Spitting on decency

Originally published October 1, 1996, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

On a morning when the sun arrived like a warm handshake offering the promise of a splendid day, a single green bench stood bathed in a yellow glow along the Commonwealth Avenue mall, between Berkeley and Clarendon, where apartment buildings are low enough and the sun was at just the right height in the sky to turn late September into mid­July. It was 8 a.m. when I sat my ample arse in comfortable escape from lost children, fired Red Sox managers and the daily grief of life.

My wonderful Monday start was broken, however, by a dog belonging to some Back Bay bore in a bow tie who, regular as a laxative, took his pet out for a dump before work. The dog, an ugly little thing not much bigger than a dust mop, came up behind me quieter than a professional prowler and peed on my pants cuff as I perused the baseball box scores.

It’s amazing how quickly your mood changes once you’re turned into a urinal. Suddenly, the sun didn’t feel quite so warm, and instead of simply going for a second cup of coffee somewhere, I had to go get a change of socks.

Heading toward Copley Square, I bumped into a throng of kids coming up out of the subway on their way to school on Newbury Street. They appeared to be about 15 or 16 years of age and looked as if they had just crawled out of a dumpster.

A couple of them were swearing loudly at someone or something when, in a flash, one kid turned to a second strolling alongside and let loose a lunger that landed on the other boy’s jacket; then the whole posse erupted in laughter.

It was another of those moments ­­ and, believe me, I have had many lately ­­ when I again realized that so much has gone right past me that I can barely understand half of what happens in front of my own eyes each and every day of the week. From the global to the local, events seem etched in such insanity that either I am getting dumber ­­ a distinct possibility ­­ or the culture is growing more depraved by the moment.

One kid spitting at another on a crowded city street reminded me instantly of the incident in Toronto over the weekend where the Baltimore Orioles were playing the Blue Jays Friday evening and a spectacular ballplayer by the name of Robby Alomar spat in an umpire’s face and was right back out on the baseball field the following afternoon. Incredible.

No wonder baseball is in trouble. But whatever problems plague this particular sport, larger problems afflict us for not punishing brutal behavior with protests plus our absence.

The fact that an athlete can do this to an official and not suffer immediate banishment is ridiculous. Yet this occurs all the time, and then we wonder why so many kids, adults too, act like fools: They see it played out daily. They see bizarre behavior rewarded with big money and no consequences.

And it’s not just baseball. Take a peek at pro football, where we have these marginally talented defensive backs going immediately into some berserk street dance of ridiculous gyrations after they intercept a football or make a weak tackle in open field.

It’s not just touchdowns, either. It’s deflected passes, quarterback sacks, kickoff and punt returns. And it triggers a trickle­down effect: High school kids copy what they see pros do on their Sunday TV.

The Alomar situation is different. It was an obscene act, a vile thing, the lowest of the low. Why, you’d rather get sucker­punched in the kisser than have someone spit in your eye.

Maybe the worst part is the weakness with which baseball reacted to Alomar. There is no commissioner, and apparently the president of the American League doesn’t have the guts to confront the players’ association and sit this chump down for the league playoffs as well as for the first three months of the 1997 season.

Now you might think this is overreacting because it’s sports, not real life; but the problem is that a huge number of people who happen to be younger than 21 think these millionaire, sociopathic morons are worthy of emulation. Ask 10 kids who their heroes are and most will not respond with the names of Clinton, Gore, Dole, some teacher or a parent.

Odds are the reply will involve an athlete, an actor or a rap singer, someone who takes the field with a low IQ, huge bank account and big car. And they are admired merely because they are rich, famous and can do what they want, whenever they want, and do it while they spit in society’s face.



Fewer Models, Bigger Roles

Originally published August 3, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


At Fenway Park the other afternoon, this total moron put his fat arse in a box seat during the bottom of the first and spent the rest of the day acting like a complete jerk.

When he wasn’t screaming at Wilfredo Cordero, the alleged wife-battering Red Sox outfielder, he was acting obnoxious and pounding down enough beers to quench the thirst of the First Marine Division.

Of course, that was his constitutional right. It didn’t matter to him that he made things uncomfortable for other paying customers. Yet, because most people now are either timid or wary of establishing eye contact with potentially violent dopes, this fool clearly mistook the crowd’s silence for approval.

It was a pretty good game, too. The Olde Towne Team played the Mariners — baseball’s most attractive offering, with Junior Griffey, Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson — and the capacity crowd was thrilled to be watching a day game even as a single fan acted like he had a bolt in his brain.

