BBRT is pleased to bring you a guest post from veteran journalist/sportswriter Larry LaRue, author of the entertaining book Major League Encounters, a compilation of 100 vignettes over 255 pages that gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at what drives the men – and boys – who earn the rare opportunity to play our national past time at its highest level. (See BBRT’s review, posted August 30, for more detail. Major League Encounters is available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. BBRT thanks LaRue for his contribution – especially the very appropriate tale (since this is a post for BBRT’s Why I Love Baseball section) on how he witnessed the no-hitter on which the Kevin Costner’s film “For the Love of the Game” is based.
Why I Love Baseball
By Larry LaRue
I’ve loved the game my entire life and 33 years ago was given the opportunity to cover it professionally. What I learned from and about the men who play, manage and coach the game only deepened my affection for baseball. All of us who played the game learned somewhere along the line how difficult it was to be as good as the best on our teams. It was no different in the majors.
In the spring of 1988, Ken Griffey Jr. was in camp with the Seattle Mariners and his natural ability was astonishing. He was having a great spring until he faced Oakland’s Dave Stewart, and Stewart made him look foolish at the plate. After a second strike out, Griffey went to hitting coach Gene Clines.
“What is that pitch?” he asked.
“That’s a split-fingered fastball,” Clines said.
“Why does he keep throwing it in the dirt?”
“Because you keep swinging at it.”
Griffey considered that, took it to heart. He committed the pitch to memory, swore he would make Stewart throw it for a strike. When the regular season opened, rookie Griffey faced veteran Stewart in the Kingdome for the Mariners home opener. Stewart got ahead in the count, threw Junior a splittie. Griffey hit it off the left field fence for a double.
For many of the 33 years I covered the game, I was in the press box of one ball park or another most nights all season. It was impossible not to see the physical toll a 162-game season took on the men who played it. By the All-Star break, every pitcher was at less than 100 per cent. So were most hitters. There are strains, aches and minor injuries that are largely ignored day after day after day.
The game isn’t played by supermen. Those who succeed, however, do so because – like all of us growing up playing once or twice a week – they love to be on a diamond.
Being around players meant appreciating their devotion to a game, and understanding it was for the most selfish of reasons. They could not imagine enjoying any thing in life more than playing baseball well.
Cal Ripken Jr. considered his consecutive games streak little more than a man showing up for work every day. He did it because he loved the game, yes, but he also did it because he felt an obligation to teammates and the franchise. He’d signed on to play baseball. Unless there was someone on the team better than he was at what he did, the team was at its best when he played.
The more I learned about the game – and I often learned it from old-school managers like Gene Mauch and Dick Williams, who didn’t mind pointing out what I didn’t know – the better it got.
Seeing a pitcher set up a hitter in the first inning for what he might need to do late in the game, knowing what hitters looked for in certain counts … the complexity of the game was fascinating.
More than anything, though, knowing the men who played the game made watching it all the more gripping.
On May 14, 1996, I watched Dwight Gooden throw a no-hitter for a New York Yankees team he’d barely made. Starting because someone else couldn’t, he was a shell of the pitcher he’d been when he burst upon the game.
That night, however, Gooden pitched on heart and grit and the desire players never lose no matter what their ability. By the seventh inning, he had nothing left but a curveball. By the eighth inning, he’d thrown 110 pitches. In the ninth, he passed 120 pitches, then 130. On the 135th pitch of the game, Gooden completed a no-hitter. Kevin Costner’s film, ‘For Love of the Game,’ was based on Gooden’s performance.
For Gooden that night, the game was about redemption.
Baseball has never been only about athletic ability. The drama each season provides goes beyond wins and losses and gives those who follow it comedy and melodrama, delight and torment.
The best players fail, not just at the plate or in the field, but occasionally in life. Unknowns fill in and become stars. Bodies break down, teams that are great in May flounder in July. The game is never scripted and as a writer, I couldn’t have created more moving stories.
I watched Nolan Ryan throw his last big-league pitch, a ball with nothing on it, and walk off the mound and the field for the final time as a pitcher. He’d thrown a million fastballs by then, set records and left his mark, but Ryan knew his right arm. What hurt that night was, he knew, the end.
“I’ve thrown my last pitch,” he said afterward, without tears.
I consider myself fortunate to have known men like Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Bret Boone, Griffey, Fred Lynn, Ripken, Bruce Kison, Jay Buhner … and countless others who gave me their time, shared their stories.
Professionally, I’ve now covered my last baseball game. I’ve been shifted back to news, where my career began, as a columnist.
Yes, I love the game of baseball, and the young players like Mike Trout, Kyle Seager, Chris Sales. I will miss covering the sport and the men who keep it alive. Players like Ryan and Ripken, however, showed how to walk away with dignity that reflected well on them and their game. No tears here.
I still love the game.