Fehr strikes out

Originally published March 16, 1995, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

FORT MYERS, Fla. ­­ “Know what the place reminds me of?” Albert Dupree asked. “What?”

“The wake of a guy everybody thought was real popular but when he passed away only half the people you figured on showed up at the funeral parlor for him,” Dupree said. “That’s what it looks like to me. Look around.”

Albert Dupree was right behind home plate at City of Palms Park the other afternoon as the replacement White Sox played the Olde Towne Team in front of a quiet crowd of about 3,000 spectators. Dupree is 73 and used to live in New Orleans before he and his wife moved to southwest Florida 10 years ago.

“I love it here,” Dupree announced. “Whole area’s got a lot of old white trash just like myself.” Everybody’s old here this spring. In a state where two out of every three residents look like prunes and move slower than a state rep’s mind, the baseball strike has even managed to dull the senses of the young and formerly hopeful fans who figure they are in need of replacement brains after simply sitting in the ballpark.

There is no getting around reality: It is a minor league product on a major league field. At best, there are perhaps two or three guys on each club who could step in and become the 24th or 25th man on the varsity if and when the regulars ever decide to resume their business.

That’s not to say the kids don’t render a terrific effort. Many of them do, but it is kind of sad to see them bust a gut on behalf of a dream that will never gain fruition.

They are nameless, faceless sacrificial lambs being slaughtered on the affluent altar of this creep Donald Fehr, who leads ballplayers headlong into a season of litigation. As soon as the real major leaguers come to their senses and sue for a secret ballot that would mean they would be back to work within 24 hours of the vote, the replacements are history.

Of course, the cruelest thing of all is to have millionaire dolts like Brett Butler of the Dodgers or the vodka­swilling righthander from Kansas City, David Cone, call the replacements “scabs.” That term might apply if this action had anything to do with organized labor, but it does not.

Cone got a $9 million signing bonus last year. He demanded the money up front in case he had to hit the bricks. That kind of money in the bank can earn you a lot of self­righteousness.

Other players, like Tim Naehring of the Red Sox, earn far less and in Naehring’s case the strike could mean he will never again appear in a Boston uniform. Certainly, fringe players like Scott Fletcher or Danny Darwin have played their last major league game.

 And boy is this game in trouble.

Here, an area where a kid can play outdoors all year long, there are a ton of basketball games every night, under the lights. Baseball, slower and loaded with striking stars, has a huge marketing and image problem.

People aren’t waiting for Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr., Mo Vaughn, Cal Ripken or Greg Maddux. They’re all caught up in Michael Jordan, a guy who hasn’t put the ball in the hoop for nearly two years.

Sporting goods stores from Fort Myers to Marco Island seem to offer more hockey jerseys than baseball hats. The Sharks, Panthers and Mighty Ducks are more well­known on playgrounds than a club like the Minnesota Twins.

It is pathetic that these clowns, making huge dough to play a sport in sunshine, don’t realize what they are doing to their livelihood. And please spare me the nonsense about today’s player fighting for the rights of tomorrow’s draft choices. A lot of these frauds charge for autographs and the only draft they care about comes out of a tap in the taverns where they pay nothing. They charge everything to their celebrity.

This job action is merely about good old­fashioned American values like greed, money, hatred and revenge. The idiots running the player’s association are living in total isolation.

They are rich fools who don’t care much at all about anyone who might make the majors 10 years from today, or anyone who played two decades ago. Most of them should have “Moi” stitched on the backs of their uniforms.

What they have going for them is their game. It remains a spectacular way to spend an afternoon. One big problem however: “I’m telling you,” Albert Dupree said, glancing around the ballpark,

“those boys better get back while there’s still something to get back to. It’s like when a man dies and only his closest kin end up going to the service. They ain’t nowhere near as popular as they think they are.”



Our true boys of summer

Originally published August 8, 1995, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

As the Red Sox returned home from Toronto last night, having brought us to the edge of a wonderful summer climax, the true magic of baseball was actually located in Bristol, Conn., where the Parkway National All­Stars ­­ the 1995 Massachusetts state champs ­­ were getting ready to face New Jersey in the Eastern Regional Finals. The game is at 2 p.m. today at Bart Giamatti Field, and for the hundreds going there by car, bus and train, it is an epochal event.

The Parkway team is made up of a bunch of boys from West Roxbury and Roslindale who are 11 and 12 years old. Yesterday, shortly before noon, they piled onto a charter and pulled away from their home field on Baker Street to cheers every bit as deep as those that rattle around Fenway when the Olde Towne Team goes head­to­head with the Yankees.

This is the second time in three years the boys of Parkway have grabbed the big baton. They won the state championship in 1993, finished second last year, then took the prize again Saturday by defeating Westfield South, 5­4.

In order to get that far, they first had to plow through a double elimination tourney. After that, they beat Medford, with Rob Lomuscio pitching a perfect game, sending them to the finals and Westfield where they emerged with a ticket to the truly big time: Bristol, the last stop before Williamsport and the Little League World Series.

