MLB…Heroes.

I have heard it said that one of the problems facing the youth of America is that they have no heroes to look up to as role models in their lives. I am not sure I agree with that, but I do see where the argument can be made. There are a lot more single-parent homes now. The examples being set by some in the mainstream media are less than ideal (Kardashians anyone?). Even in our world of sports, we are finding so many examples that are less than heroic.
Okay, I hear it. I understand the debate. I tend to look at this discussion differently because I was blessed to have some heroes to look up to as an impressionable kid. Some of them may seem silly, but to me they were very real and they helped to shape my conscience today. But before I get off on some introspective tangent, I want to confine this to one of my happier places. This place exists between two pure white chalk foul lines, a beautifully maintained infield, and great expanses of perfectly manicured green grass.
My first baseball hero was my dad. He was not a big guy, but on a baseball field he was. He was a left-handed hitter with some serious pop in his bat. He could play multiple positions and he was a slick infielder and a smooth outfielder. I never got to see him play in his prime when was on the United States Air Force Pacific Rim championship teams. My dad could have played major league ball, but that is not the life that he wanted. I respected that. When my dad would sit and tell me the stories of his playing days, I was transfixed. My dad was my very first baseball hero, and still to this day, is my biggest. It was because of him that baseball is my first love. He didn’t have a lot of time to play with me, as I had two other brothers who needed attention, too. But I treasured the times when he did. I remember on some lazy, weekend summer afternoons when I was sitting around with nothing to do, and my dad would come out of our garage with our baseball gloves and a ball in his hand. He didn’t have to say a word, but I was up on my feet faster than any soldier could obey the call to attention from a superior officer. He would have a little smirk on his face, and I would have a huge smile on mine. And we would simply have a game of catch. He instructed me where I needed it, and he encouraged me to be a better player. And we would talk. It was in those times that he helped shape me into not a better ballplayer, but a better person. Even to this day that finds me at 50 years old, I find myself wishing that I would still see him walking towards me with our gloves, and we could play catch again, not so much for the game, but because he was my hero.
I had heroes from the major leagues, too. The first that comes to mind is Sandy Koufax. He was arguably the most dominating pitcher who ever donned a uniform. He was from my era, or should I say the end of his career coincided with the beginning of my life. He was quiet and classy. He didn’t do what he did because he wanted to call attention to himself. He was far too classy for that. He did his job under the constant ugliness of anti-Semitism, and through it he always maintained his dignity. When he decided that his arm had enough and the pain became too unbearable, he simply retired, even though he was at the top of his game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sandy Koufax, and he is one of my baseball heroes.
My next baseball hero is Greg ‘The Bull’ Luzinski. Why? Because he had a cool name and he could knock the cover off of a baseball. I will be the first to admit that he had an almost toxic glove, but this isn’t about a player’s ability. Remember when I said that some of my choices of heroes could be looked upon as silly? This might be a good case in point.
Next is Frank Tanana. The hard throwing left-hander from the California Angels made quite an impression on me. It is too bad that he blew out his arm early in his career, and ended up as a junk-ball pitcher. But when he was young and blowing the ball past everybody, he was quite the hero to me.
This list would not be complete without a catcher, because I was a catcher. This used to be a point of amusing contention between my dad and I. He said that he would never understand how anybody could want to be a catcher, and I would ask him how anybody wouldn’t want to be one? This went on all the time between us, and it was okay. Anyway, my last real major league baseball hero was Carlton Fisk. I used to love to watch ‘Pudge’ play. I fashioned my game after his. He was a get dirty, hard charging, enthusiastic player who happened to have exceptional skill and feel for his position. There were many great catchers who I could have used as inspiration. Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, and Gary Carter were all the very definition of greatness, but to me there was none better than Carlton Fisk.
I really wish that kids today could look at some baseball players as heroes. Not because of multiyear, multi-million contracts, and not because of some of the press that they generate, but because they are stand-up guys who truly love the game. Guys like Jason Varitek , Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez, and Andrew McCutcheon, among others. In our world of 24/7 mass overexposure, it can be difficult not to become somewhat jaded. I understand that. It is a very different world today than it was then. I miss the innocence and wonderment of my world from back then. I was lucky to have heroes. I truly hope that the kids of today can find some too.

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