Finally, though, things got so bad that a guy leaned across the aisle and posed the following question to Mr. Motormouth: “Do you like hospital food?”

“Whazz’a problem?” the drunk demanded. “I can shay what I wanna’ shay. Cordero’s a bum. Guy’s sposed’a’be a role model, fa’ crissake. Guy desherves it.”

It struck me that here was an occasion of marvelous irony: A thoughtless imbecile spoiling things because he decided a baseball player failed to meet his obligation as a role model!

That phrase, role model, has been fashionable for a few years. It’s part of the growing social trend toward replacing individual responsibility with collective obligation.

For example: In stories about teen mothers, the inevitable implication is made that society is at fault for the difficulty of a single young girl who probably got pregnant because of cigarettes, television commercials or a lack of — you guessed it — role models. Welfare recipients have difficulty working because they have no role models. And, somewhere, some kid is going to grow up and pound his wife or girlfriend because of Wilfredo Cordero.

It’s odd but the need for role models seems to have grown in direct relation to the expansion and magnified importance of the media.

Years ago, when there weren’t nearly as many entertainment options like cable, pay-per-view, movies or the worldwide web, hardly anybody mentioned the trendy, numbing phrase.

I guess things were pretty primitive then. And most of the country was probably awfully unenlightened.

Like, when Dad came home Thursday night and dumped his pay on the kitchen table, enabling Ma to buy bread, milk, butter and eggs, not a single soul stood and said, “Dad, you are an awesome role model, man.” How sad.

How pathetic that we used to view parents, policemen, doctors and priests — rather than movie stars, TV anchors and athletes — as role models.

And on those occasions when some guy lost a couple rounds to Jim Beam on Saturday night and chose to beat up his wife, none of the neighbors whispered that he had failed to perform admirably as a role model. Instead, the thick familial peer pressure of those dark ages would quickly result in the victim’s brother, father or friends kicking the deadbeat’s arse all the way down the block.

Of course, today that would mean assault and battery charges filed against the woman’s family, crafty lawyers, pathetic judges, interminable court delays and a hefty fine imposed on the wrong people.

The procedure would involve social workers, probation officers, psychologists and the distinct possibility that those who tried to do the right thing would have their names published in the paper and their reputations ruined.

Let something like that happen and you’ve got the ultimate American nightmare: You’d be called a poor role model.


Like baseball? Avoid Fenway

Originally published July 28, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

Boston owns an undeserved reputation as a city ­­ a region, actually ­­ that has the most knowledgeable and sophisticated baseball fans in America. This accolade may have been accurate until the fall of 1986, when one man’s human error created a deep wave of self­pity that has unfairly remained a threat to true appreciation of the game.

Oh, it wasn’t just the ball between Buckner’s legs that altered things. The fact that the sport today is actually dominated by arrogant union leaders and greedy player agents rather than athletic ability or individual achievement sure hasn’t made baseball more popular; and the increasingly negative, cynical tone of daily life hasn’t helped either.

Still, it’s disappointing to see and hear so many supposedly sophisticated spectators appear like absolute morons gathered in a convention of foolishness at Fenway. They assembled this past weekend to boo Maurice Vaughn, the Boston first baseman, who has simply gone out of his way to articulate a fact that is obvious to even the most hideously ignorant among us: The game is a business, has been a business for some time, and will, unfortunately, remain a business forever. This does not mean Mo is a bad guy.

Money dominates. Profits take precedence over RBIs and earned run statistics. Loyalty and sentiment went out the locker room door long ago. Today’s player is more likely to discuss deferred payments than a pennant race or the pursuit of Roger Maris’s record. They live and play a child’s game in a catered existence where the average salary exceeds a million dollars, making it possible for them to exist from April through October as guaranteed winners no matter what happens between the lines.

You’d think New Englanders would have figured this out. You’d think more of us would know that Mo Vaughn and the Olde Towne Team are just in the eighth inning of the same inevitable end game that has seen a Clemens, a Molitor, a Piazza, and hundreds of others change uniforms. It’s a business.

To witness baseball performed on the big stage as it was and as it will never be again, you have to get up early on a Sunday and go to a place like Danehy Field in Cambridge to watch Little Leaguers try to outrun their dreams. There, you would have seen a family from Reading arrive with a handicapped child, strapped into a chair and wheeled into the shade alongside the aluminum bleachers so other parents, and players, too, could talk to her about the unchanging pleasure of an activity not yet ruined by cash.

Then, you could have crossed the river to view Pedro Martinez dominate the Blue Jays. He is a smart, wealthy young man with a huge heart, great talent, and a rapidly growing aversion to the absurd stupidity increasingly displayed by local fans.

