The Magazine

Rough Diamonds

How baseball was played in the late 20th century.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Of the bitter strike that wiped out the middle third of the 1981 season, Miller says, “Major League ballplayers are the most competitive people I’ve ever met and the owners made the mistake of trying to face them down.” He claims to believe in “basic economics, a balance between demand and supply”—meaning by “balance” (a euphemism presumably uttered with a straight face) a strategy that limits the number of new free agents each year so that scarcity will keep their salaries high. 

The stories of the nonplayers seem more interesting than those of the players, perhaps because what they do is less well known. Who would have guessed that someone floated a plan to have the union represented by a balanced ticket consisting of Miller and the law firm of Richard Nixon? Froemming makes it clear that umpires don’t just call the plays; they control the game. And he exudes confidence in his ability to project the moral authority needed to do that, and his ability to handle himself and others in tense confrontations. Froemming also confirms one’s most painful imaginings about the doggedness needed to umpire in the minor leagues: During the season he could never afford to go home for a visit; he had to drive himself from game to game, including the 800 miles from El Paso to Tulsa; and in 1968, after a decade in the minors, he was making a salary of $3,200. (Umpires now have their own union.)

Dick Williams and Earl Weaver are notoriously prickly and sharp-tongued, just what the reader wants. Williams took three different teams to the World Series but never lasted longer than five years with any of them; he “rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” Weaver, by contrast, spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles. Holder of the American League record for being ejected from ball games, he directed much of his energy to intimidating umpires and opposing players. It’s amusing to try disentangling the mix of spin, bonhomie, and moonshine when he says that “almost every time I got thrown out I deserved it” and “the umpires were so good it’s almost impossible that I could disagree with them that many times.”

Both Weaver and Williams complain that an emphasis on “fundamentals” was a key to their success and is now a thing of the past. That has more in it, I think, than old-guy crankiness. Some nonobjective evidence: In the summer of 1981, recovering from an illness, I would drift in and out of sleep with an Orioles game on the radio and seemed always to awaken as they grabbed a defensive out with a cut‑off play. The cut-off, an opportunistic way to settle for half a loaf, is the most bourgeois play in baseball: It must be set up hundreds of times a season, for the one time in 10 or 20 it can be sprung—and redirect a throw to catch a trailing runner. I might add that Ritter’s players, reflecting on how baseball had changed, regularly said that their game called not for power but, preeminently, for quick wits.

Clearly, none of these men is unintelligent. And none has false modesty, which someone at the top of a difficult profession can hardly afford. Marichal thinks, plausibly, that there must be something wrong with the Cy Young Award since he never won it. Seaver revels in being the center of the action, when there are 50,000 people in the park and he alone knows what pitch is coming next. Ozzie Smith, a dazzling defensive shortstop who made himself into a capable batter, offers this portrait of Cal Ripken, his mirror image: Smart, positions himself well, a great hitter, and “defensively, he’s not going to hurt you.”

The modern players emphasize their pride in how hard they work at their difficult craft. A cynic might call that a ploy, conscious or not, to defuse resentment at their astronomical pay. I think the pride is justified, the dedication admirable, and give the last word to Ripken, one of the most widely admired—one of the most blue-collar—of baseball’s multimillionaires: “First and foremost, I was someone who loved the game of baseball, was absolutely crazy and passionate about the game of baseball.” And of that brief, consuming career lived between the lines, “You know, it’s just a phase of your life.”

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca, New York.



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