Playing Favorites: To Grow Up (and Stay Young) With a Best-Loved Player

Adrian (as in Beltre) makes a great name for a girl or a boy (via Keith Allison).

Adrian (as in Beltre) makes a great name for a girl or a boy (via Keith Allison).

We were in the kitchen, my wife and I, talking about having a child.

“Well, if it’s a boy,” I said, “I’d like to name him Adrian.”

She grinned and shook her head. She knew why.

“And if it’s a girl,” I added, “I’d like to name her Adrian.”

The reason: that 5-foot-11, 220 pound chunk of awesomeness named Adrian Beltre.

Adrian Beltre is my favorite baseball player.

You might have one, too, even as an adult. You probably had one as a child.

Perhaps like me, you find symmetry in the sentiment.

I love Adrian Beltre – the boyish style, the masculine air, the dismissal of convention while embracing what’s cool about baseball. Have you watched him play the game? That’s the thing: He plays the game, and you have to watch him. His greatness goes past the numbers. Sure, the nuts ’n bolts of his saber-greatness might send him to the Hall, but it’s the process that you need to see. Highlights? They are not enough. They are snippets of Sinatra, swatches of Matisse. Yes, they give you a glimpse of this man’s genius, a window to the pillow hands, the cannon arm, the cyclone swing. But to rely on highlights is to deny yourself his theater.

He is a singular twin, a player made whole by contradictory halves. The twinship is in the face: That furrowed brow can quickly yield to an honest grin, and vice versa. He is whimsy and gravitas at once, the embodiment of a boy’s game that doubles as a man’s business. His shtick with Elvis is true legend: They fight over pop-ups and banter constantly, as if mistaking the big leagues for stickball. And yet his wizardry is well established, the leather so grand that four Gold Gloves is not enough. He turns doubles into right-hand turns. He is coolness in chaos. During a ninth-inning tie, he’ll jabber with the go-ahead runner on third.

Is he serious?

Well … yes and no. The soundtrack is Stravinsky and Yakety Sax.

He is a talker, a shouter, an ohhhh-sh**ter, gauging no moment too important or routine for words. His give-and-take with King Felix is must-see TV. They talk between pitches, maybe during pitches. On a line drive to the outfield, Beltre will shout at his old teammate while the ball is still in the air, offering play-by-play and off-color commentary at once.

The game within the game – this is his domain.

He is elegance and awkwardness in the same bad-ass form, a hitter who drops to a decorative knee in the midst of a home-run follow-through, and a fielder who throws with a weird, flat-footed, side-arm style, so eccentric that you can’t believe it got him here but so powerful that, yes, OK, where else would he be? Where else but on a big league diamond, making plays that dare the writer to describe them?

He is the guy who Groucho Marxes at the camera but who also hits three dingers in a playoff game. Go ahead: Touch his dome. He breaks into laughter now, having turned his hilarious hang-up into light burlesque. More? Interviews reveal that he is a man among men and rookies, the leader by way of actions and words. He is fluent and funny in two languages, key to team chemistry. He is humble, gentle, but tough. A few years ago, only a blitzkrieged testicle could get him off the field. Now, unless he’s on the DL, he pretty much tells the skipper that Adrian’s playing.

Adrian is always playing. The word is flexible, and it is key to Beltre.

He throws his glove at grounders. He puts up a +WPA of 14.66.

He learns to run with blown hammies. He dances to Happy.

He, like Derek Jeter but to far less acclaim, is Lifebuoy clean, a player whose actions have never so much as passed through a rumor. But something tells me – as it should tell his opponents – that he’s the last guy you’d pursue in an on-field brawl.

He’s a stud. But listen to his kids chant, “Let’s go, DA-ddy!”

He laughs with the catcher and ump in the midst of a key at-bat, but no, not everything is funny. The win is a solemn crusade. Last year, new teammate Lance Berkman joked about the 2012 World Series – the Rangers’ devastating loss to Berkman’s Cardinals – and if reports are to be believed, Beltre didn’t even grin.

It doesn’t hurt – OK, it really, really helps – that he plays for my favorite team. I think of the years that I mostly missed his greatness, and they feel like a void. I thank free agency for bringing him to me, just as I thank great fortune for the moment that brought me my wife.

Yes, I love Adrian Beltre – no, not like I love my wife.

I love him like you love your favorite player.

But yes. I would absolutely name my child – boy or girl – after Adrian Beltre.

