The lead piece in this week's TimesBook Review was about a new biography of Willie Mays written by Pete Hamill. Anyone who has ever read Hamill or heard him speak probably knew what would unfold before they started reading the first paragraph and they weren't disappointed. The author evoked a lovely image of a better time in New York and a better time in baseball in romantic prose that made you wish it were 1951 all over again.
It was an entertaining read and one that comes highly recommended to all fans of the city, the game and Mays himself. The only problem with it is that it isn't remotely true.
Oh, sure, Mays meant something to people of Hamill's generation. You probably know some of them, either your own fathers or grandfathers or uncles who grew up in those days and can still wax rhapsodic about the Giants, Dodgers, Jackie, Willie or the Duke at the drop of a hat. For those people, today's game will never measure up. Hamill is working in that wheelhouse and that's just fine and dandy.
The issue is that all the things Hamill lists as problematic/less romantic about today's game are bogus. You're free to dislike artificial turf, designated hitters, steroids and anything else, but it's dishonest to mention, as Hamill does, "the innocence of the game."
The game isn't any less innocent than it was in the days of segregation or restricted rights for players than it is now. There was always cheating and/or drugs, as Joe Posnanski points out in a reasoned take, and it was always a corporate venture. The game hasn't gotten any less innocent, Hamill has gotten less innocent and it's a trip we all take.
This isn't an original thought, but the only correct answer to the question of when the Golden Age of Baseball occured is the age you were when you fell in love with the game. That's the only moment where the love of the game is uncorrupted by all the noise that comes along with it. No matter how much you may continue to enjoy baseball, it will never match that first moment where the light comes on and you discover it for the first time.
Hamill's essay called to mind a scene in "The Hurt Locker" -- spoiler alert for those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing it yet -- when Will James returns home and plays with his young son. He marvels at how the boy loves everything in his life at that point, but warns him that you start finding fewer and fewer things you love as life goes on. There's a lot of truth in that conversation and it's the same truth that informs the idea of a loss of innocence about baseball.
The game's just as beautiful now as it was then. You just need to see it through the right set of eyes. Something to keep in mind when they start playing games this week.