As the new major league season gets underway, we fans will once again rejoice over the sweetest words in the English language: "Play ball!"
We'll marvel at the most skilled, best-conditioned athletes ever to grace a major league diamond. And yet it's a bittersweet time because the baseball world is on the verge of watching an entire species go the way of the dodo bird.
Nearing extinction is the oddball, the screwball, the free spirit who brings joy and laughter to the game; who turns a routine play into a comedy routine; whose fame comes from the shame of blunders, bungles and buffoonery. You know, like Marvelous Marv Throneberry of the New York Mets. In 1962, he walloped what appeared to be a two-run triple, only to be called out for missing first base. When manager Casey Stengel went out to protest, he was stopped by umpire Stan Landes, who said, "Don't bother, Casey. He missed second base too." Or take, for instance, New York Yankees outfielder and all-star trencherman Ping Bodie, who, during spring training in 1919, went 11 rounds with Percy the ostrich in the heavyweight pasta-eating championship of the world -- and won.
This is not an essay yearning for the good old days of baseball because many days back then weren't so good. The game has suffered more black eyes than a punch-drunk boxer (the barring of blacks, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Ray Chapman's fatal beanball to name a few). With steroid use, player suspensions and federal trials constantly in the news today, this ain't necessarily the best of times either.
Which is all the more reason why baseball needs the wacky flake, the zany character, the quirky eccentric. Ever since players began earning enough money to stuff a fleet of Brink's trucks, the major leagues have lost something that made the game so entertaining and unpredictable -- the childlike antics, the unpredictable recklessness, the joyous mischief of baseball's now-vanishing characters. Television and 24-hour sports coverage turned stars into superstars and superstars into brand names. With so much money and endorsements on the line, rosters are filled not with players but workers who have a job to do (and who do it very well). It's a business. They're wealthy professionals backed by a cadre of agents, advisers and trainers whose sole purpose is to help them win and make more money. There's nothing wrong with that except it comes at a cost -- the loss of a little fun.
Today's players could learn from their predecessors like Cleveland Indians batter Tony Horton who crawled back to the dugout after fouling out on a slow, high-arching "folly pitch" thrown by New York Yankees hurler Steve Hamilton in 1970... or Seattle Mariners third baseman Lenny Randle who dropped to all fours to blow a ball foul in 1981 (although the umps awarded the batter first base)... or even Cincinnati Reds star Edd Roush who got ejected for falling asleep in center field during a game in 1920.
Today, everyone approaches the game with the single-minded determination of a heart surgeon rather than a crowd-pleasing entertainer. Other than Manny Ramirez, what player would hold up a game to take a pee or talk on a cell phone during a pitching change as he has done? Today's player tends to act like a steely automaton (a flawed one at that, because he still will miss the cutoff man, or throw a hanging curve or whiff on a pitch in the dirt.) He can't be a touch offbeat. God forbid, he should tap into his inner child on the field. If only he would take to heart the words of Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella: "To be good you've gotta have a lot of little boy in you."
Can you picture how much fun it would be if baseball had a modern-day version of Lou "The Mad Russian" Novikoff? When he was with the Chicago Cubs in the early 1940s, he insisted that his wife Esther taunt him from the stands because he believed her shouts of derision inspired him to hit better. (He batted .300 in his first year in the bigs.)
Will we ever see another Gates Brown? During a 1968 game, the always hungry Detroit Tiger was about to eat a forbidden hotdog on the bench when he was told to pinch hit. So he secretly stuffed the wiener in his jersey. Then he smacked the ball in the gap and belly-flopped into second with a double. When he stood up, his uniform looked like a painter's drop cloth with mustard and ketchup and smashed hotdog. Manager Mayo Smith fined him on the spot for eating during a game.
There are no players today the likes of Dizzy, Daffy and Dazzy; Pickles, Pretzels and Peaches; Piano Legs, Tomato Face and Schnozz. Characters like them are virtually extinct. And that's sad for baseball.
Oh, by the way, Dodo Bird played for the St. Louis Browns in 1892.
Bruce Nash and Alan Zullo are the authors of The Baseball Hall of Shame: The Best of Blooperstown (Lyons Press, 2012).