Dodgers' Man of Steal Seeks a Gold Plaque
Sunday, October 4, 2009
LOS ANGELES -- "Sometimes you don't think it will ever happen," he says. "But then you try not to think that." -- He is pointing at the outfield wall. "Out there," he says. -- He sweepingly gestures at 10 numerals hanging atop the left field and right field bleachers, the area known as the Pavilion at Dodger Stadium. "There," he says. "The guys. The numbers."
The hanging numbers are jersey numbers, arranged in numerically ascending order: 1, 2, 4, 19, 20, 24, 32, 39, 42 and 53. With a single exception, all are the retired jersey numbers of nine Dodgers who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
He ticks off the names that go with the numbers, everyone from Brooklyn Dodgers legends Pee Wee Reese (1), Roy Campanella (39) and Jackie Robinson (42), to several Dodgers who played with him in Los Angeles -- Duke Snider (4), Don Sutton (20), Sandy Koufax (32), and Don Drysdale (53), as well as his deceased manager, Walt Alston (24), and Alston's successor, Tommy Lasorda (2). What is hanging in the air at this moment is the understanding of the Dodger number not out there -- the one not in the Hall of Fame. The number is 30.
"I've been close but not close enough," Maury Wills says, squinting at the numbers.
"I used to say it doesn't hurt but, deep down, I still think it hurts. It's more than an award -- do you know what I mean? It says something. If you played baseball and you get it -- or don't get it -- it says something about you. Pin me down and, I'll have to say, yes, it hurts. I used to drink over it, a long time ago. I had some other problems then, too. I've found peace. But it still hurts."
* * *
What makes the Hall of Fame so coveted by those locked out of it, is that it confers an official stamp of greatness. Implicit is the belief that if the ex-player can only push through the gates of Cooperstown he'll take his place forever alongside the gods of the sport.
The standard for accepted Hall of Fame candidates is 75 percent of the vote among Hall voters. In the case of long-retired players like Wills, the voters consist of all living members of the Hall of Fame, who comprise the Veterans Committee, which considers nominated players who have fallen short on votes cast by baseball writers for at least 20 years following their retirement. Every time over the last 30-plus years that Wills, a Washington native and perennial all-star shortstop for the Dodgers during the team's glory days in the 1960s, has come up for consideration, the ultimate verdict has been the same.
He has just turned 77 and it is late -- late on this Sunday afternoon, late in life. His games, which began as a child for him in a housing project known as Parkside in Northeast Washington, ended 37 years ago. The former shortstop is sitting in the cathedral of his glory days, an empty Dodger Stadium, on a lethargic and sweltering summer afternoon, high above the left field line, glancing back and forth between those numbers above the Pavilion and the infield.
Wills raises an elongated finger. "There," he says, gesturing at third base. "That's where it happened. One-oh-four."