They say we've left behind the era of heroes, which is just as well. Because heroes, boys and girls, will break your heart.
Pull up a chair, and I'll tell you all about it.
Yesterday, they arrested Duke Snider. Yeah, the Duke. Got him for tax evasion, like he was Al Capone or somebody. Let me tell you something, pal, Al Capone couldn't hit a lick.
The Duke was my first hero, maybe my only hero. You probably don't even know who he is. That's OK. Why should you know a 68-year-old, broken-down man who may go to jail for six months for not reporting income from baseball memorabilia shows?
You can't get less heroic than those cheesy nostalgia shows. You've seen 'em. Old athletes sell their autographs. Pete Rose sells pieces of his old bats. Next thing you know, Mickey Mantle will be selling pieces of his old liver.
But here's a little history lesson for you, if you care. Basically, there have been three really important Dukes. There was Wellington, who beat Napoleon and got a steak named after him. There was, of course, the Duke of Earl.
And then there was Duke Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, the most glamorous thing I'd ever seen. (Of course, I was only 5 at the time. My only real point of reference was Raggedy Andy.) You may know him if you read "Boys of Summer." You may know him from that annoyingly catchy song -- "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" -- which is about the three future Hall of Famers who played center field in New York in the '50s.
The Duke played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were my hometown team, and Duke was my hometown star. And that was enough for me.
I didn't know whether he was smart or dumb, good or evil. Whether he liked his steak rare or well done, voted Democrat or Republican, had read Proust or even read at all.
It didn't matter. He was the Duke. And he played center field like a god.
Willie Mays may have been the greatest player ever. Mickey Mantle, our broken-down alcoholic hero, may have been this flawed marvel. The Duke, though, was mine.
He changed my life. Because this is what kids do: I always had to argue that the Duke was the best player of the three. This would lead me to specialize in arguing for lost causes. Right now, for instance, I'm ready to start a "Free Duke" campaign. Contributions are welcome.
My feeling on this particular crime is that, well, he's the Duke. They sent Pete Rose to jail for tax evasion. They got Darryl Strawberry, too. Willie McCovey, Snider's fellow Hall of Famer, got it the same day the Duke did.
But your heroes deserve special exemption, don't they? Otherwise, what's the point? The Duke couldn't have meant it. And, if he did, he's still the Duke. Cut him some slack. Send Pete Rose back to jail, but not the Duke. Send Web (not Carl) Hubbell to jail in his place. He's going anyway. Spare the Duke.
You see, I bat left-handed because the Duke did. I wore No. 4 because the Duke did. I ate my Wheaties -- because the Duke did.
Charles Barkley, the famously outrageous basketball player, says athletes aren't role models. And he's right.
But that doesn't mean my heart's not breaking.
When I became a sportswriter, I learned all about sports heroes. Here's the deal: Willie Mays is unfriendly. Mickey Mantle is not very bright. Cal Ripken may champion adult literacy, but he's not likely to join your book club, or even go to a library.
I first met Duke Snider when I was a cub reporter. Duke was heavy and his hair was white, and I tried to find in him something like the boy of summer. Ex-jocks are just ex-jocks. All they've got working for them is memory and a resume that doesn't apply to real life.
I didn't see any of the old Duke in this old Duke, but I liked him anyway. I couldn't help it.
And when he gets arrested, my mom calls, the same mom who threw away all my baseball cards, and says, "Mike, you gonna be OK?"
I don't know.
Here's what I know:
Oh! Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing and somewhere children shout;
But the Duke is in the slammer -- that's even worse than striking out.