BASEBALL: The Game That Helped Make America

In February, New York University president John Sexton invited me to lecture his undergraduate class, “Baseball as a Road to God,” about the role the sport played in helping immigrants from the early 1900’s assimilate. The subject is one near and dear to my heart. My own Sicilian grandmother was an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. As I spoke to the students, I told them my grandmother’s tale as well as the story of how thousands of Pittsburgh immigrants became Pirates fans and eventually Americans.

As part of its Opening Day coverage, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published my column about “Baseball as a Road to God” here.

For more details about the class including an interview with Mr. Sexton and its comprehensive reading list, go here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Dick Allen

Claim to fame: A seven-time All Star, 1972 American League MVP, and two-time home run champion, Allen may rank as one of the best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. He’s certainly one of the best hitters of the 1960s not in Cooperstown, his 351 home runs and .292 batting average more a facet of his relatively short career and the fact he played in a celebrated pitcher’s era. One need only look at Allen’s OPS+ of 156, fourth best of any eligible player not enshrined, to know he was something special at the plate. Stats don’t tell the whole story with Allen, though.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Allen exhausted his time 0n the writers ballot in 1997, one of those players who had a cult of support with roughly the same small percentage of people voting for him each year. For staying on the ballot 14 years, Allen never got more than 20 percent of the vote and received less than 10 percent just four times. He can now be considered by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? My quick take is yes, but I’m admittedly somewhat sentimental in these matters. Push come to shove, I probably wouldn’t have any problem enshrining Allen or other fan favorite players who’ve been long left out of Cooperstown like Ron Santo or Gil Hodges. I don’t believe the museum would be much worse statistically for their presence, and they seem like they’d have plaques parents would want their children to see. Isn’t that the point of the Hall of Fame?

Of course, the arguments against Allen (and Santo and Hodges and so many others) aren’t hard to see, either. Allen was horrific defensively, his defensive WAR of -10.6 knocking his overall WAR down to 61.2. I wonder if his defensive woes in contrast to his offensive prowess were part of the impetus for the designated hitter position, which originated in 1973 and featured a veteran Allen as one of the first. He was also finished at 35 in 1977 and a sub-replacement level player his final three seasons. More than that, he has a controversial image and may have been the Albert Belle of his day, another fine hitter who hasn’t come close to Cooperstown.

Bill James called Allen a clubhouse cancer, writing in one of his books that Allen did “more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.” In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, James called Allen the second-most controversial player in baseball history behind Rogers Hornsby. Teammates and coaches have spoken out in Allen’s defense as a team leader and captain, and even if the allegations they defended were true, Allen wouldn’t be the first jerk in Cooperstown (and probably not the last.)

It’s not always fun to see these kinds of players have their day, but Allen might deserve one.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

So your dad’s a famous baseball player? Good luck with that

In this space Saturday, Joe Guzzardi discussed the troubled life of his former prep school classmate and friend, Joe DiMaggio Jr. The only son of the Yankee legend never came close to his father’s success, bouncing through life, abusing drugs and alcohol, and dying a miserable death in Antioch, California in 1999. One of my friends was homeless in Antioch off and on for a number of years. It’s a bleak place to bottom out, one of the armpits of the San Francisco Bay Area.

DiMaggio Jr. wasn’t unique. Children of baseball Hall of Famers often struggle to compare to their parents, seemingly forever cursed with the expectation their genetics should make greatness easily attainable. It’s not that the kids are failures or bad people or any more mediocre than countless other individuals who get to fall short in obscurity. Children of top ballplayers have tough standards to live up to. If anything, their struggles reinforce the greatness and rarity of their fathers.

“I think there’s a jinx with sons of famous athletes,” Ty Cobb’s son James told sportswriter Ira Berkow in 1969. “None of them ever topped their fathers. Look at Dick Sisler and Big Ed Walsh’s son. They never did make it real big. And I understand Stan Musial’s son was a very good baseball player. But he gave it up.”

Here are a few more famous examples, good and bad:

Mickey Mantle: Mantle built a Hall of Fame career around drinking and carousing and had four sons, all alcoholics. His namesake Mickey Mantle Jr. had a token run in the minor leagues in the 1970s, with one coach remarking in Jane Leavy’s recent Mantle biography, The Last Boy, “He showed skills. Mostly he showed he didn’t play a lot.” Mantle Jr. died of cancer in 2000, five years after his father passed, and today, two of the sons are alive and, at last report, sober.

