March 7, 2012
Do We Care About Characters?
It’s spring training. The eyes of baseball open again. It’s a good time to take stock of the game.
Are we happy with it? Happy with the whole game—its character, its color, its quiddity? Is there anything missing? Is there anything overmuch? What is right, and what is wrong with baseball? Has it acquired qualities it used to lack? And has it lost anything it once had?
Perhaps it’s best to approach the question by comparison. About a year and a half ago, I reviewed a book called Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s. Dan Epstein’s book is a serviceable introduction to the jock-itchy, blackout-and-heatwave agita of the baseball of the decade and how that baseball reflected the times. Epstein leaves the reader unsure (appropriately) whether the 1970s—the decade and the baseball—were, in retrospect, good or bad. Some of both, I suppose; every decade is probably like that. We’ll look back on the immediate era after the most recent baseball expansion the same way. There was a lot to love (the thrilling 2001 World Series, Moneyball, Barry Bonds) and a good deal to deplore (the widening small/large-market gap, the Mitchell Report, Barry Bonds).
If we’re using the 1970s as a comparison, how about an example? How about Dock Ellis? Permit me 700 words, in order to draw a sketch.
First, of course, there is this (you already know) emblem of the times: the great Dock Ellis legend, the one in which the permanently agitated and agitating pot-stirrer threw a no-hitter while on LSD. It was the dawn of the decade, June 12, 1970. (That’s Dock’s actual voice in the animated movie, by the way. It’s only 4 ½ minutes long, you should watch it.)
Dock was tripping that day for not entirely deliberate reasons. “High as a Georgia pine,” as he put it, between starts, he somehow managed to sleep through an entire day without realizing it. Mistakenly thinking he still had another day to recover, he did what anyone in June 1970 might reasonably have been expected to do: he dropped another tab. He was then informed by his pal’s girlfriend that in fact he was due to pitch in a few hours. Oops. (In box scores of the time, his name appropriately appeared as “Ellis, D.”)
Dock’s acid-fueled no-no alone is reason enough to want to party with Dock Ellis, but there is more. He was a flashy dresser, so you’d want to be seen out with him. In poet laureate Donald Hall’s book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, Hall and Ellis meet for lunch at Pigall’s, a high-dollar, starched-collar restaurant in Cincinnati. Dock “wore splendid light green trousers, a flowered green shirt, green shoes, and his customary rings and pendants,” Hall writes. “He looked marvelous, pressed and shining, but he did not look like the Proctor & Gamble executives at Pigall’s.”
Denied a table for precisely this sartorial reason, Ellis goes back to his hotel to change into something more conservative: a dark blue suit and “a necktie—just acquired in the hotel lobby—which displayed, against a navy background, tiny American flags.” Once seated, Hall relates, Dock “dove into poached trout, with Pouilly-Fuissé, moaning with the excellence of the cuisine.”
Now that’s a guy who knows how to do the do. The Pouilly-Fuissé touch is especially nice—apparently it was Pittsburgh teammate Willie Stargell who turned Ellis on to that particular white burgundy, “his favorite,” which we see Dock drinking multiple times in Hall’s book.
Much later, Dock goes to Pigall’s again. Hall asks him what he ate, how it was. “I had the lamb,” Dock tells him. “It was out of sight. I ate the bones.”
Yes, perfect. The 1970s: extravagant and savage. The dude meets the gourmand meets the caveman. I ate the bones.
Also, Dock wore curlers. In public.
But really, here is why you’d want to party with Dock Ellis: Dock Ellis took every situation and electrified it, made it dangerous—and all partying should have an element of danger. On the day he threw his LSD no-hitter, his line was 9 0 0 0 8 6, plus a hit batsman.
But Dock put up a less famous, though far more extraordinary, line in a game he started on May 1, 1974: 0 0 1 1 1 0. Plus three hit batsmen.
“It was Mayday on May Day,” Hall writes, and, more than the acid game, perhaps the essential pitching performance of the 1970s. According to Ellis’s Wikipedia page, what happened in Pittsburgh that night was in retaliation for a having been maced by a security guard at Riverfront Stadium two years earlier—he electrified every situation—but Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball has a different story to tell. Apparently, Dock had been talking about hitting the Reds in Spring Training of 1974. He had decided that Pittsburgh had gone soft around its primary rival of the time.
“Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us,” Dock said. “They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog. Whenever we play that team, everybody socializes with them.” No socializing, only partying.
Dock’s solution sounds at first like a party: “We gonna get down. We gonna do the do.”
And then it does not sound like a party: “I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.”
And so Dock Ellis dotted, in sequence, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. He tried to hit Tony Perez, too, but Perez kept prancing out of the way of Ellis’s beanballs and drew a run-scoring walk. Ellis then threw two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head, but Bench ducked them, and Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh came out to the mound and took Ellis out of the game.
