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Rumblings, Grumblings, and Reflections on the Game I love
By Jayson Stark
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Jayson Stark
All rights reserved.
The Big Picture
Why Baseball's History Matters
Why Baseball's History Matters, Scene 1
The place: Camden Yards in Baltimore. The date: September 6, 1995.
There are moments in baseball that couldn't possibly happen in any other sport. This was one of them.
Most baseball history is made with no notice, with no warning. But not on this night.
On this night, 46,272 spectators arrived at Camden Yards knowing exactly what they were about to witness — and even when they would witness it.
Halfway through this game, the second it became official, Cal Ripken Jr. would finally break Lou Gehrig's legendary Iron Man record. He knew it. His teammates knew it. Everyone in America knew it.
There was no reason for this particular moment to turn into one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the lifetimes of those who witnessed it. But somehow, it did.
What we remember is this: the Orioles played this exactly right. They didn't schlock up the occasion with phony announcements or scoreboard overkill. Mostly, they just unfurled a number on a wall:
And grown men cried for the next 20 minutes. Cried. Wept. Couldn't stop.
How did that happen, anyway? Why did it happen?
Here's why: it happened because baseball matters.
It matters to us in a way that no other sport matters.
There is no number in any other sport that could possibly be draped on the side of a warehouse and evoke the tears and passions that 2131 evoked. None.
For 24 hours, the number 2130 had hung on that wall. Everyone who saw it knew exactly what it meant:
Lou Gehrig: 2,130 games in a row, a record that could never be broken.
So to see that number change was all it took to unleash the earthquake in our souls that erupts when we realize we are witnessing something powerful and moving.
There is no sane reason that the rewriting of any line in any record book should be that moving. But this was a night that made it all so clear.
These aren't just numbers, not in this sport. They are numbers that tell stories. They are numbers that connect names and memories and generations.
Just the numbers alone can make you remember another night, deep in your past, at some other ballpark — maybe one that no longer stands.
They can make you remember what it felt like to watch Nolan Ryan throw a baseball, or Mike Schmidt swing a bat, or Rickey Henderson pump toward second base.
They can almost make you feel what your grandfather might have felt as he watched Stan Musial come to his town. Or Ted Williams. Or Lou Gehrig. They can bring back voices, freeze-frames, black-and-white images buried so securely in the back of your memory banks, you'd forgotten they were still rattling around inside you.
All sports have their memories, because memories are what sports are all about. But in baseball, we don't have to cue the marching band or the video machines to sledge-hammer anybody into remembering.
In baseball, we don't need anything more obvious or complicated than a number on a wall.
Why Baseball's History Matters, Scene 2
The place: ancient Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The date: September 28, 1999.
To the people who didn't get it, Tiger Stadium was just another rusting mass of steel and concrete by September of 1999, a decrepit structure made obsolete by peeling paint, obstructed views, and modern baseball economics.
But we know better. Those of us who get it know these places where we go to watch baseball games are not just buildings. They house much, much more than grass and dirt and half-eaten hot dogs.
They house our heroes and our heartaches. They house our passions and our memories. They house the seats where our fathers sat with their fathers. So after a while, they come to mean more to us than just about any place in the world.
Which means saying good-bye to them isn't easy, even when we know it's time.
By September 28, 1999, it was time for Tiger Stadium. Time for good-bye.
So on this day, the day of the 6,873 and final regular season game at this historic place, 18-year-old Aaron Scheible led his 80-year-old grandfather, Ben Saperstein, to a pair of seats in the lower grandstand beyond first base. It was a special gift, from grandson to grandfather. Just like Tiger Stadium.
It had been 72 years since Ben Saperstein's first game in this ballpark: Tigers versus the '27 Yankees. He could still see that game in his mind's eye as vividly as he saw it then.
He pointed toward a spot in the left-field bleachers. That was where he and his big brother sat that day. Then he pointed again — toward the perfectly clipped grass in right field.
"And Babe," he said, "was right out there."
There used to be many parks in this land where a grandfather could utter those words to a grandson. With the passing of Tiger Stadium, however, there were only three — Fenway and Wrigley and Yankee Stadium.
Ty Cobb played baseball in these places. So did Walter Johnson. And Rogers Hornsby. And Jimmie Foxx. So you felt their presence when you walked through those gates.
"Every great player that ever played, just about, played in this stadium," former Tiger Darrell Evans told me on Tiger Stadium's final day. "So you always felt you'd better go out and not embarrass yourself, because you felt like those guys were sitting right next to you, saying, 'You'd better carry on that tradition.'"
And in baseball, that's exactly what these men do. They don't just play games. They pass on a great American tradition, from one generation to the next, to the next.
You don't notice that torch being passed. But then one day, that torch is flickering in front of your eyes, reminding you that what you just witnessed hadn't happened since April 23, 1936, when Goose Goslin did it.
