Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shot Heard Round The World

As a 16-year-old nerd in high school I once took a trek to the NAQT National Quiz Bowl Championships with my high school team. We were pretty good that year, winning the first of two state championships and every regional tournament we participated in with the exception of one in Princeton, which we lost to the eventual National Champions by half the value of one question.

I bring this up because the NAQT National Quiz Bowl Championships in 2002 were in Rosemont, Illinois, a town right outside of Chicago that has little import beyond its proximity to O'Hare Airport, and while my biggest memory from that was probably a Yankees-White Sox game at new Comiskey during which one of my clueless teammates continually clamored for Jason Giambi to "hit the moneyshot", it was almost decidedly more impactful on me because while waiting in O'Hare for my flight home, I purchased a book called "The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!" -- a personalized retelling of the the famous 1951 National League Pennant Race as told by Bobby Thomson, the man who brought the thrilling chase to an end with his momentous home run off Ralph Branca.

That I own this book was the first thing that came to mind yesterday afternoon when I heard that Bobby Thomson had passed away at the age of 86. As I always say when someone passes away at that age, it's hard to be too upset when a man or woman dies in their mid-80s. After all, they had a pretty good run, they beat the odds, and in the case of Thomson, they experienced what must be one of the most incredible moments anyone can, a walk-off home run in the postseason to win a pennant and devastate your historic rival after closing an almost absurd 13 1/2-game gap in the standings from the summer. Thomson's life was a different breed than the rest of us, not just because he was a good baseball player, but because he created the signature moment for an entire sport in what was a solid but otherwise unremarkable career.

Bobby Thomson's pennant-clincher is almost undoubtedly the most famous home run of all-time, perhaps even the most famous moment in all of American sports.

Anyone who grows up a baseball fan in this country knows about the Shot Heard 'Round the World by the time they're 10 years old, regardless of when they were born. It is a seminal moment that rises above all others in the American pantheon, to the point that even someone who was born 34 years after the event occurred could be excited to receive a baseball signed by Thomson and Branca -- as I was. Interestingly, Branca and Thomson became good friends over the rest of their lives, almost by necessity as they would be forever linked by the event. Branca was among the first to express their condolences on Thomson's passing.

What makes this so wild to me is not that I was any sort of Giants fan. Not the baseball team anyway. I never rooted for them, I never saw them in the Polo Grounds and I never saw Thomson play -- though apparently both sides of my family rooted for the Giants before they headed west and a picture of my father in a Giants baseball uniform as a toddler is said to exist. But I know the sport, and I've done my reading on its history. Sports are full of strange wonderful moments like this and their is a peculiar type of void left when the player is gone. In a sense you feel like the game you loved lost something, but you're not exactly sure of how to handle it. After all, it's not like a player you have an emotional connection to because of your youth passed away -- say, Mike Piazza for instance -- or one of the truly all-time greats has met their end -- Ken Griffey Jr. for example. It's an entirely different sort of situation. In many senses we aren't so much mourning a man but a moment -- in this case, possibly the greatest moment the game has seen.

The game and time itself may not be erased from our collective memories until Branca or the rest of the men on the field that day have all passed on, but looking back on it now, there is little doubt that the game feels like it lost something. It was inevitable, sure, but that doesn't make it feel any less sad in an undefinable way that Thomson, the man who helped turn baseball into myth is no longer among us.

Perhaps I feel more connected to it because I read his book, which takes into account not just the race and the game, but Thomson's career after the fact as well. Interestingly, the most prescient thing I remember from reading it, which I did some months after purchasing it in the summer of 2002, is not the race itself, which saw the Giants make among the most remarkable of comebacks, but that much of the book talks about Thomson traveling with his wife, and the difficulties of finding a job with a new team in the later stages of his career. In short, what you find is that Thomson wasn't a mythic legend who was born to mash. He was just a regular guy, with regular problems and hopes. Over the course of his career he was more middling than he was Mantle. But he had that one moment. He was an average, normal person, who managed to accomplish something great when the spotlight was thrust upon him. He's a tale showing that average men can achieve greatness if provided the opportunity. And knowing that one has the ability to do great things regardless of not being the best there is, is, in some ways, entirely what baseball, and life, are all about.

Bobby Thomson gave us that message when he clocked Branca's pitch into the left field stands. Hopefully, that message won't die with him.

No comments:

Post a Comment