The Final Season: There’s No ‘We’ In Team

Atlanta 10 – St. Louis 7; CJ: DNP

Another win. That’s two in a row! Now, let’s get two more! I’m sorry. You guys get the next two. Not ‘us,’ as if I’m somehow a part of this team. Not ‘we,’ as if I contribute in any way to a victory or loss. I’m not a member of the team. Never have been and never will be.

Sorry, that’s just kind of a pet peeve of mine, saying ‘we’ when talking about sports teams. I don’t believe being a fan makes you part of the team. Sure fans play a role, but I don’t think a big enough one to include themselves in the fabric of a team’s dynamic.

I suppose the counter argument could be that, as a fan, you support the team. And, I suppose, some fans literally do. They buy one ticket a year, or more, and that helps keep the lights on. Sure. But most fans can’t or don’t buy tickets, so they’d probably say they support the team emotionally and/or vocally. Some might argue cheering provides encouragement and energy to their team, helping to push them over the edge of victory.

But the cynic in me comes out again. As I mentioned, most fans don’t cheer their team on in person every game, so does yelling at the TV really  help anything? Even in person I question it. I mean, as an individual, a lone fan, do you really think your purchasing of a ticket or yelling makes a difference – on your own. You know what I mean? Imagine this situation, if you will. You’re the only one that bought a ticket, the only one in the stands cheering. I’m sorry, but you’re not keeping the lights on or keeping your team going all by your lonesome. Trust me.

But a team doesn’t have ‘fan.’ It has ‘fans.’ Plural! (Or hopefully it does.) Ok, so now we’re arguing for the collective. Do you, as a part of a whole, get to take credit for the success of the whole? I think it’s fair to say that a team benefits from having fans. After all, there’s a reason small market baseball teams routinely struggle. They don’t have as many local fans to sell tickets to. But it’s not just that. They also have a smaller population to sell to advertisers, sell beer to, merchandise, and TV rights. Smaller market teams have a smaller overall revenue pool, which means less money coming in to spend on talent. So in that sense, yes, you as a fan play a role.

I won’t mention how without you, as an individual, they’d still be alright. (Oh, wait. I just did.) It’s not like your team would be without its fan. Remember it’s ‘fans’ plural. So, in my opinion, the role you play as one in a million is insignificant. Therefore, I don’t think the idea of a collective, where every individual contributes equally and is needed and valued by the whole applies in sports fandom. Sorry.

Now, don’t try to extrapolate this into something bigger, like I don’t believe one person can make a difference in the world ever. Because I do. And if I didn’t, the multitude of examples that could be used against me would leave me speechless. (Or type-less?) Yes, one person can make a difference. When a difference needs to be made. When a movement needs to be started. When an organization  needs to be founded. When a new method needs to be discovered. When something needs to change. Where, in being a sports fan, do any of the above happen? Ask Washington Redskin fans how pointless it is to lobby for an ownership change. Or the hundreds of fire-your-offensive-coordinator.com’s out there. (I will admit to visiting firegregdavis.com a few years ago, but I did not click through.)

Anyway, so you don’t like the way your coach coaches. Or the way your players play. The way your owner owns. Sorry kids, you’re not going to be able to change that, (particularly the owner part), because (there was actually a reason to that long, meandering tirade), as a fan, you are not part of the day-to-day operations of the team. You don’t get to be part of the decision to cut a guy or resign the superstar. You are not part of the ‘we.’

So, all you weekend warriors out there, stop saying ‘we’ when you talk about, oh, let’s say the Vikings. You weigh 300 pounds and wheeze when you stand up. You live in Texas. The only way you can even support the team is by watching them on TV and that does not make you a part of the fold. So get over it. It’s the team you cheer for, not your team. So stop saying ‘we’ as if the Vikings are a member of your family or your best friend. It’s not emotionally devastating to you when they lose. Your job isn’t hanging in the balance. Your livelihood. You don’t get a bonus when they win. And to put yourself at their level is (delusional, disingenuous, crazy) wrong in my opinion.

And see, how I just used ‘they.’ It’s really not that hard. Try it.

