Hitler. Stalin. Garvey.by Chris Jaffe
December 22, 2008
There is no kind of heartbreak for a baseball fan quite like your first grand disappointment, that first time the team in which you put all your hope and faith lets you down. That is doubly true if the anguish occurs when you're a child and haven't quite yet learned how nasty reality can sometimes be.
I was nine years old in 1984, living a nice sheltered suburban life. Even though my dad was a Sox fan, I had gravitated toward the Cubs. In the previous years, I had only watched the Cubs fight the Mets for next-to-last place in the NL East. Hardly the stuff of revered epic poetry.
In 1984 they suddenly started playing like a real team—one with talent even! They created such a warm atmosphere that the sun shone a bit brighter, the sky seemed a bit bluer, and "Go Cubs Go" actually sounded like a good song. It's funny the impact a good team can have on one's perceptions.
The Cubs beat back the surging Mets in the summer, capturing their first postseason appearance since my father was in diapers. They easily won the first two games of the best-of-five NLCS, putting them on the precipice of the pennant. A loss in Game 3 hardly seemed a big deal. They still had two games left. I still had the perfect faith of a child who didn't know any better.
Then came Game 4. I don't want to go into the details and this intro has already gone on long enough. Simply put, one phantom haunted the Cubs that game. That menacing force drove in a run in the third to help give the Padres an early lead, in the fifth to tie the game, and in the seventh to take the lead again.
In the ninth, he faced Lee Smith with the game tied. I can still remember the sight of Steve Garvey rounding first base after hitting his two-run walk-off home run that tied the Series at two games apiece. Up to that moment, I had no doubts the Cubs would win. As soon as the ball cleared the seats, I lost the faith. Their loss the next day seemed preordained.
The Cubs have let me down worse. They famously blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Marlins in the 2003 NLCS. They completely wet their pants in successive NLDS in 2007-08. Mostly, they insulted my intelligence and loyalty by trotting out a series of horrid teams over the years. Somehow, none of those disappointments can ever top the one that came when I still naïve enough to think things worked out in life.
Also, from that day forward, I had a clear and unmistakable least favorite player of all-time: Steve Garvey.
We all have our least favorite players, but it is so much better to have Steve Garvey as your least favorite player than anyone else. Stop and think for a second. Everyone has a player or two on his or her List of the Damned. Many people, like myself, base it on something that happen on the field. That can become problematic.
Detesting any player for what he does on the field is irrational. We all know this, but as fans we all feel this way toward one or two individuals whose crime against humanity was nothing more than successfully earning his paycheck while wearing the wrong set of laundry. As a result, a danger lurks that your personal baseball anti-Christ is actually a world-class person. Wouldn't that suck? You invest all this animosity and scorn ... towards a nice guy. What a bummer.
That is the glory about loathing Steve Garvey. He's Steve Garvey—who in Hades feels bad for him? Forget the fact he beat my team for a second. Around that same time, he badly embarrassed himself off the field, getting caught fathering children out of wedlock. Someone had the bright idea to start selling bumper stickers declaring "Steve Garvey is not my Padre." He's the ultimate player to dislike.
In fact, his status as the most vilifiable player was proven in a rather unscientific method a couple years ago at a discussion at Jim Furtado's excellent Baseball Think Factory website. A thread there launched into a discussion of who everyone's least favorite player was.
After 100+ replies, someone noticed three clear themes emerged in the Most Hated Player Sweepstakes. People picked their least favorite because he either: 1) did something unspeakably vile to your favorite team (such as help beat them); 2) committed some sort of dastardly off-field transgression; or 3) according to the sabermetric point of view, the individual was overrated by the public at large.
Naturally, the question arose if anyone fell into all three categories. Steve Garvey fits the bill if you're a Cubs fan. No one else in that thread could think of another Trifecta of Scorn winner. This could only mean one thing: Cubs fans have the obligation—nay, the sacred sworn duty—to vilify Steve Garvey more than any other fan disdains any other player in all baseball history.
Which was pretty cool, because, of course, that was already the way I felt about the guy in the first place.
This revulsion of Garvey isn't just the attitudes of one nerdy internet community, either. Take a look at what the BBWAA has thought of Steve Garvey in their Hall of Fame voting for him. He started out a very strong candidate for induction, regularly scoring about 40 percent of the vote in his first half-dozen times on the ballot. Then, as his whole Steve Garvey-ness got to them, they recoiled in horror. Recently, he's dropped down to barely more than 20 percent of the vote.
That's virtually unprecedented. Players who consistently score 40 percent of the vote do not lose half their support in Hall voting. Maybe there's a one-year blip, but that's not the case here. In fact, in the first half-century of BBWAA voting, only one player (Gil Hodges) ever came in the top five of a Cooperstown vote and has since failed to win election. And Hodges is currently near the top of the Veterans Committee backlog. Garvey twice finished in the top five.
There is only one good parallel to the cratering of Garvey's Hall of Fame candidacy: Maury Wills. He briefly sneaked over 40 percent before crashing down to a Garvey-esque 20 percent, before rebounding a bit in his final years on the ballot.
The reasons for the collapse are fairly clear. In the early 1980s he performed the most comically inept managerial job in baseball history while with the Mariners, but the feats of Rickey Henderson made Wills seem unimportant in comparison, and Wills topped it off by getting busted for drugs. Still, his fall from voting wasn't as serious as that of Garvey.
