I GREW UP ROOTING FOR WILLIE MAYS.
At one point in my childhood, I thought we might become neighbors. The Brinings, the elderly couple next door to us in the New Jersey suburb where I lived, put their house on the market. I’d read that Willie Mays and his wife were looking for a new home. The Brinings’ place was a perfectly nice brick house with a screened front porch and a wooden two-car garage. The garage was overgrown with vines and part of it was rotten, but I was sure that if Willie Mays bought the place, he and I could fix that.
It did not occur to me in the mid-1950s that there were no minority families living on our street. Then again, I didn’t think of Mays as a black man. I thought of him as the magnificent center fielder on my favorite baseball team. I hoped that after he got settled next door, he’d come over to my backyard and begin preparing me to take his place with the New York Giants when the time came for him to retire.
I regarded as fools the people who thought Mickey Mantle was better than Mays. I still do.
In the summer of 1972, I moved to Boston to attend graduate school. Gradually I became a fan of the Red Sox.
Or, actually, not so gradually. Among the players briefly doing business at Fenway Park then were Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal, both former Giants, albeit San Francisco Giants. It was natural and easy to root for those familiar faces, though Cepeda and Marichal were both considerably diminished by the time the Sox got around to employing them.
A familiar voice was in Boston, too. I knew itinerant broadcaster Jim Woods from his time working for the Giants. With him and Ned Martin on the radio, I was in the company of two favorite uncles, at once knowledgeable and mischievous. When they were on the job, I didn’t mind rain delays. Sometimes I hoped for them.
The Red Sox of those years and the years that followed employed various other players for whom it was easy to cheer, Luis Tiant most prominent among them. By the time he joined Boston, Tiant, once the possessor of an excellent fastball, had lost 20 games in a season with the Indians. With the Red Sox, his evolving delivery of puzzling twists, turns, eye rolls, kicks, spins, and shuffles alternately tantalized and paralyzed hitters, to the delight of fans.
Tiant also had a sense of humor. Once I stood in line to get an autographed as-told-to biography of him for my cousin’s birthday. When I reached the pitcher and asked him to sign the book “To Dave,” he smiled and asked, “How do you spell that?”
In the fall of 1975, Tiant, the irrepressible Bill Lee, Rick Burleson, and the rest nearly beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that would be my most passionate year of Red Sox fandom.
This was in part because they traded Lee in 1978 for just being Bill Lee, rather than because he could no longer help the team. He was original, unpredictable, and irreverent, which did not endear him to management, one of whom he referred to as a gerbil. The next summer, Lee went 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA for the Montreal Expos.
My enthusiasm also suffered over the years because I got a job as a sports commentator and began to get a little closer to the players and the organization I’d previously known only as a paying customer. As a kid, I’d hoped Willie Mays would move in next door. As a young adult, I saw that some of the players I met might make less-than-perfect neighbors.
Some historian down the line will determine whether these are the worst of times in that respect. For obvious reasons, the saga of Aaron Hernandez, however it is eventually resolved, is likely to figure in that judgment. People make of fallen idols what they will. Within days of the announcement that the Patriots would supply anyone who wanted to turn in a Hernandez jersey with a different shirt, the signed Hernandez jerseys were fetching top dollar on eBay.
On an entirely different level, in advance of the 100th Tour de France this summer, Lance Armstrong shouldered his way back into the spotlight. For years Armstrong abused, lied about, and sued those who told the truth about his systematic doping program. Most recently he told Le Monde that he still considered himself cycling’s greatest champion and that nobody could have won the Tour during his prime without doping.
Those who demonstrate at an early age that they can run, jump, throw, shoot, hit, or hit somebody extraordinarily well are reinforced for that behavior. The reinforcement warps some of them if they’re not reinforced for much of anything else.Continued...