The only time I have carried on a conversation with a naked man, the man was Kirby Puckett. I met him in the Twins’ locker room after a game at Yankee Stadium, and although I had no real business there, and although he had no idea who I was, and although he had just finished playing nine innings and hadn’t showered yet, Puckett couldn’t have been friendlier. The conversation confirmed Puckett’s reputation as Mr. Nice Guy, which is a good reputation to go along with one of the outstanding baseball careers of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, Puckett’s image and Puckett himself eventually came to grief. He was accused and acquitted of sexually assaulting a woman at a Minneapolis restaurant, and he was described in a column by Frank Deford as someone very different from his teddy bear image. He also developed glaucoma and suffered a stroke and died when he was only 45.
Things like that happen to a lot of people, but they take on Shakespearean proportions when they happen to the kinds of heroes and flops that baseball creates in a way that other team sports seldom do. That’s because baseball, unlike other team sports, pauses so often to focus attention on an individual player at an individual moment in time. This is why baseball has contributed so much to literature and film.
Consider Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who became familiar to millions of people in the novel “Shoeless Joe” and the motion picture “Field of Dreams” not only despite the fact that he appeared in only one major league game — and never came to bat — but precisely because of that. Graham played two half innings in the outfield, but that distinguished him from most of us American men, who would be satisfied if we could say the same. He was one guy among thousands who have made it even momentarily to the bigs, and in a way that was good enough.
Twenty three men who made it to the top, plus one who never did and one who never existed at all, are the subjects of “Top of the Order,” a collection of essays edited by Sean Manning. Each of 25 writers responds in this book to an invitation to identify his or her favorite baseball player. Kirby Puckett was the choice of Craig Finn, singer and lyricist for The Hold Steady, the Brooklyn-based rock band.
There is nothing obvious about this book. The writers don’t choose their “favorites” based solely on careers such as Puckett had. A couple of players are in this book, in fact, because they stunk, and some are there because they were only adequate, but still played the game hard and, from time to time, came through with a thrill for the fans.
Jim Bouton, pitcher-turned-media man, writes about Steve Dembowski, who went to high school in Rutherford, N.J., and college at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and at both places was an outstanding baseball player. He was small for a pro player — five foot four — but besides having all the usual requisite skills, Dembowski has mastered the art of getting hit by a pitch again and again and living to tell about it. This is no joke. In his senior year at FDU, he hit .375, walked 39 times, stole 27 bases in 28 attempts, and drove in 21 runs. He was also hit by a pitch 36 times and had a .729 on-base percentage — unheard of at any level of play. The scouts showed no interest, Bouton writes, because they thought the kid was too small to play among the giants in the modern game.
Lou Gehrig, Pedro Martinez, Dave Kingman, Jackie Robinson, Vic Power, Mookie Wilson, even the fictional Crash Davis. They’re all among the “favorites” in this book, and they make for good spring reading.