by iampunha | 9/29/2008 07:51:00 AM
A lot of really important things have happened on Sept. 29s.

Remember our old friend Chief Justice Roberts? Confirmed three years ago today.

Miguel de Cervantes was born many Sept. 29s ago. Enrico Fermi, Gene Autry and Stan Berenstain as well, though more recently.

I could write you a lovely, heartfelt reflective diary on Larry Linville -- and since as of writing this intro, the body is untouched, don't expect I won't. Born on Sept. 29, 1939, and died seven years ago.

Ray Ewry died Sept. 29, 1937, and we all ought to know more about a man who won eight gold medals at the Olympic Games from 1900 to 1908. W.H. Auden, Casey Stengel and Chas Adams also died many years ago today, Adams most recently (1988).

But none of them could catch today's honoree.

For love of the game.

Willie Mays and The Catch (pt.2 of 2)

I settled on Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series not because it was the best catch ever made. Was it? One of the most important catches ever made, sure. Best? Mays slows down at the end there. He isn't blind to the ball's flight; he's adjusting to it. He knows exactly where he is and exactly what he's doing.

Best catch? It looked sensational, perhaps by design and perhaps by necessity; why turn around to catch the ball if you're where you want to be? You can get more momentum, and thus more oomph on the ball for the throw back to the infield to keep the tagging runners honest, if you keep your back to the infield and then spin for the throw.

Best catch? I'm happy to have that argument all day long. Means I get to watch that play and others like it. And gosh, what a horrible day of baseball analysis that would be, huh? Having to look at the best do their best? What grueling, unhappy work.

I read online news sources at work a lot (lot of free time; I've written plenty of articles for this place there too), so I don't gain a hell of a lot from videos. With the sound turned up to the max on my machine, I can barely hear anything. So for the benefit of those who can't do sound (or can't do it well), or who can't hear (or can't hear well), here's what George F. Will says:

Willie Mays was not the first black ballplayer, but he had his own barrier to break through, a kind of gentle, good-natured racism, but racism nonetheless. Remember, when he came up, people would say, "What an instinctive ballplayer he is. What a natural ballplayer he is. What childlike enthusiasm."

Well, 30 years on, we can hear, with our better-trained ears, the racism in that.

He was wonderfully gifted, yes. Great natural gifts, yes. But no one ever got to the major leagues -- no one got to the major league -- on natural gifts without an awful lot of refining work.

Sure he was a great instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart ballplayer. As a rookie, he'd get to second base, watch two batters come to the plate, and he would go back to the dugout having stolen the signs and decoded the sequence, he'd know the indicator sign from the other signs.

Willie Mays, natural ballplayer, sure.

Hardest-working ballplayer y'ever saw.

I know what many of you are thinking. Replace Mays with Obama and baseball strategy with political strategy and you have a real comparison.

Go right ahead. I certainly won't stop you. I don't know what Mays or Obama would say to that. (Obama would probably defer to the man who was, until the advent of designer steroids and drugs for which no detection test exists, the third greatest home run hitter in the history of the majors.)

I'll even help you out a little. The argument from the Right is that Obama is just elite, having graduated from Harvard and Columbia, having gained international stardom and acclaim in a celebrity-crazed culture.

Single mother. Kansas. Biracial before that was cool. Poor.

Yes, he has tremendous natural gifts. Yes, he clearly loves interacting with people and helping them. Yes, there is a joy to watching him with his family on the political stage that you simply don't see from many people. That smile is not pasted on; it's his actual emotion.

You do not become president of the Harvard Law Review because you coast through anything.

Forget first black anything. Forget black anything.

There have been a little more than 109 presidents of the Harvard Law Review.

You do not become president of the Harvard Law Review because you are just naturally smart. Even if you are black and naturally smart.

You do not get into Harvard Law School because you are naturally smart. Even if you are black and naturally smart.

You do not get into Columbia because you are naturally smart unless you are so naturally smart that you do not need to study anything. And since Obama is not a super genius -- he is very booksmart, and he learns very, very quickly, but he is not and has never been the kind of person who just knows the material, and that's all there is to it.

You do not get very far in politics if you cannot rally your base, if you cannot legislate effectively, if you cannot play the game (or change its rules to those you find more useful), if, if, if.

It takes more than hard work and natural appeal. John Edwards is a lawyer, and he has tons of natural appeal.

And he lost.

Hillary Clinton is smart and fierce. Fierce. But it's a good fierce, not a scary fierce. I've gotten the sense with her that she'll work harder for a penny than she will for a dollar because there is pride to be had in working to glorify work.

But she lost.

It isn't just what you have. And it isn't just how hard you're willing to work. It's how well you can use what you are and what you know to make yourself better. It's how efficiently you improve yourself. Yes, you can learn, but can you learn what you need in time?

A few nights ago, we found out the answer to that question.

Two more points.

First, the Giants were playing the Cleveland Indians in that World Series.

The Indians had demolished the competition in 1954. Simply punished it. Their 111 wins were bested only in 1998, in a schedule that had eight more games (and massively weaker competition, I think, because of expansion). They were ridiculous.

The game is tied, 2-2, and up walks Vic Wertz, who will hit .500 in tue series. For those who don't know, that's kind of insane. These days, hitting .300 is pretty good, and anything close to .400 is ridiculous. Hitting .500 in the World Series is nuts. Wertz had 16 at-bats and eight hits.

Wertz is up with runners on first and second on in the top of the eighth and no outs. The runner on second is Larry Doby (who integrated the American League), who's pretty fast. Mays is playing shallower than usual to stop Doby from scoring on a single.

Analysts, broadcasters and players have opined since then that if Doby had tagged when the ball was caught, he could have scored from second base, the ball was hit so deep. In other words, that Wertz hit the ball so hard meant the Indians didn't score, on that play or for the rest of the game (which ended with a walk-off home run in the 10th).

The ball would not even have been caught in most stadiums.

No, nothing about the wind or weather. The grass wasn't particularly long, and the lighting was fine (this was in the days before ballgames were played at night so there'd be more revenue).

The thing about old-time stadiums is that they tended to start out pretty big. And while the 483-foot line you see here is well beyond where Wertz's ball landed (in Mays' glove), if that ball is hit in Municipal Stadium, where the Indians played until 1993, Mays is watching that ball clear the center field wall by at least 25 feet. If the Brooklyn Dodgers win the pennant and the game is played in Ebbets Field, it's gone wherever it's hit in fair territory.

It had to be in the Polo Grounds, and it had to be Mays.

I trust the Clinton comparisons go without saying.

Second, Willie Mays was born in 1931. He was 23 and change when he made probably the most famous catch in Major League Baseball history.

Barack Obama is 47. Politically speaking, he is pretty young to be running for president. His star has risen about as fast as has Mays'; Mays' first All-Star game was in his third season.

As Will said in the video above, nobody has ever gotten to the majors without working extremely hard with already-spectacular natural gifts.

And nobody has ever gotten this far in politics without working extremely hard with already-spectacular natural gifts.

And now we wait and see if Jan. 20, 2009, will produce video as pleasing to me as is that of Mays' catch.