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The Final Season: Ball Four Review

Atlanta 5 – St. Louis 4; CJ: DNP

A win! So long to that losing streak. Hopefully it doesn’t just lead to the start of another one. (Joy quickly followed be pessimism. Yep, that’s about right for me when it comes to the Braves.)

As for tonight’s topic, I recently finished reading Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s tell-all book about his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots. Because of his candor, and the subjects he chose to discuss, such as his teammates less-than-moral behavior off (and sometimes on) the field, it is considered a must read for baseball fans. For me, it was actually the first time I’d read it, and I thought reading it now would be a good way to kick off this season. It had sat on my father’s bookshelf my entire life just staring at me with its glossy, metallic cover, daring me to pick it up. Finally I did.

For the first time and probably the last. Not because I didn’t enjoy it. There are just very few books I read more than once and that’s just because there’s too many other books out there that I want to read. And too little time. So for the most part, I read them once and move on. That’s just me.

As for Ball Four, I really liked it. I did. I thought it was well written, entertaining, and candid, which, in all honesty, is what I expect from a book like that nowadays. I know it was considered groundbreaking when it was first published, but it didn’t really shock me. I thought it was still relevant and probably a lot of the things he revealed as far as the day-to-day life of a baseball player still go on, and I appreciated an intimate look at the game I love.

But the ‘shocking stuff’ only made me think, ‘Man, how times have changed.’ To think, nobody talked about how much Mantle drank. Today, if a ballplayer gets drunk and gets in a fight at the bar or with his wife, the whole baseball world will know about it the next day, particularly if he shows up to the ballpark with a black eye and has to follow the standard, post-screw-up formula: first, a public apology, then, second, go to rehab and promise to improve as a person. Mandatory improvement, mind you. All because he came home late drunk, something I imagine many people do.

Anyway, I think that was the biggest difference that struck me between the time Ball Four was published and today. The openness that Bouton strived for is now the norm. The revealing of locker room dynamics is almost expected. Although, when it does happen, players and coaches still put on a good show of ‘what is said and done in the locker room should stay there.’ But in the information age, it seems like everything comes out, including what happens off the field in player’s personal lives, and sometimes in spectacular fashion. Just think about Alex Rodriguez’s extramarital activities being caught on camera. After all, athletes are big-time celebrities now, so I guess it comes with the territory. However, I do believe they can, to a certain extent, control how much attention they get. If you just go about your business, no one will bother you or take pictures of you. But put yourself out there, date actresses, attend public events, etc., and you will be noticed.

I suppose you could point to the change in the relationship between the media and players as a big reason for this abundance of information on players’ lives both on and off the field. From everything I read, heard, and saw, before Bouton’s time, the media seemed almost to be on the side of the player. The press seemed to look the other way when a player did something scandalous off the field. Again I point to how little coverage was given to Mantle’s drinking and carousing while he played. I imagine they thought that a player’s actions off the field didn’t affect their performance on the field, so why should it be newsworthy? Shift forward to today, and it’s almost like the players are battling the media, along with the other team. They don’t want to talk, and the press wants to do whatever it can to make them talk. It breeds a very antagonistic relationship.

Something I did appreciate from Ball Four was the honesty he showed in the dealings within the team, in terms of his trade and being sent back and forth between the minors. Again, I feel like sports reporters and bloggers today provide fans with a wealth of information – and conjecture – about players’ performances and what they means for their future. So I’m well aware of how those inner team workings operate. However, it was nice to read actual (or close to actual) conversations about how they go down. I feel those passages did help me to appreciate the game more.

So, to recap, I thought it was an interesting and entertaining read, and while the information revealed didn’t faze me, I did learn more about this game I love so much.

The Final Season: Thoughts on Barry Bonds

St. Louis 8 – Atlanta 2; Chip: DNP

Barry Bonds apparently made an appearance in the booth during today’s Giants-Diamondbacks game and referred to himself, in a joking fashion, as a convicted felon. He then quickly pointed out that he was not convicted of taking steroids. Just lying. Oh, Barry Bonds. How conflicted you make me.