And if your affection for the game was old enough you could have concluded a Sunday watching Hyannis play Wareham beneath a sweet sunset in the Cape League. There, running sprints in the mellow evening, Greg Montalbano worked up a sweat before he and his teammates boarded a bus for the trip back across the canal following a victory for his first­place club.

Montalbano is a 20 ­year ­old left­hander from Westborough who attends Northeastern, where he’s majoring in civil engineering. He is a big, handsome kid with blue eyes and dark hair and this summer he is 1 and 1 for “The Gatemen,” appearing in 24 innings in between visits to MRI facilities and doctor’s offices where he is treated for a cancer that has caused him to have five operations over the past two years.

“I was 18 when I found out I had it,” Montalbano was saying Sunday night. “I had just started at Northeastern. All I was thinking about was baseball and how to take care of the cancer, how to get rid of it.”

He was talking now about tumors that have moved to his hip and his lungs, how they would be treated, how he had to go in for blood work and another MRI, talking about all this in a calm, understated voice that contained the indefatigable confidence of youth. He is only 20, playing a game that is the love of his life, and he is living proof that, today, baseball is more enjoyable far from foolish fans and meaningless amounts of money.



A Home Run for the Kids

Originally published June 1, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

This was Friday, before the day turned to a night when the biggest star in town would burn three home runs across a dark sky and pull his team by the collar right into the win column against the New York Yankees. It was noon on Westville Street in Dorchester as Mo Vaughn pulled to the curb outside the John Marshall Elementary School in a tan Mercedes sedan.

The large school has nearly 1,000 students. It is a bright spot in a sometimes bleak environment where teachers can proudly and justifiably claim victory by coaxing a simple smile out of children who often spend the happiest and safest hours of their day in a classroom.

“Mo Vaughn,” a boy named Dwayne said as the Red Sox first baseman walked into the principal’s office. “I want you to meet my whole family.”

“I’ll do it,” Vaughn told Dwayne. “Go get ’em.”

The boy ran down the corridor toward an open door that led through the gym and out into the sunlight of a playground where hundreds of his schoolmates waited eagerly to see a guy who performs just as well off the field as he does on it.

Vaughn went into a conference room to wait for Derek Jeter, the spectacular Yankee shortstop, who was also coming to the Marshall to help paint a graffiti-scarred playground wall for a mural the children would then design themselves.

“I like this,” Vaughn was saying. “These kids probably won’t remember a single home run I hit, but they might remember that I came to their school.”

The ballplayers were in attendance as part of a community service program sponsored by Fleet Bank. Right here, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that a truly nifty member of my family works for the bank. But Vaughn and Jeter were there because they are different from many millionaire athletes in that both are blessed with the gift of humility that quickly makes children feel at ease around them.

Now, Derek Jeter arrived. He wore the uniform of the young — T-shirt, jeans and sneakers — as he walked gracefully into the office, smiled, and shook Mo Vaughn’s hand.

Jeter is playing his second year of major league baseball. Along with Alex Rodriguez of Seattle and Nomar Garciaparra right here with the Red Sox, he is one of three American League shortstops destined to be huge in the history of baseball. Already, he has attained matinee idol status in Manhattan, and when he comes to bat in Yankee Stadium, teenagers squeal.

Yet, both men stood in the playground, paint brushes in hand, and represented the tremendous lost opportunities that threaten their sport and cloud its future. They are young, attractive, articulate and approachable, a marketing major’s dream.

But they are playing a sport in danger of being permanently damaged by selfish owners too shortsighted to appoint a commissioner strong enough to capitalize on the personalities of players like Vaughn, Jeter, Junior Griffey and a host of others capable of restoring our best game to its proper slot in American life.

They are not 7 feet tall. They do not weigh 275 pounds. They are not hidden in protective gear. And Friday, laughing and fooling with a couple of hundred school children, there was an ease to them that cannot be contrived.

Baseball has been diminished by its parts: by greed, by agents seeking to cash in, by ego-crazed owners willing to cave in, by players mesmerized by contracts rather than community as well as by a history of 28 teams operating as 28 separate businesses instead of as a single industry eclipsed by the NBA and NFL. Look at the playgrounds you pass today and see how few children are playing baseball and you know the sport has trouble.

“You think they’ll boo me?” Derek Jeter asked Vaughn.

“No, man. They like you,” Vaughn laughed.

On the playground, they cheered for both ballplayers because they came to a place where children live. For an hour, everyone was at home in the land of the young, led by Jeter and Vaughn, grown men who play a kid’s game marvelously well.