Ozzie Smith: The son of the St. Louis Cardinals shortstop famous for turning back flips on field must have inherited his father’s showmanship– Nikko Smith took ninth place in the fourth season of American Idol.

Ted Williams: Williams’ only son, John Henry was controversial with his doting care on his father in the final years of his life and wound up in a legal battle with his sister after having Williams frozen following his death in 2002. John Henry himself passed not long after of leukemia in 2004 at 35. It’s worth noting that like Mantle Jr., John Henry also had a brief, unsuccessful baseball career, playing in the minors and independent circuit in 2002 and 2003.

Pete Rose: Like father, like son. Both Roses played in the Reds organization, the younger Rose mostly as a long-tenured minor league player, and both men had legal problems, Rose for tax evasion and his son for dealing steroids to teammates.

Babe Ruth: Ruth and his first wife Helen adopted a daughter, Dorothy in 1921, who was rumored to be the Babe’s biological child with a mistress. Dorothy married twice, raising Arabian horses and three children, and not long before her death in 1989, she came out with a memoir, My Dad, the Babe.

Prognostication Time for Major League Baseball, Part Three

Welcome to part three. It seems likely that a part ad infinitem would be possible with Bud running the show but let’s continue with some more likely scenarios for the 2011 major league baseball season. If you’ve been able to follow thus far, congratulations. As with part two, I am continuing from the point I left of previously.

13.   Chicago Whitesox manager Ozzie Guillen insists that there are too many Latin players and managers in baseball and asks his son to twitter President Obama arguing that Ozzie doesn’t know what he is talking about.  The message arrives censored and therefore blank to a confused CIA operative in the White House who immediately assumes that the twitter has something to do with the movie “The Wizard of Oz”.  Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour is contacted but he is on vacation on the dark side of the moon.  Ozzie later explains that what he really meant to say was that the Cubs will never win and that there are too many Latin players and managers in major league baseball.

14.   The Kansas City Royals continue to stock their farm system with what many scouts have deemed, the best system they have ever seen.  Not wanting to ruin what he has built up over the past few seasons, Royals GM Dayton Moore refuses to promote any of his prospects to the majors, insisting that to do so would disappoint the many thousands of minor league baseball fans throughout the Kansas City organization and down grade their No. 1 ranking with Baseball America.  It would also lessen the chances of high draft picks in the future, potentially weakening a top notch farm system. His trade of Zack Greinke was deemed necessary as Greinke was embarrassing the rest of the less than mediocre Royals pitching staff and his striving to be a major league star simply did not allow him to fit into the Kansas City clubhouse mentality.

15.   The Topps baseball card company are forced to issue a disclaimer concerning the 2011 San Francisco Giants team set.  A staffer at the company mixed up several of the player’s names and statistics with the ZZ Top rock and roll legends card set.  He claimed that with every Giants player now sport a beard and long hair, only manager Bruce Bochy is recognizable. Even then there was some confusion between the clean shaven Bochy and clean shaven ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard. Confusion continued to grow as guitarist Billy Gibbons pitched the ninth inning of a recent home game while San Francisco closer Brian  Wilson sang Sharp Dressed Man instead of the national anthem before the game.

16.   In an act of sympathy for owner Frank McCourt, all Los Angeles Dodger players filed for divorce and gave half ownership of their positions to their wives.  The wives will play innings three, five, seven and nine and will be allowed to wear their husbands’ uniforms and gloves.  Bullpen bbqs are not part of the arrangement and the wives are not obligated to appear on field unless uniforms are spotless and the new flowers on the infield are watered and protected from sliding and/or diving runners and fielders.  There is also to be no spitting or cursing and any wife arguing with an umpire will automatically be deemed winner of said argument. There is still no crying in baseball although manager Don Matingly will be exempt in certain cases.

17.   The Montreal Expos continue their undefeated streak, now stretching from 2006 but because of an odd quirk in the rulebook, have been declared ineligible for post season play each of the past six seasons.  Their Triple A farm club, the Washington Nationals, continue to struggle and Les Expos have yet to promote a single player from the team.  Despite claims by the Toronto Blue Jays, (who have shortened their name to the Rays), Montreal are and always will be Canada’s team.