Did I ever mention I once saw Bonds hit a homerun into McCovey Cove? It was on another family vacation in which I managed to squeeze some baseball in. The whole family went, and I remember, as usual we had a great bird’s eye view. And I what I saw with that view was Bonds’ ball land in the water. It was late in the game. My sister and mom, who, if you remember, aren’t huge baseball fans but tag along in the name of ‘family time,’ had already headed back to the hotel. They can only take about six or seven innings, and that night it was chilly and windy. Of course windy. So they left. And not a half inning later, he hits it. Actually, they said they could hear the roar of the crowd as they were leaving the stadium. Had that been me, I would have been flabbergasted, but I think they got over it pretty easily. The shot was vintage Bonds, too. The quick swing, the choked-up follow through, the ball pulled tightly down a rope along the right field line, and, finally, the plunk in the cove.

As for Bonds the player, for the longest time I felt like the only fan in baseball who didn’t have an opinion on him. True he didn’t seem like an altogether nice guy. He seemed to alienate and seclude himself from his teammates, but there’s no rule that says you have to be friends with everyone. Maybe because I’m a quiet person, but I don’t have a problem with someone quietly going about their business, particularly if they can deliver like he could.

And – shocker – there’s no rule that says you have to get along with the media, either. Sure, it’s probably in your best interest to, but you don’t have to. And I think more often than not he just chose not to talk to them and that pissed them off, so, when he did talk, they antagonized him out of spite. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibilities. For whatever reason, and there were probably many, it didn’t always go well for him. And with the media’s control over image these days, I think that’s why a lot of people didn’t like him.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t particularly like him, either. Like I said, you don’t have to be nice to your teammates or smile while you’re playing, but, hey, you’re a baseball player! How bad, even on its worse days, can that be? And he did give off this air of being constantly annoyed with his difficult lot in life. So, when those thoughts on Bonds combined, I was really just apathetic to the guy. I liked watching his homerun like everyone else but didn’t care to hear his latest whiny drama.

Notice I didn’t mention steroids. That does complicate things a bit, to the point that the subject of steroids in baseball is probably worthy of its own post. But for some context here, know that I don’t bristle at the steroids issue. I tend to place blame on players and managers and owners and league officials and even fans for what seems like a look-the-other-way approach.

The biggest question with Bonds is usually, do I think his homerun record is tainted? No, I don’t. Because it would be pointless to start siphoning off the cheaters versus those who didn’t. You’d never know one or the other for sure. And I believe there are hundreds of things throughout baseball history that could be asterisk worthy. So, in my opinion, it was just another era, like when players were on ‘greenies.’ I do have a problem with him lying, though. I don’t like liars so that conviction is probably fair.

The saddest part of all this, though, is that he didn’t need help. He was a fantastic player without steroids (assuming he took them.) In my opinion, he was even a Hall of Fame player without them. Homerun king? Maybe not. But still one of the best players in the history of the game.

In fact, that’s why, unlike some other former players tainted with the ‘steroids’ shadow, I’m in favor of Bonds being voted into the Hall of Fame. When you consider his career, it’s the last five years or so he is believed to have used steroids. If you take away those last five year, meaning you take away the numbers he accumulated, his numbers are still Hall of Fame worthy in my opinion. For example, he’d still have over 500 homeruns, and he’d still be the only member of the 400-400 club. Both Hall of Fame worthy accomplishments, among others.

So, while I hate to see him dragged through the muck, I remind myself he did bring a lot of it on himself with his perjury and temperamental personality. But, whether or not his conviction is upheld and his reputation is forever sullied as he is regarded as a cheater, I will still proudly tell people about the time I saw him hit a homerun.

The Final Season: Three Strikes, You’re Out

Nationals 7 – Atlanta 2; CJ: DNP

Brandon Beachy lost tonight but still pitched a solid five innings. In those five innings, he struck out seven. I don’t know how many were swinging vs. looking, but part of me hopes they were all looking. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I want that only if the umpire behind the plate had a great third strike call because that makes the strikeout that much better.