As the two athletes were leaving, Dwayne ran back into the office and said: “Did you know I was famous too? I was on TV after they held a gun to my brother’s head. That was me on the TV that night.”

“Forget that,” Mo Vaughn told the boy. “Just keep on doing your homework and do what your teachers tell you to do. Then you’ll really be famous.”

“OK,” Dwayne said, with a smile as big as any home run. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it for you.”



You could smile at clowns of yore

Originally published June 29, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

Remember when baseball was a just a game? Remember when players and fans alike had fun following a simple sport that helped define this country’s character?

The dilemma of the Cordero family is merely the latest example of how baseball has so lost its way that it can now steal our whole summer in June. But, instead of getting bummed­out by these bums, let’s assemble an All Star Team of some of the funniest people to ever play. And, for expert guidance, we turn to “The Monster,” Dick Radatz, who was, hands­down, the greatest relief pitcher of his era.

“I’ve done it by position,” Radatz said yesterday. “First Base: Dick Stuart or Norm Cash. Stuart played for the Red Sox when Johnny Pesky was manager. When John told us one day there were going to be fines for violating curfew ­­ 500 bucks for first offense, 1,000 for a second ­­ Stuart sat in the back of the clubhouse, and when Pesky asked if there were any questions, Stuart said, `John is this tax­deductible?’

“Once, Norm Cash is up at Tiger Stadium and he breaks his bat. All kinds of Superballs spill out, so the umpire grabs the bat. Norm tells the umpire that it’s actually his son’s bat.

“Second Base: Billy Gardner. His nickname was `Slick,’ because he had great hands. He told George Scott the reason he was so quick was his dad used to drive golf balls at him from 10 yards away and it was either catch the golf ball or die.

“Third Base: Kenny Hunt. His son was Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster on TV. Kenny told me, `It’s not bad enough that I’m a major league third baseman and my 12­year­old kid makes
20 grand a year more than I do. He has better hands.’

“Shortstop: You have to have Eddie Pellagrini, who played here 200 years ago, or Ray Oyler of the Tigers. Ray used to use Hank Aguirre, a pitcher, as his puppet. Aguirre was 6­foot­4, and Ray would stand behind him in the dugout screaming obscenities at opposing players and when they’d look over, all they’d see was Hank, not Ray.

“Outfield,” Radatz continued. “Gates Brown. Gates loved to eat and wouldn’t sit in the dugout. He’d fill his uniform with food and go sit in the bullpen and eat all during a game. And he’d have all the fixings on his burgers and dogs, too.

“One day, Mayo Smith, his manager, calls him in about the second inning to pinch hit but Gates hasn’t finished eating. So he stuffs the hot dogs into his jersey and goes up to hit. Remember the scene in `The Natural’ where Hobbs is bleeding when he’s at bat? Well, Gates is up there at the plate with this huge mustard stain on his jersey and ketchup leaking through his pants. And he hits a home run!

“Gary Geiger. He played for the Sox. A very funny kid. Nickname was `Onions,’ because he’d tell pitchers, `I’m gonna make you cry, kid.’ Mantle was funny, too.

“Catcher: Bob Uecker. Everyone knows him. And Yogi. Once, we’re at one of Mickey Mantle’s golf tournaments and Yogi shows up late and Mantle asks him what happened. Yogi says he had to go to a funeral for his cousin’s sister’s brother. Mantle says, `That’s a waste of time.’ And Yogi tells him, `Mickey, if you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours.’

“Pitchers: Dennis Bennett, played here. Used to carry a gun. Don’t ask me why. One night we’re at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Walls are paper­thin and I’m next to Bennett’s room. He comes in late, and I hear his roommate, Lee Thomas, say, `Turn out the light.’ Bennett says, `You turn it out.’ Thomas says, `No. You do it.’ Next thing I hear, Bennett says, `OK.’ And then I hear bang­bang­bang. He shot the light out.

“Frank Sullivan. Sparky Lyle. Gary Bell. Bill Lee. They were all funny. Pitchers are funny. Tiant was the funniest of them all, and if you could have understood him he would have put Richard Pryor out of business.

“We had a lot more fun than players today have for a very simple reason,” Dick Radatz explained. “We had no other agenda. We would have played for nothing. Today, it’s the rare exception when a player is doing it for fun, rather than money. It’s a shame, too, because they’re killing the sport. They have almost succeeded in turning a game into strictly business.”

By the way, want to know how truly great Dick Radatz was? Over his career, he faced Mickey Mantle 63 times and struck him out 47 times. Mantle only got one hit off him, ever, a home run.

