Sometimes you just know it when you see it. Like the friend of mine who remembers watching a young Yankee shortstop take the field for the first time in 1996. It didn’t matter that he was a rookie playing his very first game in the big leagues; it was in his carriage and attitude and demeanor. It was obvious and it was Derek Jeter.
In DC, the Bryce Harper era has begun…ahead of schedule. The young man who was all of 15 when he crushed a 500-foot exhibition homerun at Tropicana Field in Tampa and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, got called up from the minors after a barrage of injuries beset the Washington Nationals.
So there he was in left field Saturday night, clearly taking in the sights and sounds of Dodger Stadium as if pinching himself that, at last, here he was, at The Show. We all collectively worried- would the 19-year old prodigy wilt under the pressure? Are they ruining him by bringing him to the majors too soon?
Are you kidding? In his first game, he scorched a double over the centerfielder’s head that landed at the foot of the wall. Later, in left field, in a tight scoreless game, he threw a 370-foot laser beam- a perfect strike to home plate that would have easily thrown out the runner if the catcher hadn’t dropped the ball.
Ok…flukey first game. Let’s see how the kid does Sunday. This time in center field, he made a leaping, wild catch that led him right into the outfield wall. He got another hit, a solid single to left field. Then while his teammates were striking out 13 times against suffocating Dodger pitching, he coaxed a walk to get on base late in the game. He showed more maturity and patience in that base on balls than any of his older teammates that day.
He doesn’t walk to the field to take his position- he hustles. He’s known for his power, but he runs like a gazelle. He fears nothing- not outfield walls, not the glare of the spotlight, not failing amid some of the highest expectations ever held for any young prospect in the history of the game.
National’s manager, Davey Johnson has been here before. He was the one in the New York Mets organization who back in 1985, successfully argued that a young pitcher with the most amazing stuff he’d ever seen should be brought up to the majors and it didn’t matter to him one hoot that it was a 19 year- old teenager. That was Dwight Gooden. The next year, that kid helped lead the Mets to a World Series title. It is no wonder Davey Johnson was suggesting out of spring training, that Harper too should move up to the big leagues…NOW. He saw this a quarter century ago. Which seems about right for a player like that who only comes along once or twice in a generation. The Nationals have the other once-a-generation guy too- Stephen Strasburg.
But in Harper, I imagine this is what it must have been like to see a young Mickey Mantle, who when he wasn’t hitting monster homeruns, was flying like the wind, running from home plate to 1st base in just over three seconds. The Mantle I remember was already a busted up mess with an alcohol problem and knees so damaged he had to be taped up like a mummy before games just so he could walk out to the field.
Because people like me don’t put enough pressure on Harper- comparing him to the likes of Derek Jeter, Dwight Gooden and Mickey Mantle- let me also add he reminds me of Secretariat as a one-year old thoroughbred. Grace and power and speed; running like a young colt in a Virginia meadow just for the joy of it.
Harper’s meadow is the outfield at National’s Park and the joy is not just his, but ours as well.
Exhausted by political rhetoric and posturing, saddened by the violent nature of our world, and stressed over the course of day-to-day living, I am seeking the soothing, calm anticipation of the coming baseball season.
This time of year, one used to look out a window at the snowy landscape and know that with pitchers and catchers reporting to training camps in Florida and Arizona, Spring would soon be rounding the corner.
Of course, now that we no longer have the season known as Winter and with February temperatures not dissimilar to what they are in Florida- it’s even easier to imagine how soon we will be hearing the crack of the bat, the sound of the ball pounding the catcher’s mitt, the splendor of the manicured, green grass fields, the echoes of the hot dog vendors and the feel of an ice cold beer going down smooth as the first pitch flies toward the plate. Yes, I do take perverse pride in knowing I have just set the modern standard for baseball clichés in one paragraph.
Baseball Distraction #1- the Real Thing
My own, personal baseball anticipation process has manifested in two ways. I read everything there is to read about the Washington Nationals. Here in the nation’s capital where a baseball team has not won a World Series since 1924, it so happens that some savvy trades and signings along with great misfortune and many pathetic losing seasons- have bestowed upon our little team, a wealth of young draft choices and talent that have made for possibly the best pitching staff in the whole sport.
Oh, there’s optimism in every town in the Spring, but deep down, fans of, say, the Baltimore Orioles, for example, know that while there will be games played soon in their beautiful ballpark, it will just be a matter of a few weeks before the inevitable reality sets in that winning is not much part of the equation, even if Boog Powell’s barbeque ribs will be. It’s a bitch to have to go up against the New York Yankees.