———

The “favorite player” – as a man, an idea, an archetype – is something that most fans have in common. Of course, the commonality ends at the denominator. The differences are in the numerator, which welcomes anyone from DiMaggio to Trout, Mays to Cabrera, Mantle to Mark Lemke – huh? – and Drysdale to Darrell Porter. Huh. The reasons are many and motley. He played for your team. He manned your position. He had a certain something. Whatever the case, he ushered you from childhood to adulthood, where you might still look both ways.

Curious, I contacted several baseball writers and asked about their favorites of past and present. Each, to some extent, had a boyhood favorite. And each, to a different extent, still embraces a player or players as the object/s of some admiration. John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, loved Duke Snider. Michael Bates, of SB Nation, adored Kirby Puckett. Eno Sarris, of FanGraphs and THT, really liked … Mark Lemke? “And Rafael Belliard!” he is quick to add.

The reasons, like the seasons, are connected but far apart.

Bruce Markusen, author of numerous baseball books and articles, gave his boyhood heart to Roberto Clemente. “He was my idol, my hero,” he says, “in large part because I share a Puerto Rican heritage.” Craig Calcaterra, of NBC Sports’ HardballTalk, had a fondness for Alan Trammell – “he hit a home run at the first major league game I remember attending” – while Dayn Perry, of CBS Sports’ Eye on Baseball, can draw a direct line from Darrell Porter to Yadier Molina.

“I grew up a Cardinals fan,” he says, “and he was of course central to their winning the World Series when I was 10 years old. My father and older brother seemed to adore him for his aw-shucks-ness and his reputation as a clutch performer. All of that was not lost on me…. Porter’s glasses, which somehow seemed clumsily dated even in the early ’80s, added to his appeal. He was a sturdily built, elite athlete, but those specs made him look like he had no business being out there. That was cool.”

Sarris, likewise, valued both blue- and white-collar qualities, though not in the same player. “I liked two different kinds of players growing up: the hustler that got the most out of a lacking package, and the superstar. I always liked Barry Bonds from the moment he came up with those earrings and all the flash…. But I also loved Rey Ordonez, for working hard and playing great defense. Mark Lemke and Rafael Belliard!”

How did he show admiration? “Wiffle ball at-bats.”

Sarris wasn’t alone in using the stance as veneration.

“I admired Jackie Robinson, but I loved Duke Snider,” Thorn says. “Not only would I imitate his cocked-elbow swing before the mirror, I would practice his swing in the house. Once, perhaps in 1955 or ’56, while imagining myself to be him, I swung the bat and smashed the case of my parents’ Admiral TV.”

C. Trent Rosecrans, now the Reds reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, adored George Brett. “I’m left-handed,” he says, “so I used a crouch for the longest time, plus the one-arm follow-through.”

Bates made no such effort. “I couldn’t emulate (Puckett), because he was inimitable.”

He explains. “To a Twins fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was synonymous with Minnesota baseball. He was billed as everything a ballplayer and a person should be, a lovable round man who smiled all the time, played his ass off, worked hard to turn himself into a world-class athlete, and was nice to everybody.”

But just as Perry can draw a line from Porter to Molina, Bates can draw a line – from Puckett to Puckett – that goes to a different grown-up end. “My opinion of Puckett didn’t change until after he retired and we started to learn about how terrible he was to women. I still have a lot of great memories of him from my childhood, and I’m grateful to him for that, and my feelings on him remain complicated, even as I acknowledge he was a bad person in many ways. If anything, the best lesson I learned from Puckett was to stop idolizing and romanticizing players.”

For other writers, that isn’t so easy. “As I grew up,” says Thorn, “my ardor for the Duke waned but my admiration for Jackie only deepened. As I said to Ken Burns more than 20 years ago, Jackie was the man who shaped the crowd, which is what a hero does. Of all the players I have seen play, he remains my favorite.”

As for Rosecrans, you might say he’s a grown-up version of his boyhood self but also a different person, a kid who became a reporter who left some room for nostalgia. “I had a George Brett poster on my wall most of my life,” he says. “I still have a framed one in my home office. It’s part of growing up, it’s me.”

But no current player stirs a similar feeling. “There are players I enjoy dealing with. But there’s no ‘favorite player’ feeling. That just seems like something from a lifetime ago.… I’m lucky enough to watch Joey Votto on a daily basis, and I find him fascinating to watch…. I’m happy when the good guys do well. There are people you deal with who are good people, and you’re happy for them when they succeed. Like last year… Jonny Gomes and David Ross were always pros and good to deal with, so I was happy for them that they won the World Series.”

