While on our way to breakfast Saturday morning, the subject of former Oriole, now newest member of the Houston Astros, Trey Mancini, came up. All of Orioledom was sad to see Trey go, but happy that his first three hits for Houston were all home runs, including a grand slam. You don’t even have to be a baseball fan to know that Mancini had to sit out the 2020 season while undergoing treatment for Stage 3 colon cancer. I remarked to Martha that “Baseball needs more Trey Mancinis and fewer Alex Rodriguezes.” And therein lies the core problem with Major League Baseball.
MLB seems to think that the sport is all about glitz and glamor and launch angles and spin rates and clown costumes for uniforms (hello, San Diego). The ad men who run the sport don’t realize that baseball has never been about that. It’s always been about the stories, which are always more interesting than statistics.
I have nothing against Shohei Ohtani. A strong case can be made that he’s the best player in baseball today and that he and Babe Ruth are the two greatest two-way players in baseball history. He seems like a nice kid and I’ve never heard anything bad about him. I’ve never heard his story, either. If he has one. Same with his teammate, Mike Trout, a future Hall of Famer, but what do I care about him? I wish him well, but frankly, he’s just not that interesting. Mickey Mantle, on the other hand, now he was interesting! Here was this 19 year old switch-hitting country boy, named after Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, who was so fast, he was dubbed the “Commerce Comet,” his home town being Commerce, Oklahoma, playing under the brightest of lights in Yankee Stadium. So fast, yet powerful enough to hit balls completely out of ballparks. Off the diamond, New York’s bright lights overwhelmed the kid and his demons often threw high-hard ones past him. But in the end, there was redemption and thousands—more like millions—of middle-aged kids wept at the news of his death.
If Ohtani and Trout and most of the current crop of ballplayers have stories, start telling them. Otherwise, they will be remembered, but not revered, and if baseball loses its sense of reverence for The Past, it loses an important part of itself.
Every season is a new chapter in a never-ending book that requires interesting characters if we’re going to keep reading. For the past five years, Oriole fans couldn’t bear to watch the team, but we all rooted for Trey Mancini because of his compelling story.
This past week, all of baseball mourned the death of Dodger play-by-play man, Vin Scully. He was so beloved because he was a master-story teller. His description of each game—and each game is a story unto itself—bordered on poetic. He called Dodger games from the time Jackie Robinson played through the Clayton Kershaw era. Is anyone going to stand up at his funeral and say, “Boy, the statistics he could spout”?
The average spin rate on a major league four-seam fastball is 2,143 RPM. What does that even mean? I have no context for that. On the other hand, when Chuck Thompson, Baltimore’s own, beloved wordsmith, would say of Cleveland’s Lee Stange, “He can throw a strawberry through a battleship,” I knew what he’s talking about! And, I have remembered that image for going on 55 years now. It was a one-line story, but a powerful story, nonetheless.
If you want this game to thrive, tell us the stories. Give us the story of Nolan Ryan’s fastball at age 45; give us more Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer. Tell us the tale of what might have been with Steve Dalkowski and Pete Reiser. Tell us about the momentary glory of Gomer Hodge. Tell us about how Trey Mancini overcame Stage 3 colon cancer and how he hit a home run his last time at bat in Camden Yards and how he started the next phase of his career in Houston with three long balls.
Tell us good stories if you want us to stick around.