Thursday, April 9, 2015

4/9/15—Going To Bat For A Hero

Infatuation can inspire you to do things you might never imagine you'd do. Especially when you're young. Anything that can get you closer to the object of your affection is fair game. 

And so it was that my little-girl crush on a baseball player named Steve Garvey got me interested in team spectator sports for the first, and only, time in my life. As a certified loner, I guess, I've always been more interested in individual sports. But because Steve Garvey's heart made my heart flutter, I became a rather avid fan of baseball for a number of years. 

Fortunately, I didn't have to go very far to learn everything I needed to know about the game. My older brother John was a baseball, football and basketball playing jock. He devoured sports statistics with same the voracity that I embrace a box of Godivas. 

In that way, and many others, John and I were total opposites. He was a jock and I was a couch potato. He was an extrovert and I was an introvert. He was left brained and I, very often, leaned right. But despite these differences and a critical five-year age gap (I was 14 and he 19 at the time), he took me under his wing. 

From John, I learned the rules and rituals of baseball. I learned my National League from my American League. I learned how to read the stats and scores printed in the newspaper, how to calculate an ERA and that a .300 batting average (or getting three hits for every 10 at bats) is pretty darned good. And I also learned the lost art of how to score a game. For example, a fly ball hit to center field is an F-8..."F" for fly ball and 8, the number assigned to the center field position. I even knew the tricky things, like how a strikeout would go down as a K, like a knockout in boxing. Scoring games became a fun way to keep involved in the game because, you know, baseball moves kind of slowly. Besides, it was so cool to have "secret knowledge" of a game nobody would ever suspect me to know about. 

Bat Day at the stadium Ripkin built with the guy
who taught me all I know about the game.
John was a Cardinals fan. And because we lived in St. Louis at the time, he brought me to my first major league baseball game—the Cardinals vs. the Dodgers. THE Dodgers! The same Dodgers that my precious Steve Garvey played first base for! Over the years, I would watch a handful of games with my brother, including Orioles games when we lived in DC. It is a special bond I shared with a brother who is no longer here to enjoy the game. 

But back to Steve Garvey. Throughout the 70s, there was nobody more all-American in the sports world. Except for maybe Bruce Jenner or The Juice. Garvey was the poster boy for baseball, earning the nicknames "Mr. Clean" for his squeaky clean image, "Iron Man" for his work ethic and "Popeye" for his freakishly large forearms. 

Fans voted him the National League All-Star first baseman 10x in his career, including every year between 1974 and 1981. In fact, in 1974, he wasn't even on the All-Star ballot—he got so many write-ins that he started the game at first base and did so well he won MVP. He won Gold Gloves four years in a row and, among winners, has the most putouts in a single season. He had the most hits in the NL for two seasons in his career. He was an All-Star MVP twice in his career and a NL MVP once. He was part of one of the most enduring infields in baseball history—he, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey and Bill Russell commanded first, second, third and short together on the Dodgers for 8 1/2 years. And, to this day, he holds the National League record for the most consecutive games played. 

He led the NL in hits for two seasons.
I do not stand alone in my admiration of Steve Garvey. Jimmy Kimmel is a known baseball fan and Steve Garvey is his favorite all-time player. When Garvey left the Dodgers for the Padres, the Girl Scouts—the effing GIRL SCOUTS—picketed the stadium in defiance. In his first year on the Padres, season ticket sales increased by 6,000 seats. I think it's fairly safe to say, he was an American hero in his heyday. 

I haven't thought much of baseball for a very long time. Sometime in my college years Steve Garvey left the Dodgers and nothing was ever the same again. I also had forgotten this bit of history with my brother. And even though a big campaign I worked on was splashed all over the National's stadium while they were in the playoffs a couple of years back, it wasn't until someone challenged me to write about baseball that all the memories came flooding back. So in preparation for writing this piece about Steve Garvey and my teenage crush, I went looking for the happy ending...the happy ending all the greats enjoy. I didn't find it. 

For all of Steve Garvey's accomplishments—his retired number "6", his career .294 batting average, 272 home runs, 1308 RBIs, 2332 games played and decade-dominating hero status—he has not made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Which means, so far, the game of baseball has filed him under "trivia", instead of "hero". This makes me sad. This is a man whose dream began when his father drove the team bus and he was just a bat boy. He was consistent and dependable and excelled in the clutch. He once played 193 consecutive games at first base without an error! Stories don't get more legendary than that. 

The theories of why he's been overlooked are many. At one point he got divorced and lost his squeaky clean image. There were a couple of paternity suits. That's one excuse, though his sins are nothing in the context of today's "sports heroes". Then there's the theory that when they crunch the numbers, he just doesn't measure up. While I get the formulaic approach, it doesn't measure the impact he had on baseball in his era. 

His powerful forearms earned him
the nickname "Popeye".
Imagine what it's like to give so much of yourself to something—and to be so good at it—and still not be able to join the club of the elite. I'll bet the walls of Steve Garvey's study are plastered with shiny awards, yet none are so precious as being recognized a legend in Cooperstown. In that way, he's like many of us, working at something all our lives, and even winning awards, but never breaking through that glass ceiling. Very few of us, however, come as close to "legend" status as he, however. And yet, he's known to be very gracious and humble with fans. I read a story that his son didn't even really know who his father was until he started playing baseball himself, and even then he found out through other means. 

The story's not over for Steve Garvey. He's fashioned a career in television and motivational speaking for himself. He may still gain entrance to the Hall of Fame via the Veteran's Committee. But anyone who was fan during his reign would have to agree that no number crunching and no paternity scandal is big enough to overshadow who this man was to the game. The soft spot I have for baseball rides entirely on this man's shoulders and I know I'm not alone. When you boil heroes down to numbers, you deflate the spirit of the game. You distill an integral American pastime down to the driest of dregs. Sure, we love our legendary sluggers, but heroes are more than just numbers on a page. And they're also more than their failings. We turn men into gods, then punish them for turning out to be mere men. 

The musical Damn Yankees has a song that sums up the player experience. It goes, "you gotta have heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are saying you'll never win, that's when your grin should start." Baseball is all about heart. My god, the hours of literally nothing happening that fans endure for that one moment a fly ball pierces a hole in the outfield is ALL about heart. Multiply that by 162 games a year and a numbers-crunching, zero-forgiveness approach to identifying the greats just doesn't measure up to the weight of our all-American pastime. 

Because of the Hall of Fame's "heartless" approach to a game filled with heart, one of the biggest heroes of the 70s and early 80s has not yet gotten Hall of Fame status. His legacy can't and shouldn't be reduced to an algorithm when such a big part of what he did as a player was to build dreams and strengthen the sport. AND he had the numbers to back it up. And not to open a huge debate, but one of the greatest players that ever lived, Pete Rose, has also been dissed based solely on an (admittedly bad) scandal. These unforgiving ways of determining what matters can't erase the contributions these men have made, but they try to. And that does more damage to baseball than anything these men ever did. It's time to let us have our heroes back, warts and all.

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