If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may know that I really like Joe Posnanski. Joe is an award winning sports columnist for The Kansas City Star, the author of an acclaimed baseball book and recently an outstanding blogger. I don’t know where he finds the time to write books, columns, have a family AND blog but I’m glad he does because something he posted today took me back to when I was a kid and to a story I’ve never told here.
Today, Joe posted about how his favorite pitcher is Greg Maddux, That will get no argument from me, it has been a privilege as a baseball fan to watch Greg Maddux for the last 20 years. He’s not saying Maddux is the best (although a case can be made for it), just his favorite. OK, fine. Here’s what struck me as odd though: If my math is correct, when Maddux was in his prime Joe Posnanski was in his mid 20’s and early 30’s. It’s unusual, to me at least, to have the reverence that Posnanski has for Maddux considering the fact that he was already an adult when he saw him pitch. Of course I could just be jaded by my own experience. Allow me to explain myself.
(More after the jump)
My father’s favorite pitcher was and is Tom Seaver, one of the all time greats. Why is Seaver my dad’s favorite? It’s simple, Seaver pitched for the Mets, my dad’s favorite team (and mine) starting when my father was 12 years old. My father grew up with Tom Seaver, and while I saw Seaver pitch I never REALLY saw Tom Seaver pitch.
Twelve years old is a good age for finding a favorite pitcher. I found mine a little earlier though, at 10. In 1984 Dwight Gooden was 19 years old and was the best pitcher the Mets had since Tom Seaver. Back then I lived and died with the Mets and I saw every pitch Gooden threw, and again in 1985 when he had 24 wins, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 ERA. One of the most dominating single seasons ever. In the middle of that same year I played my one and only season of Little League baseball. I was never a kid who liked joining things so while I loved baseball I didn’t want to be on a team. I preferred one on one Wiffle ball in the driveway, mostly because we could play until we felt like stopping (or when it got dark), no rules, no supervision. In 1985 one of the town teams was short a player so I was recruited . On my first day of practice I was given an orange jersey with my town’s name written across the front and a number on the back. By fate or pure luck I was given the number 16, which was Dwight Gooden’s number. Needless to say I was thrilled.
I’d like to tell you that I played well that season but I didn’t. I was undersized and unfamiliar with organized play. I managed to scratch out a few singles, walk a lot and get hit by pitches enough to score some runs. I was a decent outfielder but I knew at 11 that I was not going to make it outside of my driveway…but I loved that jersey. No matter what happened on the field I felt like a million bucks wearing number 16. When Gooden pitched I’d put it on at home and mimic that high keg kick and over the top delivery. It was a good time for heroes, but all would not stay well.
When the Little League season was over I was told I had to give the jersey back, I hadn’t planned on this. Not having played organized baseball before I assumed it was mine to keep but I was wrong. I didn’t want to give up my number 16 so when we had the end of season barbecue I told the coach I lost my jersey. I went home with a participation trophy and a bill for the lost uniform. My mother knew I didn’t lose the jersey so if I wanted to keep it I’d have to pay for it without anyone knowing. For all my mother knew we kept the jerseys but where was I supposed to come up with 25 bucks? In 11 year old money that’s like $500 but I was far too attached to that number 16 to give it up.
Just like the Little League part I’d like to give you a happy story about how I raised the money washing cars or doing chores but I didn’t. I had 15 bucks left over from my birthday which had just passed and I swiped $10 from my grandma’s purse. I was a dick when I was a kid. I rode my bike to the coache’s house to pay for my “lost” uniform. He asked if I’d play next year and I said sure even though I knew it was a lie.
For the rest of the 1985 season I wore the uniform at home whenever Gooden pitched and again in 1986 when the Mets won the World Series. Despite a decline in Gooden’s numbers I didn’t suspect anything was wrong. In 1987 he admitted to using coccaine and my 12 year old baseball loving heart was broken but I wanted to believe he’d be back…and you know what? Despite what your memory may tell you, he was still pretty good. People tend to forget that Gooden he won 15 games in 1987 and 18 in 1988, but it was never really the same. Sure I’d still pull out that number 16 from time to time, but by the time he gave up that crushing home run to Mike Scioscia in the 1988 playoffs the mystique was gone. When my family moved in 1989 I threw my number 16 jersey out.
(Here’s a Joe Posnanski style aside: Gooden actually won 19 games in 1990 but his strikeouts were way down and his ERA was way up. I forgot this until I looked it up while writing this post.)
From 1991 on the former Dr. K was a ghost of his old self and while I wanted to believe, I just never could again. When he was suspended for 60 days in 1994 (when he was still only 29!) and then for all of the 1995 season I finally gave up on him, just like almost everyone else. Yeah he came back with the Yankees, threw a no hitter etc… but I never stopped feeling let down. I know that athletes don’t owe me anything but I felt betrayed on behalf of the 11 year old kid I used to be. I suppose that I wouldn’t have cared so much if I was older in 1985.
You know what really sucks about this? I never loved another player like that again. Maybe it’s because I grew older and more jaded after Gooden but I never really allowed myself to get attached to someone I didn’t really know. I guess it’s safer that way but I feel like a guy who’s afraid to commit. That’s why Joe Posnanski’s admiration for Greg Maddux seems so strange and yet so refreshing at the same time. I can’t imagine trusting anyone after the age of 12 and Joe can form that special bond that is part love story part admiration and part awe into his 30’s and beyond. I guess that’s why I like his work so much. He’s not a cynic and he writes like a man who’s not afraid to be surprised by the world, for better of for worse. Joe Posnanski writes in a way that makes me believe that he’s falling in love with what he does every day and because of that I want to feel the same way. I truly admire and envy that gift.