Why? Because, you see, there’s an art to the third strike call, and all umpires know this. There are many variations of this particular move, many strategies one can take. But when a batter is so frozen by a pitch that he has to be reminded to return to the dugout from whence he came, many umpires before to leave little doubt.

Really the beauty of the third strike starts with the pitch itself. Typically the pitch has caught a corner of the zone just right, or buckled so viciously into it that the batter can’t react. He just stands there, stunned. And I like to think that umpires appreciate such a beautiful pitch so much that they want to be the dot on the exclamation point. After all, they watch a couple hundred pitches come at them a night, and most of them are uneventful. The batter swings and flies/grounds out or swings and misses or, rarely, gets a hit. But, let’s say, 10% of the time – on a good night – the ump gets to see a work of art, and he wants to let the pitcher know, emphatically, that was perfect.

To do this, he might utter a resounding, guttural yawp. Something loud enough for the entire park to hear, including the guy in the cheap seats. The ump might just roar the word ‘strike’ or ‘three’ or both. Or maybe it’s something completely different like ‘you’re out.’ But if you’re a batter and you hear a deep, billowing yell, you know you should turn around and leave home plate. Your turn is over.

What the batter often doesn’t get to see, though, is the motion. Usually it is a variation of the fist pump. Perhaps straight across the chest or straight out in front. Or the fist might go out to the side, away from the body. For some umps, just the arm moves, while others use their whole torso. The best ones are the calls that get the whole body into it, leg kick and all. That way, just in case that guy in the cheap seats is hard of hearing, he can tell with his eyes what just happened. Usually the gesture is powerful, painting a very clear picture. It’s as if the ump has been waiting all day to make it. And they don’t do it halfway. They don’t start yelling strike and mumble three. Or lackadaisically pump their arm. Again, they leave no doubt.

One of my personal favorites is when an ump yells ‘strike three’ while he takes a big step back and turns his entire body, jabbing his fist out in front of him and then pulling it all the way back across his body. There’s one ump that, after he’s made this move, sort of lurches back as if he’s just punched himself in the gut. That’s a good one.

Another option is when the batter actually gets to see the demonstration because the ump takes a dramatic pause before he makes the call. I’d say most make it right away, a good number do it a couple seconds after, but a small handful let the pregnant pause almost give birth. Sometimes even the commentators and the batter and the catcher and the pitcher and the manager and the team and everyone in the stands have a chance to question the call before the ump makes it. In those instances, I think they just relish the attention, particularly if the call is in favor of the home team. There are going to be cheers, so why not take time in?

Sometimes it can get annoying, though. One ump waited what seemed like two whole seconds after every pitch. Every one. And when an ump does that, it loses its effectiveness. Now he’s just slowing things down for no reason. It’s as if he needs to be reminded he isn’t the reason we’re watching, so just get to it already.

And I think it’s for that reason, among others, that there are some umps that frown on what I’ve just described. You can tell those umps because they make their third strike call as basic and small as their first strike call. And I respect that. It’s short and simple so we can move on to the next guy. No need to make a spectacle of oneself. Plus, it doesn’t take away from or attempt to overshadow the pitcher’s accomplishment.

There was one ump whose third strike call was literally a wave of his hand out to his side. Nothing else moved. No part of his head or torso. Nothing. Just his left hand. It darted out as if swatting at a fly, then rushed back to his side. So quick you could blink and miss it. I remember sometimes the announcers would miss it, and they wouldn’t know if it was strike three or a ball. They’d wait for the hitter’s reaction to tell them. But, occasionally, a hitter would miss it, too, and he’d just look back at the ump as if to say, ‘I’m sorry, can you repeat that?’

But I, personally, never mind an elaborate call. For a game that can move slow and become monotonous, a little color, at the right time, is appreciated.

The Final Season: My Almost Sports Career

Washington 8 – Atlanta 4; CJ: DNP

The losing continues, so I’m going to write about something completely unrelated today – me. First tidbit: I studied journalism at the University of Texas. But not your highbrow, hoity-toity journalism. I studied sports journalism. Why? Because I wanted to be a sports reporter. Obviously.