The Parkway club carries the face of the city. The names off the roster give you some idea of why there ought to be optimism about the town despite the fact that grown­up public imbeciles seem unable to get out of their own way when it comes to things like building convention centers, ballparks or a school system that eases parents’ fears while also making children proud to attend and eager to learn.

Here are the Parkway All­Stars: The manager is Jim Galvin. The coach is Bob Lomuscio. The assistant coach is Bernie McManus.

The players are Billy Cuqua, Sean Fay, Tony Issa, Tony Guarino, Joe Hough, Brian Hughes, Jon Lawless, Rob Lomuscio, Miguel Magrass, Phil McGeown, Mike McManus, Matt Murphy, Mark Nicholas and Rob Ryan.

These kids, fielding flawlessly, taking the extra base, thinking principally about their team and their sport, are beyond hate, color or the petty prejudices that too often bust a spoke in the town’s wheel. All they know is that they are young and gifted and they like each other well enough to keep on winning while having a ton of fun.

They come out of a program that does not get nearly enough attention because we are too busy selling bad news and there sure is enough of that to go around. But Little League is alive and well. Baseball rules. And flourishes.

And not only with the physically gifted. There is another level to the sport in West Roxbury and Roslindale: the Challenger Program. Here, the kids range in ages from 5 to 18. Most are special needs students. Some have cerebral palsy. A couple have Down syndrome. And there are two or three autistic children in the three­team league.

But all of them play. And all of them get a turn at bat. And every one, one way or another, gets a hit and a taste of success. And if you are ever in danger of thinking you are having a difficult day because you can’t balance your checkbook or you got a flat tire, go see these kids play any Tuesday night and you will be thrilled.

That’s what people wore on their faces yesterday as the buses rolled toward Bristol: a look of thrills, a feeling of accomplishment, and the pride of being a parent.

The adults are postal workers and firefighters, teachers and nurses, delivery men and plumbers, housewives and third­shift maintenance guys. The kids, their very own sons, are living a dream, riding a thrill parade right down I­95.

Baseball is the simplest of all sports: You catch the ball, throw the ball and hit the ball better than the other team and you win. It is the only sport where you don’t have possession of the ball on offense; that’s because you have a bat, held in two hands in order to attempt the single most difficult thing in the entire athletic world: putting that bat on a baseball thrown at odd speeds in varying directions.

These kids may go on to do truly extraordinary things. Maybe there are potential scientists, authors, Nobel winners, poets and bankers among them. Maybe some will teach history or plow streets some day, but right now, this very afternoon, they will do something they’ll carry with them for the rest of their years: They will play their hearts out for a title, together, with the cheers of their home town ringing in their ears for a long time to come.

The Red Sox are home; but the true boys of summer are in Bristol, Conn.



These players are real losers

Originally published February 9, 1995, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

In my dream, the president settles the baseball strike by asking this arrogant, melon­faced dope Donald Fehr, lawyer for the players, to go to Waco to negotiate with Janet Reno. But when Fehr gets there, the attorney general orders the FBI to toast Fehr along with these imbecile millionaire athletes who, were it not for a God­given ability to throw, catch and hit a ball, are just a collection of left­handed elevator operators and right­handed 7­Eleven clerks. Another problem solved.

I mean, how embarrassing is this? No matter what you think about Bill Clinton, he is still “Da Man.” He’s the guy elected to sit in the White House. He’s the leader of the free world.

Nobel laureates, senators, members of Congress, the joint chiefs, the head of the CIA, Wall Street billionaires, corporation chiefs, university chancellors, national and international figures all arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a bit awed, awkward and respectful in the presence of power. It’s a house filled with history.

So here we are the other night with Fehr, who appears to soak his face in cement prior to every public appearance, coming out of the West Wing to announce that he and his players have flipped the bird to Clinton and to Bill Usery, the mediator. Why Fehr’s assistant, Gene Orza, practically called Usery senile.

The players didn’t like the recommendation of Usery, who settles disputes for a living. And they didn’t care that Clinton, who has enough to worry about besides a baseball strike, devoted his time to try to get grown men to go back and play a game at pay scales far above minimum wage.

What do they want, anyway?

They claim to represent a union. But what kind of union has some members cutting lucrative free­ agent deals while everybody is on strike? You figure Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis or George Meany would allow autoworkers, coal miners or carpenters to sign individual contracts while the picket line continued? The truth is that ball players are to organized labor what shopping mall guards are to law enforcement.

The players, who claim they are striking for future generations, don’t care what happens to recently retired veterans found homeless in Houston; now they’re on the bricks for some 13­year­old Little Leaguer with terrific hands and tremendous bat speed? Give me a break. They charge for autographs, treat fans like trash, and go about their selfish ways in whatever town and for whatever team will pay the freight.

And what they have done is unbelievable. In a country where the majority define themselves as workers, nearly everybody with any common sense hates the ballplayers.

Actually, “hate” is too meek a word; “loathe” and “despise” would be more like it.

Oddly enough, the strike has its roots in the near total incompetence of the owners. They were the ones who began throwing incredible sums of money at players. Confronted with near­bankruptcy, many owners began looking for ways to save themselves from themselves. They figured the solution might be a salary cap.

