Diamond Greatness 03/21/10

Diamond Greatness


David Mitchell

‘Tis spring and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . baseball. Pitchers and catchers reported weeks ago, and extended rosters are now playing Grapefruit and Cactus League games that mean the world to some who have never seen the big leagues and are mere preamble for the veterans. It is a time of hope for fans in places like Seattle and Arlington and a time of expectation for Red Sox Nation and their (evil) Yankee counterparts. There is no sport that is as truly American as baseball and no sport anywhere that is as storied.

Passionate baseball fans—and I certainly count myself among them—understand that the love of the game transcends the current season and must, necessarily stretch back to the very dawn of the game in the nineteenth century. Names like Cap Anson, John McGraw, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and scores of other bright lights of baseball lore remain as relevant today as they were a century ago—perhaps even more so. They were among the many stars of the young game and, to baseball lore masters, they are the founding fathers and pioneers of the sport. Indeed, we baseball fans are bound together by an indefatigable love for the history of the sport and what it means to be a fan.

Of course, shared love of a thing does not always equate to shared views on what that thing really means. That is what makes Top of the Order, a compilation of twenty-five articles in which twenty-five writers pick their favorite baseball players of all time such a wonderful addition to the baseball library. Twenty-five writers. Twenty-five opinions. Twenty-five different baseball players. Twenty-five beautifully written, memory-evoking and all around gripping reminiscences of the players that have touched our lives.

Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Players of All Time, edited by Sean Manning, features a diverse array of contributors. Baseball writer Roger Kahn shares his memories of Jackie Robinson. Buzz Bissinger, author of the best selling Friday Night Lights, stands in awe of Albert Pujols. Craig Finn, singer from the band The Hold Steady, shares his memories of Kirby Puckett. The contributors recall not just the greatest players, although players like Jackie Robinson and Albert Pujols certainly belong in that category, but also the obscure players. Some even memorialize a few players who never played major league ball and one who has never even existed, except as a character in a film. The selections of the writers is at times obvious and at other times idiosyncratic but that is one of the reasons  Top of the Order is so special. We can all argue over the statistical aspects of the game, but each of us owns his or her own favorite player and no amount of debate or argument can change that.

Love can inspire great things and the contributors to Top of the Order have been inspired to deliver some of the finest sports writing that I have read in recent years—and often from contributors who would not be considered “sports writers.” Not just because the writing is beautiful, but because it resonates powerfully with the reader; it is as if the writers and the reader share a common past and common memories—the common ground of being fans of the sport.

In an example that touched me, Steve Almond, writing about Rickey Henderson, recalls:

His arms and legs were massive and richly braided with muscle. His trunk appeared carved from pig iron. As he waited for a pitch, he often waved his bat over the plate like a child’s wand. He was not crouched so much as coiled.

This became clear the moment he initiated his swing. That swing! What furious ballet! What elegant violence! Rickey rising up from this bar stool and rocking forward in a controlled lunge, the bat zinging like a whipcord, all that torque and sprung rhythm inflicted upon the ball by means of a delectable crack, a frozen rope over the left field wall, say, which meant Rickey had occasion to pause at the plate and admire his handiwork, to tap his chest with the heels of his palms and crow, “That’s what Rickey just did,” before trotting toward first, where, taking a wide leisurely turn, he would execute a dainty hop step, as if to engage the bases in a sultry South American dance of love.

That was Rickey. As I read those words, I could see him hitting the ball out of the park. I have seen it happen so many times but never could I imagine anyone being able to capture Rickey’s swing as well as Almond does. If you have seen Rickey Henderson hit a home run, you know what I mean.  If you have not seen Rickey Henderson come up to bat, imagine a spring so tightly coiled and compressed that, when whatever mechanism that contained it was released, it exploded with a force unconceivable. Then give that force a cock-sure arrogance and human form and make it the fastest person you can imagine. That was Rickey in his prime. That is what Almond describes so lyrically.

There are a lot of bases on which a fan can select a favorite player. He may hit homeruns. He may always deliver in the clutch. Heck, for a number of years my favorite player was Dave Stapleton, a second baseman for the Boston Red Sox, who holds the distinction of being the only player to have a lower batting average every year, as compared to the prior year, over a career that lasted seven years. Don’t ask me why I was always cheering for him, but I was. I am not even sure that I know. I suppose it was in part his first season, when Stapleton played well, hit reasonably well and showed so much promise. At the same time, it was clear even in the middle of his first season that Stapleton would never be a star. To me, as an adolescent male, Stapleton represented a hope for the future—a hope that each year might be better than the previous year.  At least, that is what I think now.  If you had asked me why Stapleton was my favorite player when I was a kid, I would have told you that he “just is” and that would have been enough.

Buzz Bissinger, however, has a much better reason to have chosen Albert Pujols as his favorite player. As even casual fans will readily acknowledge, Pujols is the finest player of the past decade. Disagree with me if you will, but I challenge any fan to identify a player who has produced more at the plate—whether home runs, RBIs, batting average, slugging percentage or pretty much any other statistical category that does not require speed—and who has done so without the taint of any suggestion that he has used performance-enhancing drugs. For that reason alone, Bissinger could legitimately have written his contribution about Pujols. Bissinger knows more about Pujols than his statistics, and what he knows makes Pujols all the more remarkable.

When Pujols was eighteen, old enough perhaps to know that he wanted to be a major-league player but not old enough to know much about anything else, he started dating a woman named Deidre. He liked Deidre. He liked her a lot. He was falling for her, but before it went too far Deidre had to tell him:

She had been in a relationship and had recently given birth to a daughter named Isabella, who had Down’s syndrome. Deidre could envision Albert’s response—running away as fast and as far as he could, no matter how slow his time to first base. Way too much responsibility for a teenager. Way too much responsibility for maybe anyone. It was an understandable reaction that Deidre expected.

Instead, Albert married Deidre, knowing that in his vow to her he was making the same vow to Isabella. He embraced the two and has continued to do so, not from obligation or guild or any other self-disguised trapping but out of the quality that is most special about Albert Pujols: his heart.

Even if you want to argue, and that is what we baseball fans like to do, that Pujols is not the best of the past decade, he must still remain counted among the finest of men. Period.

Each of the selections will evoke memories in the true baseball fan and is really the audience to whom the writers are speaking. These are the players who played on the field and played in the clubhouse. Some have been the subject of films and others have all but been forgotten. Some have retired in our lifetimes, no matter when we were born, and others long ago.  Some are still playing. They are the yin and yang of the sport and the alpha and the omega.

Top of the Order is not, however, just for true fans of the game. Casual fans and even non-fans will better understand the passion that drives the true baseball fan and the love of a game that unites the past five generations of Americans. They will also revel in the antics of some players while feeling the pain and sacrifice of others. In the end, they will realize that even the stars of the game, at least some of them, are people just like the rest of us.

Each of us has our personal favorites but we can appreciate the favorites of all of the other fans who are out there. Tom Seaver. Pedro Martinez. Lou Gehrig. Dave Kingman. Top of the Order might just as convincingly have given us any of the thousands of other players who have ever played the game. Each of them is important. Each of them played a role. Each of them has their part in our collective memories of the game.

Books mentioned in this column:
Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Players of All Time edited by Sean Manning (Da Capo Press, 2010)
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream
by H.G. Bissinger (Da Capo Press, 2003)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David



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