You know the old baseball player comment: When asked about a teammate’s spectacular play in the game that night, he’ll say, “Aw shucks, it don’t surprise me none. I’ve seen him make plays like that so often, it seems routine to me.”
If you only watch the game of the week and see a particular player have a great day in the field or at bat (how about a no-hitter or hitting for the cycle or four homers in a game?) you might be inclined to say, wow, that was the best I ever saw. But the fan who gets all 162 games on cable might see that as a spectacular highlight in a season of mediocre performances.
So, to be the best I ever saw, the athlete has to be someone I have followed for a career, short or long; unlike the Hall of Fame, longevity is not a criteria for this subject. It’s not how long he did it for, but how he did it while in the game.
Also, statistics are not the only barometer for me when determining my choice. Other things enter the picture, such as how I felt as I watched him perform, and how his peers felt playing with or against him.
Finally, I rule out any athlete from eras other than the one I have lived through. “Seeing” for purposes of this subject means in real-time, not in a highlight reel or a movie about the individual or comments by my elders. At 63, I am unable to consider many stars.
I am from the Bronx and so have seen my share of great players in my time, both on the local teams and throughout both leagues, but I am sure it is no surprise that my choice for “The Best” is Mickey Mantle.
From the literary beauty of the name and the often tragic back-story of his life to the majesty of that brutal all-or-nothing swing that ended with his limp-around-the-bases home run trot, the man was larger than life to me and most of my Bronx-born generation. His statistics speak for themselves, so here are my “intangible” reasons for choosing “The Mick.”
Have you ever in your lifetime watched a player who you truly believed would hit a home run each time he came to bat?
Did you ever get the same chill down your spine when you heard another player (teammate Tony Kubek) talk about coming into the dugout under the weather and being inspired to play that day just by watching Mantle’s painful, time-consuming, pre-game ritual of wrapping both legs?
Is it even conceivable that a player with his bad wheels was still the fastest player down to first from the left side of the plate for more years than I can count?
Did you ever feel so unbelievably cheated when an athlete’s career ended without advance knowledge and the chance to say a proper goodbye?
Finally, did you ever cry so loud and for so long for the death of an athlete because you knew full well that a part of you died as well?
For me, the subject “The Best I Ever Saw” ironically does not just include the use of the eyes. It involves the joy and ultimate pain in the heart one feels as that special athlete arrives on, commands, and sometimes, as in this case, tragically leaves the arena.
—June 17, 2009