Imagine! These clowns today couldn’t carry Radatz’s resin bag and they get paid millions and perform without a smile. And too many of them are losers who don’t know how to laugh. Or play.


Time to Replace Fenway Dearest

Originally published April 9, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

 All week long, legions of workers have been busy putting a fresh face on an old friend in anticipation of an annual event that sends millions of New Englanders into short-term spasms of frenzied optimism. So, yesterday, five 18-wheelers were lined up in an on-deck circle along Yawkey Way, unloading Papa Gino’s kitchen equipment, Dove bars, hot dogs and Coca-Cola because, tomorrow, it all begins again with the return of baseball and the Olde Towne Team.

Tomorrow, the park will be filled with faces that will rarely return until — or unless — the club turns the corner of September as contenders. You could fit a front-running Opening Day crowd’s appreciation, knowledge, and respect for the actual game being played into a Hoodsie cup.

It’s a day when Fenway is home to dabblers, dilettantes, and event groupies who attend to be seen or to simply say they were there. A lot of seats are occupied by “suits” who show up in the second inning and leave after seven.

Unfortunately, the future of Fenway — along with the entire Kenmore Square area — now seems to be in danger of falling into the hands of well-intentioned groups absolutely no different than those who push through the turnstiles on Opening Day: Clueless, self-appointed saviors of a tradition that happens to be sinking into the soil.

No doubt about it, the old ballyard is a wonderful sight and a magnificent destination. It is a marriage of history and geography that occurred in an earlier, easier time.

But it has to be replaced.

Eyesight alone provides a litany of reasons: The park is located on landfill due to the fact the whole Back Bay used to be a swamp. So the foundation, bearing the weight of years of renovation, cannot support additional construction. The cement cracks anew each season. The beams and everything else, inside and out, have to be painted regularly in an effort to keep it from becoming an eyesore. Fenway’s cosmetic bill is almost as much as the tab for Elizabeth Taylor’s mascara.

Anybody who claims Fenway can be rebuilt from the ground up around the existing facility qualifies for a slot in an asylum. While anything is possible, the construction cost would be prohibitive, perhaps $400-$500 million.

Who’d pay? And where would the team play while the site was razed and rehabbed?

Right now, season ticket holders shell out $2,000 to $5,000 to sit in chairs once used in a POW facility. That’s because the place was designed when the average person was no bigger than Mickey Rooney and weighed less than Tara Lapinski. Get some fat guy squeezed in next to you and you’re not a fan, you’re a hostage.

That gets us to the absurd claim that Fenway cannot be touched because it is a baseball mecca, a place people come to for its ambience rather than for the activity on the field. What preposterous nonsense.

The vast majority go to see baseball. To see the Red Sox. To see Vaughn, Garciaparra, Martinez, and players like Junior Griffey, Cal Ripken, and Mark McGuire, now in another league.

Certainly, quaint rustics from White River Junction, Vt., or Auburn, Maine, are willing to drive down once a summer to look at The Wall but the bulk of customers arrive because they are fans, not architects or historians. It’s the game, stupid!

Predictably — given the infectious disease of parochialism that afflicts this area — we are now told that Fenway Park is the equivalent of the Pyramids, kind of a Freedom Trail with a roster that couldn’t outrun Paul Revere or outhit Sam Adams.

But this is a case where old doesn’t mean better. And new doesn’t mean bad.

It might come as a shock to some to realize that Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester is not the Pacific Ocean, that there are other metropolitan areas just as sophisticated as Boston where modern, comfortable ballparks not only have been built but also have helped revitalize the cities around them. Go to Jacobs Field in Cleveland or Camden Yards in Baltimore, attractive evidence for the argument that a town can still improve itself around a leaderless sport too often floundering in the past.

Remembering a Perfect Day

Originally published Oct 19, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Yesterday, we all stood on the sidewalk in front of the MCM furniture store on Main Street watching the World Series on a TV that had been placed in the window as a display item. As the ninth inning began, a guy pulled to the curb behind the wheel of a dark green DeSoto.

“What’s the score?” he asked.

“Two-nothing, Yankees, ” he was told. ” Larsen’s pitching a perfect game.”

“You mean he’s got a no-hitter,” the guy said.

“No,” came the response. “I mean he’s pitching a perfect game. Nobody’s reached base.”

The crowd had multiplied throughout the afternoon, beginning with about 10 people and growing to the point where a lot of shopkeepers and school kids had dropped by to watch the drama of Don Larsen and Sal Maglie in Game 5. As good as “The Barber” was — allowing only 5 hits through 8 innings, including a home run to Mantle — Larsen was in the middle of one of those miracles only the baseball gods can explain.

