A personal Homer Odyssey
Sometime in the second half of the 20th century man persuaded himself that the triple is baseball's most exciting play, which is nonsense, for how many Bleacher Bums ever threw a triple back?
A triple never caused a scoreboard to explode, or Russ Hodges' head to do the same, or Bernie Brewer to slide into a celebratory bath of beer. Nobody knows, and nobody cares, that Babe Ruth had 136 triples, in part because none of them was a called shot. No boss ever said, while praising an employee: "Skinner, you really hit a three-bagger today." If tonight's Home Run Derby were instead a Hit-One-to-the-Rightfield-Corner Derby, you wouldn't watch, because triples -- in baseball as in love -- are just getting to third base.
Baseball's consummate play is its consummating play, the home run, which really does touch 'em all: Grown man, old woman, be-gloved child, Famous Chicken, proverbial chick. That chicks dig the long ball was revealed to me on October 9, 1973, when I came home from third grade to see my delirious mother, a Cincinnati native exiled to Minnesota, running the bases of our shag-rugged family room as Pete Rose did the same at Shea Stadium.
Rose had just hit a 12th-inning home run off Harry Parker to win Game 4 of the NLCS. Ever since that synchronized circling -- Rose and Mom, running for home plate and love seat, respectively -- I've been able to recall my life in home runs, a homer odyssey to rival Homer's Odyssey.
Two years after Rose's shot turned a homemaker into Home Run Baker, my whole family was gathered in our family room on October 21, 1975, for Game 6 of the World Series. As Carlton Fisk tried to wave his home run fair, we were all his mirror image, trying to wave it foul. For a split-second, there was a body-language standoff, the Rushins and Fisk waving the air back and forth at each other as if it contained a dog's fart.
At that time, another kid in my hometown was hitting balls over invisible fences in our local Little League, and later over chain-link fences in high school and legion ball, and eventually over walls advertising car washes and greasy spoons in the minors. Kent Hrbek made his major-league debut on August 24, 1981, at which time he hit a 12th-inning home run at Yankee Stadium to win the game for the Twins, setting off a celebration in his -- in our -- native Bloomington. That's what the home run can do. The instant Hrbek touched home, he really did touch home.
Three years later I went off to college in Milwaukee, the same year the Brewers canned Bernie Brewer, their lavishly mustached, lederhosened mascot who slid from his chalet into a frothing mug of beer after every home team home run. And so I spent four idyllic years instead at an Ivy League institution, which is to say the ivied institution of Wrigley Field, where I sat in the bleachers absorbing the serial dingers of Andre Dawson. Opposing bombs were dutifully regurgitated, and when Phillies outfielder Jeff Stone lost a shoe chasing down a big fly, many in the bleachers threw a single shoe onto the outfield grass, before departing to neighborhood bars half-shod, half-cocked, fully contented.
Still, I braved the Bernie-less bleachers at Milwaukee County Stadium for games on August 29 and 30, 1987. On the Saturday, Kirby Puckett, in the prime of his prime, went 4-for-5 with two home runs against the Brewers. On the Sunday, he was a silly 6-for-6, with two more home runs, and many Minnesotans in the crowd celebrated Puckett's 10-for-11, four-homer weekend by doing a reverse Bernie Brewer: The beers dived into us.
Two months later -- while studying for a journalism degree, in an apartment in Milwaukee, on a roommate's '50s-vintage console TV -- I watched in astonishment on October 24, 1987 as Hrbek hit a grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series. October 26, 1991, it was Puckett again, in the World Series, but this time I was in the press box as his Game 6 winner off the Braves' Charlie Liebrandt fairly lifted the roof of the Metrodome, like it was the silver dome atop a fancy entrée, removed with a flourish by some white-gloved waiter in the sky.
Every so often, in highlight reels of historic home runs, my life literally flashes before my eyes: I am a blur in the background, in the leftfield auxiliary press box in Toronto, a baseball falling in front of me on October 23, 1993 as the camera focuses on the figure in the foreground. Joe Carter's World Series-winning shot is less a walk-off home run than a bounce-off home run. He runs the SkyDome bases like Tigger, and afterward, in the clubhouse, as Carter gets undressed, a man from the Hall of Fame is there to claim his clothing, his equipment, everything but his smile, which remains hanging in the air, so that the Blue Jays' slugger now reminds me of another feline. Not Tigger, but the Cheshire cat.
When Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of that steroid-fouled season --September 8, 1998 -- I was alone in a Manhattan apartment, thinking of a conversation I had with him years earlier, when he'd never hit more than 49 in a season. McGwire told me hitting 50 home runs was a psychological barrier for the same reason so many infomercial products were priced at $19.99. "If it's $20," he said, "you start to think about it." By the time he was hitting that 62nd off Steve Trachsel, en route to 70, the 50-homer barrier -- and thinking twice about a $20 purchase -- were long in McGwire's past.
Five years later, on October 16, 2003, I was newly married, in a one-bedroom condo in Connecticut, sitting on a futon with my Massachusetts-raised wife, when her Red Sox -- 85 years without a world championship -- blew a three-run lead against the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. When Aaron Boone led off the 11th with a walk-off home run, my wife reeled backward, like she was running the bases in reverse, trying to roll back the odometer and make the moment un-happen.
But in 2004, Boston finally won the World Series, and our first child was born, and our daughter became a Sox fan entirely over David Ortiz, whose home runs and complicated facial hair she has always admired in equal measure. The Sox won the Series a second time in our eldest daughter's first four years of life, so that she now takes all of this -- the homers, the titles, the elaborate beardwork -- as her birthright. Life, liberty, the hirsute of Papiness.
A few seasons ago we took the kids -- there are now four -- to Miller Park in Milwaukee, where they saw Prince Fielder go yard. Bernie Brewer now slides into a sponsored hot tub in squalid celebration, but no matter. Having spent a week with Fielder's father, Cecil, when he hit 51 homers for the Tigers in 1990, I felt -- watching his kid, with mine -- that I'd come full circle. Which is what home runs are all about.
All those clichés about baseball and life, that they're about leaving home and then forever trying to get back, happen to be true. Which might be what makes the home run so powerful. My mom never got back to Cincinnati -- not for good, anyway -- but she may as well have that day in 1973, to which I'm instantly transported during big home runs. Home runs are every bit as evocative of time and place as songs on the radio. In a way, they are songs on the radio -- classic hits of the '70s, '80s, '90s and today.
It must be said, though, that I never saw my mom dance to the radio, nor any song, nor anything other than a Zenith TV, on which a man with a silly haircut and crazed intensity was circling the bases, late of a Tuesday afternoon, on his way home.