Around the second grade, one of my parent’s friends asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I answered ‘writer,’ because at that age I had already started sitting at the family computer for hours just typing away on my silly, little stories. The adult responded by saying, ‘Oh, you mean like a journalist. That’s a career you can have as a writer.’ Impressionable young me was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, I guess I want to be a journalist if that’s how someone can make a living writing.’ Okay, I probably didn’t responded exactly like that, but the conversation obviously made an impression on me, as I can still remember it almost verbatim 20+ years later.

And it’s pretty fair to say that I started at about that age telling people I wanted to be a journalist. Only writing about the boring news stuff my parents watched seemed terrible. I was never inspired to watch the evening news with them. But ESPN. That I could watch all day, every day. And I thought, the people on that channel are reporters, too, right? (Refrain from cynical answer.) That’s it, then. I’ll be a sports reporter.

And so I went for it. I became Sports Editor of my high school paper, and Sports Director of the student television station in college. One of my main responsibilities there was producing a weekly Longhorn sports highlight show, which I enjoyed immensely. The station also broadcast UT volleyball and softball games live, and I sideline reported for those. I had my dream, and I working hard for it.

But something strange happened after graduation. When it came time to get a job reporting, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to move to a small town in the North East and make $17,000 a year. I didn’t want to work weird hours, and on holidays, and have to ask annoyed athletes the same questions over and over again. The truth was, I just didn’t love it like I thought I would.

Plus the glimpse of the job I got while interning at a local station wasn’t the romanticized vision I had created as a child. It was all so… ordinary. I hadn’t really thought about the day-to-day grind and if I’d be willing to do that. I also hadn’t realized the stories would be the same year-to-year, just with new faces. It didn’t appeal to me like I thought it would. Like I said before, I didn’t love it, and I was a young idealist who thought that should be a component of a job.

I also hadn’t realized the extra challenge being a woman brought me, but I learned it firsthand in college. I watched all the guys around me get treated differently. Was told by multiple guys that when they saw me on TV they didn’t listen to what I said. One dude even told me that he disliked girls on TV when it came to sports, and he wished they’d just stop talking. How he never knew if he could believe the girl on the screen actually knew what she was talking about. Comments like those helped me see that I didn’t want to fight my way into a bear trap. Or bee’s nest. Or whatever analogy you want to use. Some women can do it, but I’m not a fighter or a trailblazer. I admire those that can, but it doesn’t appeal to me.

So, after school, I chose a different path and never looked back. Well, I shouldn’t say never. I am looking back now. And sometimes I do wonder if I made a mistake. Should I have at least tried reporting? Maybe for a year just to see if it sparked a desire after all. But then that would have altered the course of my life, and the idea of that makes the decision feel right.

And it was right. You know how I know? When I got that sports reporting job offer, I recoiled at the thought of living in a small town and making $17,000 a year, even if it was just, hopefully, temporary. I contrast that with the idea of making $17,000 a year writing fiction, and I’d take that it in a second, no hesitation. Heck, I’d be over the moon to make that much writing. And that’s taught me a good lesson: if you really love something, you’ll be content doing it for little to no compensation or recognition because you’re doing it for yourself, because it makes you feel complete.

Sometimes I joke and say that I blame the Atlanta Braves for all of it, for trying to be a sports reporter than not doing it. After all, becoming a fan of the team really cemented my love of following all sports, and that led to wanting to report on them. But I can’t. I mean, there’s no one to blame really. I was just a kid who loved sports and thought it would be cool to talk about them for a living. And I still think it would be. I just found something that I think would be a lot cooler. For me, at least.

The Final Season: Improbable is Not Impossible

Washington 7 – Atlanta 4; CJ: DNP

Loss number five in a row. Major bummer. So… let’s talking about winning! And winning big.

I often address the 1996 postseason with a bit of melancholy. Okay, a lot of melancholy. After all, it is the year the Braves lost the World Series in heartbreaking fashion. But there is a bright spot from that postseason that I think deserves it’s some attention. For, at 14, it was a spot that made me truly believe anything was possible in sports. And that just because something is improbable, doesn’t make it impossible. Important life lessons for a teen.