Which is when you turn to your grandfather and ask: "Who was Goose Goslin?" And he knows everything about him worth knowing. Still.
Somehow, that explains why these places where baseball is played aren't mere stadiums. They're national historic landmarks.
They bring our memories back to life. They bring our grandfathers back to life. They connect these games and these players to the plot lines of our own lives.
Maybe that explains why we care so much. Why we care about these games. Why we care about these players. Why we care about these places where all they do is play baseball in front of our eyes.
But it absolutely explains why Aaron Scheible had no choice but to take his grandfather to Tiger Stadium on its final day in business. And Aaron Scheible knew exactly what he would say if anyone at school the next day asked him where he'd been.
"I'll tell them," he said, "that I went to history class."
Cal Ripken Jr. hit more home runs (345) while playing shortstop than anyone in history. Can you name the four other men who have hit at least 250 homers while playing short?
Alex Rodriguez (344), Miguel Tejada (291), Ernie Banks (277), and Derek Jeter (251).
The Hall of Fame: Where Do We Go From Here?
The votes are in. The earth is still rumbling. Now let's try to digest the magnitude of what just happened — the shocking Hall of Fame election of 2013:
A man who hit 762 home runs wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame.
A pitcher who won seven Cy Young awards wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame.
A man who hit 609 home runs only got 12.5 percent of the vote.
A catcher who made 12 All-Star teams missed election by 98 votes.
Even a guy who got 3,060 hits found out on Election Day 2013 that he didn't do enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
It's enough to make you wonder: what kind of Hall of Fame are we building here?
In the wake of this stunning election, it's time for all of us to ponder that question. What is the Hall of Fame? What should it be? What is it supposed to be?
Do we really want to look up, 10 or 20 years from now, and find we've constructed a Hall of Fame that doesn't include:
The all-time home run leader (Barry Bonds)?
The pitcher who won the most Cy Youngs in history (Roger Clemens)?
The man who broke Roger Maris' storied home run record (Mark McGwire)?
The hitter who had more 60-homer seasons than any player ever (Sammy Sosa)?
The greatest hitting catcher in history (Mike Piazza)?
One of four hitters who ever lived with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs (Rafael Palmeiro)?
And (aw, what the heck, might as well throw him in there) the all-time hit king (Peter Edward Rose)?
Let me ask you: what kind of Hall of Fame is that?
Do we really want a Hall of Fame that basically tries to pretend that none of those men ever played baseball? That none of that happened? Or that none of that should have happened?
Hey, here's a bulletin for you: it happened.
The '90s happened. The first few years of the 21 century happened. I saw it with my very own eyeballs. So did you.
It all happened, on the lush green fields of North America, as crowds roared and cash registers rung. It ... all ... happened.
And how did it happen? The sport let it happen. That's how.
Bud Selig let it happen. The union let it happen. The owners let it happen. The managers let it happen. The agents let it happen. The media let it happen. Front offices across the continent let it happen. And the players never stepped up to stop it from happening.
It ... all ... happened.
And no one in baseball has ever done anything, even after all these years, to make it un-happen, if you know what I mean. No records have ever been stripped. No championships have ever been stricken from anyone's permanent record. No numbers have been changed. No asterisks have ever been stamped in any record book.
It ... all ... happened.
So we need to have a long, serious national conversation, starting right now, about where those events fit into the contours of the Hall of Fame. I'm ready if you are.
Maybe we'll decide we want a Hall of Fame that renders all, or most, of that invisible. Maybe we'll decide we want a Hall of Fame that aspires to be a shrine, not just to greatness but to purity. I don't know how we get there, but maybe that's where this conversation will lead us.
But maybe we'll decide, once we think it all through, that's impossible. Maybe we'll recognize that what the Hall needs to be, in these complicated times, is a museum, and nothing more sainted or noble than that.
Maybe it needs to be a place that does what other great history museums do — tell the story of a time in history, for better and for worse, wherever it leads. Maybe that's not exactly what we would hope and dream a Hall of Fame should be. Maybe, though, that's what it has to be, because if we try traveling down that other road, we'll find nothing but forks and detours and roadblocks.
But once we have that conversation, at least we'll know how to vote and how to proceed and how to build a Hall of Fame for the 21st century.
If we decide it's a museum, then we need to put all of these men — the greatest players of their generation — in the Hall of Fame, and let the sport do what it should have done years ago: figure out some way to explain what happened back then.
There are many ways to do that. Put the good stuff and the bad stuff right there on the plaques. Erect informational signs that explain the context of that era — and every era in baseball history. Just be real and honest, and let the truth carry the weight of history in all its permutations.
But if that's not what we want, if we decide we want the Hall of Fame to be a holy place, where only the angels of baseball are allowed to reside, then we need to be prepared for what that means. For everything that means.