He’d punched out 26 in a row when Walter Alston, the Dodgers manager, sent Dale Mitchell up to pinch hit with two down in the ninth. A couple of things happened simultaneously as soon as Mitchell struck out: Yogi Berra rushed from behind home to jump into Larsen’s outstretched arms and everyone standing there on Main Street — 200 miles from Yankee Stadium — began cheering and chattering because we’d just witnessed history.

Now, I told you this happened “yesterday” because it did. In many ways, to a lot of people, that kind of day and those type of events — a huge ball game — appear in more vivid detail than things that occurred, say, last Tuesday morning.

In fact, we’re talking about Oct. 8, 1956, an age when so much of the nation saw so many things in basic shades of black or white. But somehow, it is still so clear that I can recite the lineups for both clubs more quickly than I can recall my bank card PIN number or the new telephone area codes, because in the kingdom of continuous conversation, baseball rules.

No other sport lends itself to memory like baseball. When was the last time somebody rambled on about a tackle or a touchdown? While all sports sure do have stunning individual achievements, only baseball is discussed as a whole, with each game a story unto itself and every recollection an epic.

Plus — because baseball takes almost a whole year to resolve itself — all the runs, hits, errors, and mental flashbacks combine to provide a sketch of the society in place at the time. Don Larsen pitched his perfect game three months after Jack Kennedy jumped onto the national stage as a failed vice presidential candidate and four weeks before an election in which Ike hammered Adlai Stevenson. Larsen threw 97 pitches that afternoon in a country still mesmerized by the glamor of Grace Kelly’s wedding to the prince of a place called Monaco.

Unfortunately, too many of those who have been granted the privilege of running (ruining is actually a better word ) baseball today are greedy dopes. They are so caught up in their own ego that they don’t know they’re failing as trustees of this great game’s past, present, and future too.

For example, you would be hard-pressed to provide a better set of ballgames than those between Cleveland and Baltimore or Florida and Atlanta. Yet the lords of the game cannot capitalize or market their fantastic product for one basic reason: They are blindly stupid.

But owners don’t have a monopoly on blindness. Agents as well as a totally out of control players’ union all join in the collusion against optimistic hopes that baseball can flourish because of the simple fact that it is our best game.

It’s a game of such normal human dimension that little kids see themselves on the same field with Cal Ripken or Ken Griffey Jr. No pads. No protective gear. No 300 pounders or 7-foot-tall power forwards. Only real live dreams.

It’s a game of skill, touch, and a kid’s belief: That you can catch the ball. That you can make the throw. That you too can hit it. That you are Nomar, Mo, Tony Gwynn, or Charles Johnson.

Don Larsen had his perfect day 41 years ago but because baseball is a continual dialogue the game was played yesterday. Sadly, as we start another World Series, those in charge cannot see as far as that crowd that stood in front of a furniture store window 41 Octobers ago, all of them looking at a wonderful game they figured was too good to ever end.

A Pox on this Bullpen

Originally published May 13, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


In a world where we often tolerate contemptible behavior by those we’ve known for years, it is weird how so many people — like me — hate complete strangers.

Here’s how Webster’s defines hate: “Intense hostility toward an object (as an individual) that has frustrated the release of an inner tension.”

Here’s how I define hate: “A deep, self-destructive, long-lasting dislike of these incompetent slob relief pitchers who keep coming out of the Red Sox bullpen to toss absolute meatballs that even Ray Charles could hit.”

I don’t know Heathcliff Slocumb. I have never met Rich Garces. Never shook hands with Ricky “Serial-Killer Face” Trlicek, OK?

I hate them. Hate them all.

Believe me, I understand that this is illogical as well as immature. I also understand that it is quite real.

For example, let’s return now to 3:55 p.m. Saturday afternoon: Slocumb the undertaker is on the mound doing his best impression of Little Stevie Wonder trying to find home plate.

He walks a couple guys. Botches a perfect double-play ball. Bases loaded. Juan Gonzalez in the box.

Gonzalez is a big, strong guy who plays for the Texas Rangers. With his swing, if he played for the Red Sox he would absolutely hit 107 home runs a year here.

While Slocumb struggled with the dog bone in his throat, Gonzalez could not wait for his turn. In seconds, it was three balls, no strikes and everyone in North America knew Gonzalez would be swinging at anything that came close.

Ever see a kid toss a beach ball? Ever witness a loving parent throwing underhand to a child just learning how to hit? Ever set up a T-ball stand?

