Wednesday, March 16, 2005

MLB 2005: A Gibson Poem

The 2005 Major League Baseball season begins later this month under clouds of suspicion, recriminations and uncertainty. Because of the ongoing Balco trial, recent allegations by former longball hitter José Canseco, and revelations over the past few years about players such as the late Ken Caminiti, the public now knows considerably more about the prevalence of steroid use among major leaguers. Some of baseball's biggest past and current stars--Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Ivan Rodríguez, Juan González--find themselves tagged as steroid users or "cheaters," their accomplishments supposedly tainted, though questions about more players have arisen. How widespread was and is steroid use? Whose achievements were aided by or are being boosted by chemical enhancements, some of which were not always illegal? How should we view players who were, in many cases, merely attempting to advance and ensure their careers, benefiting not only themselves but also Major League Baseball itself, which refused to take the steroid issue seriously until it had to? GibsonHow many millions did it gain by looking away?

Fans thrilled to St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire's 1998 home run race against Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, which the Popeye-looking Redbird first baseman won 70-66, breaking former Yankee and Cardinal Roger Maris's unfairly asterisked 1961 mark of 61 home runs. Barry Bonds's 2001 shattering of McGwire's record with 73 home runs also brought cheers and praise, even to a player most of the media, and many fans, detest. But didn't some of us--more than a few us--suspect those 70 or 73 (or even Sosa's 66) might not have been possible without some "help"? And even if we suspected it, did we really have a problem with it? Did we say anything, voice our doubts or concerns? Didn't we want to see Maris's and then McGwire's records broken? Now Bonds approaches Hank Aaron's all-time home run record of 714 total, and I, like many, have to ask, what will the value of his new record be if he passes Aaron? Is it even possible to judge it against the accomplishments of a pre-steroid era (PSE) batter like Aaron, who also played at a time of far more overt racial hostility?

I offer up this preamble to say that although I root for the batters (roided up or not), I have always been more of a pitching enthusiast. While many baseball fans' eyes automatically beam on the box scores' HR and AVG columns, I always look at the pitching lines; a Randy Johnson no-hitter or Pedro Martínez shutout or Dwight Gooden 15-strikeout performance or Greg Maddux 90-pitch game, with no walks, are all more amazing to me than a multi-homer game (that is, unless Albert Pujols is hitting them). My favorite PSE pitcher of all is Bob Gibson, the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinal who played from 1959-1975, amassed 251 wins, a 2.91 lifetime ERA and two Cy Young awards. His greatest year was 1968, when he went 22-9, with an ERA of 1.12, posted the best single-season earned run average in the live ball era, and registered an astonishing thirteen shutouts. For the third time in five years, he led his team to the World Series (which they unfortunately lost to Detroit). He was one of a constellation of stars on the great Cardinals teams of the 1960s. Among the others were Stan Musial (who retired just before I was born), Hall of Famer Lou Brock (inventor of the Brockabrella), Mike Shannon, Curt Flood (whose courage helped to enrich subsequent generations of players), Orlando Cepeda, future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, Maris, awful announcer Tim McCarver, and manager Red Schoendienst. I even got to see Gibson pitch when I was very small, in the twilight of his career, though I don't really remember much beyond being taken to Busch Stadium, noticing the Clydesdales circling the field, and eating popcorn. I do remember, however, the stories about his ferociousness on the mound, his stint as a Harlem Globetrotter, his keen mind, his racial pride. Opposing players feared Gibson, and they respected him.

For years I tried to write a poem about Gibson, but couldn't. Too much emotion surged up every time I started writing or typing. Then about a year ago, I was able to do it. Maybe it was maturity, clarity, a better sense (from reading and teaching) of how to frame my admiration. So here it is:

1.18 (GIBSON, 1968)

Is there a mountain
as high as the mound
when he graces it?

Batters pace the circle,
step in the box, then watch
as each pitch disappears

as it nears them, praying
he's not aiming to clean
the plate, claim their noses

or breastbones as souvenirs. What
kinda mojo he putting
on them fastballs?

Years ago, the balls
were whatever he scavenged
on Omaha's streets,

his ferocity already evident
in his sandlot victories over sweet-spot
hitters and the mean realities

of daily life as a Negro.
Whatever you do, don't let the fear show.
Whatever you do, let the enemy know

you ain't playing. Every fourth game,
he faces down the opposing battery,
stare cool and deadly as a fighter pilot's,

arm cocked and spinning, drawing
beads of worry even on the cool brows of Mays,
Aaron, Robinson, Clemente, McCovey.

He froze the Yankee lineup in the '64 Series.
Leg mended, he singlehandedly took the '67 trophy from Boston.
Now, against Detroit, all of St. Louis awaits

his October magic display, wondering how many
talented Tigers he'll dispatch to the bench
puzzling how they ever made it to the majors.

Whatever he throws, he won't let the fear show.
Win or lose, his teammates and opponents know
his stakes are the highest they've ever played for.

--John Keene (c) 2005

In just a few weeks, we'll all be able to say play ball!

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