The 1970s, in retrospect, pose unique problems for the baseball fan. Gone from the game is the sort of public vituperation and hostility that seem at one time to have been commonplace: Billy Martin fighting with his players; Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson fighting with each other (the 1970s appear to have been the Age of Brawls); Bill Lee seizing the spotlight in the locker room with the deliberate aim of creating a diversion from his slumping Red Sox team in June 1976. This happened right in the middle of Boston’s divisive busing crisis. Lee cried:
“Boston is a horseshit city, a racist city with horseshit fans and horseshit writers. The fans boo Yaz when he’s playing his heart out, and they boo Fisk who always gives his all. They are all afraid we’re going to lose their precious little pennant! If the writers and fans in this city want to quit on us, fine. Then they’re quitters. But what can you expect?”
If a major-league ballplayer in 2012 said anything remotely like that, he’d never live it down; it would haunt him for the rest of his career and beyond, as Robby Alomar’s notorious spitting on an umpire did for him. Perhaps that is a welcome corrective. We don’t want all of our ballplayers to be unsavory, lawless, violent.
But as baseball’s revenue and player income have ballooned, much as players’ bodies did at the height of PED use, it has grown more cautious, more protective of its money and the secrets money buys. In exchange for financial security, the men in baseball have tacitly agreed to relinquish their freedom of speech. Baseball has always been a game of silences, aversions, quiet grudges, and reticence, but in recent years it has grown so insular as to have lost much of its color. The players lack character, or anyway personae (which is public character). Milton Bradley and Carl Everett and Nyjer Morgan and Barry Zito would have been right at home in 1974. Now they are outliers at best, pariahs at worst.
Perhaps part of this trend toward institutional blandness has to do with specialization. It seems that baseball players back then had their minds on and opinions about more things—desegregation, the reserve clause, wife-swapping, LSD—because they had to do (and thus think about) other things in order to live. Richie Hebner was a gravedigger in the offseason. It is awfully fun to think of him reading the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene from Hamlet during his lunch break.
Ballplayers now just play ball, mostly. There is the odd brainiac (Sam Fuld) and inscrutable weirdo (Manny Ramirez), but as a general rule, if these guys are interested in things other than baseball—not including expensive objects their money can buy, like Manny’s fetish for classic cars—we don’t know about it. It seems that the right that ballplayers most value now is not the right to free speech or civil rights or workers’ rights, or even the right to beat hell out of the other team’s shortstop or your own team’s manager, but the right to privacy.
And with so much money at stake, no one wants to step out of line. When they do, even a little, it takes over the news. The bitchy barbs that flew in 2010 after Alex Rodriguez trotted over Dallas Braden's pitcher's mound while returning to first base following a foul ball were totally laughable—not only because the parties involved were really making a mountain out of a molehill, but because, had this happened in 1973, Braden would have socked Rodriguez, Rodriguez would have spiked him, the benches would have cleared, and the do, as Dock might have put it, would have been done.
Here is a little anecdote that often springs to mind when I’m thinking about how prissy and careful ballplayers have grown: I used to know a pretty famous movie actor who had trained as a boxer for a while in preparation for a screen role. He really loved learning to fight (he trained with the great Teddy Atlas), but he stopped short of ever actually sparring. That may have been because he was afraid of getting hurt, but his stated reason for staying out of the ring was a surprise: he was worried he’d get his nose broken, marring his looks and, with them, potentially, his career (and all that money).
Baseball nowadays is probably a higher-quality game than it was in the 1970s, because the players do nothing but play. They do not dig graves. They do not, as Ken Holtzman once did, serve in the National Guard during the season (he pitched on weekends). They are in great shape, most of them, because they can afford to be. A team of current All-Stars might very well sweep a team of 1970s All-Stars.
Is that enough, then? Do you prefer what we have now—better baseball, blander baseballers—or would you rather return to the ragged, wild days of Dock Ellis and Reggie Jackson, Curt Flood and “Sparky Lyle and all of them sitting on cakes without clothes on,” as one Bronx Zoo clubhouse attendant recalled?
Jim Bouton wrote his succès de scandale, Ball Four, in the 1970s. Dirk Hayhurst, in the 2000s, has gotten away with his books only because they take place mostly in the minor leagues. No contemporary big-leaguer would ever risk The Bullpen Gospels, even though it is actually rather mild. Hayhurst has related how much heat and threat he absorbed from big-league teammates when he reached the majors with Toronto. He’s likely to be out of the game, and thus safe from collegial opprobrium and attack, by the time his major-league confidential comes out.
Have we gained more than we’ve lost? What do we want, in the end, from baseball? Only the pleasures of the game itself? If so, are those enough to maintain the sport as the National Pastime? Or must there be some component of character, of color, to the game? What must it have in order to have a soul? Would we rather, or rather not, think of the men who play the game as humans with thoughts, feelings, animosities, prejudices? Must role-modeling, in our current sports culture, be borderline robotic? That ESPN promo ad (wow, you can really melt some time watching those things on YouTube) with Albert Pujols is funny, and is meant to be, but it has a vaguely uncomfortable subtext. Pujols’ only real identity was yoked to St. Louis, and even that has been terminated.
So what do you think?
Now pass the Pouilly-Fuissé.