Others have made a similar shift from sentiment to high opinion.

Calcaterra: “I was around 19 when Greg Maddux joined the Braves, and I just took to his pitching style like gangbusters…. Though really, it wasn’t the same sort of thing as a childhood favorite. It was more of an appreciation. I can’t say I have a current favorite player. … Yasiel Puig interested me for a few months last year. I’m fascinated by Andrelton Simmons’ defense. Tim Lincecum always has drawn my attention. But it’s more transitory than anything.”

Perry: “These days, I’d count Yadier Molina as my favorite player to watch…. ‘Favorite player as an adult emeritus’ goes to Pedro Martinez. Obviously, he was a sublime pleasure to watch pitch. Also, one time I interviewed him, and he mentioned something in passing about his kids. I asked him how many he had, and he responded something to the effect of, ‘Oh, man, a lot. I’ve got a lot of kids.’ He also got palpably excited when talking about his change-up. You could tell he relished his craft.”

Markusen, too, can shift from fan to writer: “Clemente is still at the top of the list, but I would say that I now have a co-favorite player.… Tommy Davis. I tend to like players who have had to struggle and adapt, and have bounced from team to team. I find their stories generally more appealing than the worn-out stories of superstar players.… While in Oakland, Davis became one of the game’s great pinch-hitters, a lost art in today’s game. He later became one of the first designated hitters in history… For a player who had to adjust and become a front-foot hitter because of the ankle injury, he found a way to hang around for 18 seasons…. I’ve never interviewed Tommy Davis, but my goal is to do just that.”

Bates? He still enjoys a connection – to Johan Santana – but it’s less personal now.

“I got so much joy out of watching him pitch for the Twins, and making people look silly with his change-up, and I am holding out hope he can come back and be effective in some form or another. But I’m not invested in him as a person anymore. I don’t need Johan to be nice to kids or pets in order to appreciate what he does. I would prefer if he were nice to kids or pets, but that’s not important to whether I enjoy him as a baseball player. The whole point of following baseball, no matter who you are, is supposed to be the joy it brings you…. So, as an adult, that’s why Johan has been important to me. All that bonus joy.”

As much as anyone, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan might embody the stages of the coming of age. Growing up, he liked Randy Johnson. Now it’s Felix Hernandez.

“He’s a link to my most emotional and committed Mariners fandom, in my late teenage years and early 20s. He was supposed to be the savior then, and he was my everything, and though I probably couldn’t feel that way about a new player now, you could say Felix has been grandfathered in. With Felix … it’s this weird blend of aggressive confidence and over-protectiveness. Like, I think Felix is the most amazing thing, and I love to talk up his achievements, but I also panic at the slightest sign of trouble, like bad command or reduced velocity. I think we all do, because we all live in fear of the day Felix isn’t Felix anymore. I’m not prepared for that, and while I’m sure I could and will deal with it, things are going to be different on that day and the following days.

“I enjoy baseball, and as a part of enjoying baseball, I enjoy Felix the most. My favorite baseball memory is watching Felix’s perfect game from my living room one weekday afternoon. I know that, most of the time, I feel like an adult. I know that, that afternoon, I felt like a kid. Maybe that’s why I love Felix so much in the first place. Adults don’t have to act like adults all of the time. Some act like children after drinking alcohol. I act like a child watching a baseball pitcher.”

———

Seasons replace the seasons.

One way or another, the young move in on the old. You are always in the middle of it, gauging the demands of maturity. Perhaps you have found some symmetry there. Mine is reflected in the number 29, a number that Adrian Beltre and Rod Carew have shared.

I loved Rod Carew – the unorthodox look, the exotic air, the dismissal of custom in favor his own approach. Here he was, this otherwordly figure, crouching low and twirling that wand in a weird prolog to a calculated act of violence, ready to flip those magnificent forearms at an inside fastball or outer-half curve. At night in my room, with dreams of rendering Popeye a pitiful form, I’d do forearm roll-ups with a 10-pound weight. Up and down it would go, inching my arms closer to Yankee Stadium, under the lights, in the anxious air of October.

In second-period English I’d search those forearms for signs of cooperation. Alas. Yet even without the piano chords of sinew, I’d still do my best Carew in the box, crouching low and coiling my bat in hopes of the same results – better results, really, since a .360 average in youth ball was no big whoop. Already I grasped the numerical marks of greatness. At the time, batting average ranked as mankind’s one true measure of athletic achievement – a metric dispatched from the heavens to distinguish Carew’s divine heights from Mendoza’s mortal line.

