Sunday read: The Hammer and the man

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?

A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.

So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?

Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.

And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.

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A tip of the cap to Major League Baseball

Image from AP via Spectrum News 1.

I had my doubts.

When Major League Baseball announced its 60-game regular season, I thought it was a mistake. It was one thing for the NBA to enclose itself in a bubble to keep Covid-19 at bay; MLB, with its larger roster and teams traveling all over the country, seemed doomed to fall to the disease.

And in the early going, it appeared that I — and many other naysayers — were going to be right. In the first few weeks of the season, several series were postponed due to the virus, and several players were afflicted. A few, including the Braves’ Nick Markakis, said they would sit the season out. (He came back, but not without a scare.)

But now, with the championship series in the books and only the World Series left to play, the sport has marked more than 47 days — that’s close to seven weeks, taking us back to August — without a positive Covid test.

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Bob Gibson, 1935-2020

Image from Getty via The New York Times.

One-twelve.

Every baseball fan knows certain numbers. 56. 755. (Sorry, Barry Bonds.) .406. 383. 511.

And 1.12.

That was Bob Gibson’s earned-run average in 1968 — a hair more than a run per nine innings. Gibson had 34 starts in 1968 and gave up more than 3 runs in exactly two of them. (One of those games was against the Dodgers in September. Had he pitched better (!), his ERA may have been below 1.1.) He had 13 shutouts. His ERAs in June and July were 0.50.

Gibson died Friday. The great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was 84.

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Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

Tom Seaver was my hero.

In this I was not exceptional. If you were a boy growing up in the New York area in the late ’60s and early ’70s — if you were a Mets fan — of course Tom Seaver was your hero. He was the Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young winner, the handsome, knee-dirtying fastball thrower from Fresno, the heart of the ever-exciting, ever-Amazin’ Miracle Mets of 1969.

I was 4 when the Mets won that World Series, and I think I attended my first game at Shea two years later. But I feel like I always knew who Tom Seaver was, even when I was too young to pronounce “Tom Seaver.”

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Sunday read: The greatest horse in the world

From aboard Secretariat, jockey Ron Turcotte looks back at his competition. Photo by Bettman/Corbis via Sportsnet.ca.

I have a book and CD that compiles some of the greatest announcing calls in sports history: “Havlicek stole the ball,” “I don’t believe what I just saw,” and others in that vein.

This morning my iDevice cued up one of my favorites: “He is moving like a tremendous machine.”

That’s Chic Anderson’s call at the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which Secretariat won by an inconceivable 31 lengths. I dare you to watch that video without getting choked up; it’s one of the great sports performances of modern times, and I won’t listen if you say, “Well, it’s just a horse.”

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Should there be a baseball season?

Image from Getty via nbcsports.com.

Opening Day — Major League Baseball’s Opening Day — is one of my favorite days of the year. Though spring has technically begun a couple weeks earlier, Opening Day feels like the season’s true arrival, complete with lush green fields, upbeat crowds, and the smell of peanuts and popcorn. It is a time of beginnings.

There was no Opening Day this year. It was canceled by Covid-19.

Still, after months of arguing over money, it appears that there will be some semblance of professional baseball after all. If all goes well — and, so far, the jury is out — MLB will kick off a 60-game season on July 23.

I’m kind of dreading it.

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Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Really short entry, WTF edition

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I’ll just post my tweet here, because I’d just repeat it:

Though, well, it bears repeating: What … The … Fuck? Guaranteed Rate Field? Even Finazzle Field, my suggestion for the Braves’ new ballpark, would be better. (“SunTrust Park” is merely bland by today’s standards.)

If I were commissioner, I would require all ballparks to be named after cities/neighborhoods, teams or people. Enough with the 20-year naming rights contract crap.

Next thing you know, they’ll be giving bowl games names like R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. Oh, wait.

(Late) Sunday read: They don’t say, ‘Work ball!’

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Image from Twitter.

Today is baseball’s Opening Day. It’s changed a lot since I first started following the sport; back then it was usually on Tuesday and always started in Cincinnati, in honor of the city’s status as the first home of a professional team. Now it’s on Sunday so ESPN can get a big audience, and one of the games will feature the Yankees, because we don’t see the Yankees enough the other 161 games of the year.

(Tonight’s marquee game is Cubs-Cardinals, the National League’s version of Yankees-Red Sox.)

The New York Times has a wonderful piece on six baseball lifers — a coach, an umpire, a pitcher, a slugger, a hitter and (my favorite) a broadcaster. Dip into it; it’s my Sunday read.

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Tonight

Young man in pajamas sleeping on sofa at home with teddy bear
This is not me, and that is not Mulligan. Photo from ashagoldstein.com.

I will go to bed early. I will not stay up to 11:30 watching basketball or surfing the Internet.

I will sleep a sound and peaceful eight hours (at least). I will not wake up because a cat jumps on my chest. Nor will I have to get up to pee.

And tomorrow I will wake up rested and start going through all the crap I don’t want to keep. I will be unsentimental and channel my inner Marie Kondo. I will finish writing an article and I will have time to watch basketball and surf the Internet.

So I say.