Are there any heroes left in Baseball?
I have been a baseball fan all my life. As a kid that’s all I wanted to do. That’s all I did do. You can’t imagine my horror when I discovered I couldn’t play in the majors! “Girls don’t play baseball, don’t ya know?” Well they might keep me out of the pros but that was a long way off.
I lived across the street from an elementary school. All summer the Little League played there. When they weren’t practicing and playing a game, a bunch of boys played just played for fun. Sometimes some older teens played too. I knew if I bugged them enough I’d get to play. When I wasn’t on the fields, I tossed the ball up in the air as high as I could, and caught it myself. I did that for hours every chance I got. In off season, I threw the football because it helped me throw the baseball further.
Often I even slept with my glove. When I got older I learned how to put my ball in the pocket and wrap it with rubber bands to form the “perfect pocket!” Of course, the laces had to all be tightened just right. Every year I prayed for a glove and a bat for Christmas. Every year I got another damn doll!
Finally my parents saved S&G Green stamps and got me my first glove, a lefty handed fielders glove. I’m left handed but play ball right handed. Thankfully my parents were able to trade it for a right handed glove. I also got my most prized possession, a 32″ Louisville Slugger baseball bat. It was so big I had to almost drag it wherever I took it out to play ball. To bat I did a lot of choking up careful not to do too much so I wouldn’t hit myself in the stomach when I batted.
That bat was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Every boy on the field tried to get me to let him use my bat. That was my first lesson in the fine art of negotiation. “Want to use my bat, then I get to play!” It worked every time. The guys didn’t like it much; but, they finally agreed. Now I played all the ball I wanted. My glove and bat went everywhere I went.
My Mom used to love the World Series if her team was playing. I think she liked the Pirates. But for me there has never been but one team, the New York Yankees! I am still a Yankee fan though I also love the Mets. The highlight of my life, well except for my kids and the Corps, was when the Mets and the Yankees played each other in the World Series! Now that was something.
In High School I played softball. I hit three home runs in one game. Twice at the end of the year with two outs, three balls and two strikes, bases loaded, I hit a Grand Slam home run. We won the game and tied for first place both years. In my late twenties twenties, I had an assinine coach who publicly berated the players and team. He put me in right field, the dump slot, as a punishment for trying to discuss it with him.
I was the only right fielder who could peg a runner out at “any base,” including third and home and get a double play on a fly ball. Occasionally, we even got triples. No one expected a right fielder to be able to throw the ball that accurate and fast. I know I sound like I’m bragging and maybe I am a little. But I really was that good. Sure I had off days. We all do.
But I worked hard to play that well. I did over two hundred sit-ups a day, “500” push -ups in the door frame. I played basketball and ran from one end to the other taking shots to keep in shape and make myself a faster runner. I had people hit the ball to me and I practiced catching those hard to catch balls, line drives, ones you really have to run for and make lunges to catch.
I watched the pros. I’ll never forget the Mickey Mantle and Roger Marris home run battle. Nor will I forget the unsportsmanlike behavior of Joe Peppitone. I loved Yogi , Willie Mays, and Casey Stengal, the manager, was my hero. I cried when he died. I named my son after Roberto Clemente because of his skills on the ball field; but, more importantly, for his charity off the field. As much as I loved all these greats and many more, none meant more to me than Hank Aaron. I will never forget the day I saw him make that amazing catch he is so famous for.
For me Hank Aaron was the greatest ball player of all time. He could hit home runs, take the pitch, do whatever the team needed in a game to help them win. In the outfield he was the best. I have yet to see anyone equal his abilities. I loved the man for his talents; but, more importantly for his sportsmanship! He always demonstrated on and off the field great personal responsibility and ethics.
When he set his home run records, each time he passed by the record of one of the greats before him, he just kept playing as if nothing momentous had occurred. He quietly and without flair earned every record he set until he retired. He never let his amazing achievements, records, determine who he was, he was just Hank Aaron, ballplayer, a member of his team!
Yesterday Barry Bonds tied the numerical record set by Hank Aaron. But, as far as I am concerned he will never be the great player Hank Aaron was because he cheated. He’ll never be a hero because heroes don’t cheat. Hank Aaron used raw talent and hard work. Barry Bonds used a short cut. What kind of hero example is he for our kids? Where’s his example or statement for our kids about a life of hard work paying off. What can he say to them about sportsmanship when his is tainted.
Barry Bonds may have reached a numerical goal; but, his cheating robbed him of the personal challenge of hard work and the fruits of its rewards. He didn’t trust his own abilities. He will never know now if he really was as good as Hank Aaron!
On Saturday, August 4, 2007, Alex Rodriguez became the youngest ballplayer to hit 500 home runs. So far this young ball player seems to embody “the right stuff!” He is certainly more deserving of accolades than Bonds!