Friday, July 31, 2009

Flesh and blood

We hoped that Big Papi was different, but in the end we really can't be surprised by the news that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is among those who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs back in 2003. His on-field heroics and amiable personality made Ortiz a Sox favorite since his acquisition and the long-suffering team's subsequent World Series wins in 2004 and 2007.

Former teammate Manny Ramirez was also implicated yesterday, but that news seems to go without saying after the hero-turned-traitor was suspended from the LA Dodgers for 50 games earlier this season for violating rules on anti-doping that didn't exist a half-dozen years ago.

Of course, the truth is that our heroes all have flaws, and if we are slow to realize that, reality will inform us sooner rather than later. No matter how talented, how intelligent, how apparently good, no one is able to do the right thing all the time. No one has the capacity, the will or the strength to always behave in ways that are beyond reproach. At times like this I throw out an oft-used, but powerful fact nonetheless: Thomas Jefferson had slaves. The guy is a hero of mine, but one can find quite a bit in his life to be disappointed about. He was a rather sneaky, dirty politician, and -- yeah -- despite his lofty words about freedom he personally owned dozens of people.

And this takes us to another issue, of less universal import and involving less human misery: in baseball the heroes end up in Cooperstown, but a list of those inducted into the Hall of Fame will include characters that represent a cross-section of the society that they came from. A New York Times review of a book on Cooperstown that was just published says, "The hall is full of gamblers, brawlers and defendants in paternity suits, and there are numerous drunks..." To top the list there is Ty Cobb -- undoubtedly one of the game's greatest players, but also "a sociopath, possibly a murderer and a notorious racist who was also a card-carrying, torch-waving member of the Ku Klux Klan" (and he isn't even the only Klan member enshrined!).

So how do we evaluate modern players and their worthiness for the Hall of Fame against this background? Pete Rose, who undoubtedly has the statistics to be in, is banned (by the Hall itself) from even being voted on (by the sportswriters who cast the annual ballots) because of his troubles with gambling during and after his on-field career. (Is that worse than Cobb?) Now we have a whole roster of athletes who have created the headlines of the last two decades -- McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, A-Rod, Clemens, Manny, etc. -- all under the dark cloud of substance abuse. Should the entire era be tainted? Should we accept that each period had its anomalies and cheaters and just go by the numbers? Will the writers even get to consider each of these guys, or will some of the names be stricken from the ballot, a la Rose? Does a place like the Hall of Fame have any meaning if Cobb is in, Rose is out and Bonds is on the fence?

Last Saturday two more players had their plaques added to the sacred space of the enshrined. Rickey Henderson, an amazing player and a character himself, was elected in his first go-round. (Players generally must be retired for five years before their name appears on the list that the writers vote on. A player needs to be chosen on 75% of the ballots to get in. After 15 years names are dropped from the list, but there is a Veterans Committee who can induct anyone they please.)

Jim Rice, who played 16 seasons for the Red Sox, was finally given the nod. Retired from the game since 1989, Rice's credentials have been hotly debated since, and he barely made the cut -- 76.4% of the voters selected him in his final year of eligibility. He was a formidable hitter, a good (not great) left fielder and was, by all accounts, not very friendly with the media while a player. His 1978 MVP season is one of the greatest ever put together by anyone.

Rice was dogged a bit by the feeling that his post-season performance was sub-par, but the Sox only made the playoffs twice during his career (1986 and 1988) and in the '86 World Series he batted .333, which is good. I do remember one of my uncles always railing about Rice not producing in the clutch, the rants filled with racial epithets as we sat outside in my aunt's yard grilling every summer Sunday.

Today, Rice is a broadcaster at NESN, though I don't think he's that good. I feel like the same discomfort that kept him from talking to the media a great deal as a player keeps him from feeling completely confident even though he is on the other side of the microphone. He never learned to, or even set out to, master and manipulate the press like Larry Bird did so skillfully. But Rice, I believe, is a very decent guy. His name has never come up in relation to any of the embarrassing episodes (gambling, infidelity, drunkenness, drugs) that pop up every so often in the game, as elsewhere. He's always been involved in a number of charity activities. And then there is the memorable episode when Rice carried an injured boy inside the Sox clubhouse for medical care.

Jonathan Keane was four years old on Aug. 7, 1982, when he was struck in the head by a foul ball that rocketed into the seats along Fenway Park's first base line, next to the home dugout. Immediately he was covered in blood, his skull fractured. Rice had been standing on the top step of the dugout and without hesitation he ran over, picked up the child (see the Boston Herald photo above) and brought him into the Sox clubhouse, where the team doctor met the pair. In minutes the boy was on his way to Children's Hospital. Keane credits Rice with saving his life. He doesn't remember the incident, but he has no lasting effects from it.

Rice didn't do anything superhuman that day. He was overcome by the same feelings that most other people would have felt, but he also didn't hesitate to act. Many who know Rice say that the incident speaks to the man's character -- one that probably puts him head and shoulders above many who were allowed to take their seats in Cooperstown much more easily.


JohnW said...

Great article! Ever think of doing this for a living?


Anonymous said...

Extremely well written Jim. The Jim Rice of his youth was uncomfortable with the media, and that was mistaken for arrogance.He is indeed a very decent guy,devoid of scandal and had borderline stats,but eventually did get in the Hall of Fame. Because of the steroid scandal,It will be interesting how baseball deals with the likes of Clemens,Manny, and others when their time comes to be selected or not.