It’s hard to have heroes in this day and age. Especially ballplayers. Ballplayers are human, all humans have faults and heroes aren’t supposed to have faults. Today we know everything about these guys and the more information we have about someone the less heroic they’re likely to seem.
I’ve had baseball heroes, however. Two of them in fact. What made them heroes in my eyes could not be any more different. The first, Alan Trammell, was the traditional sort of sports hero with which we are all familiar. The boyhood hero.
While I am a Braves fan today, I lived in Michigan until I was 11 and the Ralph Houk/Sparky Anderson Tigers of the 1970s-80s formed the basis of my baseball DNA. I went to a lot of Tigers games. My parents tell me the first one was on the Fourth of July, 1978. I don’t remember a thing about it. The first one I remember was June 17, 1979 against the California Angels. Trammell hit a home run that day, so he instantly became my hero. If Champ Summers or Aurelio Rodriguez had homered maybe it would’ve been them, but it was Trammell. That’s how heroism works for a child. For whatever the reason I idolized Trammell in that odd way only a child can idolize a stranger about whose life one knows nothing. Indeed, it was precisely because I knew nothing about his life that I could project all manner of heroism onto this shortstop in white and blue.
Years passed and, eventually, I moved to a part of the country where the only baseball I could see were Cubs games on WGN and Braves games on WTBS. The Cubs had a pitcher named Greg Maddux who intrigued me, but I was far more of a Braves fan and didn’t pay him much mind. Eventually he joined the Braves and I watched nearly every one of his starts.
Maddux soon became my favorite player, but not my hero. I was a 19 year-old college student when he joined the Braves and 19-year-old college students don’t have sports heroes. I may have watched all of his starts, pored over all of his mind-boggling statistics and dreamed about the action on his two-seamer, but I would never have called him a hero. I was far too worldly and mature for that. I knew too much.
By 2006 I was a married office worker with two kids. Though not truly old yet, I felt old. I felt like the world was beating me and that whenever one could say I had been at my best, that time had long since passed. I got joy from time with my children and joy from escaping into baseball, but otherwise I felt completely cooked.
One day that August my firm comped a bunch of us tickets to a Dodgers-Reds game down in Cincinnati. Greg Maddux, his years in Atlanta long having since passed, had just been traded to the Dodgers from the Cubs and was pitching for Los Angeles that evening. I was pleased to see him pitch but worried all the same.
Like me, his best years were in the rear-view mirror. In many ways he was cooked too. I wondered sometimes if he, like me, wondered where it all went and what he ever might do to feel vital again. I wondered if watching him pitch at age 40 would be difficult. Difficult for what it said about him and what it said about me.
Control was always Maddux’s calling card but he walked a guy early and it made me worry that it’d be a long night. He soon settled down, though, and started throwing bullets. One inning. Two innings. Three. Wait, five innings and the Reds hadn’t scratched out a run. Wait a minute — they don’t even have a hit. Maddux is throwing a no-hitter.
The sixth inning starts. There’s a long fly ball and . . . it’s caught! Another . . . but caught! The third batter of the inning comes up and Maddux mows him down. It’s 1995 all over again. Heck, it’s better than 1995. Even in his prime Maddux never threw a no hitter. He was around the plate too much. He couldn’t not throw strikes. It just seemed to bother him. That’s why he always, eventually, gave up hits. Here he was now, however, unhittable in his 21st year in the big leagues. In a three-quarters-empty park on a sleepy, steamy Thursday evening there was hardly anyone there rooting for him, but as he walked off the mound at the end of six I was cheering at the top of my lungs, virtually alone.
The steamy night soon turned into a stormy night. As the top of the seventh began, the skies opened up and a deluge fell on Great American Ballpark. Lightning. Thunder. The Dodgers batted and the half inning ended just as the umpires called for the tarp. For forty minutes we sat. I knew that there was no chance that Maddux was going to come out for the bottom of the 7th. He was 40. His arm would be tight. He was a Hall of Famer already. He didn’t need the no-hitter for his legacy or his happiness. The Dodgers picked him up for the stretch run and they needed to save his arm. No one is what they once were.
The game resumed with Joe Beimel on the mound. He gave up a hit to the first batter he faced. The Dodgers ended up winning 3-0. Maddux got the win. I got to see him pitch like he was in his prime again, and got to see him leave the game before anyone remembered he didn’t have it anymore.
I was too old to have baseball heroes when Greg Maddux joined the Braves and I never considered him a hero in the eleven years he pitched for them. But on August 3, 2006, Maddux became the second baseball hero I ever had. Not because I knew nothing about him and could thus project all manner of heroism onto this pitcher in gray and blue, but because I knew everything.
I knew what it meant to feel old and past my prime. I knew what it felt like to remember when I could do anything but not be able to will myself to do it like I once did. That night Maddux reminded me that, even when you’re not the best anymore, you can still do your best. That if you try your hardest and if things break right for you, you can still emerge victorious and, possibly, even triumphant even when your best days are behind you. He reminded me that, in many ways, it’s even more satisfying to triumph under such circumstances than it is to triumph when everyone expects you to.
A decade later, I no longer believe that my best days are behind me. Somehow, I stopped believing that on August 3, 2006. A hero taught me otherwise.