In the process of devising this numbskull idea, guys like the egomaniac who owns the White Sox ­

­ Jerry Reinsdorf ­­ decided to fire the baseball commissioner. He was an obstacle to their greed. In his place, they selected an empty suit from Milwaukee, Bud Selig, who, if he were a woman, would be pregnant each month because he cannot say “no” to anybody.

Stop the story here and there is no question who wins the public relations war: the players, in a walk.

Enter Fehr who, no matter what concessions are made, always says something like: “There’s nothing new here and they are not bargaining in good faith.”

The reality is that Fehr is afraid to make a deal with John Harrington, the Red Sox owner, who has been negotiating for those who have nearly ruined their own sport.

Let me tell you about Harrington: He is a tough businessman with an altar boy’s face and demeanor. He has been around a long time and I have known him a hundred years and if you cannot make a deal with John Harrington, you cannot make a deal period, because the man is both honorable and honest.

So now the whole 1995 season is about to disappear because Donald Fehr and a handful of blind ballplayers still say “not enough” to people who merely want the games to resume. Never mind that the magic of our best sport has been diminished almost to the point of no return.

Clearly, it’s time for parents all across America to sit the kids down and say to them: “Don’t you start caring about or cheering for these greedy major league ballplayers because they don’t care about you or the game you like so much. Welcome to reality.”



Baseball needs to wise up

Originally published July 9, 1996, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

PHILADELPHIA ­­ Bill Giles ­­ who sure is older than the stadium where his team, the Phillies, plays its baseball, yet happens to be a lot younger in spirit than most men half his age ­­ stood yesterday in the locker room where National League All­Stars will dress to play the American League this evening in a sport that is struggling to regain momentum and popularity. Major League baseball, stocked with talent, needs kids to survive.

“Someone pointed out to me recently that I had spent my whole life in baseball,” Bill Giles was saying. “But I told them, `Not yet, I haven’t.’ ”

Giles owns the Philadelphia Phillies, a club with a proud history. He has done everything there is to do around the sport, other than mix mud for the balls, but he knows his game is surrounded by a rising level of danger. “We have to market this product and attract the young fan again,” he said.

His father, Warren Giles, was president of the National League at a time when baseball had absolutely no competition for the minds or money of sports fans.

Television had yet to establish itself as a dominant force in American life. There was no cable, no MTV, no Sega, satellite, Game­Boy, Nintendo or computers, and there sure wasn’t a parade of athletes being paid salaries that ensured they did not have to care what fan or owner thought about their abilities or their attitudes.

“Thirty years ago, players cared more about the game, because they knew more about the game,” Jim Fregosi, the Phillies manager, said yesterday. “Today’s athletes are bigger and stronger ­­ and they’re certainly richer ­­ but they don’t necessarily know how to play baseball as well as we did three decades back.”

“That’s because we played more back then,” Fregosi added. “We played baseball from morning till night. These guys today don’t play the sport nearly as much, and a lot of them don’t have the respect for it that older players have.

“That’s baseball’s biggest job. Get kids playing baseball again, instead of soccer.”

The manager stood behind the batting cage at Veterans Stadium as the National League took batting practice in tropical heat. Ripples of warmth rose from the artificial turf as Jeff Bagwell and Chipper Jones took turns knocking the ball into seats filled with spectators who had come out just to see players practice.

There were a ton of kids on the playing surface surrounding both dugouts, and ballplayers had to run a gantlet to get to the cage. Most stopped to sign balls and caps held in outstretched hands by youngsters with huge eyes: Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Cal Ripken stood and signed, while Brady Anderson, Wade Boggs and a few others pretended the kids were not there as they pushed past them, never even bothering with eye contact.

Everyone knows baseball has a problem except the players. There is an arrogance about too many of them that threatens the stability of the best game ever invented.

Football is fine, but it is difficult for a child to truly identify with somebody as big as the World Trade Center. Basketball has a similiar problem: It’s played by millionaires who are 7 feet tall, while hockey, with the nicest professional athletes, is only on the verge of becoming more than a regional sport.

Baseball, however, is democracy disguised by bat and ball. You don’t have to be terribly big or terribly fast. It is a game kids can still play with a parent years after Little League memories have been magnified in the rear­view mirror of imagination. Almost anybody can play catch.

But to keep on liking this wonderful game it is necessary to like those who play it for a living. Sadly, if there are indeed a whole lot of likable athletes in the major leagues, they are doing a wonderful job of hiding their warmth behind a wall of big money and incredible indifference.

Suddenly, Albert Belle came up the steps of the dugout and onto the hot turf. The begging children looked like pygmies alongside the bulk of the Indians’ outfielder, but their polite ­­ and they were truly polite ­­ pleas did not matter, as Belle spoke to a single friend while ignoring everything and everyone.

There, with all his talent, as well as his hideous lack of civility, Albert Belle was a metaphor for professional baseball: blessed with ability but totally unconcerned that those who walk away shaking their heads, their view of a great game warped by basic bad manners, might find something better to do than come back to the game.



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.