When it comes down to it, the story is the thing. Whether we are talking about one of the great comics like George Carlin, or a great movie, a magazine article or blog entry, we are attracted to stories and to storytellers. Baseball of course is replete with wonderful stories, some true, some not. (As Rob Neyer explores in his new book, sometimes the truth can only get in the way of a good story.)
Has anyone ever read Prophet of the Sandlots, Mark Winegardner's gem of a book about travelling with Tony Lucadello, one of the most successful scouts in big league history? If you haven't, there aren't many baseball books I'd recommend more. Lucadello signed a ton of guys, including Jim Brosnan, Alex Johnson, Toby Harrah, Larry Hisle, Fergie Jenkins and Mike Schmidt. Like many scouts, he was a great storyteller. Here is a scene, featuring Carl Loewenstine, one of Lucadello's protogees:
Though Carl is in his late thirties, with a drawl, a bushy red mustache, a chaw of tobacco, a Dodgers World Series ring, and friends in the country-music business, he has more in common with his mentor than appearances suggest. After Tony secured him the full-time job with the Phillies in 1979, Carl was first assigned to the Deep South. As we sat in an unheated press box in rain-soaked Dayton watching mediocre playes flail about on a muddy field, Carl started telling stories. The best involved a quaest into deepest bayou country on the trail of a huge high-school dropout with a blazing fastball, no shoes, a drinking problem, and a pregnant twelve-year-old girl friend. Carl ended up signing the kid, whose can't-miss fastball couldn't save him when he left his minor league team in Oklahoma to rob a bank, tryingo to get enough money for the girl friend to buy her own house.
I asked why baseball has always been such fertile territory for stories and storytellers. My theory is that ball players, coaches, and scouts have so much time to kill that those who can tell the best, funniest, most ornate stories are naturally the most popular, which helps them stay in baseball, which allows them to amass and embellish more stories. Carl nodded, spat, and said maybe so. "My own theory on that," he said, "is that every player in major league baseball has overcome the odds. Only a tiny fraction of the players who are stars in high school or college ever get signed. Then, probably only one in two hundred of those players make it to the majors. Then, only about half of the those players stay around long enough to say so. Of the ones who do, most are out of the game in five or six years. Your players who make it, really make it, are one in several million. Everybody's a long shot. But there's always that chance. And that's the great equalizer, the thing you'll find in most every real baseball story."
Ah, to be able to hang with the likes of grouchy old' Don Zimmer for a spell. Or Joe Torre. David Cone might offer some good ones as the season rolls along, and I bet Giambi's got more than few good stories to tell, dont' ya think?