Even Grownups Can Have Baseball Heroes
Original artwork by Joey Enos.
It’s hard to have heroes these days. Especially ballplayers. Ballplayers are human, and all humans have faults. But heroes aren’t supposed to. Today, in the information age, we know everything about ballplayers, and the more information we have about someone, the less heroic he’s likely to seem.
I’ve had baseball heroes, however. Two of them, in fact. And what made them heroes in my eyes was different in each case.
The first, Alan Trammell, was the traditional sort of sports hero with which we are all familiar. While I am a Braves fan today, I lived in Michigan until I was 11, and thus the Ralph Houk/Sparky Anderson Tigers of the 1970s–’80s formed the basis of my baseball DNA. My family had season tickets in Tiger Stadium, and we were always right behind home plate. My parents tell me that I went to my first game in 1978 on the Fourth of July. I don’t remember a thing about it. The first game I do remember was June 17, 1979, against the California Angels. Trammell hit a home run that day, so he instantly became my hero. If Champ Summers or Aurelio Rodriguez had homered maybe it would’ve been one of them, but it was Trammell. That’s how heroism works for a child. I idolized him in that odd way only a child can idolize a stranger about whose life one knows nothing. Indeed, it was precisely because I knew nothing about his life that I could project all manner of heroism onto this shortstop in white and blue.
Years passed, and, eventually, I moved to a part of the country where the only baseball I could see were Cubs games on WGN and Braves games on WTBS. The Cubs had a pitcher named Greg Maddux who intrigued me, but I was far more of a Braves fan and didn’t pay him much mind. Eventually, however, he joined the Braves, and I watched nearly every one of his starts. He soon became my favorite player. Not my hero, however. I was a 19-year-old college student when he joined the Braves, and 19-year-old college students don’t have sports heroes. At least not the kind of heroes we had when we were six. I may have watched all of his starts, pored over all of his mind-boggling statistics, and dreamed about the action on his two-seamer, but I would never have called him a hero. I was far too worldly and mature for that.
By 2006, I was a married office worker with two kids. Though not truly old yet, I felt old. I felt like the world was beating me and that whenever one could say I had been at my best, that time had long since passed. I got joy from time to time with my children and joy from escaping into baseball, but otherwise I felt completely cooked. One day that August my company comped a bunch of us tickets to a Dodgers-Reds game down in Cincinnati. Greg Maddux, his years in Atlanta long having since passed, had just been traded to the Dodgers from the Cubs and was pitching for Los Angeles that evening. I was pleased to see him pitch but worried all the same. Like me, his best years were in the rearview mirror. In many ways he was cooked too. I wondered sometimes if he, like me, wondered where it all went and what he ever might do to feel vital again. I wondered if watching him pitch at age 40 would be difficult. Difficult for what it said about him and what it said about me.
Maddux, whose control was always his calling card, walked a guy early, and it made me worry that it’d be a long night. But he soon settled down and started throwing bullets. One inning. Two innings. Three innings. Five! And the Reds hadn’t scratched out a run. Wait—they don’t even have a hit! Maddux is throwing a no-hitter! The sixth inning starts. There’s a long fly ball and . . . it’s caught! Another! But caught! The third batter of the inning comes up and Maddux mows him down. It’s 1995 all over again! Heck, it’s better than 1995. Even in his prime Maddux never threw a no-hitter. He was around the plate too much. He couldn’t not throw strikes. It just seemed to bother him. That’s why he always, eventually, gave up hits. Here he was, now, however, unhittable in his 21st year in the big leagues. In a three-quarters-empty park on a sleepy, steamy Thursday evening there was hardly anyone there rooting for him, but as he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth I was cheering at the top of my lungs, virtually alone.
The steamy night gave way to a stormy night. As the top of the seventh began, the skies opened up and a deluge fell on Great American Ballpark. Lightning. Thunder. The Dodgers batted and the half-inning ended just as the umpires called for the tarp. For 40 minutes we sat. I knew that there was no chance that Maddux was going to come out for the bottom of the seventh. He was 40. His arm would be tight. He was a Hall of Famer already. He didn’t need the no-hitter for his legacy or his happiness. The Dodgers picked him up for the stretch run and they needed to save his arm. The game resumed with Joe Beimel on the mound. He gave up a hit to the first batter he faced. Never send a boy to do a man’s job.
The Dodgers ended up winning anyway, 3–0. Maddux got the win. I got to see him pitch like he was in his prime again and got to see him leave the game before anyone remembered he didn’t have it anymore.
I was too old to have baseball heroes when Greg Maddux joined the Braves, and I never considered him a hero in the eleven years he pitched for them. But on August 3, 2006, Maddux became the second baseball hero I ever had. Not because I knew nothing about him and could thus project all manner of heroism onto this pitcher in gray and blue, but because I knew everything. Knew what it meant to feel old and past my prime. Knew what it felt like to remember when I could do anything but not be able to will myself to do it like I once did. That night Maddux showed me, however, that even when you’re not the best anymore, you can still do your best. That if you try your hardest and things break right for you, you can still emerge victorious—even when your best days are behind you. And in many ways, it’s more satisfying to triumph under such circumstances than to triumph when everyone expects you to.
Nearly a decade later, I no longer believe that my best days are behind me. Somehow, I stopped believing that on August 3, 2006. A hero taught me otherwise.
Source: The Trading Card Database
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