The Expos also remain undefeated on the tennis courts of old Jarry Parc and are once again accepting bids for a new and functional roof over Stade Olympic.  Team mascot Youppi continues to moonlight as cheerleader for the National Hockey League Montreal Canadians and various heavy metal groups have been assigned the playing of both national anthems before each game.  Metallica front man James Hetfield was heard to complain, “I only know two chords and neither one is in those darn anthems, especially the French chords.”

There you have it – my fearless predictions for the 2011 Major League baseball season.  Not scientific I suppose but sometimes ya gotta go with your gut.

Joe DiMaggio, His Son (My Friend) and Marilyn Monroe

Graham Womack’s review of Jermone Charyn’s new book Joe DiMaggio:The Long Vigil reminded me of a friendship I had with DiMaggio’s only child, his son Joe, Jr.

During the 1960s, young Joe and I were classmates at a New Jersey all-boys preparatory school. Interestingly, DiMaggio never talked about his father. Not until long after we graduated did I learn that Joe and his father had a stained and often hostile relationship.

After DiMaggio divorced his first wife Dorothy Arnold, Joe  (called Joey D. by his family) was sent to several military academies, summer camps and the prep school where I met him. Joe, the mirror image physically of his father, neither spoke of DiMaggio nor touched a baseball bat. Instead, Joe played varsity football. An outstanding athlete, Joe made the All New Jersey team as a center and kicker. But even though Di Maggio lived in nearby Manhattan, he never came to his son’s games or to visit on Parent’s Day.

At the time, none of Joe’s friends fully realized the wisdom of his decision not to play baseball. What chance would he have had of even coming close to his father’s extraordinary success?

Joe entered Yale University but at that point his life, already troubled, unraveled. After a year at Yale, Joe dropped out, returned to his native California, worked menial jobs and then entered the United States Marines. After completing his Marines’ commitment, Joe married a 17-year-old San Diego girl. Their union lasted only a year.

More odd jobs followed before Joe moved to Boston to work for his Uncle Dom. Joe met and married Sue Adams, a divorcee with two daughters. This led to Joe’s happiest days with his father who doted on his stepdaughters.

But Joe felt that he could never totally please his father. Gradually, he fell into drug and alcohol abuse which caused vicious battles with Adams that left her battered and bloody. In 1974, they divorced.

Two years later, Joe was in a serious automobile accident that resulted in the removal of a portion of his brain. The surgery left Joe more emotionally unstable and drug dependent than ever. 

Knowing the short and long-term effects of substance abuse will help you understand better the trouble that a drug addicted friend or loved one is in for without addiction treatment.

Although Joe didn’t visit his father during DiMaggio’s final days battling cancer, he was a pall bearer at the funeral.

Five months after DiMaggio’s death, Joe entered the bleakest, final days of his life. His drug usage escalated, he had periods of homelessness, worked at a junkyard, and had minor scrapes with the police. At age 57, Joe was living in a trailer. On August 6, 1999, Antioch police found Joe’s nearly lifeless body on the street. Despite resuscitation efforts, Joe died shortly after arrival at the Sutter Delta Medical Center. His ashes were scattered at sea.

DiMaggio’s ex-wife Sue summed up Joe’s tortured life: “They threw the man away.”

Joe’s happiest days may have been those that he spent with Marilyn Monroe. One early fall day, just as we all had returned from our summer vacations, Joe told of his stepmother Marilyn making his breakfast and serving it to him.

Usually, when teenagers recount their vacation adventures, gross exaggeration is the rule. But we knew Joe’s story about Monroe was true. How envious we were!

By most accounts, Joe was among the last people to speak to Monroe before she died.

Joe’s few brief and carefree days with Monroe hardly compensate for the decades that DiMaggio ignored him. Even in death, DiMaggio dismissed Joe by leaving him a token sum in his will, the smallest amount of any of his heirs.

Opinions differ about DiMaggio’s character. But what’s clear is that DiMaggio was, at best, an indifferent parent. In the early 1980s, when I lived in Seattle, I got into an elevator at the Washington Athletic Club. DiMaggio was the only other passenger. I extended my hand, introduced myself and told him that I was Joe’s classmate. DiMaggio didn’t utter a word.