The setting was the 1996 NLCS.  Braves vs. Cardinals. After an easy time in the NLDS against the Dodgers, the Braves were favored to win. And the series started off easy enough, with Atlanta winning the first game.

Then the wheels came off, so to speak. Almost completely.

Atlanta lost the next three games, making them a loss away from being eliminated. I remember watching it happen and not understanding it. After having such a dominant season, they suddenly couldn’t hit, pitch, play defense. Nothing. I couldn’t believe the defending World Series Champs wouldn’t make it out of the NLCS!

At first, watching them loose Game 2, I wasn’t worried. It would’ve been nice to win both at home, but a split was fine. Even when they lost Game Three, I was only a little nervous. I remember thinking there was no way they could lose three in a row. They’d win the next one, the series would be tied at 2, and the slate would be clean. They’d be left with a three game series to advance, and that year the Braves hadn’t lost many three game series.

But then they did lose the next game.

At the end of Game 4, I’ll never forget the image of right fielder Ray Lankford catching the final out and grinning as he was congratulated by one of his teammates. I couldn’t blame him. His team was up 3-1. But it was a stark contrast to the dismay I felt. Certainty of the Braves demise stifled me. The series was a done deal. No return to the World Series. And I wasn’t the only one that thought that. Immediately SportsCenter started in with the graphics showing when the last time a team had come back from a 3-1 deficit. The latest it had happened was like 1903. That meant, to me, a comeback was an impossible feat.

Yet part of me still had that unwavering hope of all true sports fans (and psychotics). You know, the hope Cubs fans have commoditized. So I allowed myself to think it was possible. But only secretly. Outwardly I acted like it was over, and I made quite a show of it. My mom would ask me how the Braves were doing, and I would say things like, ‘They’re terrible,’ or ‘They’re gonna lose. It’s only a matter of time.’ I also remember telling my dad before Game 5 started, ‘I’ve gotta make sure to watch. It’s their last game of the season.’

And my forlornness became this weird superstition for me. For every game, I sat like a little curmudgeon on the couch and didn’t allow myself to get excited about anything positive that happened. When they did win Game 5, I remember thinking basically it was a formality. (Probably a different word, though, as I don’t think my vocabulary was that developed yet.) Of course they would win Game 5. Even the Kansas City Royals don’t lose four games in a row. But the next game? I knew for sure the Braves would lose it.

And I sat there, arms crossed with a frown chiseled on my face, and watched them absolutely beat-up on the Cardinals. Not only did they win the last three games of the series, they outscored St. Louis 32-1 in those three games. (Thanks Wikipedia for the exact numbers.) I sat there, all pessimistic, while I wanted to be jumping up and down while screaming for joy. But the negativity became my streak that I couldn’t mess with. They were winning because I didn’t act like they would. And I honestly believed that. In fact, when I did show some happiness in Game 6, they gave up their only run in those three games. I swear it. So I was convinced I had to sit there thinking, well, even if they’ve scored a bizzilion runs, they can still give up a bizzilion plus one.

But they didn’t. Instead, they won. And won. And won again, coming back from 3-1 to win the series.

The only time I let myself lighten up again was late in Game 7 when it was obvious the Cardinals weren’t coming back. I remember I was filled with such pride. The Braves had done what seemed impossible. Now, instead of 1903 (or whatever year it was) being the last year for a team to come back from 3-1 down, it had been done in 1996 by the Braves.

And I did learn a valuable lesson. Even when things seem impossible, it doesn’t mean they are. They’re just improbable, and improbable is not impossible. Because every day was a new game and the games before didn’t matter. There were nine innings to be played, and all the Braves could do was take them one pitch at a time. And while that is horribly cliché, it’s still true. And if you make each pitch count, before you know it, you’ve dug yourself out of your hole. It ain’t over until it’s over and that goes for anything in life. And ever since that series, when any team in any playoffs goes down 3-1, I remember that Braves team and what they accomplished.

Hey, wait a second. Maybe I’m onto something. For the Braves to get out of this slump, I’m just going to act like they’ll never win another game. That’ll do it.

