Mike Schmidt. Is the old eyesight failing, or is that really Grover Cleveland Alexander warming up in the bullpen, throwing strikes to placid Roy Campanella? Oh, yes, and that husky guy leaning on the top dugout step with the weight of history on his back would certainly be number 42, muscled-up in Brooklyn Dodger white and blue. Jackie. If there are a hundred great players in the century, then damn the numbers, because the numbers are suddenly and forever insignificant: Jackie's heart and Jackie's burden make him as number one on anybody's team.

Aside from that, we hold no briefs and make no assertions in the current dispute over rankings. As the century draws to a close, baseball fans, as ever, will see greatness by their own lights. And that's as it should be. Whether they remember big Dave Winfield (absent from both lists!) stroking a homer deep to the cheaps in cavernous Yankee Stadium, or little Joe Morgan's back elbow pumping into his ribs in the batter's box, or Ty Cobb slashing into second base with his spikes high, they see the history of a grand game in microcosm. The kid who imagines himself, a decade from now, as the next Ken Griffey Jr. leaping high at the wall to snare a homer back from oblivion, and the ancient who replays silent film in his mind of Lefty Grove zipping a called third strike by Babe Ruth, are feeling the same thing. The power of dreamlife.

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.


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