I remember once, when I was younger, watching some soap opera actress complain to Oprah (or was it Maury, or the chick with the red glasses, or the former fat chick – anyhow, somebody) that whenever she went anywhere, people would come up to her and yell at her for being a mean woman, a slut, a man-eater, just because she played a woman like that on TV. They don’t even know who I REALLY am, and they don’t WANNA know, she complained. I’m not a person, just the character. They don’t know MEEEEE…
I think the same is true for ballplayers. We see what cameras show us, we read what reporters tell us, the carefully written stories about their “lives” that their agents teach them to handle the media with. We think – Joe X is a “good guy” and Joe Y is “surly” or cancerous, or whatever.
I’m thinking about this, not just because of the Baggy Saga, where Jeff found himself, for the first time I can remember, actually forgetting to say all those uh-hunh Bull Durham lines because he got mad and forgot, but because I’m remembering that he used to be married to a stripper and go in “mens” clubs and bars, and for all we know, still does. We know he’s always seemed to play hard and play fair and been quiet about it. At least that’s the picture we’ve seen. But we don’t know the man behind the mask.
I’m thinking about this because of Kirby Puckett and Barry Bonds. Yes, I know, not Astros. Two of my favorite players (since I was born) – great players, flawed people in many ways.
Kirby Puckett – the tubby little guy who sure nuff didn’t “look like a ballplayer” or “have the good face” – he grew up in Hell on earth in the Projects in Chicago – a place where very few escape poverty, drugs and crime, as well as an early death. Kirby punched his one way ticket out with his baseball bat and glove, and never looked back.
I don’t really remember him from before the World Series in 87, but I DO remember looking at this little guy who looked like he was too fat to run or jump in center field, of all places, and every time he did anything, he looked like THAT was the happiest moment of his life. A bringer of happiness, my Mama said. Not real too many people in this world have the ability to make other people around them happy just from their own good spirit. Minnesota fans loved him, just LUUUVVVED him – the guy who was just happy to be there, the guy who was the best player on the team, the guy with REAL team spirit, the perfect community guy, the family man devoted to his wife and kids, a true winner. His career tragically cut short by glaucoma, elected to the Hall on his very first try – mostly because he was so popular – his stats really didn’t merit his election, but he was such a happy smiling guy, a loyal team guy who the other ballplayers should try to be like, a guy who would still be out there if it wasn’t for tragedy.
- what’s that old song – “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors…”
the stories appeared – Kirby was mean tempered, hit his wife, abused her, cheated on her, hit on other women, hit other women, and was finally accused of assaulting a woman. He was found not guilty in court, but his reputation took a bad hit. Kirby got a divorce from his wife and from baseball and left Minnesota, where he had been adored like Michael Jordon was adored in Chicago, and went to Arizona, where he proceeded to eat and drink himself to death. The little stubby guy, so happy, so full of life – dead 2 weeks before his 46th birthday, from a massive stroke.
“Smiling faces, smiling faces
they don’t tell the truth…
and I got Proof…”
Barry Bonds. I remember him being interviewed by Roy Firestone some years ago – Roy asked him – Barry, what’s your secret? And Barry answered, “there’s no secret, I’m just good. It’s talent and you can’t teach talent.” It was God’s truth and yet Barry caught Hell for it – not humble enough, you see. But the truth is, he WAS just good. In fact, in the decade of the 1990s, he was indisputably the best baseball player. By 1999, he was one of the 25 best baseball players ever.
He couldn’t have been more opposite from Kirby Puckett. Barry grew up in a wealthy neighborhood with the best of everything, a doting family, grew up on the ballfield with Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays to teach him baseball. And Barry was incredibly gifted. And charming. And handsome. It all came so easy to him – baseball, friends, school, adoring females. But one thing did NOT come easy to him – the “humility” (usually fake) that the media demands of athletes. No. He was outstanding – he knew it, he knew everyone knew it and he wanted to hear it without having to jump through media hoops.
But you see, we cling desperately to our stereotypes; Barry Lamar needed to be jolly happy like Kirby, a lil shy like Griffey, hey let’s play two like Ernie. (Certainly not an uppity N like Dick Allen or freaky like Kevin Mitchell or menacing like Albert Belle, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.) And Barry wouldn’t pretend.
In fact, he did just the opposite – irritated people to make them notice him. And so he got notice all right – grudging notice from reporters who tried to find plenty of criticism of SOMEthing to balance the praise for performance he deserved. And Barry did it all and did everything well (except throw hard – ask Sid Bream you disbelieve me…) and yet he didn’t get the recognition and praise he felt he deserved. He said he wanted to be taken for who he was. So true. But you see, who he was wasn’t who the media wanted him to be. Or should I say, he refused to APPEAR to be the man the media wanted him to be.
So then, what’s the Rest Of The Story? Is it true that he saw people worshipping Sosa and McGwire – both inferior to him, no doubt about it – and decided that if he had to do drugs to get ahead when no one could respect him for his being a superior player? Is it true that after getting screwed out of the MVP he deserved in 2000 AND it going to a man he (and darn near everybody else in baseball) hated that he finally decided – OK, I see all yall care about is power and HRs and you gonna get what you want?
Well, seems he did – at least according to anonymous witnesses and a rejected alleged girlfriend and alleged grand jury transcripts and alleged confessions that were never recorded and were subsequently denied by the people who were supposed to have confessed. He’s never had a positive drug test, or been arrested for any of the many crimes he’s accused of committing (for which there’s supposed to be all this evidence), but he’s sure nuff been convicted and sentenced by plenty of folks, a lot of whom want him to quit baseball and, I guess, confess and go cheerfully to prison for, for, um, well, for being Barry Bonds Himself. Cheating, they say, but you don’t hear them demanding that anyone with a POSITIVE TEST be thrown out of baseball or their statistics erased – just suspects who they don’t like (guys who hit home runs, ESPECIALLY guys who approached/erased Ruth…)
So, you say, where’s the pity?
Well, the pity is that can’t none of us seem to understand that baseball players are just men, and when it comes to men, you gotta take the good with the bad, as my Mama says. It’s true that the good doesn’t always equal the bad, but somehow, we refuse to agree that people who say or do what we like or don’t like in front of the public aren’t robots.
Kirby wasn’t all good and Barry isn’t all bad. In Kirby, the bad was all hidden away and in Barry, seems the good is all hidden away.
The pity is that Kirby never learned to deal with his dark side and when there was no baseball to balance it for him, finally drowned himself in food and drink.
And Barry never learned to deal with his good side. In my opinion, I think he thought it was weakness and if he ever didn’t push or irritate people, he would be swamped by them and would never be able to be himself. One sided love never works. The pity is Barry found out he didn’t mean it when he said he wanted to be loved for who he was, because he didn’t get the love he wanted when he WAS who he was. And so he sold out. And that STILL didn’t get him the love that he wanted – in fact got him the opposite and endangered his life and health as well. You reap what you sow…
Kirby has passed, so we forget his sorrows and his suffering and the rest of the dark and remember the guy we thought he was, the guy we loved to watch.
Barry WON’T pass away, so we throw stones and forget that there is more to him than roids and angry rejected alleged girlfriends and arrogance and fits of temper.
Such a waste, a man who forgot about all the good he was and a man who can’t never believe he’s good enough…
next time, I PROMISE, it’s gonna be Astros…