Of Natural Grass and Nickel Beer

Another baseball season is underway and Fox in their consistent absurdity is trying to convince viewers that Eric Byrnes is anything more than an insipid jock fueled by Red Bull and a desire to be the next Carrot Top. His contrived schtick, combined with the recent passing of Mark Fidrych, succeeds in only providing a depressing reminder that those authentic characters who used to populate the sport are now just fading memories. Eccentrics like Tug McGraw and Jay Johnstone and Bill “Spaceman” Lee weren’t jockeying for licensing deals or an XM Radio gig, they were just slightly batshit. They had a knack for reminding fans that what they were taking part in was still a “game.”

And as for Byrnes… he still hasn’t touched the plate.

Spike and Hendu

So I get the “how did you become a Red Sox fan” question often, being as I was born in Moscow, Idaho and waged most of my teenage riot in the Spokane Valley. The quick answer is Spike and Hendu. The long answer is as follows:

The Inland Northwest during the late sixties and early seventies was a deep shade of Dodger Blue. The Spokane Indians had been Los Angeles’s AAA farm club since 1958, so naturally every snot-nosed brat’s default team was the Dodgers. Things didn’t change much in 1977 when the expansion Mariners played their inaugural season in Seattle. Even two years later, as the Mariners partnered with Spokane’s minor league team—unceremoniously dropped by the Dodgers in 1971—a following didn’t take hold locally. There was a good degree of pessimism surrounding the future of the Mariners, as it was only ten years earlier that the Pilots carpetbagged their way through a single season in Seattle before moving on to Milwaukee to become the Brewers. Not to mention that for most of the decade Spokane had become a transfer point for a supply chain of minor league “talent” for, first the Rangers, then the aforementioned Brewers.

While my memories are clearly colored by youth and pubescent irrationality, that brief three-year period in which the Indians were the Mariners AAA farm club were seminal. Genuine talent seemed to be coming up through the system. Ballplayers like Jim Maler, Dave Edler and Kim Allen, while rarely making a lasting impression on the other side of the Cascades, were stars at “the Fairgrounds”. Which, naturally, is when Dave Henderson showed up. An outfielder with a distinct swagger and enduring gap-toothed grin, Hendu was badass in that unique, early-eighties way that Miami Vice was badass, or the Sugar Hill Gang, or Tron. Don’t ask me to explain it.

In 1982, Hendu made the big league club and quickly made an impact. Following Henderson’s departure, Spokane was again dumped as a AAA affiliate, but it seemed to matter much less, at least to me. By that time I was finally developing a partiality for the Mariners, in spite of the ownership’s soon-to-be-legendary cheapskate tendencies. On August 19th 1986, in the middle of another last-place season, GM Dick Balderson pulled off the first of what would become routine salary dumps. Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen—only a few months after being named team captain—were traded to the Boston Red Sox for Rey Quinones and cash. It was Henderson’s free agent year and, as would become an annual tradition, the Mariners weren’t going to pay him.

There I was. The leaves were about to change, the evening air carried with it that crisp bite, and I was feeling cheated. Seeing no indications that the Mariners would be anywhere near the postseason within the foreseeable future, I found myself breaking one of the cardinal rules of serious fandom: rooting for the name on the back of the jersey. The American League Championship Series paired the Red Sox against the California Angels. Spike Owen promptly hit .429 and Hendu was responsible for one of the most dramatic moments in ALCS history when he drove a two-out, two-strike split-fingered fastball from Donnie Moore into the Anaheim Stadium left field seats in game 5. This is what it felt like to cheer on a winner. Shit, I was all in. The Angels never recovered from the game 5 loss. They dropped the last two at Fenway and I finally had a rooting interest in a World Series. Of course, it had to be that World Series, the 1986 World Series… the less said about that, the better.

But that really is the crux of the thing. The lurching, bipolar thrill ride of victory and defeat during the fall of 1986 was both a crucible and harbinger of future angst. Granted, I’m far from the first person to reach this conclusion, but back in the pre-2004 (or pre-2007 for that matter) days, there was very little choice in becoming a Red Sox fan. Regardless of how you may have gotten there, once you were in, you’re in for life.

Springtime in Brooklyn

March 19, the baseball season is scratching at the door and I’m visited by that stringent brew of optimism spiked with a stiff dose of unbridled hatred. Hatred for the Yankees, of course. Since moving to NYC ten years ago, my natural dislike of them has ulcerated into an eternal flame of malice. I’m sure it’s not healthy. It’s certainly not sensible, especially in the two-titles-in-four-years reality of Red Sox Nation. But, fuck it, that’s baseball. Try explaining–in cold, clear-eyed terms–Walter O’Malley’s insurmountable development obstacles to someone raised in Flatbush in the fifties. Baseball is about love and rage and heartbreak. There is a certain degree of holistic logic to it all anyway. An emotional attachment to the names on the back of the jerseys and an antagonism to enforced tradition is, after all, how I became a Red Sox fan in the first place. Long story, some other time… maybe when the smell of freshly-cut grass has taken hold.

Put the Hawk in the Hall

Thus begins my campaign to get Andre Nolan Dawson into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. It’s time to ratchet this shit up, especially in light of this month’s Mitchell Report. Dawson was a major leaguer for twenty years, most—if not all—spent battling chronic knee inuries. He was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1977, won eight Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers, played in eight All-Star Games and, along with Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, is the only player to have hit 400 or more home runs and stolen 300 or more bases. In 1987, a free agent and desperate to escape the concrete-like turf of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, he offered to sign a blank contract for Chicago Cubs’ general manager Dallas Green, who promptly filled in the figures for the base minimum. Dawson repaid Green’s big-hearted generosity by hitting 49 home runs and winning the Most Valuable Player award, after finishing second twice before. And what’s most timely, this was accomplished before what now looks to be forever branded as the “steroid era.”

Okay, so he was my favorite player. He even managed to play for my favorite team briefly, if uneventfully. I never claimed objectivity (in the interest of fairness, he was responsible for one of the most inane malapropisms ever uttered). But fuck all that. If it weren’t for that satanic invention called Astroturf, Dawson’s two healthy knees would’ve braced him for the kind of statistical numbers in the eighties that we grew accustomed to seeing in the nineties. He would’ve been the pre-Barry Barry, sans supplements. But that’s alternate-reality shit and Hall voters steadfastly believe in “sticking to the numbers,” or so they claim. I’d like to see the theorem of how Ozzie Smith’s admittedly dazzling fielding acumen can cancel a putrid career at the plate. Then there’s Gary Carter and that shibboleth of the lazy sportswriter: “intangibles.” Being old enough to remember the Expos lineup in which Carter and Dawson both played, I’d proffer that the Hawk and Larry Parrish (later Tim Wallach) instilled more fear in opposing pitchers. And if I have to hear any more “career cut short” bullshit from Kirby Puckett apologists, I will set myself on fire.

Andre Dawson was as fierce a competitor as baseball fans will ever witness and one of the best athletes to play the game “the natural way,” to paraphrase former teammate and current Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Give him a plaque.