Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2004-01-08 08:24
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to

Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley were introduced as the newest members of The Hall of Fame in New York yesterday. Stories in The Boston Globe, New York Times and Daily News focus on Molitor and Eckersley's recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Last night, I perused my library in search for something good on Molitor. The first (and last as it turns out) place I looked to was Dan Okrent's book about the 1982 Brewers, "Nine Innings." Okrent, famous for "discovering" Bill James, was a featured participant in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. (Emily and I have been watching some of the episodes lately, and she keeps goofing Okrent's red-rimmed glasses.) I've never been able to get through the entire book, which is a shame because the Brewers teams of the early eighties were an extremely appealing bunch. I pick it up in fits and starts, but it never holds my attention for long.

Anyhow, I looked through the portions dealing with Molitor's story and couldn't come up with an excerpt that was particularly revealing, although his early career was far from dull. Molitor, a golden boy, was moved around often, first playing short, then second, then center field, right field and finally third base (and all of this in the first five years of his career). He was as aimable as you would ever expect anyone that talented to be. But when he was benched one day in place of Don Money at third, he finally became testy:

"I don't like it one bit. Let someone else sit if they want Money to get his at-bats."

Okrent added:

His anger was uncharacteristically splenetic.

I didn't know what splenetic meant, so I looked it up. Turns out it means spiteful, irritable, ill-humored. Now, I love words; I especially enjoy looking up words that I don't know (of which there are many). But after I discovered the meaning of the word splenetic, I couldn't stop thinking about Okrent's red-rimmed glasses. (It's a good word, but one that struck me as pretentious in this instance.) I stopped thinking about Molitor and I mumbled and cursed about the word splenetic for the duration of the evening.

It reminded me of when I was a freshman at Hunter college and was taking a 400 level class on Samuel Beckett. I was living with my father in my grandparent's spacious apartment across the street from the Museum of Natural History. They had both recently passed away and the place was in the process of being sold, but for a few months it was home. I remember studying for a mid-term in the dining room. Papers covered most of the table and I was knee-deep in high-falutin philosophies, when a friend of my father's stopped by for a visit.

Jim was what you'd call a man's man. He was from the James Caan, Gene Hackman school of masculinity. He was funny and wry, and looked great in a leather jacket. He was one of those guys who looked as if he could live off cigarettes and coffee for the rest of his life. He sat down with me and asked what I was studying. I pulled one of the essay questions out which concerned a concept put forth by Descartes which said, "Nothing is more real than nothing." I was consumed with how the total heaviosity of the statement and how it related to Beckett's work.

Jim said, "Nothing's more real than nothing..." He mulled it over in his head for a minute. I was expecting him to share some deep life experience with me. He continued to repeat the statement to himself. He then snapped out of his train of thought and looked at me. "Nothing is more real than nothing? You know what? I'd like to talk to that guy. I really would. I'd like to have him sit right here, across this table and ask him exactly what he means by that. Nothing is more real than nothing? You know what? I'd like to punch him in right in his face. Punch him square in the jaw for asking that kind of question."

I wonder what Jim would have made of a word like splenetic in describing a ball player.

I moved along and broke out "Cracking The Show," Tom Boswell's fourth collection of baseball writing, and found an article written in early 1989 about Eckersley. It makes for a nice compliment to the articles in today's papers about Eckersley's recovery from addiction:

This is a second chance for me. Not too many people get a second chance. I am just so happy about what has happened to me that I don't want to stop...I've been so lucky, how could I be [upset about Gibson's homer]? You wouldn't be very appreciative if you acted that way, would you?

...I shouldn't have thrown him a strike...But think about how hard it would have been to take if it had happened to me ten years ago.

Boswell went on to write about Eckersley's good fortune, falling into the closer's job on the powerful A's team:

Eckersley is the first to point out that the A's are a closer's dream. No other team has four quality setup men in the bullpen. "Goose Gossage had to pitch two innings, somethings [Bruce] Sutter had to go three," he says. "I go one. Don't want to say my job is easy. But it can't get much better than this.

The Athletics' great talent helps. "I can only stay sharp if I pitch a lot," he says. "I only pitch when we win. And we win a lot. So I stay sharp."

Yesterday, Boswell wrote an insightful piece about how closers have been neglected by the baseball writers of America:

When will the sport, and specifically my peers among the baseball writers, figure out that no player in the sport is more central to success than a great closer? At any one time, almost every team in baseball has a legitimate slugger and at least one fine starting pitcher. Some teams have several of each. But perhaps half the clubs in the game can claim to possess even one superior ninth-inning door-slammer.

...When are we finally going to see some basic decency toward the great relief pitchers of the last 50 years? The bullpen got torched again yesterday by a bunch of ink-strained wretches who couldn't hit a Dan Quisenberry sinker or an Elroy Face forkball if you gave each of them two tennis rackets. If relievers such as Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, Sutter, Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Steve Bedrosian, Mark Davis, Eckersley and Eric Gagne are so good within a one-year span that they are chosen over all pitchers for the Cy Young, then how can the entirety of their careers be judged as so inconsequential?

Heck, if I were Sutter or Gossage, I'd be feeling positively splenetic, no?

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