I watched the Oakland Athletics beat the Houston Astros on Tuesday night. I had a great seat – five rows from the field and even with the home team’s on-deck circle – courtesy of a generous friend. It was a good game. The Astros took an early lead as A.J. Griffin, one of the Athletics’ fine young pitchers, struggled early. The A’s went ahead 3-2, but the Astros tied it up in their half of the 8th inning on a Carlos Pena homerun, his first of the year. The A’s went ahead to stay in the bottom of the inning after Oakland’s third triple of the night, this one by Josh Donaldson with two outs. Josh Reddick scored on Donaldson’s triple to put the A’s ahead to stay. Grant Balfour closed out the 9th for his second save of the year. A solid, exciting game. For those of us who think a triple is the most exciting play in baseball, it was nothing short of a feast.
During the break after the top of the 8th, in a show of solidarity with the people of Boston, the crowd sang “Sweet Caroline,” the adopted anthem of Boston Red Sox’s amazing championship teams of the last decade. It was a nice moment that spoke to the commonality of sports fans and to the commonality a nation’s citizens share. I started thinking about that and the notion of sacrifice, particularly the sacrifices of the men and women who have served our country in uniform. Since I’m a baseball guy, names like Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, and Ted Williams were foremost in my mind.
Feller spent three seasons and part of a fourth in the Navy. He signed up after Pearl Harbor, and after he’d led the league in wins with 25 for the second season in a row. For the rest of his life, Feller made no secret of how proud he was to have served, and how much he admired the men he considered heroes, men who lost their lives fighting for their country in World War II. Hank Greenberg was drafted and served before World War II started. He was actually discharged two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He signed back up after Pearl Harbor and stayed in what became the Air Force until returning to baseball in 1945. Greenberg, who still holds the American League record for most RBI (183) in a single season by a right-handed hitter, lost 4 years of playing time. Ted Williams served in both World War II and Korea. His service during World War II started two years after becoming the last man in Major League Baseball to hit over .400. Like Feller and Greenberg, Williams was in the prime of his career when duty called. All told, more than 1,300 professional baseball players served during World War II.
Fast forward to the 21st Century. Many organizations and individual ballplayers have shown their generous and genuine support for our men and women in uniform. The San Francisco Giants’ Barry Zito founded Strikeouts for Troops, a nonprofit dedicated to “giving back to those who give so much.” New York Mets third baseman David Wright’s friendship with wounded Army veteran Felix Perez has been nicely chronicled. There are many more examples of teams and players finding ways to help, support, and show their appreciation for the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make. But why haven’t we heard about any big league ballplayers doing what Feller, Greenberg, Williams, and so many others did in the past? Why haven’t they signed up?
Is it the money that can be earned playing in the Major Leagues? If that’s the case, then someone ought to tell these guys that nearly everyone else in the country manages to get by, to raise a family, take a few vacations, and buy a modest home, on far less than the current major league minimum salary of $490,000. Is it the lure of fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing baseball at the highest level? Well, if you’re already in the big leagues, you’ve fulfilled that dream. Maybe it’s time to think beyond a boyhood dream. Is it fear of the ultimate sacrifice? That’s legit, in my book, but is it fair to ask others to make sacrifices we’re not willing to make? Is it right for the rest of us to sit back while others do the heavy lifting?
The first decade of this century saw our country in two wars, one of which continues to this date. I’ll leave it to others to haggle over the politics of those conflicts. My focus is baseball. It may go without saying that I’m a fan of baseball and that includes being a fan of the men who play the game. I’d probably be a bigger fan if more of them acted like the men in this country used to act.
Jonathan Dyer, who spent five years in the Army, writes about the game of baseball in its historical context. His website is www.jonathanpdyer.com. He can be followed on Twitter @dyer_jp, and he can be reached via email at email@example.com.