Baseball Distraction #2- the Fantasy Thing
The second way my baseball anticipation has been fed, is through a mere $12 investment in an imaginary baseball team as part of a sports fantasy website called What If Sports. I was given $80 million of fake money to invest in any 25 players from the entire history of the sport, from last year all the way back to just a couple of decades after the American Civil War.
The prices of the players matched against the budget you are given, are cleverly constructed so that you can’t load a team with only superstars. There is value and an art in choosing the right kind of mediocrity and averageness with which to meld with some of the great players you can actually afford.
What draws me to the game- is what draws many people to the real sport of baseball itself- its timelessness. My team reflects just about all the phases of my life. From my childhood, a small contingent of my team that used to play for the Washington Senators of old; pitchers like Joe Coleman and Dick Bosman. I have added a few new Washington players like Ryan and Jordan Zimmerman, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard.
But the real fun is watching the epic old-timers perform. I have an outfield of a young Detroit Tiger, Kirk Gibson, the 1961 Mickey Mantle and an aging but still productive, Fred Lynn. I have a few Orioles sprinkling the infield diamond in Eddie Murray at 1st, Davey Johnson (the 43-homer Davey Johnson) at 2nd and Rick Dempsey behind the plate; the Bird’s catcher who used to entertain the crowds during rain delays at old Memorial Stadium by splashing belly-first over home plate in a pretend mad scramble from 3rd base.
The games are simulated and you get box scores and play-by-play of the results and they’re as fresh and interesting as it used to be picking up the morning newspaper to comb through the box scores (newspapers: a form of communication from the past in which words were printed on parchment and delivered to your front door).
I am Earl Weaver- Who Knew?
As a manager and team-designer, it turns out that I am Earl Weaver, the plucky, cigarette-smoking, former skipper of the Baltimore Orioles who led the Birds to several American League pennants and World Series titles with a philosophy of decent pitching and the three-run homer.
My team strikes out a lot. They hardly ever steal bases. But they do pound the crap out of the ball and currently lead our little pretend league in homeruns and slugging percentage. Algorithms and speedy calculations contribute to the computer-generated results so there are no umpires to argue with, sadly. That was the other claim to fame of the great Earl Weaver. Always led the league in getting kicked out of games.
But there are no arguments in this league, just the temporary satisfaction of being tied for the lead in my division in a season that is young and as full of promise as the real one the big leaguers are preparing for in Florida and Arizona right now.
Thank you, baseball, for taking my mind off other, less pleasant things.
It doesn’t sound like too difficult a job being a stadium announcer. You talk into the public address microphone, proclaim someone is coming up to the plate, say their number, their name and the number once more. But when you do it for half a century, the venue is Yankee Stadium, and you pull off this simple task with such grace and style- you are Bob Sheppard.
“Mr. Sheppard,” as most ballplayers called him, died Sunday at the age of 99. He started this job April 17, 1951, announcing, among others, the presence of a rookie taking his place in Centerfield for the first time, a young kid from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle. The game against the Red Sox that day included both Dimaggio brothers, Dom for Boston and Joe for the Yankees. And a sharp-eyed left fielder, the greatest pure hitter of all time, Ted Williams.
There was nothing modern, showy or overtly spectacular in the way Bob Sheppard did his job. He had a deep voice that delivered words in a deliberate cadence with perfect articulation and diction.
More importantly, it mattered not whether you were in the Yankee pinstripes or in the uniform of the visiting team, when it was your turn to bat and Mr. Sheppard announced your name, it was your moment in the big leagues- the confirmation that the voice you heard as a kid decades before was now validating your sweat and toil in all those creaky, dusty minor league ballparks and confirming your presence in “the Show.” Mickey Mantle said he always got goose bumps when he heard Sheppard announce him. And when Mantle told him this one day, Sheppard is reported to have responded back, “Mickey, so did I.”
It was Reggie Jackson who anointed Bob Sheppard the “Voice of God.” But it was God, in fact, who often heard the voice of Bob Sheppard. From a wonderful article by Ronald Blum of the Associated Press:
He often read at Mass, and was subsequently greeted by parishioners noting he sounded exactly like the announcer at Yankee Stadium.
“I am,” he would reply.
Sheppard, while proud of his work with the Yankees, also was known for his speaking as a church lector. He taught priests how to give sermons.
“I electrified the seminary by saying seven minutes is long enough on a Sunday morning. Seven minutes. But I don’t think they listened to me,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “The best-known speech in American history is the Gettysburg Address, and it’s about four minutes long. Isn’t that something?”
Elegance in simplicity. It’s one of my favorite phrases and reminders in life. Bob Sheppard epitomizes the notion.
The AP’s Blum sums it up nicely, and simply:
Babe Ruth gave Yankee Stadium its nickname, but Sheppard gave the ballpark its voice.