Academic journal article Nine

Whatever Happened to the Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant? A Plea for Putting Today's Baseball and All-Sports Mania in Proper Perspective

Academic journal article Nine

Whatever Happened to the Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant? A Plea for Putting Today's Baseball and All-Sports Mania in Proper Perspective

Article excerpt

Keynote Speech to the Fifteenth Annual NINE Spring Training Conference, March 15, 2008

I was moved when one of Bill Kirwin's last acts as NINE conference organizer was to ask me to deliver this year's keynote address. We have heard so much about Bill this week, and I for one can never hear enough stories about him because he was such a rare combination of mind and heart, spirit and humor. At the risk of repeating some stories you have already heard, I remember one time here at the convention he mentioned that as a baseball-loving boy growing up in Boston he dreamed of being the Red Sox batboy but his father discouraged him, citing an urban legend: "Son, you have to be an orphan to be a Boston batboy." I also smile when I think of how Bill relished telling the story of a road trip that his minor league hockey team in Germany took to Austria and how some of his teammates thought they were going to Australia.

During my last phone conversation with Bill after the 2007 World Series, he made the astute observation that Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun could make a good manager one day because he told a Canadian TV audience before Game 1 of the Series that if Colorado starter Jeff Francis hid the baseball well, the Rockies would do all right, but if he didn't, look out! It was a prophetic remark because Francis got bombed by the Red Sox and the Series never really got competitive.

I'm sorry that Bill isn't around to comment on a less fortunate statement by Gregg Zaun, his recent belated explanation for being named in the Mitchell Report. Responding only via e-mail and thus able to avoid eye contact, Zaun claimed that he wrote a blank check for five hundred dollars to Jason Grimsley to pay off a basketball bet, adding that he was a generous fellow who often wrote blank checks to people. I can imagine Bill's bemused reaction when Zaun explained his continuing allegiance to Grimsley, who was not only a key baseball steroid conduit but also the loyalist who once tried to hide Albert Belle's corked bat. "We were both old-school," Zaun said, "when it came to clubhouse hierarchy and the way the game should be played." (1)

Don't worry, I am not going to launch into yet another finger-wagging, hand-wringing diatribe against the destruction of baseball's purity (that we all should know by now was never that pure to begin with) and the ruination of the game's hallowed records (that, in my opinion, have been compromised since the expansion of 1961 anyway). But I do have a public health concern about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs on the major league level, not to mention the danger of a possibly near-epidemic situation on the schoolboy level that must be addressed. I don't have an answer for these problems, and I don't think anyone has for an issue that goes to the core of a pervasive "winning is the only thing" philosophy that has spread throughout our culture.

My theme tonight may be less morally urgent but I think equally pertinent to the current state of affairs in baseball: "Whatever Happened To the Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?" I have lifted the phrase from the opening chapter of Leonard Shecter's The Jocks, an expose written nearly forty years ago by one of the charter members of the so-called chipmunks, irreverent New York sportswriters who brought the "challenge authority" mindset of the 1960s to the ballpark. Known primarily for his outstanding work as the editor of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Shecter, who sadly died from leukemia in 1974, opened his book telling the story of an argument that raged among some of his baseball-loving friends about how Pete Gray, the St. Louis Browns' one-armed outfielder in the World War II years, caught and threw the ball. Back and forth went a spirited discussion about Gray's technique in playing the field with only one arm, a glove, and a stump. The argument turned when the most persuasive fellow convinced everyone that Gray caught the ball in his glove, threw it in the air while putting the glove under his stump, caught it again with his bare hand, and then quickly threw it back to the infield. …

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