I was never much of a baseball player.
I hung up my cleats after my junior year in high school, finally getting the hint after being labeled as the team's "lucky" first-base coach. I wasn't much of a fielder, was less of a hitter, and probably had the sort of unhealthy and/or unjustified "fear" of the ball that likely had teammates and coaches label me soft. My biggest "contributions" came by being some sort of lucky charm when playing the position of player-coach 90 feet from home plate and about 5 feet into foul territory just right of first base (wearing an ill-fitting helmet, no need for a glove).
A few years earlier, I'd shown some promise, or at least glimpses of potential, as a pitcher. Though, much of that was probably attributable to me being the tall kid — the big-for-his-age-at-every-age kid who, when it came to Little League Baseball, leveraged being a foot-and-a-half taller than most everyone else to be some version of borderline overpowering on the mound, at least at times.
There was always an issue with accuracy that seemed to go hand in hand with being built somewhere between gangly and lanky. Some of my "best" outings featured a series of four-pitch walks that would load the bases, followed by three consecutive strikeouts. My body wasn't reliable enough to master the mechanics of a curve ball, so my pitching repertoire consisted of a fastball held one of two ways, with or across the seams. I grew to prefer throwing across the seams.
A few years earlier still, I had what was probably my favorite or at least my most memorable moment on a baseball field. It came as a fan. I was young and impressionable, and happened to be a huge Don Mattingly fan. So much so that I almost literally stopped watching baseball altogether when Mattingly retired.
I couldn't tell you what month it was, or exactly how old I was at the time. We'll say somewhere around 8, so as to at least provide some sort of frame for those of you that have kids of your own.
We went to one game a year back then, typically, if we could help it, and because I was such a professed Mattingly and Yankees fan, it was a Yankees game. We sat upstairs. But, this was back when the Orioles played at Memorial Stadium, the Ravens still played in Cleveland (and were called the Browns), and probably not long after the Colts skipped town.
Back then, fans had relatively unfettered access to the players — there wasn't even so much as a gate to keep the fans separated from the visiting team as the players made their way from the clubhouse to the bus. For young fans, those were the days.
And, for this young Mattingly fan, this was the day.
The Yankees won, I think. And Mattingly had a great game, at least that's what I remember hearing the man next to me telling him through my earmuffs. No, it wasn't cold, but let's just say I had a special appreciation for the term when it was brought into pop culture by Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn in "Old School" almost 20 years later.
This particular Yankee fan must've been just like me — a huge Mattingly fan. He was using words that I'd only heard my dad say when he'd hit his thumb with a hammer, and he used them over, and over, and over again.
If you've seen "A Christmas Story," you know the word.
He said "fudge."
Only, just as in the movie, he didn't actually say "fudge." My dad only wished the man had been saying "fudge," over and over again. Hence the man-hand-made earmuffs.
We stood two steps from the Yankees team bus. Pen and ball, and glove in hand. Waiting for Mattingly and an autograph.
But, he brisked by. Boarded.
And retreated to the back of the bus.
He didn't even break stride. (Maybe they hadn't won, and/or maybe he hadn't played as well as the fan behind me was telling him.)
But, here's to that fan and his colorful language — his relentless, praise-heaping, colorful language. All 30-plus-minutes of it.
Eventually, Mattingly relented. (Maybe his teammates begged him to oblige so as to shut the demonstrative fan up.) And there I was — first in line at the foot of the bus.
Ball and glove signed. Memory made.
(Vocabulary forever expanded, at least by one colorful, sometimes useful, multi-purposed, and very versatile four-letter word.)
Unfortunately, Don Mattingly never made the Hall of Fame. Much like another of my favorite athletes, Fred Couples, Mattingly's back got the better of him, curtailing if not cutting short his career. Some say Mattingly was robbed, that he deserves to be in the Hall.
Unfortunately, in his 15 years of eligibility for voting for enshrinement, he never received enough votes.
My dad's childhood hero, Willie Mays, is in there. And soon, my brother's, Ken Griffey Jr., will be too.
Here's the thing though — neither of them earned unanimous votes. Two of the greatest players to ever lace 'em up didn't get every possible vote on their respective ballots.
Two of the best hitters — one with arguably the prettiest, most natural, most aesthetically pleasing swing — the game and/or its fans have ever seen, were shorted of unanimity.
"Say Hey" and the second coming of the "Kid" were both cheated for inexplicable reasons.
Was it for the sake of carrying on some sort of bastardized, misinformed, and/or arcane clinging to of an antiquated and unnecessary sense of "nobody's ever been voted in unanimously, let's keep it that way" tradition?
Was it racially charged? Did a faceless, nameless, anonymous (and potentially unqualified and/or unfit to have a vote) voter hold a grudge?
Ty Cobb. Not unanimous. Babe Ruth. Nope. Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig. None of them received a vote on every ballot cast.
Cy Young. Him neither. Hank Aaron. No. Cal Ripken nor Greg Maddux either.
Baseball and its players are known for having quirky rules, traditions, and superstitions — see, for example, the infield fly rule, the designated hitter, interleague play, rally caps, not talking to a pitcher who is working on a no-hitter, "lucky" socks and jocks, Jobu's rum, and breathing through your eyelids, among them.
Not casting a vote for an otherwise wholly deserving, hands-down Hall of Famer, a legend, and/or one or all of the top five players ever to play the game itself, appears to be among them too.
Some players are "first ballot" Hall of Famers. Some deserve(d) to be voted in unanimously so though, too.
I understand that the argument can cut both ways – If Ruth, Mantle, and Mays didn't receive 100 percent of the vote, who should, and why should they?
The Baseball Writers' Association of America will get another chance in a few years though.
Derek Jeter will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2020. There was never a "Mr. November" before Jeter. A 20-year career with five World Series rings to his name, and sitting near, if not atop, a number of statistical categories, Jeter is arguably next up to bat, pardoning the pun, on the list of players who at least arguably deserve to be voted in to the Hall of Fame, unanimously so.
Unfortunately, Reggie Jackson, "Mr. October," only received 93 percent of the votes. Some traditions, by their very nature, die slow. This one, intentionally withholding votes so as to prevent unanimity in election though, has got to go.
Of Griffey's missing three votes, hopefully a kid somewhere stopped the head of the BBWAA as he walked to his car after announcing the results of the votes, looked up, tugged on his coat, and queried him, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
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