Monday, June 26, 2000

Oblique Nostalgia

I see them bobbin heads a-noddin. I know they know. They know what I'm afraid others suspect. And I know you see them too. I should have known when I saw her washing her rocks (or were they marbles?) in the sink. We all know what we have to do. The hard part is doing it.

It's not as though I actually think that the porcelain Harmon Killebrew or Kent Hrbek are for real, but the constant noddin of their noggins suggests that they ain't merely inanimate objects. They know. I know they do. Beauty is baseball. Beyond a mere game it's a unifying thread in the fabric of our historical culture. Significant- Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier- or simply impressive- Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak- the game is a slow simmering sport best enjoyed by those who appreciate the allure of prolonged tension; it's not a game for the ever growing majority looking for instant gratification.

Baseball heroes are statuesque. An error at a crucial moment, a flaw in an otherwise stellar performance often catches us by surprise and thus is more disappointing than normally would be. "Baseball players don't cry," Tom Hanks said in one of the best baseball movies, A League of Their Own. He was right. We expect our baseball idols to be heroic, we don't expect them to be human. An even greater mystic than Hanks is the legendary Yogi Berra who once said, "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." And that probably explains the appeal of the game to me more than anything else. Players are expected to perform with such pristine consistency that every once and awhile something goes amuck and a crack appears. That's when things get understandable for me, and that makes the game even more intriguing.

My Mom was the one that got started me watching baseball and she also was the one who started me watching baseball movies. I remember one of the first baseball movies we watched was Fear Strikes Out- the Jimmy Piersall story. Piersall is a hall of fame Boston Red Sox centerfielder who was a bit high strung. Portrayed in the movie by the quirky Anthony Perkins, Piersall's eventual nervous breakdown was best demonstrated cinematically by a scene in which Perkins loses it and ends up climbing up the backstop.

One of my all-time favorite Twins (and one that would be a natural for the next round of bobbleheads) was Jim Eisenreich who was among that talented group of 1982 rookies that eventually became the nucleus for the world championship teams. Eisenreich was better than Hrbek, better than Gaetti, better than Randy Bush. His swing was classic and he had all the tools to be a very good centerfielder. Less than a quarter into that season his facial and body tics became so severe that he had to take himself out of a couple games. No one was quite sure what was wrong. There was a dreadful game in which the "nervousness" got so bad that Eisenreich had to be restrained, unable to breath. He tried to comeback several times with the Twins but had to give up with what the club said was a severe case of stage fright. Eventually he was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome and had a somewhat successful career.

Now comes the news that another of my favorite former Twins has taken a bit of a stumble. Chuck Knoblauch who hasn't been nearly the same player for the Yankees as he was here, reached a point last week where his teammates were afraid for his personal safety. Knoblauch (whose square mug would fit nicely on top of a bobble head doll) has contracted a severe case of an affliction that ended the careers of Steve Blass, Joe Decker, Dave Engle and Steve Sax- an inability to throw the ball. After a three error game a distraught Knoblauch yanked himself out of the lineup. A few games later one of his errant throws sailed into the first base stands and nailed an elderly woman (who happened to be broadcaster Keith Obermann's mother) right in the face. One of the simplest parts of the game, one that most players take for granted has somehow eluded the once steady Knoblauch.

And he's not alone. Last week it was announced that Boston Red Sox outfielder Troy O'Leary was going on the disabled list due to "divorce." Seems Mr. O'Leary is taking his domestic problems so hard that he needs time off away from his job. And to top them all this item from a recent issue of "Sports Illustrated":

It's Rickey Henderson's world; everyone else is just living in it. Last month Henderson, having signed with the Mariners after the Mets released him, was taking his first batting practice with his new teammates when he encountered Seattle first baseman John Olerud wearing a batting helmet. "What's up with the helmet?" Henderson reportedly inquired.

"I wear it all the time," said Olerud, who has worn a helmet whenever he has been on a baseball field since suffering a brain aneurysm in 1989.

"I'll be damned," said Henderson. "I used to play with a guy in New York who did the same thing."

"That," said Olerud, who was a teammate of Henderson's on the Mets for all of 1999, as well as on the Blue Jays for part of the 1993 season, "was me."

Yup, keep noddin' boys, you know what it's like. Yogi may have underestimated the percentages.

No comments: