Long Ago and Far Away: Sports Heroes of a Different Time
People ask me all the time how I got into sports journalism. “Did you always want to be a sportscaster?” is a regular question. “No, I always wanted to play third base for the Baltimore Orioles. This seemed like the next best thing.Since quarterbacking the Colts was being occupied by John Unitas.”
I guess I’ve always been interested in sports, always playing something and always active. My mother says I would definitely have been called “hyper active” by today’s analysts and probably been put on some kind of medication.
But when it was clear I wasn’t going to make money playing sports, reporting on them would keep me close to the games. While I had my heroes, Unitas, John Mackey, Brooks and Frank Robinson, the media shielded me from their failings, softly reporting on their “slumps” on the field and never talking about what might be going on “Outside the Lines.” I’ve often wondered how I might have reacted if Brooks or Frank had been dissected the way modern day athletes are while under the glare of constant inspection.
Perhaps because of my job I never let my own children participate in the kind of hero-worship that was a de facto part of my childhood. Maybe I deprived them of something they should have, but dealing with superstar athletes and coaches as part of my job exposed them as people with extraordinary talent but people nonetheless.
Not to name drop, but when Russell Crowe was in town a few years ago with his rugby team, he talked about how the Rabbitohs reflected the neighborhood they represented, South Sydney. “They played the game the way people in that part of town expected them to play. Hard, the right way. It helped form my personality.” I had a chance to talk to him about that at length one day while he was here and reflected on my own upbringing in Baltimore and how the Orioles, and the Colts helped form my sensibilities.
There was an “Oriole Way.” They wrote books about it. It was the right way to play baseball. Period. Earl Weaver’s death reminded me of that. For all the media coverage of his temper tantrums and ejections, Weaver wanted the game played the right way, the Oriole Way, and that lead them to being the most successful franchise in sports during his tenure.
Being raised in an American League city, those guys in the National League seemed very far away. Only Saturday afternoon games on television brought them to life and the World Series often defined their careers. I knew all about Mantle and Maris, McLain and Lolich, and Yaz. Mays was a towering figure regardless of what league he was playing in but Bob Gibson could have been playing in another country until October rolled around.
Stan Musial was different though. He was mythical. You’d hear radio reports, read box scores or follow television commentators who talked about his hits, doubles, consistency and unfailing charm. He couldn’t be real? Could he? Perhaps like Oriole fans of that generation, Cardinal fans are glad there was a bit of distance between their on-field hero and us mere mortals. We’re missing some of that mystery these days. Musial would have have been the perfect Oriole.
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