DiMaggio was so cold and insensitive to Joe’s filial needs that he denied his son what could have been a productive life and instead helped put him in his early grave.

Any player/Any era: Wally Bunker

What he did: Here’s a name I didn’t know. I began research for this post with an idea: Find a hurler buried on a great team in the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, with the idea that even a good pitcher might be out of options on a team like the Tigers, Cardinals, or Dodgers but might thrive transported to a different era. That led me to Wally Bunker, who was effective when the Baltimore Orioles let him pitch in 1968, going 2-0 with a 2.41 ERA and a 1.028 WHIP, though he was essentially a non-factor and was closer to the end of his career than the beginning. This for someone who was all of 23 in 1968.

Bunker debuted in September 1963 as an 18-year-old just done with his first year in the minors. Known for a sharp sinker, he led the Orioles with 19 wins in 1964 but hurt himself in a late-season game, telling the Baltimore Sun in 2009, “I thought somebody had shot me in the shoulder with a .22 rifle. That was the beginning of the end.” He topped 200 innings just once more and was older than his years by 1968. Baltimore won 91 games, carried a 2.49 ERA, and offered little hope for Bunker. He went to the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft for 1969 and had one more good year before retiring in 1971 at 26.

Bunker didn’t need an expansion draft. He needed an entirely different time than the one he played in– an era where he could be more ably handled as a young pitcher, afforded better medical care, and allowed to stay in the minors longer. There’s no time like the present, or even close to it, for this kind of thing.

Era he might have thrived in: As with Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax, we’re making Bunker an Atlanta Brave in the early 1990s, where with fellow young hurlers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz he might forge a Hall of Fame career.

Why: Maddux came to Atlanta as a free agent coming off a Cy Young year, though Glavine and Smoltz were very much products of their environments. Say what you will about Glavine having the talent to play hockey or Smoltz being a high-enough regarded prospect to be dealt by the Tigers for veteran Doyle Alexander straight up in 1987, but both Glavine and Smoltz and even Maddux became more successful pitchers as Braves. They likely owe much to what they learned in Atlanta, and one has to wonder if their cases for Cooperstown would be so strong had they played for lesser clubs– or in Bunker’s time.

The 1960s might have produced some awesome pitching numbers, but it was a terrible time to be a pitcher, particularly a young one, when heavy workloads, a longer season, and less-evolved medical care wrecked guys before their time. Koufax is a famous example, Denny McLain less so, and I doubt Bunker is remembered by too many modern fans. There are almost certainly others lost to baseball obscurity. I’m guessing it was a brutally competitive time for pitchers, too, when there was always the knowledge an ERA above 3.00 could mean a pink slip.

Bunker could breathe a little easier in Atlanta, and he’d also probably thrive in its farm system, which has produced more good if not great hurlers including Jason Schmidt, Jason Marquis, and Kevin Millwood. Bunker would have the chance to be something more than a name I only learned in writing this post.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

Contemplating a Time Out from Baseball

I’m close to walking away from baseball. I’ve done it before and came away none the worse for wear. During the various work stoppages twenty years ago, the 1985 cocaine scandal and the more recent steroid ugliness, I turned my back on baseball completely. I didn’t miss it much. If I’m given the choice between spending three hours watching my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates play the Houston Astros or rereading The Glory of Their Times, I’ll take the book ten times out of ten.

Not that I would completely abandon baseball. Since it deals a lot with Pirates’ history, I’d keep my summer job as a PNC Park tour guide. And I’d continue to take in the local high school game, a surprisingly satisfying substitute for major league baseball. Then, there’s also the College World Series that I always watch where the players actually know how to successfully put down a bunt and throw to the cutoff man. Maybe I’ll coach my neighborhood Little League team.

What’s pushed me to the brink is ESPN’s March 14th Monday night game featuring the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees. Judging from the three weekly games that ESPN broadcast last year, I’ve concluded that the network is unaware that 28 other teams, including the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, play baseball, too.

Announcers Bobby Valentine, Sean McDonough, Buster Olney and Orel Hershiser talked almost exclusively about players’ multimillion dollar contracts and how many millions, this one, that one and the other one earn.