Slocumb, making millions for his effort, enabled Juan Gonzalez to establish a new land-speed record for the time it takes a ball to travel from Back Bay to Central Square, Cambridge. A Polaris missile takes longer to get to target than the rocket that came off his bat took to clear the wall.

I hate Slocumb. I hate his set-up guys, too. Calling them “relief” pitchers is like calling Timothy McVeigh a prankster.

By 4:05 p.m. on a chilly Saturday, 28,000 spectators were ready to put on their Nikes and cover themselves with a purple shroud. The spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet will get here before these clowns save a baseball game.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m sure Heathcliff Slocumb, fat Garces, Trlicek, and Jim Corsi are all very nice human beings. I bet they like kids and dogs, brush after every meal and stop for old ladies in the crosswalk.

But I hate them.

I do not hate Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Mr. Rogers, Johnny Cochran, Sally Jesse Raphael or some of these truly loathsome individuals who clutter the corners of our lives. I don’t hate Saddam Hussein, Albert Belle, Dennis Rodman, Ulf Samuelson, Rudy Giuliani, Lamar Alexander, Peter Jennings, Ricki Lake or any of these other semipublic dolts who can be so incredibly annoying.

I hate the bullpen. All of them. Because they are not getting it done. Because they are stealing my summer right here in the heart of spring. Because they are lame and predictable. Because they have gotten me to the point where I automatically tune out as soon as they are called in. Because I know what the ending will be. Because they are right out of a Stephen King horror story. Because they stink.

I love Jimy Williams. I love the third baseman, the shortstop, the first baseman. Hey, I’m so soft I even love Joe Kerrigan, Wendell Kim and Dave Jauss, coaches all.

And I am willing to wait till next year to love Suppan, Rose and Pavano, who might provide us with starters capable of going beyond the fifth inning. I love you, man.

However, I’m never going to make it to next year with these dopes on the mound. I’d rather see Dick Radatz out there; he’s almost 80 years old now with a waist size bigger than Route 128, but he is still better today than what we saw yesterday.

Hate is a bizarre emotion. If allowed to prosper, it can consume us. Here in the second week of May, I am totally obsessed with guys I don’t even know.

I understand that I have no life. I hate a pack of perfect strangers who can’t throw strikes.

Call it stupid, ridiculous or juvenile. Call it whatever you want. Just don’t call the bullpen.


Public Servants Step to the Plate

Originally published March 12, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Last word about the man on first. And it comes from the type of public servant we see all around us but who, oddly enough, remains invisible due to our take-it-for-granted society.

Bob Kilduff is a Boston firefighter assigned to Ladder 23. A few days ago he reported for jury duty in Norfolk County and quickly found himself sitting in judgment of Mr. Maurice Vaughn, Red Sox first baseman.

Vaughn, of course, was found not guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. And as soon as the verdict was rendered, people from Ashmont Station to Albany, New York, had their own opinions of the decision.

Here’s Kilduff’s, contained in a letter sent to the newspaper: “I don’t like overpaid, often obnoxious men who play kid’s games for a living. Not even a little bit.

“But last week, eight men and women — of which I was one — were asked to decide the fate of a baseball player who had been charged with drunken driving. I can honestly say that not one of us cared the least about Mr. Vaughn’s celebrity.

“It had no effect on us, even with the zoo atmosphere the pathetic media created around the trial. All we knew was the Commonwealth summoned us to do a job and we simply wanted to complete our duty and go home.

“But since the verdict much of the print and electronic media in the area has second-guessed our decision and in many cases painted us as a pack of simpletons. From something called the Two Chicks to the sports radio get-a-lifers to the sports writers who clearly have no clue that there’s a big difference between watching a ball game and watching a real judge, a real jury, and a real defendant sitting in a real courtroom, I have a message: Try attending a trial and not merely listening to sound bites before self-righteously passing judgment on people and talking like fools. Trials are about a bit more than ratings!

“We were asked to determine NOT whether the defendant had been drinking, but had he consumed a quantity of alcohol sufficient to impair his ability to operate a motor vehicle. The conflicting testimony absolutely did not meet the Commonwealth’s burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“As a result of our verdict, we were accused of selling out. All sorts of ridiculous reasons were hurled around, too: Vaughn got off because he’s a celebrity or because he’s rich and had enough money to hire an expensive lawyer. Race was even included in the discussion of why he was acquitted. Well, guess what? If we found him guilty based on what we heard and saw, we the jury would have sold out.”

“It’s not a whole lot different from being a firefighter,” Kilduff added. “When the alarm goes off, color, money, nationality, religion — none of it matters. We go out the door to do the job. And that’s exactly what the fine people who served with me as jurors did: their job, which is part of living in a country where a Mo Vaughn has a right to a trial and the media have a right to make asses of themselves.”