“Stand up straight, hands above the shoulders,” my dad would say, gently, as I BP’d.

As directed – as expected – I’d stand up straight.

But in my head? Still crouched.

My dedication had depth and width. One day, confident that loose-leaf tobacco would be the key to extra-base hits, I shoved a Carew-like chaw in my cheek, a bulbous homage to my hero. The result? Let’s just say it wasn’t a double down the line. Later, having read that Carew had embraced Judaism, I turned from the New Testament to the Old, hoping that Yahweh would do what Jesus might not: allow me to lead the league in hitting (yes!) and to reach the major leagues. (No.)

For the time being, faith would not surrender to the real world, except as it came in the morning paper. Without Internet or cable TV, I’d go to bed sans knowledge of Carew’s night, a strange vacuum in a sphere of recorded history. Dreams of 4-for-4s, or, let’s get real here, 4-for-5s, would yield to the instant when my eyes found the proof of my idol’s performance and its affirmation or destruction of those very same dreams – candy or socks in a stocking, three knocks or an 0-fer in the box.

At times, Carew’s successes would even relieve my failures. Frequent were the mornings when his 3-for-4 (with a double and a triple!) served as good medicine for my own goose egg – a remedy, or at least a placebo, for the very ailment that his mastery could make acute: the dread that I might not become him after all.

I never found it odd that my favorite player didn’t play for my favorite team. While hardly a birthright on the order of Yankees or Red Sox passion, my rooting interest in the Rangers was still an accident of birth, or of geography, or however you might characterize the bond a boy is born into. But my favorite player? That was personal, a private ownership of a public figure whose peers – many of them, anyway – might have seemed equally viable candidates.

Yes, that was a choice.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you don’t choose your favorite player. Maybe the choice is made, as it were, in that mysterious precinct where a guy later finds his love. And if the relationship is long-distance, well, so be it. The heart can bend space if it has to. Mine had to. Carew’s team seemed a continent away, a world apart. TV, with its two or three games a week, rarely cooperated. I kept in touch through agate and rare highlights, which in tandem rendered Carew a kind of divinity whose occasional, exceptional appearances only fortified the canon.

Whenever he came to town, I went to see him. One night, as I walked through the lot, I heard the PA guy announce the lineups: no Carew. Some scrub had replaced him, an understudy for Olivier. My heart dropped to my arches. I arrived early the next time, hoping to head off a lineup change with the signs of my affection. And there he stood, near the dugout, signing autographs in the time before first pitch.

Minutes later I stood frozen near the rail, ostensibly awaiting my turn but actually catatonic, a shrunken, motionless figure just five feet distant from the man who for so long had been so far away. I watched his forearms ripple below those perfectly trimmed sleeves while I gripped a ball in my inferior hand, sweaty but still in possession of the object that had brought me so close.

Standing nearby, an usher told us to turn back. Game time was near. I wouldn’t ever forget him – the face of censure, the model of disappointment. I stood my ground. I inched closer.

The man shouted, “We need to get these kids out of here!”

I pushed past the usher, elbowed him aside. He was a sideshow to my mission.

Carew glanced up. He had seen me, and issued something close to a smile.

Mine was the last ball he signed that night. It is with me today.

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Comments

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe said...

    I was a shy little kid during the Straw That Stirs The Drink days, and Reggie Jackson’s brazen self-confidence absolutely captured my imagination. I still admire him to this day, as he is very generous with his time and attention to today’s little kids.

    • John Paschal said...

      That’s awesome, Comradde. Thanks for sharing. I myself have vivid memories of the drink-stirrin’ dramatics of Mr. Jackson. And yes, he’s proved himself to be a very good dude.

  2. gary lester said...

    Clemente and Marichal were mine – Clemente was the star of my favorite team…and Marichal was just the epitome of cool – how I wanted to be able to replicate that let kick

    • John Paschal said...

      I’m not quite old enough to have really seen Clemente play, but here’s a cool truth: As a kid, I played against his sons in a national baseball tournament. They played for the Puerto Rican team. That was the first time we as players had ever heard cowbells, horns, drums – you name it – during a game, and we absolutely loved it. After the game, we met the Puerto Rican kids in a room at the hotel we shared and exchanged T-shirts. I traded a Dallas Cowboys shirt for one that included the word “flores.” That’s all I can remember: the word “flores,” in red type. I wore it until it finally gave out.

