Why I Hate Joe DiMaggio
Tom wonders about Major League Baseball’s refusal to create new legends.
The ball is juiced, Sammy Sosa’s bat is corked, pitching is watered down, Barry’s on steroids. All of these are ways of saying the game is not as good as it once was. If the “Decade in a Box” from the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract has taught us anything, it’s that retired baseball players from every era have insisted that the integrity of the game has been compromised since they played. Yet it’s not just the players. The David Halberstams and Roger Kuhns of the
world convinced me during my impressionable youth that the special players like Joe DiMaggio or Sandy Koufax could never be surpassed.
Today, I hate Joe DiMaggio, or to be more specific, I hate David Halberstam. More than that, I resent Major League Baseball for allowing David Halberstam to determine who is great. When I was growing up, no one alerted me to the fact that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Tim Raines and Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandberg are all-time great players. They couldn’t be that great, my memories of them aren’t the sepia-toned poetry of the mythmakers, complete with Homeric epithets. Instead these all-time greats struck me as perfectly ordinary ball players. They seemed to strikeout with the bases loaded as often as everyone else, not like Ruth, Cobb, Mays, or DiMaggio who, according to legend, never failed. Major League Baseball has allowed the mythmakers to influence how modern ballplayers for too long.
Since becoming Commissioner, Bud Selig has seemed intent on following the lead of the NBA and NFL in reshaping the divisional structure of baseball as well as adding layers to the playoffs. Whether these moves have been positive is certainly open to debate, but they reveal Selig as open to change. Unfortunately, Selig seems to miss one of the key lessons that the NBA and NFL: use media to influence the perceptions of your audience.
“On the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…” begins the legendary invocation of John Facenda. And so NFL Films inducts Bart Starr and Tom Landry and Lombardi into the pantheon. The NFL is a league with a keen sense on its own history; however, they never let that history diminish the present. Kurt Warner, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, all are modern day greats whom the NFL refuses to allow the media to diminish through discussions of a league watered down through expansion. Those discussions never arise because, even though the game is increasingly becoming about the coach, it is presented as being about the players.
Meanwhile, in baseball, Barry Bonds had the bad taste to shatter the all-time homerun record too soon after it was set and so his achievements are dismissed as the result of anything but personal skill. Just as the great homerun chase of 1998 was dismissed by a handful of sepia-minded traditionalist. Oddly, the media have on the whole ignored the fact that
three great players have surpassed the record of a mediocrity. They also ignore the fact that, even in context, Barry Bond has in the last two years had two of the greatest seasons ever. According to Baseball Prospectus, even after one adjusts for the “rabbit ball” and smaller ballparks and stronger batters and watered down pitching, or whatever myriad other conjectures
serve to explain the recent offense upsurge, Bonds’s season was one of the greats ever. By most any comprehensive metric, Bonds is one of the five greatest players ever to play the sport. Sure he may be cocky, but he is great enough that his performances could fill weekday afternoon airtime on an all sports network during the offseason.
Most weekdays, on a Wednesday afternoon in December for instance, one can turn on ESPN and see a much younger, much less smug Dan Patrick sitting on a dated beige set. Amidst the tacky polystyrene set, the puffy-faced Patrick is interviewing basketball stars in between replays of NBA playoff games that took place back when it had to be difficult for basketball players to
prevent their scrotums from peeking out of their shorts. The replays are remarkable, not only because of the afros, but because they show how the game remains the same even as the league implements changes. NBA basketball was and is dominated by the players who managed to turn their immense athletic gifts into basketball skills. Even in a league that once contained as transcendent a player as Jordan, they tell us of a new breed of player, Nowitzki and Yao, tall, agile men who could with refinement dominate centers while also draining three-pointers. They tell us of that young man whose wondrous potential will illuminate the basketball world. Perhaps LeBron James won’t live up to the hype. Perhaps Mark Teixeira won’t live up to the hype either, but I suspect fewer people will notice if Tex fails. But, why are people talking about Tex? Why don’t the hopes of the Free World rest on his shoulders? Why isn’t baseball discussed more seriously?
Joe DiMaggio’s greatness never entirely showed up in stats. You had to see him play to truly appreciate his gifts. He had the “face”, the good Italian upbringing, the service time, and the bespectacled, mousy big-league brother. More than anything else, DiMaggio had an effortless grace in center that belied his speed. The man could also get a jump on the ball, it was as if he knew where it was going to be hit before it was pitched. And running the bases… you’d never seen a player go first to third like DiMaggio.
Andruw Jones just appears cocky. With his physiognomy he can’t help but appear that way: Jones combines Rickey Henderson’s cheekbones with the youthfully soft and innocent features of Ernie Banks. Andruw Jones, even as his defensive prowess has diminished a little with age, blows the pompous and bloated memories of DiMaggio’s defense out of the water. By most statistical measures, DiMaggio was never as good as Jones. Never. You’ve never seen a flyball chased down until you’ve seen it done by Andruw Jones. Sure Erstad may get to more balls, but his hardscrabble broken-collarbone style doesn’t have that special Jones grace. Andruw Jones glides to the ball; his every movement is softened by a downy layer of clouds. As the leonine Andruw prowls the outfield grass, his easy manner conceals a deadly explosiveness.
Jones is a man whose skill should be exploited. He plays to be watched and so he should be put out there to be seen. Alas, Selig refuses to take marketing the sport to the next level: extended commercial programming whose only cost is in its production. The opportunities here are endless. Stealing from the NFL, they could compare Jones to a ballet dancer with Swan Lake playing in the background. Or perhaps, give his diving catches the Leni Refenstahl diving-sequence treatment. However they choose to market it, Jones’s defense should play an important role in the two-hour Braves season recap to air during the dullest part of the off-season. If ESPN doesn’t want it, (which I don’t see why they wouldn’t since they show the same Billiards Trick Shot Championship about 50 times) Major League Baseball can start its own network.
It’s easy to understand how sportswriters could have tricked me into thinking that players I’ve never seen are so much better than the ones I watch everyday on television. Through television, I’ve been exposed to Sammy Sosa’s failures, whereas Halberstam gives me DiMaggio’s success. That I can be so misled is ultimately a failure on the part of Major League Baseball. With all the video, bandwidth, film and radio waves expended on delivering me Major League Baseball during the season, it’s difficult to understand why they rely only on twenty second slices from episodes of Baseball Tonight to remind me of Barry Bonds offensive brilliance. A good production team could
easily make Bonds a compelling figure for dreary winter months.
Posted: June 24, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 21 comment(s)
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