How many tens of millions, the broadcasters wondered, will it take to sign Adrian Gonzales to a long term deal? Will the $142 million the Red Sox paid to Carl Crawford put Boston on top of the American League? By how many more millions will Albert Pujols’ new contract exceed the quarter of a billion dollar deal Alex Rodriguez has in his pocket? When Felix Hernandez becomes a free agent, how many hundreds of millions will the Yankees have to shell out to convince him to leave Seattle? Can Derek Jeter find happiness is his 30,000 square foot Florida mansion?

If I were an ESPN producer I’d advise Valentine, et al to cool it with that line of chatter. Not to bum you out but America has 20 million unemployed workers and 50 million without health insurance. I’m sure the baseball fans among them don’t find a rehashing of players’ inflated salaries entertaining.

The story ESPN should tell is how much money the owners squander on totally unproductive players and how their poor judgment drives up your cost to see a game. Why should you or I subsidize the owners’ failures and stupidity by buying tickets?

Cases in point: the New York Mets and its washed up duo, Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. The Mets will pay Castillo $6 million to buy out the final year of his bloated $24 million deal. And Perez, also released, will set the Mets back $12 million for his final year—$36 million in total since they signed him in 2009 in exchange for the three games he won. Castillo and Perez represent $60 million down the drain. Think about it—$60 million to which a match might as well have been set.

When I go to a major league game, at significant personal expense, I’m sanctioning the owners’ madness and at the same time encouraging more of it. For zero dollars, I can check out The Glory of Their Times from the library, take it with me to the high school game and save the aggravation of watching overpaid, under-skilled, ungrateful players one of whom spent his off-season in a Super Bowl luxury box being hand fed popcorn by bleach-blond Hollywood starlet.

To think—once ballplayers worked in the offseason just like you and me.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Allie Reynolds

Claim to fame: Reynolds won 180 games and made five All Star teams in his 13-year career and helped pitch the New York Yankees to six World Series titles between 1947 and 1953. He’s one of the most prominent, eligible Yankees not in the Hall of Fame, and that might be enough for the Veterans Committee, which has a history of making questionable picks of former Bronx Bombers from Tony Lazzeri to Phil Rizzuto to Joe Gordon.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Reynolds made 13 appearances on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for Cooperstown between 1956 and 1974, peaking at 33.6 percent of the vote in 1968. He can now be enshrined by the Golden Age sub-portion of the Veterans Committee which considers players who made their greatest contribution between 1947 and 1972.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? For lifetime stats, Reynolds doesn’t come anywhere close to Cooperstown. He made the majors at 25 and even playing through World War II, his career was relatively short. His 180 wins and 29.0 WAR would place him near the bottom of enshrined pitchers, and there are plenty of hurlers with better numbers who haven’t been honored from Tommy John to Rick Reuschel to Luis Tiant and many others.

But that might not matter for the Veterans Committee. If Reynolds had played his entire career where he started, Cleveland, he might have no more of a chance of getting into Cooperstown than Mel Harder, but his image is forever married to his time in pinstripes. And the Hall of Fame isn’t just about stats, it’s about honoring baseball’s lore. Reynolds was a vital member of a storied franchise during one of its best runs, and while I’m not arguing this is enough to merit him a plaque (because it shouldn’t be), I wouldn’t be surprised if he is enshrined sometime in the next ten or 20 years.

Reynolds looks like a logical next Yankee for the Veterans Committee, depending on one’s view of John, Tommy Henrich, or Thurman Munson, among a handful of others. The Veterans Committee hasn’t enshrined anyone since reforming a few years ago, but traditionally has had a slow uptake on tabbing players. Lazzeri was selected in 1991, 52 years after his last game; Gordon went in 59 years after retirement, Rizzuto 38. Having last played in 1954, Reynolds is about at the same point.

Of course, if Reynolds is enshrined, a lot of writers and baseball researchers will bemoan the Hall of Fame once more for disregarding statistical merit. I doubt Cooperstown will care.

All of this is not to knock Reynolds, who accomplished much in his time in the majors. A few months back, in preparing to write one of these columns about John Smoltz, I emailed one of the regulars here. He replied:

How about comparing him to Allie Reynolds, who in a shorter career and more modest numbers was a precursor? Only he was used as both a starter and reliever in some of the same seasons, which might lead you to look into how Casey handled his pitching staffs. Everything you said about Smoltz had been said about Reynolds.

