Last month when I heard Catfish Hunter had died from Multiple Sclerosis I was surprised how unmoved I felt. Hunter had long been one of my favorite baseball players and he literally was one of the first people to break my heart. He was a member of those wonderful Oakland Athletic teams from the 70's that were the dominant champion during my first years of being a baseball fan. The team was as good as it was colorful with such marvelous players/characters as Bert Campanaris, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers along with their ever irascible owner, Charlie Finley. For a while it looked as if the A's might challenge the Yankee teams from the '20's as baseball's all time dynasty and I felt so fortunate for having found a love during such a special time.
Then the game changed. Free agency took hold and Hunter was one of the first to take advantage of the situation and depart for greener pastures (and pinstripes). Although I understood his leaving (how could anyone turn down a five year contract for that then obscene but now ordinary amount of $3.5 million?) I was angry that he wasn't more loyal to the rest of the team. This wasn't supposed to be a game about dollars it was supposed to be about the competition and being the best. Hunter's defection caused the world of baseball to seem a bit less idyllic in the eyes of a twelve-year-old.
It is always shocking when an athlete dies at an early age. One of the most intoxicating qualities about sports is their ability to produce individuals who carry an air of invincibility, of being able to overcome anything. Thus it is a painful reminder whenever a sports hero dies that no matter how much we want to deny it, at some point each of us must accept that this is a world we are merely passing through. Hunter's death was a shock but it is an indication I've grown a tad weary and jaded that I didn't even take the time to read the memorial stories about a once upon a time hero.
Calvin Griffith's death struck a bit deeper chord inside. For all the frustrations his stubbornness and lack of money caused a young Twins fan- and all the bad baseball I endured growing up that I directly related to Calvin, I still grew to greatly admire the man. He said what was on his mind and there has been no more astute mind about baseball than his. With the slow and sad withering of the Twins, and the defeat of their last hope of survival in this state- the stadium- Calvin's passing seemed like another closed chapter in an increasingly difficult to read book.
More than any other recent "celebrity" deaths- Walter Payton's had a deep impact on me. That his death got the tears flowing uncontrollably truly surprised me. I hardly consider myself a football fan anymore- and though I greatly admired Payton's skills and determination and I loved to watch him play- the man frustratingly destroyed the Vikings in many games. "We" simply couldn't stop him no matter how bad a team he played on. I read the many obituaries from around the country, and for one of the many times in recent months felt the sadness that has become such a familiar part of me.
Not that there is any value in making such a comparison but I've heard there supposedly is a small blessing in the manner Payton died: he had the opportunity to set his life in order and say any necessary good-byes since he knew for some time that unless he received a liver transplant he was going to die. This it has been said has to be (as if we would truly know) less difficult than the "sudden" deaths of Wilt Chamberlain or Payne Stewart. Yet one man's blessing is another man's heart break. To watch this ever proud man break down in tears at his news conference announcing his condition was as sad as the saddest moment in sports history- watching Lou Gerhig say his immortal farewell by declaring he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" right before he, like Hunter, succumbed to Multiple Sclerosis.
I watched Payton's February news conference while seated on the couch across from my Mom. The drugs that she was taking to ease her own pain from the cancer eating away her insides had made her mind less focused than it used to be. She lie there silent, though seemingly absorbing what the news was about. I wondered if she was thinking about being at a place further down the line from the frightening place Mr. Payton found himself in. Had she been her normal healthy self she no doubt would have said something to me about how sad it was to see this once triumphant athlete now scrambling for his life.
Last week's news that Payton died caused a lot of feelings to tumble inside. There isn't anything particularly heroic or meaningful in his death. It is sad and it is tragic. From all accounts he was a most intriguing man who earned as much admiration from those who knew him off the field as from those who knew him on. There are those with the rare ability to touch our lives so deeply that their passing truly makes this world a lesser place. Absence doesn't necessarily make the heart grow fonder nor does time heal all wounds. With another loss of a certain sweetness comes a few more bitter tears.