For those sports fans who countenance only baseball, and who tend to use words like countenance, the off-season passes lugubriously. Hardly an equinox goes by without a catcher cashing in his .227 lifetime batting average for a three-year contract worth $6.7 million.
Since 92.5 percent of all the literary owls in this country are partial to the Boston Red Sox (only 1.2 percent like the Seattle Mariners; see Bill James's comprehensive directory, Vanilla Extract), tremendous angst (a gloomy, often neurotic feeling of generalized anxiety and depression) has been expended over the three-year, $6.35 million pact tendered Matt Young, statistically the third-worst pitcher in the majors with 50 or more decisions.
In this climate of discontent, Yale's Donald Kagan and Princeton's George Will have been quarreling publicly (reference: The Public Interest) over the charms of baseball and the nature of heroism. According to a thesis of Will's best-seller, "Men At Work: The Craft Of Baseball": "Games are won by a combination of informed aggression and prudence based on information." Kagan scoffs: "This is the fantasy of a smart, skinny kid who desperately wants to believe that brains count more than the speed, power and reckless courage of the big guys who can play."
Pitting Will's gray workplace against Bart Giamatti's green Utopia, Kagan exalts romantic pasts and Homeric characters. Will speaks up for lengthening competence and everyday heroes. Kagan finds it contemptible, Will commendable, that San Diego batting champion Tony Gwynn asserts:
"This is a game based on numbers. It's not based on character or heart or work ethic. It's the numbers. At contract time, people say: 'Did you hit .300?' The people want to see numbers on the board. I'm a high-average hitter. Some hit for power. Some move a runner over. Some hit for average. I try to do what I'm capable of doing, whether people like it or not."
Gwynn won three straight National League batting titles this way, but without putting anyone in mind of Stan Musial, the last man to do the same. Jim Frey, general manager of the Chicago Cubs, had a cup of coffee with the Musial Cardinals. Frey recalls how, in the clubhouse once before a doubleheader, Musial raised his bat like a scepter and proclaimed like a king: "Stanley can get 10 hits today. Think of it, everybody. Ten hits for Stanley."
Defining the heroes has always been a hard deal for baseball writers. "Am I a hero?" Reggie Jackson mused in the early-'80s. "You tell me."
In 1972, Jackson arrived at his first World Series on crutches. He had broken down at home plate scoring the run that won the pennant for the Oakland A's. So, like the soldier who plops on a hand grenade for his comrades, he had a certain right to feel sorry for himself. Adding to his misery was a fractured marriage. "What good is it to make $100,000 a year," he whimpered into the microphones, "when there's no one to leave a ticket for?"
A year later, the A's were back in the Series, and Jackson was the MVP. "Was there anyone to leave a ticket for this year?" asked one of the choked-up reporters. Staring blankly, Jackson said: "What are you talking about, man? I bought 100 tickets. I always buy 100 tickets."
After another Fall Classic, Jackson moved over to New York, but continued specializing in Octobers. Until, on his ultimate World Series night against the Dodgers, he hit three home runs on three swings off three first deliveries from three different pitchers. "Is that heroic or what?" he declared a few years later.
"It's adrenaline," a sportswriter replied.
"What do you mean, 'adrenaline'?"
"A homer on every swing -- no waste pitches, no foul tips -- is like a mother lifting an automobile to save her child. It's a peek at what people could do if they only knew they could do it. It's physical."
"You've lost your capacity for wonder," Jackson said glumly.
That's a little like the argument Will and Kagan are having, though both of them are on the side of wonder. They would make excellent baseball writers, and maybe it is time again for a new kind. Some 15 years ago, the rumpled men who doubled at The Sporting News and dabbled in official scoring (among other varieties of graft) gave way to a sea of blue-jeaned dormitory rats who are easily reminded of the Beatles.
Yes, eggheads in the press box would be a nice change -- it might bring back fedoras too. They might even take the salary problem into their own hands, the way Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram did in 1930 when, without any authority whatsoever, he signed Babe Ruth for the Yankees.
"What's the matter with you?" Daniel told Ruth. "There's a depression on. People in New York are rioting for bread, and you're holding out for $85,000? It's making a very bad impression and hurting baseball."
Ruth responded with a wail: "Why don't people tell me these things?" He immediately said he'd take $80,000, and he did.