The Final Season: Bobby and Chipper

Braves 2 – Mets 0; CJ: 0-4

It was great seeing Bobby Cox at the ballpark yesterday to participate in Chipper Jones’ tribute. The two of them seem to have a really strong bond, and while I don’t believe it’s entirely unique, it does seem to be rare.

For one thing, it has become quite rare for players to play for one manager for so long. 17 of Chipper’s 19 seasons were spent with Bobby. Add in the fact that Bobby helped scout him and drafted him, and you have yourself a very long relationship. I would imagine, over 17 years, a working relationship with anyone would become strong. I mean, could you imagine working for your current boss for 17 years? Some of you might say yes, but nowadays, I think most of you would shudder.

Yet Chipper did it and, at the end of it all, basically said he’d do it all over again. To me, that sounds like they got along alright. Chipper often used to refer to Bobby as everybody’s favorite grandfather, and from what I’ve seen and read of Cox, that sounds accurate. He was the manager that always pulled for and defended his players. The guy who really wanted them to succeed.

But I’ve written enough about Cox this season. Seeing Chipper and Bobby next to each other got me thinking about comparable relationships and none immediately came to mind. The first was Dustin Pedroia and Terry Francona. The seemed to have a tight bond, but it didn’t last nearly as long as Bobby and Chipper’s. Just five seasons, which, actually, in today’s baseball world, is probably considered a lot.

Derek Jeter and Joe Torre is another one. Jeter and Torre were both rookies in 1996 – Jeter as a player and Torre as a manager. They lasted 11 seasons together. Close, but not quite 17.

But after those guys, I’m at a loss to think of anyone. I could of course go back to earlier decades. Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer have 14 years together but that was through the 70’s mostly. I think it was much more common to stay with one team your entire career. Also, not sure why I picked those guys. They just popped into my head.

Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle also popped into my head. But that one as well, only 11 years. I suppose 17 is quite impressive. I do like to hear Mantle talk about Stengel. Always referred to him as wanting to be everybody’s dad and how, in the absence of his father, Stengel tried his best to step in. There’s a great quote in Ken Burns’ baseball documentary where Mantle admits to always feeling like he let Stengel down. It’s poignant and not at all reminiscent of Bobby and Chippper.

And I imagine, the further back I go, the more stories like this I’ll find. But in today’s baseball world, players move around too much to be a part of a relationship like that. But guys like Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, I bet they can appreciate the bond Chippper has with Bobby.

I do know it is refreshing in this day and age to see a relationship like that between a player and a manager. Just this week we heard disparaging comments from Heath Bell about playing for Ozzie Guillen. He quickly backtracked, but once words are out, you never get them back in. Just ask any Boston Red Sox player that played for Bobby Valentine this season. I bet that team never thought they’d rue the day they booted out Francona. But maybe Tito will be back next season, as I doubt Valentine will make it much longer. However, I really doubt it.

Anyway, it’s awesome that my favorite player was surrounded by such consistency. You know it benefitted his career to not have to adapt to new systems every season or so. Of course, it helped that Bobby was such an amazing player’s coach that every guy seemed to love playing for. Yet, I’d like to think Chipper’s success was a big part of Bobby’s success. A nice, symbiotic relationship.

Congratulations to the both of you and be sure to thank each other a plenty.

Advertisements

The Final Season: The Golden Era

Atlanta 2 – Washington 1; CJ: 0-2, RBI (42), BB

I love modern day baseball, but part of me wishes I had lived in a time when baseball was king, when it wasn’t considered boring or slow. When life moved at a pace that made the cadence of baseball seem normal. I wish I lived when people didn’t have to be reminded to stop for a second and take a breath, to stop and watch the pitch before going back to the strange, one-sided love affair they have with their cell phones.

When you could walk up to a hotel where you knew the Yankees were staying and ask the front desk clerk what room Babe Ruth was in – and he would tell you! And you could walk your young boys up to that room, knock on the door and Lou Gehrig would answer and call Ruth to the door so you all could shake his giant hand. (I stole that story from Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball, but I think it illustrates my point well.)

When baseball was popular but didn’t overstep its bounds. When every aspect of it wasn’t used to sling soap.

I guess this is the entry where I turn into a curmudgeon. Where I show my true age, which is 30 going on 60. And I know the past isn’t as rosy as it seems. It never is. But that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t better than what we have now as far as baseball. Now we have over paid, over hyped, and over pampered athletes that think too much of themselves. And games that won’t air locally because the local team didn’t sell enough tickets – tickets that cost, for a family of four, more money than a week’s worth of groceries.

Nope, I think I missed my era. I’ve written before about my propensity to get my news from the radio (good ol’ NPR). I also don’t have cable (that’s why I watch so many games at my Dad’s house), preferring to watch PBS while drinking tea. And I want to write books that are printed on paper. Heard of it? The point is, I’m an old soul.

So how great would it have been to be around when Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle were in their primes? When Willy Mays and Hank Aaron were young? That would have been my time. When life seems like it was simpler. When people weren’t available 24-7 via a mobile phone. Heck, when TV’s and planes weren’t a common part of life, and you weren’t looked at funny if you didn’t have one or had never been in one.

True, you didn’t live as long, but I’d accept that for the baseball because I really think it was the golden era for baseball. No huge scandals. Some of the truly best players ever were playing. Yeah, you had to live up mostly in the Northeast to see it, but listening on the radio was different, and normal, then. And, I suppose, you could also make a special trip every now and then.

It was a time when stadiums were new and big, not just bleachers stuck in the dirt. And when the game was over, you could walk on the field to get home. I feel like the player’s were worshipped by the kids and admired by the adults, but not obscenely so. I’m sure some of them had egos, but then they usually had to work during the offseason or spend time in the army fighting among average Joe’s. That, I imagine, was humbling.

It was a time when baseball was, without argument, the national pastime. I think I would have liked to live then. I’d been fine making my own way in the world, just like I do now. And even if I was treated as inferior, I would like to think in my mind I would have always known I was better than what they say.

Yeah, I would have liked to seen Mantle hit a towering homerun, his swing bringing that back knee to the ground. Or Ted Williams slap one into right for a base hit. Or Sandy Koufax dominant his opponents. That would be something to brag about.

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: 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.