That has to be good for something.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

BPP Book Club: Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil by Jerome Charyn

I was three years old the first time I got a pack of baseball cards, four when I went to my first game, five when I started Little League. I began to read about baseball history a few years later, and for most of my childhood, I idealized the game. I read its stories, saw my favorite players as icons and was mostly unaware of their flaws. I connect a lot of the innocence of my youth to how I felt about baseball, how it played into my relationships with friends and family, how those memories still make me feel today. It’s one reason I love the game.

I still love baseball, though somewhere between the 1994 strike, the subsequent steroid scandal, and my own coming of age, I began to see ballplayers and people in general as human. Today, I know that some of my favorite players from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Pete Rose all had their flaws as human beings. And that’s fine. Personally, I find these types of players easier to relate to.

I mention this all because a book debuted on March 8, Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil by Jerome Charyn. It’s only the latest work on the Hall of Famer (and not even the only one that came out on March 8, given Kostya Kennedy’s book on DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak) though Charyn takes a new tact, seeking to repair the tattered image of his hero.

Ostensibly, Charyn’s book is a response to Richard Ben Cramer’s 2000 biography, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life which was controversial in its portrayal of DiMaggio as a cold, calculating loner. Cramer wasn’t the first writer to offer a less-than flattering look back at a player who was lionized if not deified by the press during his career. Gay Talese broke rank with his landmark 1966 feature in Esquire magazine, capturing DiMaggio alone in San Francisco, mourning the death four years prior of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, and telling a well-wisher and fan, “I’m not great. I’m just a man trying to get along.”

Then there’s David Halberstam’s classic 1989 book on the 1949 American League pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox, Summer of ’49. Halberstam wrote in an author’s note of being rebuffed by DiMaggio for an interview, saying the only time he reached him on the phone, he “spoke to a very wary former center fielder.” Halberstam continued, “He said he would see me, and thereupon avoided all further entreaties. So be it; if there is a right under the First Amendment to do books such as this, there is also a right not to be interviewed. I’m sorry he didn’t see me; he still remains the most graceful athlete I saw in those impressionable years.”

Like Halberstam, Charyn portrays DiMaggio as a uniquely gifted player, though he does so with more poetic license. I’m not sure if all the literary devices work. The phrase idiot savant is used multiple times to describe DiMaggio the player, as if describing some Rain Main in pinstripes. Charyn also repeatedly refers to DiMaggio as Jolter, only clarifying on his final page that the nickname comes from a poem by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, An Ode to the Jolter. It got a little grating. Still, Charyn writes gracefully enough to forgive the occasional awkward metaphor, and at 146 pages, the book can be read in a sitting. I found myself drawn in early on.

The book’s title refers to DiMaggio’s long period of mourning after Monroe’s death. Charyn writes of DiMaggio, who had roses sent to Monroe’s grave three times a week for 20 years, as the one person close to Monroe who never tried to use her. He also said DiMaggio was deeply impacted by her death, writing:

Did the Jolter really survive Marilyn Monroe? He lived another thirty-seven years with the trappings of success…. [but] the Big Guy was unconscious half the time, going through the motions without the least spark of fire. It’s no accident that Richard Ben Cramer in his biography of the Jolter skips over the years from 1963 to 1998 with the knowledge that nothing internal happened to the man; the mark of these years on him was as minimal as the diary he would keep, whether he visited the White House or was waiting in an airport lounge. It would get even worse as he went from memorabilia show to memorabilia show that was a peculiar kind of hell; he was a performer in his own living death and never even knew it. He’d been mourning Marilyn all along, in spite of his little flings and fixations on former Miss Americas. He missed Marilyn beyond reason. He couldn’t repair himself.

It’s a bold take, and I’m not sure I go for it. I don’t know if I see DiMaggio as a victim or a tragic figure, but I also don’t fault him for being something short of the image people expected of him or even one he cultivated for himself. Jim Bouton wrote in a follow-up to Ball Four, “Why can’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time and cries into his glass that he will soon be dead, like his father and his uncle? Why do our heroes have to be so perfect and unflawed?”

They don’t.

