Thursday, April 2, 2009

Idols and heroes: The old men lace 'em up again

As Matt points out, baseball novelists are obsessed with heroes. And since baseball represents something particular in the American spirit – most baseball novels turn on precisely WHAT baseball means to Americans – these fictional stories are naturally about what it is to be an American hero.

Spring training is almost over and soon the talk about real life baseball heroes will begin. The guys who play hurt. The big guys who launch the ball into the fountains or the coves, the little guys who play scrappy and hard and stick in the majors despite their size.

I’m sorry, but anybody who tells you a professional baseball player is a hero is dealing hokum. In my book, once you cash the first million, you’re an entertainer and nothing you do on the field is heroic. For a million dollars everybody I know would play with two broken legs.

I was telling a group of neighborhood newsletter editors last night about a story I did for the old City Magazine. It was about a displaced old farmer with displaced values and serious health issues who woke up every morning he wasn’t in the hospital, took out his homemade tools and spent a good portion of the day cleaning up the trash in his deteriorating urban neighborhood. Now, ladies and gentlemen, HE was a hero. Nobody paid him a penny to get out there and do that job and, for him, it wasn't easy. His work on the sidewalks around Texas Tom’s was particularly heroic.

No, you can have Alex and Michael. Gifted athletes, yes. Heroes, no.

One of my favorite pieces of American journalism is the long story Tom Wolfe wrote early in his career on the stock car racer Junior Johnson. You can read it on the Esquire Website as one of their seven best feature stories ever. Wolfe’s premise was that Junior Johnson was the last American hero.

He didn’t distinguish him from other heroes because Junior represented something special to his followers which transcended sports. What made him special, mostly, was money. Big money from Detroit was raining down on the dirt and asphalt tracks of the Old South. But Junior wouldn’t take the Yankee money in 1965, and his fans loved him for it.

As Wolfe says, the question wasn’t whether Junior would win the race, the question was whether Junior’s car would break down. If it didn’t break down, well you were likely to see the “little bit dead serious” look in Junior’s eye as he passed your big money Yankee paid-for rig.

Today, I think the last American sports heroes are the kids who wake up at 6 a.m. every morning on small college campuses to get in two hours of practice before class, who play hurt and play hard with little or no hope of ever getting paid to play.

Then, of course, there are the old men among you who actually pay to play. All over town this week and last, they’re cleaning up their spikes or breaking in new, wrapping new athletic tape on the handles of their bats, rubbing Neats Foot Oil (Strasser Hardware, second floor) into their gloves. They’re testing knees and shoulders, elbows and wrists, to see if they’ve got just one more season in them for the game they love. Just one more.

After the first hitter shoots a rocket into the five-six hole, everything seems to be in slow motion for a couple of innings. Their muscles and their minds remember a faster pace, more snap on the shortstop’s throw and more speed down the line. Most of them have played this game more than a half century, so give ‘em a break. But by the third inning every night, the speed of the game seems about right and it’s just ball playing again, just like the endless pickup games they organized as kids.

They fight – sometimes quite literally – and they scrap, they come through and they fail, some dominate and some just pray they don’t let the guys down. They scratch where they itch, they spit in the dirt and they swear entirely new obscenities, constructions no one ever dreamed of before.

And, they ALL play hurt. Every night they play hurt. Torn this and that, bone chips here and there, arthritis screaming from joints they didn’t know they had. Ben Gay is more abundant than pine tar in the dugout. They don’t get paid to play. They play for one reason. They love the game.

Are they heroes or fools? Don’t ask their wives. And don’t ask them until about noon the day after their doubleheaders when the coffee and Tylenol finally kick in. And, don’t ask them if they’ll be ready to go Sunday. They will.

--Lofflin, cursing a cold rain on a good day to hit

1 comment:

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