Sunday, June 5, 2011

Death of a Ballplayer

Enjoy them, appreciate them, cheer them or boo them. Just don’t think for a second that you know them, that you have any idea whatsoever whether or not a given player is a “nice guy.” And that is as true for those who sit in the press box as it is for those who sit in the stands.

As I write this another old ballplayer had passed, a hero of my youth who I recall fondly from the scratchy black and white images that danced across our TV screen, and from the Technicolor baseball cards I sorted over and over again on my bedroom floor, memorizing his hobbies and statistics, using them to create a persona. Over the past twenty-four hours I have read tribute after tribute attesting not only to his ability as an athlete, but to his character as a human being. While the dimensions of his ability can be roughly measured by the numbers, there is no similar metric for virtue. I hope he was a nice guy, and have little reason to think otherwise, but I’ve read nothing from anyone who has any special insight into what the man was really like, who spent more than the odd hour or two in his company when he was fully aware that he was in the public view.

If one writes about sports, one is inevitably asked “What’s [insert name here] like? Is he a nice guy?” Although I haven’t met a large number of professional athletes, I have met and spoken to more than a few, ranging from guys like Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Phil Rizzuto to Jim Lonborg, Bill Lee, and Rich Gedman, and lesser known stars of bygone eras like Boston College football players Charlie O’Rourke and Lou Montgomery, former Celtic John Mahnken and many other players whose names now reside in the memory of another generation. Although all of them – even mercurial Ted Williams, despite the fact I had hair halfway down my back - were “nice” to me and, as far as I could tell, “good guys.” But each also knew that what he said and did was being written down and recorded.

I have no real idea whether any of these guys were, in fact, either nice or good. There can be such a vast difference between the public persona and the private that we might as well be talking about separate individuals, and I think most of us don’t have to look back very far or very deeply into our own lives to know that this is true. When I was a kid I had close friends who had fathers that I thought were terrific, guys that played ball with us in the backyard and took us places and made me wish my Dad had the time to do all those things with me. Of course at the time, despite the fact that I spent hours and hours and countless sleepovers in their homes, I didn’t know that one was regularly terrorizing his family with physical violence, and the other was raping his own daughter.

I’ve had people who have far more contact than I with professional athletes assure me that the guy I thought was good was in fact “a mute bleeping turd,” and that the guy that was supposed to be a horror show was actually “the best ever.” One friend who has regular contact with a Local Legend has told me at various times that the guy is either a nightmare or an altar boy, and there is no way to tell which guy you are going to get on a given day, or even from one minute to the next. The truth is that we do not know them at all, not ever, not really, no matter how many games we watch or how often we visit the locker room or play golf with them or see them in a restaurant or in a nightclub or visiting a hospital room or a sitting at a charity banquet or even standing in line at the grocery store.

All we know, really, is what we see on the field, whether they can run and hit, field and throw – at least if we’re willing to forget that the whole PED thing has cast even those perceptions and everything else that has happened in this game over the last two decades into doubt. The rest of our feelings toward them are only the pure projections of a fan, the fantasy we sell ourselves because he plays for “us,” tries to beat “them,” and wears the right colored cap. It is not the passing of the player that we mourn, but our younger, more innocent and less cynical selves, the kid who believed that baseball cards were true, and that virtue and talent were one and the same.

According to “In the capable hands of Stout, [Fenway 1912] promises to make all other books about Fenway’s construction and first season obsolete.” Glenn’s next book, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Season, will be published in October. To order now, visit This column originally appeared in Boston Baseball.

No comments:

Post a Comment