If it's a cathedral, not a museum, it means we're going to have to throw out Gaylord Perry. Sorry, Gaylord. And everyone who corked a bat or scuffed a ball or used an amphetamine. And anyone who was a notorious off-the-field scoundrel.
There's no place for them in this holy shrine. Is there? How can there be?
Then we'll also need to contemplate another powerful question: what happens if we elect a player one of these years and later find out that he, too, was a PED user?
Or here's a tougher question: what if we've already elected somebody like that?
I bet we have, to be honest. I know I'm not alone. When I had this conversation with one baseball official recently, he told me, with no hesitation, he thinks we probably have. Think what kind of mess it would cause if we ever find out who that is. Think of the ramifications.
If we decide, after our national conversation, we want the Hall to be a sanctuary, we would have no choice but to expel a player like that. Right? It's either holy or it's not. So if this is the route we settle upon, zero tolerance would be the only way to go.
On the other hand, if we decide this is a museum we're talking about, we could just rewrite his plaque. And let the truth do the talking.
I recognize that the Hall of Fame, as currently constituted, is both of these things. Part museum. Part shrine. I'm a fan of both wings. I think there's a place for both wings, one for historic events, moments, and artifacts, the other to shine the spotlight on the greatest players who ever wore a uniform.
But I'm also a voter. And when this year's ballot arrived, I was blown away by the impossibility of what I'm being asked to do.
I would love to be able to do what many of you are constantly asking us to do as voters: keep every "cheater" out of the Hall of Fame. Ladies and gentlemen, that can't be done. I apologize. But what you're asking is impossible. Literally.
What we know has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of all that we don't know. One player on this ballot (Palmeiro) tested positive and did his time. A second player (McGwire) admitted he took PEDs and said he wouldn't even vote for himself. And everyone else forces us to play the ultimate no-win guessing game.
Should I only single out players who showed up in Jose Canseco's book or on the BALCO witness list? Or should I be suspicious of anybody who ever grew a pimple? What's the standard of "proof" from an era where everyone just sat back and let history unfold? Could it possibly be any sketchier?
All I've ever wanted to be as a voter is consistent and fair. To every name on the ballot. Across the board. Well, there's only one way to do that, I think.
And that is to conclude, ultimately, that the Hall of Fame needs to live on as a museum. Where no one tries to apply a giant eraser to any period in history. Even this one.
Maybe you're with me. Maybe you're not. But we need to have that conversation. And we need to have it now.
And it shouldn't be just a conversation between media and fans. It should be a conversation that includes everyone. From Bud Selig to the folks who chisel the plaques in Cooperstown. And many thoughtful people in between.
If there's anything we've learned from the 2013 Hall of Fame election, it's that what we're doing now isn't working. You'd never know it from the balloting, but the '90s happened.
Now it's up to all of us to figure out what the Hall of Fame ought to do about it.
The Information Age
Once upon a time, it was all so simple. Pitchers pitched. Hitters hit. If the stars lined up, somebody with a glove caught what they hit. And that's how baseball games were decided.
Boy, how 1963 was that, huh?
But if you think that's how baseball games are decided nowadays, it's very possible you're still listening to music on a "record player." And running all over town trying to buy "film" for your camera. And looking up numbers in a "phone book."
Friends, we just don't live on that planet anymore.
And neither does the beautiful sport of baseball — no matter how unchanged it may look from afar on your old black-and-white TV "set."
Here, instead, is the planet we live on now:
It's a planet where Rays manager Joe Maddon flips open his iPad in a Starbucks, sips his morning cup of tea, and pores over the spray charts that dictate the funky shifts his team is about to unleash on David Ortiz that night.
It's a planet where Troy Tulowitzki can pedal away on his exercise bike while watching every pitch Tim Hudson has fired at him over the last five years.
It's a planet where it's now easier to find a video of every changeup Ricky Romero has ever thrown with two strikes and a runner on first than it is to find a light bulb at Home Depot.
It's a planet, in other words, that has been swallowed whole by technology, by data, by the sheer, massive, unstoppable onslaught of information.
And that Information Age hasn't just transformed baseball. It has practically revolutionized it — in less time than it takes Ronny Paulino to finish a home run trot.
"I think this is truly the second great renaissance in baseball," says Joe Maddon, a visionary kind of guy whose embrace of technology, info, and outside-the-box thinking has made him, for all intents and purposes, the Steve Jobs of managers.
The first great renaissance, Maddon says, arrived with Branch Rickey in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, back when Rickey was pioneering the use of (gasp) farm systems and (shudder) statistics.
And the second great renaissance? That's been taking place, almost imperceptibly, over the last decade — but, to a greater degree, just over the last year or two or three. And looking back, it's not hard to figure out why.
Excerpted from Wild Pitches by Jayson Stark. Copyright © 2014 Jayson Stark. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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