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August 8, 2013

MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?

TERRE HAUTE — Baseball has gotten too athletic.

Where have you gone, Boog Powell? Mickey Lolich? Gates Brown? Tony Gwynn? Fernando Valenzuela?

An obsession with athleticism put the game in its current mess. On Monday, Major League Baseball issued suspensions to 13 big-leaguers, including its highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez. Greed plays a role, no doubt. Players with inflated statistics and extended careers make more money, and their teams and leagues profit from their exploits and star status. But Rodriguez signed his 10-year, $275-million contract with the New York Yankees in 2007. The present scandal involving performance-enhancing drug distribution at a Florida anti-aging clinic covers 2009 to 2012.

Rodriguez already had wealth. Ryan Braun, another player suspended last month, already had a Rookie of the Year Award and was an All-Star.

Baseball has adopted a different path to success in the 21st century, compared to the days of Powell, Lolich, Brown, Gwynn and Valenzuela. The philosophy maintains that players must get bigger, stronger and faster to be better than they were before, and better than the next guy; physical power opens the door to dollars and adulation.

That mentality dropped its predecessor — “practice makes perfect” — to a secondary pursuit. Get powerful first, then field grounders and hit the batting cage like a demon possessed.

Steroids fit neatly into that formula. They give users a shortcut to highly sought-after strength, endurance and longevity. At 38, they maintain the physique of a 25-year-old — a 25-year-old Olympic weightlifter, that is. Meanwhile, a clean player turns 30 and struggles to make the 40-man roster in spring training, starts missing that low-outside slider at the plate, and quietly informs the clubhouse equipment guy that he needs the waist on his game pants to be two sizes larger.

Instead of focusing on the suspended, fans should toast the players who look human. Those who’ve lost a step of speed. Those who gasp for breath after sliding into third on a triple and pray that the third baseman catches the throw. Those whose fastball barely tops the speed limit on the interstate.

The game used to be full of those guys.

Take Gates Brown. One of baseball’s great redemption stories, Brown went from ex-con to becoming one of the Detroit Tigers’ first black players, an extraordinarily clutch pinch-hitter, and one of the most popular Tigers ever. He also grew to be a tad hefty, much to the irritation of his manager, Mayo Smith. As a pinch-hitter and utility first baseman, Brown spent a lot of time in the dugout. Eating. In one classic episode from a game during Detroit’s spectacular 1968 season, Brown had just settled in to a spot on the bench to discreetly consume a pair of hot dogs delivered by a clubhouse kid.

Suddenly, Smith summoned Brown to pinch hit. Instead of ditching the hotdogs, Brown stuffed them into his jersey, for safe keeping till later.

“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate, but this time I didn’t want to get a hit,” Brown recalled in an interview with veteran sports columnist Dave Kindred. “I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one into the gap, and I had to slide into second — head first, no less. I was safe with a double, but when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hotdogs and buns all over me. The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.”

Smith fined Brown $100.

Ah, the days of $100 fines.

Then there’s fellow Tiger Mickey Lolich. Like Brown, he was a baseball player, not an athlete, as colorful Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk once famously told a woman who scolded Kruk for smoking.

Lolich was as rotund as he was good. One of the best lefty pitchers ever, Lolich threw 376 innings in 1971. Since 1917, only one other pitcher has thrown more innings — the Chicago White Sox’s Wilbur Wood, another portly left-hander. In the decade from 1965 to ’74, Lolich struck out more batters than any other pitcher (2,245), including Bob Gibson. Speaking of the Cardinals, Lolich also earned the Most Valuable Player Award for the ’68 World Series, pitching three complete-game victories over St. Louis. No pitcher has done so since, with or without steroids.

At the tail end of his 16-year career, just before opening a doughnut shop near Detroit, Lolich discussed his weight with the New York Times.

“I’m over 200 and somewhere below 300,” Lolich told the Times in 1978. “Weight is always a big deal to everybody, but it’s the arm and not the belly you pitch with. I’m the roly-poly, I’m the beer belly, but I’m the hero to that guy watching me on TV — the all-time left-handed strikeout pitcher. ‘Hey Mabel,’ that guy is saying to his wife, ‘look at this guy pitching. Mabel, bring me another beer.’”

Here’s to the baseball players who aren’t necessarily athletes.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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