My mother threw out my baseball cards. Now Father Time is throwing out the faces on them.
I know, I know. It happens to all of us. We get a certain number of innings and the game ends.
But when a famous person dies, things pause, because it makes us backtrack for a moment into some corner of our past.
For many of us, though not all, sports moments correlate closely to our own experience. We remember where we were in our life when we saw Willie Mays or Michael Jordan.
Since my alpha sport is baseball, the last few weeks has been a particularly disheartening run of bad news. Too many players taking that third strike.
This week it was Joe Morgan. In the several weeks prior, it was Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver.
None of them played for my team, the Dodgers, though Dodgers fans have had sad news of our own: Lou Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Ron Perranoski. There are memories attached to each.
It’s that first cluster of names, however, every one in the Hall of Fame, that’s kept me pausing.
Morgan may have been the best second baseman ever. Bill James’s Baseball Abstract argues for it. What I know is that when the Reds played the Dodgers in the mid-1970s, Joe Morgan was the guy I least wanted to see coming to bat. I’d rather have seen Pete Rose, Tony Perez or Johnny Bench.
Morgan knew how to get on base. He knew how to beat you. Check with the Red Sox, who lost the 1975 World Series when Morgan reached for a low outside pitch on a 1–2 count in the ninth inning of the seventh game and dinked a single into centerfield. Reds 4, Red Sox 3.
Whitey Ford didn’t ruin my childhood. He was 2–4 against the Dodgers in the World Series.
Still, he was one of the reasons the Yankees became my team to dislike, because from the late 1940s to the late 1950s the Yankees beat almost everyone and that seemed to mostly mean the Dodgers.
Ford was the pitching face of those teams, the way Mickey Mantle was the hitting face. Ford was smooth, slick, smart and handsome. He had it all, he could do it all. His career winning percentage was .690, which is insane. He made pitching look easy.
Gibson, conversely, made pitching look like a steel cage death match in a dark tunnel, from which he usually emerged with his arms raised in triumph. You could feel his intensity from the left field bleachers, and like Joe Morgan, he beat the Red Sox in the seventh game of a World Series. 1967.
Lou Brock turned baseball into poetry. He wasn’t the only player who could do that, but it’s a small fraternity. He got on base and the game became about whether he was going to steal a base.
Seaver was a smart guy about almost everything, from wine to promotion. He approached pitching as an art and a science, and excelled at both.
He faced the Dodgers many times, and sometimes we beat him. Personally, I was ambivalent when I knew he’d be pitching against us that day, because I knew who I wanted to win and yet it was a pleasure to watch him pitch. It also felt like he almost never had an off-day, though everyone has a few.
One of my favorite Seaver stories occurred off-camera.
A few years after Seaver had retired, a newspaper friend attended a Mets fantasy camp where Seaver was one of the participating players.
A major selling point point of fantasy camp, of course, is to give fans a chance to bat against guys like Tom Seaver.
So this friend stood in, and Seaver threw a few pitches he had an outside chance to hit. I could be misremembering, but I think he fouled one off.
For the last pitch, Seaver came in with his real fastball, over the plate at the knees. “I couldn’t possibly have hit it,” the newspaper guy said. “I couldn’t even see it.”
As the newspaper guy told the story, he stood there for a second letting the shock and awe wash over him. When he glanced at the mound, Seaver had a look that did not say “Go away, interloper” as much as it said “Now you can say you saw a real Major League pitch. You’re welcome.”
I recognize that message. I got it every time I saw these guys play.