Dan Greaney isn’t a whole lot different from Bob Kilduff. He is another municipal employee — Boston Housing — who simply goes about the daily business of doing his job, honorably and well.

Last week, Jack White, a Jamaica Plain insurance man, took a deposit bag to his branch bank on Centre Street. But when he got to the bank, White figured he must have misplaced an envelope containing $3,700 cash so he went back to search his office, his house, the front seat of the car. Nothing.

He was sitting at his desk, sick, when the phone rang. It was Police Captain Bill Parlon from E-5 in West Roxbury, asking White if he’d lost anything lately. Sure, Jack White told him, figuring Parlon probably had a bag filled with receipts, not money.

“Is there anything left in the bag?” he asked the cop.

“$3,700,” Parlon told him.

Greaney had found the bag White dropped on the street as he walked from his automobile to the bank. Greaney had taken the bag to the police station at Holy Name Circle before Jack White even discovered that his money was lost and, he figured, gone forever.

“An honest man,” Jack White was saying. “It restores your faith in human nature.”

It does, too. And so does a firefighter sitting in a jury box, doing the same thing so many do all the time to no applause and hardly any notice: their jobs. What they’re supposed to do.


Overreaction Is a Bad Sign

Originally published May 10, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Somewhere this afternoon — a gray, drizzly Mother’s Day — a pack of children will be playing baseball, many of them during the ritual of Little League, an idea that has flourished for nearly 50 years.

And that’s great because baseball is our best game. It teaches kids patience as well as perseverance. It teaches them how to win and how to lose.

Because nobody goes 4-for-4 all the time. And there isn’t a soul alive capable of throwing strikes forever.

Plus, life sort of mimics baseball. Good days, bad days, errors, and home runs all mix together in games as well as across a career.

You can play smart on Monday then come up dumb as a stone 24 hours later, get caught off base or miss the obvious meaning of a simple sign. Kind of like a bunch of people in Newton did when they overreacted to a harmless billboard ad that’s been hanging on the wall of Gordon Field for the last five years.

The sign is one of 20 that adorn the fence. Each sign means $250 to the league treasury. The money goes to maintain the field at a cost of $5,000 per summer because that task falls to a handful of grown-ups who make sure the place is always in decent condition for games.

Here’s what offended a few touchy-feely, politically correct busybodies to the point where they called the news media before they called anybody who volunteers to help other people’s children: The sign was donated by a beer company and carried a logo along with the message that “Our beer is carefully aged before drinking. You should be too.”

Wow! It’s a wonder the Newton East Little League isn’t assembling intervention teams rather than ball clubs or meeting in halfway houses instead of on the bench. Little League lushes.

Yet a teeny-tiny segment managed to scream loud enough so that the sign quickly came down as TV stations clamored for a picture of a billboard a few adults actually figure could turn their kids into drunks. They sure must have a lot of confidence in their ability and prowess as parents, huh? Days of wine, roses, and a few foul tips.

“It’s really kind of silly,” Terry Sack said yesterday. “If they had a complaint they should have called me or the league. The sign has been there for the past five years. It is not telling kids to drink. Just the opposite.”

Sack is 31. He’s a coach in Newton Little League. His father Jerry is 55; he’s a coach, too. They are two of the reasons a lot of kids who can’t play baseball — either don’t know how or lack ability — continue to play.

Even though it took five years to notice the sign and get suitably aggravated, some people got honked off because, to them, it symbolized a breakdown in morality. Good grief. If kids have problems due to a sign then it’s a pretty safe bet their difficulties are rooted at home, not home plate.

Newton is no different than other cities with Little League. Each league has its share of nutcake parents and kids who need a kick in the pants. And every team usually has at least one playing because dad or mom, sometimes both, figure coaches like Terry Sack are there to serve as baby sitters while they build careers and then walk around in a daze later when their kid — ignored or simply dropped off — has pink hair, six nose rings, and no clue.

The thing that does set Newton apart, however, is that certain wards and precincts are so precious that saving whales is a higher priority than cheering their kids. That’s because Newton is home to a lot of people who go to bed hoping they’ll be lucky enough to wake up in Brookline, where you’d have to assemble a clinic of shrinks and constitutional lawyers to decide whether baseball ought to be called a game or an activity.

One thing is for sure. It’s a bad sign when adults figure their own kids are such weak little simpletons that they might commit an error based on a billboard when any sane liberal knows: Ads don’t drink. People do.