Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Culmination

Have you ever been reading something and heard someone say the word you're currently reading? That's happened to me quite a few times, and it's always strange. Throws you for a loop.

Well, I was laying in my hotel bed in Utica, NY on Friday night, reading a book and listening to Ben Harper when that phenomenon hit, although it wasn't a single word -- it was an entire phrase, ringing in my ears at the same time I scanned it with my eyes: "Some things never change."

My father, God bless him, is still an anal-retentive, short-fused sonuvabitch. My other mother (she doesn't like the term 'step mom') is still the sweetest person on Earth.

And Tony Gwynn is still being overshadowed.

All it took was one healthy swipe across the land at the jam-packed Clark Sports Center on Sunday to see it: the overwhelming barrage of Halloween orange-and-black, the Animal-Planet-meets-the-Cartoon-Network phalanx of realistic Orioles and goofy animated Orioles, the saturation of "8"s that would make any NASCAR race envious. Maybe the tables would be turned if the Hall of Fame was in, say, Phoenix or San Francisco. But it rests comfortably in the idyllic rolling green fields of Cooperstown in upstate New York, a relatively short drive from Baltimore, where they have many heroes to cheer. San Diego has but one.

Sure, I'm biased. I've taken my online persona from the man. Tattooed his uniform number in roman numerals on my forearm and made some combination of my nickname, his name and his number just about every log-in and password I have (don't worry, I'm broke). Aside from a few paintings an old college roommate gave me, my walls are bare save a plaque with his rookie card (Fleer) above which hangs his autograph, which rests just under the 1998 Tony Gwynn Starting Lineup figurine purchased on eBay for half of what it cost to ship it.

Why? What compels a tall, lanky white kid from Denver to be so obsessed with a short, stocky black man from San Diego? It has to be something more than the way he'd slap an 0-2 curveball through the 5.5 hole on the left side for yet another single, right? Right?

I got my answer on Sunday. We didn't get a chance to put our stuff down on the lawn on Friday or Saturday, so we arrived at about 8:30 am. The whole front area was full. We found a place straight back from the stage, about halfway up the hill.

They announced that, because of impending rain, they were changing the order. Gwynn would go first, followed by Cal Ripken Jr., then a short tribute to Bobby Doerr, followed by The Ford C. Frick Award to Denny Matthews and the J.G. Taylor Spink Award to Rick Hummel. (Which ended up being a damn shame, because more than half the people left after Ripken's speech. I somehow convinced my father to stay. It didn't rain a single drop.)

Bud Selig got announced and was resoundingly booed. This made me smile. Then Gwynn came up. I ran down the hill and got as close I could to the giant huddled mass in front of me. I took some pictures, then took a knee, Little League-style, with both elbows on the up knee and the arms going in different directions. The wet, muddy grass digging into my kneecaps made up for the fact that I was in baseball prayer mode next to a garbage can.

His speech may not have been the most memorable ever (although some sources report he said "passion for the game" 114 times, I only counted 37), but it was deeply honest. The man knows hitting; that's exactly what he talked about.

Now It's 1:40 am early Tuesday and I'm fire-engine red all over. On the drive to the Hall of Fame Monday morning, I needled my father about running a red light. He pointedly told me to "shut the fuck up" and then, just in case I had the same horrid hearing as he did, repeated it with the adage that he didn't want to go out of his way in the first place. He just wanted to get me back home and get the hell out of New York before rush hour.

We got to the Hall as it opened at 9 am and there was already a beastly line. My admission is free for life because I donated a ticket stub that I found in a book of the July 4th 1983 Dave Righetti no-hitter, so I rolled in and was immediately told that it would be an hour or an hour and a half to see the plaques. I tried to sneak up and maybe get a shot over everybody, but they thought of that. The plaques were hidden behind a wall. I got a t-shirt at the gift shop and bounced. My father probably wasn't too happy to hear that I didn't do the thing that I specifically made him go out of his way so I could do, but it didn't matter: I was shutting the fuck up all the way back.

These things happen on vacations, though. It's not what I'll remember. I'll remember drinking with my father at the Italian restaurant across from the motel and him telling me about "Trygve," the black kid in college that got him into smoking dope (and the previous revelation that my father's had a small bag of weed in his drawer for "fourteen years"). And I'll remember playing catch with him in the damp grass behind the Hess station and outside the Motel 6.

I'll remember staying up until two in the morning on Friday to finish Tim Kurkjian's book, "Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod's Heart to Zim's Head - My 25 Years in Baseball" so that I'd be prepared when he signed it. When he finally did on Saturday morning, I asked him to sign the manuscript I just finished, "Is This A Great Wait, or What?: My 25 Hours In Line to Meet Tim Kurkjian." I'll remember him putting his head down and laughing. I'll remember telling him that, way back when, I was supposed to be the next Steve Rushin. I'll remember him telling me that I'll never be as good as Steve Rushin. I'll remember pointing out that he rarely uses semicolons; I'll remember that I said I noticed because I use them too much. And I'll also, until the end of my days, remember asking him if Harold Reynolds' firing was justified. (I don't want to get him in trouble with the Bristol Sith Lords, but let me just say I don't think he thought it was.)

I'll remember being witness to the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled in one place: 55 Hall of Famers plus the two new ones. I'll remember that, aside from the former Orioles, Willie Mays got the biggest standing ovation (which would've been dwarfed by Hank Aaron, had he been there). I'll remember saying their nicknames to my father as they were introduced: Rapid Robert. The Kid. Tom Terrific. The Baby Bull. Mr. October. The Chairman of the Board.

But most of all I'll remember the standing ovation given to my favorite player after his induction speech into the Hall of Fame. And I'll remember that, when it ended, it officially closed the book on my childhood. Because when you're older and grown up with bills and 401ks and company softball games you don't have the "favorite player" as it exists for its purpose. The posters, or the Fatheads, or the t-shirts exist to draw the youth into the game, entice them, and keep them there. I'll remember seeing the thousands of kids running around that day with Gwynn or Ripken jerseys on and thinking to myself, "they never saw them play in person."

It's not a shame, or anything sad, really. Great players come, and great players go. But the man who drew me to my team -- who made me a fan -- validated my efforts, and my time, by being so dedicated, so spectacular, so amazing, that he ended up as only one percent of all who've ever played the game to earn a bronze plaque in the Hallowed Hall. So in the coming days, months, and years I'll check the scores to see if my favorite team won its game. And the rock-solid testament to Tony's excellence will still be there, hanging, for any and all to see.

Luckily, some things never change.


Business or Leisure? said...

This is the best post this sports has seen yet. Maybe, just maybe, this is the apex, man. Damn fine work.

Business or Leisure? said...

*sports BLOG. See what I mean? When are you kicking me off of this project, again?

M&S Franco said...

Awesome post, man. Great job. We're going to see the Padres on Sunday, with my mom and dad, who will be in town visiting. Isabel's second MLB game; both at Petco. Aren't you proud?