Six more things we can count on this baseball season

Last week we revealed six major league baseball events likely to occur sometime during the 2011 season. With the passing of another week, and the regular season that much closer, I give you part two beginning where I left off last week.

7. Carl Crawford refuses to play in Boston home games.

He cites the following reasons: There is no roof on Fenway Park, there are more than 2,000 fans attending each and every game and this funny turf is making his uniform dirty and grass stained.  He attempts to renegotiate his contract to include provisions for dry cleaning and limiting home attendance to 2,000 for each home game. He also wants to be called Mannyland Crawford and insists on a port-o-potty with a full sized vanity and shower being installed in front of the now referred to as the Jolly Green Monster. He, as a way of making peace with management and fans, offers to buy one lucky fan a hot dog each game (does not include condiments).

8. In a sympathetic gesture spanning two major sports, LeBron James, after befriending Zack Greinke, breaks two of his ribs playing a pickup game of baseball.

Greinke takes to wearing a LeBron James/Cleveland Cavalier t-shirt on days he pitches and a Pittsburgh Steeler hat during Brewer home games.  A fan in Cleveland explains to Greinke the significance of wearing a Lebron James/Cavalier t-shirt but Greinke answers that he’s never even been to Miami, let alone played for the Dolphins.  He insists on continuing to wear his Steelers hat explaining that they came in second at the Super Bowl.  Lebron James insists that he is the best player in pickup baseball after which Willie Mays comes out of retirement to challenge him.

9. In a move that owner Tom Ricketts claims is meant to instill a fighting spirit in the Cubs, he fires Mike Quade after three innings of the first regular season game with the Cubs leading 5-0 and appoints Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Silva as co- managers.

Continual fighting in the dugout between both co-managers proves successful as opponents, instead of concentrating on hitting, pitching and fielding, stop to watch the action and allow the Cubs to score at will.  Baseball rules are changed for Cubs games, allowing both Zambrano and Silva to pitch at the same time.  Alphonso Soriano is moved to DH even though that position, in the National League, doesn’t officially exist.  He becomes the first DH to make three errors in one game and is traded to Houston where he becomes their No. 1 catcher.  Zambrano claims his 0-20 record is due to the distraction of the ivy at Wrigley field and insists that his outfield be allowed to stand on Waveland Ave. when he pitches. Silva demotes himself to Triple A but refuses to report.

10. Bud Selig accepts an offer to become Czar of Russia.

He immediately outlines his plan to return Russia to its days of fiefdom where the rich were incredibly so and the poor had nothing.  He cites his revenue sharing plan for major league baseball as an example of how rich ownerships can work together to own everything and plans a major drug testing initiative for local peasants and their families.  He plans to resurrect the statue of the founder of communism, John Lennon, and replaces the Russian national anthem with the founders number one hit, Help in B flat minor. He also insists that various government agencies hire more blacks and grants the FOX network exclusive rights to broadcast state executions.  He insists that everything is fine uttering the immortal words, “Let them eat $10 hot dogs.”

11. Roy Halladay goes 100-0 while the other members of the big four combine for a 0-62 record.

Halladay throws 90 complete games but is forced to pitch left handed during the months of August and September to save wear and tear on his right shoulder. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel reacts angrily to the media who compare him to Dusty Baker in his overuse of certain pitchers.  Manuel exclaims that there is no legitimate comparison as he is not from California.  Manuel goes on to explain that he saw no reason that Halladay couldn’t use both arms as that was what God gave him.  Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that he was totally unaware of any situation and blamed Jimmy Rollins for not hitting 50 home runs even though Philadelphia won the National League East.

12. After surveying the new Marlins ballpark, owner Jeffery Loria insists that it be moved to downtown Montreal and that a significant portion of Marlins home games be played in Puerto Rico.

He also decides that beginning next season the Marlins will move their Spring Training site to Disneyland in Anaheim so as to be able to better compete with the Atlanta Braves. Andy Petite agrees to a contract with the Marlins but will pitch only on weekends and only for the New York Yankees.

Loria insists that he is now willing to spend money on the team and to prove it offers his players McDonalds food vouchers worth $5, charging players only $10 for each one. He also offers to supply his players with city bus passes for all away games at a cost of only $200,000 each.

Next week, the third and final part.