THE HARD LOT OF HEROES

If it's Thursday, this must be Oakland.
It's three in the afternoon. I'm standing on the playing field of the Oakland Coliseum watching the Cincinnati Reds take batting practice. It's so crowded I feel like I have just stepped on to a New York City subway platform during morning rush hour. There are hundreds of assorted writers, radio and television people all crunched together waiting for an opportunity to display their expertise.

Why do so many of them wear beards, I wonder. Why would anybody with a beard know anything about baseball?

For baseball-beat writers, the day between games usually presents a creative challenge. Each must hunt out the special angle that will make his/her story stand out from the pack. It isn't quite so difficult or daring as Captain Ahab's search for the White Whale, but a perfect off-day story is a rarity.

Today is different. Every writer present has been handed the perfect example of a story that will hold the reader's interest.

Jose Canseco, the Oakland A's right fielder, is the game's highest-paid player. He's been a mesmerizing and spectacular bust during the first two games. You needn't have watched baseball on a daily basis since spring training to understand Canseco's fall from grace. Radio and television reporters have been pounding it into us for three days already.

In the spring, his magnificent physical powers and a $23.5 million dollar contract had people predicting Canseco would hit more home runs and vicious line drives than anyone in the history of the game.

But the Cincinnati Reds have won the first two games. Canseco has been awful. Even his manager, Tony La Russa, now criticizes Canseco's fielding and seeming lack of concentration and dedication.

Casey Stengel or Leo Durocher, fabled managers of the past, would never have expressed it so elegantly. They merely would have said, off the record, that Canseco was guilty of one of two things: He was either "gutless" or "chasing too many broads."

And they would have been right. Things were simpler then.
Nevertheless, the problem of the possible alienation between manager and star player must be solved in time for tomorrow's daily newspaper reader.

Has such a thing happened? La Russa is a lawyer and considered so wise in the ways of the modern game that he became a centerpiece of George F. Will's best-selling book, Men at Work. Canseco is a superstar who may have better athletic tools than anyone who has ever played the game before.

There's no longer any time for newspaper writers to relax at the World Series. When the World Series was played in the daytime, writers did their stories and went out to dinner and then on to marathon poker games.

That's gone. The night games took that away. Now the writers get to the park around three in the afternoon and don't finish until hours after the game. By then it's after midnight. There's barely time to find a place that serves a cold beer.

Each minute of World Series week is hectic. The competition with television is fierce.

What's in it for the ballplayer who makes more than a million dollars a year to talk to newspaper writers whose average salary represents a minor leaguer's income by baseball standards?

Television has simply changed the equation. Give a ballplayer the sight of a television camera, light and sound people and his mouth starts moving rapidly.

In today's atmosphere, there is no time for a Jose Canseco to go off in the corner of the dugout to talk with columnists like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon or Dick Young. The result in the old days for Canseco would be a column in tomorrow's papers that was beautifully constructed and laced with philosophy and piquant humor.

Canseco is Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Reggie Jackson rolled into one enormous hot dog. He is tall with a face that continually has a haunted look. He is both awesomely strong and athletically gifted. We should not forget that his salary, equal to that of a member of the Kuwait royal family, adds to his charisma.

In game two, Canseco made enough truly bad plays under the lights in Cincinnati to become the biggest reason the A's trail this series, 2 to 0. Of course, he did hit an enormous home run high into the right-field stands with seemingly little effort. But if you're Canseco, that doesn't count for enough. Whatever Jose does now, he must do more.

An hour passes.
Writers working for papers in the Eastern Time Zone are desperate. It's three hours later in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

I walk to the Oakland clubhouse and count 59 writers lined up and waiting. Canseco and La Russa are huddling inside the clubhouse and no one is being admitted.

Suddenly, Reggie Jackson appears in the corridor. He was once a hero of the stature of Canseco, both with Oakland and the New York Yankees.

Jackson walks slowly down the corridor, nodding to writers he remembers along the way. I notice how much shorter he seems out of uniform. One day he hit three home runs in a single World Series game. He seemed quite tall then.

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