  3. tz said...

    John, you might have left out the most bad-ass Adrian Beltre fact.

    He is the only Dominican-born ballplayer* to actually be younger than his listed age when he signed. The Dodgers were penalized by MLB for signing him at the age of 15.

    This meant that Beltre was just 18 when he led the A+ level Florida State League in home runs (1997):

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/leader.cgi?type=bat&id=f7ede64b&sort_by=HR

    (Now I know why Chuck Norris and Adrian Beltre have never been seen in the same place at the same time. )

    Congrats on your favorite team snagging your favorite player.

    • John Paschal said...

      Yep, that’s a bad-ass fact, indeed – perhaps the baddest in the field of bad-assery.

      Oh, and also not seen in the same place at the same time? Adrian Beltre and Steven Seagal.

  4. Rrr said...

    Nice article. For me, it was Barry Zito. First, because of the gorgeous curve and the whole zen persona. Then, it was because he became an unfair scapegoat for a ton of fan bullshit about the contract. Like it was his fault Sabean outbid himself?

    • John Paschal said...

      Thanks, Rrr. (By the way, how do you decide which “r” goes first?) But seriously. I like your way of thinking. Obviously, I’ve always enjoyed players who are a bit different than the rest. And yes, Zito’s curveball was a work of art. Mesmerizing.

  5. RH said...

    I saw Mantle’s last 4 seasons, and he was a god in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I was 12 years old when Bobby Murcer was labeled “the NEXT Mickey Mantle,” and when he homered against the Senators on opening day in 1969, I was hooked! He remains to this day, may favorite athlete, and, next to my dad, my biggest hero. I never rooted for an individual player again until A-Rod joined the Yankees in 2004 (Yes, I actually typed that sentence.) The combination of his incredible talent, and the bizarre and irrational jealousy and scorn heaped upon him by his teammates, hometown fans and New York media since the day he arrived only served to mesmerize me. Even after his career/life disintegrated into a train wreck of epic proportions, his first 7 seven seasons in New York remain, for me, the most exhilarating baseball experience since Bobby Ray roamed the Yankee Stadium outfield.

  6. Mike Scarlett said...

    While growing up, my favorite player was Mackey Sasser for the silliest reason imaginable. I began collecting baseball cards at six years old and Sasser was the lone member of the Mets, my favorite team, whose card I didn’t own. Naturally, to me this meant that he must have been a big star if I couldn’t have pulled his card by then. This was before chase cards, etc, so it was merely a fluke, but I stuck by Mackey. Every game on Channel 9, I’d be annoyed if he wasn’t starting ahead of a Barry Lyons or Charlie O’Brien, I imitated his unfortunate double-pump when I faked playing catcher, and loved his no walks, no strikeouts hitting style (even though I walked plenty myself). Irrationally, I blamed Todd Hundley for chasing the guy who “should” be the team’s starting backstop out of town, despite fully understanding Sasser’s shortcomings. Those were humanizing, though, and being a fan of a superduperstar was never my style.

    After Mackey’s retirement, Rusty Greer picked up the mantel even though I cared little about the Rangers and lived nowhere close to Texas. There was something about his all-out manner of play and underappreciated solid play that spoke to me, and I still remember being basically the only person that I could see in a packed Yankee Stadium cheering when he hit a grand slam off of Hideki Irabu in a 1998 game. Since then, I’d say that I fall more into the “admiration” class than having a bona fide favorite, although Hideki Matsui (I have a fondness for Japanese players and the type of ball played there) and Zack Greinke (pitching style, plus personality-wise he’s the most similar guy to me that I’ve seen) are as close as it gets.

    I enjoyed this piece, John. Great job!

    • John Paschal said...

      Thanks very much, Mike.

      By the way, it’s absolutely awesome that you copied Sasser’s double-pump. That’s dedication!

      And yes, Greer was an easy guy to root for. It’s too bad that his all-out style contributed to the premature end of his career.

  7. Meursault said...

    What did you name your child, John?

    This is an exceptionally well-written piece. It has a weighted resonance quotient-plus (wRQ+) of 190 (average = 100).

    • John Paschal said...

      Well, as of now, we have named the twins “Additional Free Time” and “More Disposable Income,” if you get my drift. But if and when the bundle comes, “Adrian” will still top the list.

      And thank you for the compliment. It’s very much appreciated.

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