The Final Season: The Mick

Reds 6 – Atlanta 3; CJ: DNP

Have I mentioned my favorite player from baseball history is Mickey Mantle? Well, it is. Fitting really. My two favorite players are two great switch hitters with goofy names. And like with Chipper, my fascination with Mantle started when I was young.

Growing up watching games with my dad, I used to pepper him with questions about baseball, including a lot about baseball history. (Still do, really.) Usually because an announcer would mention someone or something I didn’t know about. And from what my dad, and the announcers, said about Mantle, I figured out quickly that his name carried a lot of weight. My dad never hesitated to call him one of the greatest players ever, and I think, as a kid, when you hear ‘greatest ever,’ it’s mystifying. I think I liked the name Mickey, too. Blame that on the Mouse, I suppose.

Then, in 1995, he died. And, as seems to be normal, his legend instantly grew larger. I remember getting that week’s Sports Illustrated with his face on the cover. His face and nothing else. No words, just his picture. And in the picture he was young. Very young. It looked like it was taken when he was just starting out in the majors. Such an amazing contrast to the face I saw on that same magazine’s cover a year earlier when he was an old man in a feature article talking about his drinking.

It was the face of kid that looked like he could live down the street from me. A happy, easy-going, even attractive face. I remember it jarred me to think an old man was handsome, even if I was looking at him when he was young. Maybe at 14 I didn’t realize how much someone’s appearance can change over time. Nonetheless, I liked his face, and, posthumously, I became a Mantle fan.

I remember his funeral. They aired it live on TV. Showed ‘highlights’ of it on SportsCenter. I remember Bob Costas poignant, poetic eulogy, talking about Mantle being freed from his demons to play ball like a kid again in heaven. It was good.

Afterward, I read everything I could about Mantle. Books, encyclopedias. (Back when encyclopedias were still books.) I even wrote papers in school with him as the subject. I was amazed by his successes. The numbers he accrued weren’t like any of the numbers I was seeing from players at that time – or from players in his time, either. In my mind, he was the best ever.

My dad, as I mentioned before, didn’t really agree with me. He always prefaced any qualitative analysis of Mantle with, ‘He could have been the greatest if he wasn’t injured so much.’ (Or drunk, I suppose.) If my dad had to pick, he’d pick Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente. But there was something about Mickey for me. The seemingly effortless way he played combined with his All-American looks and (also seemingly) jovial nature.

I have a picture of him hanging up on my wall. Mickey. Not Chipper. Actually, you’d probably think I was a Yankees fan if you saw this wall. I have a picture of Mantle, two of Babe Ruth (one I painted), and a sign for Yankee Stadium, which was a present from a friend. But I’m not. (Trust me, I’m definitely not.) What I am is a fan of baseball history, and, after all, if you love baseball history, you can’t appreciate it and not at least admire the Yankees. They are woven throughout the narrative almost from beginning to end. And Mickey is a big part of that.

As is also normal, I’ve set aside the worst parts of him, the drinking, carousing, and being from Oklahoma (nobody’s perfect) in order to admire the brilliance and the character that is likely more myth than truth. My favorite Mantle legends always involve his performance at the plate, whether he was hitting 550 ft. homeruns or striking out so violently he twisted himself into a pretzel. Man. To have actually seen him play. To have been alive in 1961, or in any of those years when he played. They would’ve been.

Inevitably I bring myself back to the present and ask, how does Chipper compare? The comparisons are obvious, and common. I already hear their names together a lot when people discuss the greatest switch hitters ever. Of course, that’s at the plate. I think Mickey was a much better fielder, although it’s difficult to compare outfield to infield. But at the plate, they’re numbers are close together. Both hit for power and average, and did it consistently for many years. Both were MVP’s and World Champions. And Chipper even edges out Mickey now in most statistical categories, including batting average and RBI. Except homeruns. Mickey’s got that one.

So, yep, he’s my favorite historical baseball figure. What’s that? You ask who my favorite player all-time is? Hmm. Well. I didn’t see Mick play… and he did win a lot of championships… but it was for the Yankees. And Chipper’s numbers are just as good… and he did win a lot, too. I suppose, had both been playing in my day, there’s no contest.