The Changing Faces of My Heroes
Article by: Michael SelmanReproduced with permission of the author
One of the ways Webster's defines "hero" is as a person noted for special achievement in a particular field. In my case, that first field would have been the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which is where I saw my very first baseball game. Since my very first sports passion was baseball, it was logical that my first heroes were all baseball players. I don't remember too many details of that very first game, way back in 1960, but Carl Sawatski must have done something good at some point during the game, because he became my very first hero. Other than his mother, perhaps I was only other person in America who saw him that way. He was born on November 4th, 1927, and he was almost exactly one year younger than my father was. And as a 5 year old, I wanted to grow up to be just like Carl.
A couple of years later, I was in New York visiting my grandparents, and watched a New York Mets game on TV with my grandfather. During the game, two miracles occurred within a span of about 15 minutes. First, Marv Throneberry hit a triple, driving in two runs, and soon after the Mets actually won the game.and I had a new hero. Marvelous Marv.
Over the years, my heroes changed, but they all remained baseball players. I started buying baseball cards, studying the statistics, and in the process, I learned that there were some players who played well on a fairly regular basis, and not just on the day I happened to be watching. As I learned more about baseball, my heroes changed, and were now the best players in the game. Players like Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle were closing out some impressive Hall of Fame careers. Koufax was forced to retire at the ripe old age of 31, due to tendonitis in his pitching arm, and some would debate that Mickey Mantle waited a little too long before he retired, allowing his lifetime batting average to dip below .300 before calling it quits at age 37. To me, they were old, and that was part of what made them bigger than life. Some day, I thought, maybe I could be like them.
Through the 60's and early 70's, my heroes continued to change, as older ballplayers retired or lost their effectiveness, and were replaced by younger ones. One thing they all had in common, however, was that they were all significantly older then me, and so there was still hope that someday, I could grow up to be like them. As I studied the backs of the baseball cards year after year, I started paying as much attention to the player's dates of birth as their performance statistics, and I started to wonder when there would be a major leaguer who was younger than I was. It finally happened in early 1975, when a 19 year old named Jack Clark stepped onto the playing field, and became my newest hero. In my young mind, younger was better, and he was the first major leaguer in my lifetime who was younger than me. He was followed soon after by Butch Wynegar and Garry Templeton, and before I knew it, I found that I wasn't so young any more. There were many players younger than me.
Jack Clark had a solid, if not spectacular career, and all the while, younger, stronger, better players came along. Suddenly, there were more Major League players younger than me than older, and my loyalties started to shift to the seniors of the game. In the meantime, with my advancing age, I started to run, and heroes from a new sport emerged. People like Bill Rogers, Alberto Salazar, and Rod Dixon were suddenly sharing the podium with people like Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and George Brett as my heroes. And my biggest hero suddenly became my father, as he was really the one who planted the running seed to begin with. He had already been running for years before it finally took hold with me. And he hadn't even started running until several years after Carl Sawatski had already retired from baseball.
By 1992, Jack Clark had retired from the game, and I was kind of saddened to see someone younger than me who had actually had a productive career, but had outlived his usefulness in his sport. And at about the same time, I realized that the new kids didn't do anything for me any more. It was actually the elder statesmen of the game who were becoming my new heroes. Perhaps it was because it was the older players I could most closely relate to. With Jack Clark gone, my heroes became people like Carlton Fisk, and Nolan Ryan, who played into their mid 40's, and seemed to be ageless. At least they were still playing, and they were both older than me.
But by the end of 1993, Fisk and Ryan were gone, too, and the list of players who were still older than me grew shorter and shorter. By 1997, there were only three players left in the "older than me category." They were Rick Honeycutt, Dennis Eckersley, and Dennis Martinez, and they were the only buffers between myself and total extinction. They were my last heroes in the game. By 1998, they too were gone, and I had outlived an entire generation of ball players. Not a single hero remained in the game.
But I still needed heroes, people I could aspire to be like, and there were none left in baseball. So the faces of my heroes had to change. And they did. Now, those faces all had crows feet around their eyes, and their hair was thinning, graying, or gone. Heroes who wore a glove, or threw a ball, or swung a bat no longer existed. They had all vanished by the summer of 98.
Today's heroes all wear running shoes and singlets, and they are all older than me. People like Ed Whitlock, who just ran a 3 hour marathon as a way to celebrate turning 70 years old. People like Hal Higdon, who also recently turned 70, and will be running 7 marathons at a 7 minute per kilometer pace over the next 7 months to celebrate his entry into the newest age group of youth. Maybe in another 25 years, I can be just like them.
I guess the people I choose to be my heroes are people I dream of being like someday. When I was a kid, it was the youth that carried the hero banner, because I still had a chance to grow up to be like them. But as I have aged, my heroic allegiance has changed. Now, they are older, so I can still have that glimmer of hope that someday, I can grow up to be just like them. And one hero shines most bright, because of who I have become. My father. He is a year older than my very first hero, but he is still doing the sport he loves. Because of him, I am a runner, and maybe someday, because of him, I just might possibly be a hero to someone else.
Where have you gone, Carl Sawatski?
Michael Selman Roads Scholar Atlanta Georgia USAMichael Selman is a freelance writer who has appeared in publications and web sites throughout the world, including Runner's World, Footnotes, and CoolRunning.