When someone dies young, people grope for meaning and sometimes find it. But I cannot for the life of me understand why Jim "Catfish" Hunter had to go the way he did. There is a sour irony to it that boggles the mind.
The disease that took him at age 53 creeps from one part of your body to another, nibbling your nerves, paralyzing as it travels, until it hits your chest and chokes you to death. That's horror enough for anyone. But why did it have to start with Hunter's marvelous right arm?
That's what went first. Hunter watched, in horror, as one arm and then the other began to weaken and hang flaccid at his side. Then, the diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Hunter was publicly upbeat, and remarkably brave. He was an intensely private man, a country boy who wanted nothing more out of retirement than living in obscurity; in the last days he told one writer that he would have traded all his fame and money for health enough to watch his grandchildren grow up.
"I'd be a groundskeeper and not let anybody know me," the Hall of Fame pitcher said.
And yet in the months after his diagnosis he made his private agony very public. He invited the world in, to raise public awareness, and maybe research money, for this disease. He wasn't thinking of himself. He knew the timetable.
What happened next was awful.
It occurred a few weeks ago. And although I wasn't there, in my mind I can see the scene unfold with terrible clarity. Standing at the top of the stairs at his home, Jim Hunter lost his balance. He knew he was falling, but could do nothing about it. Without his arms, he could not protect himself. Helpless as a baby, he cracked his head. It put him in a coma from which he never really recovered.
It is hard to get that image out of my mind, but I am trying. I am trying to replace it with one from 20 years ago. It happened on a baseball field, but it was not any of the highlight-reel stuff. You'll get all of that in other stories today: Catfish's perfect game, his 20-win seasons with the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, the years he mowed down opponents with that fabulous right arm.
My scene happened on Oct. 17, 1978, the final game of the World Series. Yankees vs. Dodgers. I watched on TV. It was the day that Catfish stank.
He was over the hill, and everyone knew it. His fastball was flat and slow. His curve was fat as a sumo. His slider hung motionless, like a ball on a tee. Later, he would confess that he had never stood on a mound so naked. He'd retire the following season, for his own good and the team's.
The box score is revealing. Catfish gave up a bunch of hits, but no walks. I remember how he had the Dodgers lunging at balls out of the strike zone, and taking strikes on the corners. In, out, up, down. Slow. Slower.
Catfish had only one weapon that day. It was the weapon he always had, the thing that made him a great pitcher even on days he wasn't, the thing only a disease could finally take from him. Control.
He beat the Dodgers, 7-2.
Catfish Hunter, in control. That's what I'll remember.
Gene Weingarten, an editor and writer in The Post's Style section, is a lifelong Yankees fan.