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.
Reggie either needs a shave or has adopted that current style which holds that it is quite chic to walk about with a two-day growth of beard.
Toward the end of the corridor down which he has strode like an exiled prince, Reggie stops to talk with Dave Anderson of the New York Times.
Anderson has his notebook out. That's enough for Reggie. He accepts the signal that it's time for him to go to work.
"How about Canseco?" Anderson asks.
"He's my friend," Reggie says, in a voice loud enough for writers a dozen feet away to hear. The crowd shifts to him, sensing a performance is about to commence. Reggie backs up against the wall, and the writers form a semicircle.
"I still live my baseball career through him," Reggie says, "but Jose's not dominating the game right now. With the amount of money he's making, I want to see him be the most dominant player in the game. He hasn't done that.
"Now I was an animal," Reggie almost shouts. "I was the best. I made the most money and so I knew I clearly had to play better than anyone else.
"Canseco, on the other hand, is a sensitive guy. And besides, he's got a bad back.
"But it's like Eric Davis, the Reds outfielder, said the other day: `When you're making three million dollars a year, they don't ever say anything about the fact that you're playing hurt.
"You say he's a sensitive guy," Murray Chass of the New York Times blurts out aggressively. "Could something like this affect him the rest of his life?"
"I don't think so," Reggie says.
Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune jumps in. His voice carries even farther than that of Chass, his archcompetitor.
"Do you think he should be playing out there in right field tomorrow night?"
"Canseco, of course."
"Shee-eet," Reggie guffaws, "you gotta run him out there in a fuckin' wheelchair. Damned right, Canseco ought to be playing."
"Well, he can't throw," Holtzman insists.
"I don't care," Reggie says quickly. "Get him out there."
Laughter all around.
Anderson says, "Because it's the World Series, right?"
Reggie smiles. He knows he has the crowd. He begins one of his peculiar monologues. It is a rap during which he serves as both questioner and respondent.
"Get the fuck out there," Reggie says in a singsong voice. "You only need to make one throw or two tomorrow. You got all winter to heal."
He describes the problems of great hitters of the past:
"But I asked you," Reggie says to himself, "how many home runs did you hit in your career, Ted Williams?"
Reggie takes on the role of Ted Williams.
"I hit 521 home runs, but I missed five years because I was in the service . . . "
Reggie steps back and raises his head and gazes above the crowd of writers.
"Ted, I don't have time for those excuses. I've got too many other great hitters to cover today."
"I hit 521 home runs," he says in Williams' voice.
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