Great Eights

Last night I picked up another #8 jersey, this time for a summer hockey league. In addition to Willie Stargell, the great eight has graced the backs of quite a few athletes:

  • Cam Neely, Boston Bruins. This snowman rides the rafters at the Fleet Center (Bank of America Center?  Sorry, it’s still the Gah-den to me).

  • Cap Ripken, Jr, Baltimore Orioles. No comment needed, although on the cusp of this year’s
    Mid Summer Classic a story is required. We saw Ripken play just once, in the 2001 All-Star Game in
    Seattle. He homered.

  • Yogi Berra, New York Yankees. Catcher of Larsen’s perfect World Series game, creator of malaproprisms, Jersey guy.

  • Igor Larionov, Detroit Red Wings and (most recently) New Jersey Devils

It’s a game, finding eights on the field and in the environment. Not all of them are famous; not all of them are interesting.
I’ve planted my butt in seat #8, 10th row, of the 1980 Olympic ice hockey arena in Lake Placid,
trying to get roughly the same perspective as Jim Craig’s father.
Then there’s
Vadim Sharifijanov
, first-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 1994 who skated with the team for parts of two seasons.
You probably haven’t heard of him, but he wore jersey #8 as well.

There’s no real point to this list.    As number 8 has become ingrained in our family’s sports wear, we pattern match with the rest of the world. A goofy game, perhaps, but such are the origins of tradition.


In From Left Field

My fondest memory of one season of Little League was playing third base. I didn’t play the hot corner for a season, or a full game, but for an inning in a game in which we were either getting or giving a thorough drubbing. I don’t remember the score, the opponent, or even if I made plays, I just remember the coach saying "Hal, go play third base."
And I ran in from left field, my usual station as a 10-year old rookie, to play the infield. If I couldn’t be Willie Stargell (and going hitless in 17 plate appearances wasn’t getting me close), I could at least be Richie Hebner, the Bucs third baseman in the early 70s, for a spring morning.

Richie Hebner
produced an unlikely set of statistical bookends: he had the first hit in Three Rivers Stadium (a single) and completed hitting for the cycle in his last at-bat, needing a home run to complement his other three hits, and getting (or taking) an inside-the-park shot to finish the job.  Hebner played 18 seasons without making an All-Star team, but he remains involved as a coach and manager in the lower levels of baseball.

Which takes us back to the first level of baseball – this weekend’s Little League games.  One of my usual left fielders, whom I’ll call Fred (not his real name), reminds me quite a bit (athletically,  at least) of me at that  age. He came to practices, he worked hard, and at 12 years old, he was playing in his last two games at this level.  He never once complained about being a substitute player, or not playing in the infield, or hitting deep in the lineup.   For an inning on Saturday, I moved Fred in from left field to third base.  He’s been practicing there; he has a sense of what to do defensively, and on a sharp shot that might have gone through the gap at short, he fielded the grounder, turned, and tagged out the runner advancing from second.  Inning over, no runs scored, and our pitcher gave him a glove tap on the way into the  dugout.

While the Yankees wallow in near-even mediocrity, and the Nationals rule from the Capital, we should all remember what Willie Stargell said: “€œIt’s supposed to be fun. The man says ‘Play Ball.’ not ‘Work Ball.’"

On Sunday, in our season finale, Fred made two great catches in left field, went
2-for-3 at the plate and had a game-tying RBI.  We ended up losing in the final frame, but I think Fred — and the rest of us — had fun.

Baseball in Aruba

One of my more stupid pastimes while flying on business is to look for baseball diamonds fromthe air. Given the grass, infield dirt, 3/4-diamond with gently curved fence and bleachers, a
ballfield is unusually easy to spot while on approach or departure from a major city. I’m
regularly impressed by the number and quality of baseball diamonds across the country.

The family and I spent last week in Aruba, enjoying some swimming, snorkeling, boat
rides and downtime. Much to my delight, I counted (and visited) no fewer than half a dozen
Dunkin’ Donuts shops between the Queen Beatrix airport and the high rise hotel zone. There’s
something infinitely comforting about being able to get your favorite coffee, in both flavor and
serving qualities, even when you’re 2,000 miles south of home. It’s not something I can say for
flying west, because the Dunkies density drops once you pass Chicago. Quiz question for
the day: are there more Dunkin’ Donuts or baseball diamonds on the west coast of Aruba?

Based on my cursory inspection, performed while trying to navigate a one-lane, unmarked road
en route to a beach at the northern point of Aruba, baseball beats beans. Many of the fields
were completely dirt-covered, grass being a precious commodity on an island that is literally
a desert in the middle of the ocean. I was pleasantly
surprised. Of all of the American exports to reach the country – Dunkies, Subway, *******,
Pizza Hut, hotel chains, rental car companies – baseball is the one that has at least delivered
Sidney Ponson
, pitcher for the Orioles, is a native of the small town of Noord, just off the
western shore of Aruba.

Ponson is the third Aruban to make it to the show. Put that in context — Aruba is slightly
larger than Washington, DC and has a population of just about 72,000 people. The beauty
of baseball is that you can play with a ball and some semblance of gloves, bats and bases;
if you can scratch out a diamond you’re in business. And as Ponson shows, it’s truly an
international game today.

Willie Stargell, Number 8

How do you know you’re a fan? When do you cross the line from interested toaffected, such that you order your life, your activities, and your wardrobe around
a team? Frequently, the moment is clouded by tears, your heart was broken
by a game that you love, and yet, as it always does, love covers the pain. And
each season, you come back, ready for a fresh start and another year of hope.

Being a fan

gives us a larger context for our lives; we share our miseries and our
joys with complete strangers and for a few moments, they aren’t the people our mothers warned
us about but our temporary best friends.

I became a Willie Stargell fan on October 11, 1972. Before then, I followed the
Pirates because my best friends Glenn and Scott did; we spent many afternoons that
summer watching games on their black and white set. A month after my tenth birthday,
watching the final game of the National League Championship Series between the
Reds and the Pirates, I watched Bob Moose (of the Pirates) throw a wild pitch,
letting Bob Foster of the Reds come home with the winning run. Game, series,
pennant to the boys from Cincy. I remember Glenn and Scott’s mom crying, and
for the first time, I felt profound sadness that the season was over. I was
hooked. Personal precipitation precipitating something much larger.

Willie Stargell, number 8 on the Pirates, was my first sports hero, and I’ve worn
number 8 at every opportunity for three and a half decades since. I watched
with joy as Willie came in from left field to play first base, and in 1979 the Pirates again
reigned as World Champions, led by a big number 8 and Sister Sledge’s “We Are
Family.” Five years before “We Are The World,” Willie Stargell celebrated
diversity on his team rather than letting diversity drive divisions.

In the off-season Willie Stargell owned and operated a restaurant in
Pittsburgh. Think about that – he, like other ballplayers in the 70s, had
to work in the winter. He was from the heart of America, but lived year-round by the
three rivers because that’s where he worked — year-round. He was left-handed,
like me. He smiled when he played. It’s hard to find a baseball card of Wilie Stargell
in which he’s not having fun or at least giving that appearance.
Work hard, have fun, lead well – six words to live by.

Last year my son turned 10. He got to pick his own jersey number for the first
time, and for a year and a half, he’s been number 8 as well. He knows why.