To put it in perspective: according to the BBWAA, which, love it or hate it, serves as good an approximation for national opinions on baseball matters, considers being an inept, drugged up, overrated player to be especially reprehensible—yet still not quite as bad as being Steve Garvey. As a Cubs fan, may I say: Awesome!
Please realize, we don't have much else as Cubs fans. No glory, no success. Our fondest memories are tinged by eventual defeat. We're the Confederate widows of major league baseball. But we do have one thing: the most justified repulsion toward one player of all. That's all too appropriate (boy, and how).
Thwacking Steve Garvey has since become a running gag over at that site, and no one ever utters a peep in his defense. The attitude toward Garvey is reminiscent of a line from the Blues Brothers: "Use of unnecessary force in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved."
The more outlandish you can be towards Garvey, the better. He's our nation's favorite whipping boy. You can call Garvey the common enemy of all humanity and Mets fans, and the only protest you might get is for the needless slam taken at Mets fans. No one ever argues another player should be scorned as much as Garvey, let alone more.
Sympathy for the Garvey
There is a little secret underlying this all: when you get down to it, Garvey's sins are very marginal. He fooled around and had a few kids on the side. You can look at any clubhouse in major league sports and find a half-dozen guys who have done the same—and several others who have done far worse. Cripes, he's St. Francis of Assisi compared to most of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ah, but those other players merely have legal trouble based on drugs or booze or weapons or assault or whatever else. People can overlook that. Ah, but Steve Garvey committed the one misdeed that American society refuses to tolerate: hypocrisy.
Steve Garvey wasn't just another jock who got caught sleeping around. He was so clean he squeaked when he smiled. He intentionally cultivated an image for himself as the World's Greatest Role Model. Christ, when Morganna the Kissing Bandit ran up to him when he stood in the batter's box, he actually ran around the plate to get away from her. It was enough to make you puke up your milk and cookies.
There was always a sense he was a fake. With the Dodgers, he got in a big fistfight in the clubhouse with teammate Don Sutton. He had a nasty divorce in the early 1980s. When he started to get hit with paternity suits, though, his reputation was shattered.
In some ways, though, it's even deeper than that. Our society can forgive—or at least cease baiting—a hypocrite, provided he asks for some degree of atonement. Jim Bakker wrote his book, I Was Wrong, for instance.
Garvey hasn't done that. He still tries to pass himself off as some sort of role model. About a decade ago, when ESPN had their end-of-the-century sports stuff, they interviewed Garvey for one of their sports history specials. In an apparent reference to the animosity some teammates (such as Sutton) had for him, Garvey merely noted how some people are jealous, and what a terrible thing that is. He still tries to get people to buy his faded Dudley Do-Right façade.
This isn't merely an unwillingness to admit the rest of the world no longer buys the role model snake oil he sells. An article about Garvey a few years ago sheds some interesting light on him. According to it, he is living beyond his means, spending in a way to preserve a façade of perfection while the underlying reality is quite different. This is especially surreal because he's been a punching bag for over 20 years. He's apparently ruining himself to live a lie that everyone stopped listening to long ago.
His 21st century financial problems and his 1980s image hit have an underlying similarity: there is an overly aggressive interest in the image he presents to others. It goes beyond maintaining a false front. He is more concerned about his image of perfection than anything else, including basic day-to-day concerns that any rationale individual should prioritize. This is something downright pathological.
At a certain point, I start feeling bad for the guy. Dammit! That ruins the entire point of having Steve Garvey as Least Favorite Player. This is a piston not firing properly in the man's head. It's an inability to face reality. People that out of touch with reality are normally only found in mental institutions or the Illinois governor's mansion.
This same occurs theme occurs in a blog entry that KC Star columnist Joe Posnanski wrote which, shockingly enough, actually defends Steve Garvey. He recognizes Garvey's personal and playing shortcomings, but still defends him by noting:
I'm not saying that Garvey was Captain America or anything close. I'm saying that he WANTED to be Captain America, at least out loud; It mattered to him to present something larger than life to fans, to give the haters a big target, to be something a little bit more.
Regardless of what one thinks of Garvey, he was fairly open in his ambition and desire for public acclaim. Unfortunately for him (on a personal and mental note) this hankering for the public's embrace might be his main mental tent pole. His fixation on what people think of him dominates his activities and ultimately proves his undoing. When everyone realizes he really isn't Captain Goody Two Shoes, he continues his slide.
Garvey was overblown by the hype in his prime, but now he is excessively denigrated by that very same image. Live by public persona, and die by it as well. By now he might be as underrated a player as he once was overrated. His reputation continues to cloud all. Garvey was good and dependable player in his day, and he deserves plenty of credit for his performance in the 1984 NLCS.
Lastly, there is one story about Steve Garvey I do appreciate. Late in his career, he went before his team's Clubhouse Kangaroo Court. The charge: on a team bus trip somewhere, he had the driver drop him off at his house rather than the destination with the rest of the club. That didn't seem kosher to the rest.
The very nature of a kangaroo court makes it rather difficult for anyone to beat the rap. Yet Garvey proceeded to do just that. In his defense he whipped out not only a permission slip from the bus driver, not only a letter from the club permission giving saying he could do it, but last and certainly not least, a note from his mother. Yeah, he went there. I'll give him credit for that.
References and Resources
The kangaroo court story came from Baseball Confidential by Bruce Nash and Alan Zullo. It's from memory as I haven't seen it in decades.
Minor nitpick note: I'm aware Governor Blagojevich has spent virtually no time in the governor's mansion, Springfield, and apparently things southern Illinois is The Cell at 35th/Shields.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.