“To see the talent is as much a gift as to have the talent.”
THE COLOR COMMENTARY
The only one who was there from the very beginning, the only one who is always there in the middle of everything, was The Old Swizzlehead, aka Rapid Ricky Falls, who was the closest thing John Barr ever had to a friend. And even his account must be taken with a healthy dose of incredulity not only because of Falls’s renowned propensity for obfuscation, exaggeration, and outright deception but also for the simple fact that no one ever got that close to Barr, the greatest if not the most beloved player in the game.
He was grudgingly accorded the former title by the writers, the green flies at the show as the layers liked to call them, who knew his honors and statistics. By the end, the flies and the fans could duly recite all the battling titles, the home-run crowns, the gold gloves, and the most Valuable Player awards. They could list for you the long string of division championships, league pennants, and World Series titles he had won for the New York Mets since that day he had first walked into the Shea Stadium field, fresh off two years in the minor leagues and before that God only knew where, and proceeded to tear off four straight line drive hits. And after that a thirty-one game hitting streak, and after that thirteen years of unremittingly battering the small white around one ballpark or another.
He was the kind of instant phenom they all should have loved. Tall and lean, hawk-faced and loose-footed, looking every inch the ideal, baggy-uniformed ballplayer of the thirties that still bedeviled their psyches. He layed hard, worked on his game, stayed alert, took extra batting practice. He was even duly modest and diffident about his tremendous to be. John Barr let his bat and his glove speak for him, and they were eloquent.
He could do everything on a ballfield; that was beyond dispute. In an era of designated hitters, platoon players, spot starters, short relievers, and middle-inning relievers. Barr could play the whole game. Better still, there was a certain quality of danger that attached to him. There have been great players who never had a great moment; men who went on year after year, running up formidable statistics, but were no more fearsome than anybody else in the few, crucial moments of their careers. They popped up or flied out in key at-bats, or did not even fail that spectacularly. They simply singled when they should have homered, cut the ball off from going into the gap when they should have made the diving, sliding catch. They layed on no great teams, took part in no immortal moments, and passed quietly and respectably from the game, vaguely admired by all.
This was not the case with John Barr. His very presence at the plate seemed to jar things loose. It caused the opposing pitchers and fielders to proceed in jerky, tentative movements. His appearance at the big moment almost always guaranteed that something would happen, and usually something that entailed a ball whacked viciously into the furthest reachers of the stadium, and his opponents sent stumbling desperately after it.
And yet by the end he was still no more than a redoubtable shadow to the flies, the fans, even his own teammates. You could not say he was loved, except perhaps by Ricky Falls or Ellie Jay, Queen of the Sportswriters, who loved him not so much for the raw talent but the dedication that she perceived. For Barr played wrapped up in himself, in the narrow devotion of hitting the ball. There were never many color stories on the man, no quotes that went beyond a few, monosyllabic words, no glowing or lurid accounts of him from former teammates. Nothing to say where he came from, other than the name of a small New England town with a funny name. No visible family, friends, women, or interest of any kind outside of a ballpark.
The only one who got more inside on him was The Old Swizzlehead, or again possibly Ellie Jay, who divined in him something that not even Falls could quite discern, after all his years with him. Something detached from the workaday problems of run-of-the-mill, superstar, millionaire athlete gods. Something truly not normal. Yet it was Falls who saw him through his entire career right from the first moment he set foot on a professional ballfield. Or so he claims. It is The Old Swizzlehead who can better describe the true essence of the great man than anyone else alive or so he says.
THE OLD SWIZZLEHEAD
He was the best.
I know how the flies like to throw that word around. These days somebody makes a good relay throw, he becomes the best player in the game ever. But John Barr was the best, for real.
You have to think about how unusual that is. Maybe Ellsworth Pippin, The Great White Father, is the best owner and general manager of all time. Maybe the Rev. Jimmy Bumpley is the best TV evangelist. Maybe even Dickhead Barry Busby is the best sportswriter. I dont know. But I doubt it. And I know John Barr was the best.
Where I grew up, we used to shoot hoop on the outdoor courts on Amsterdam Avenue. We used to lay day an night, nonstop, an we thought we were pretty bad.. But we all knew the best player in the project was my cousin and homeboy, John Bell.
He could two-hand dunk behind his back, every time you gave him the ball within three feet of the basket. We knew he was the best player in the city, best player anywhere. Had to be.
One day we decided we was no good we would go down an play in Riverside Park. There was a guy down there three inches shorter than John Bell, who could start at the top of the key, take one step, an jam it through with just his left hand. He blew by my cousin like he was standin still, an he rejected everything he put up. He musta scored two hundred points over John Bell that afternoon.
That was when I knew. At the next court there would be somebody even better. An the same thing at the next one, an the one after that. Until you get down to the courts in the Village where even the pros come to play. But even then there was maybe better players someplace: out in Bed-Stuy, or up in the Bronx. Or maybe down in D.C., or Houston, or anywhere else, all over the world. You don’t usually get to see the bet. An even when you do, most times you Don’t know you’re seein it
But I saw John Barr. And I knew.
DICKHEAD BARRY BUSBY
You’d ask him, “What’d you hit?” just trying to get a quote. And he would stare up at you with those dead eyes he had, like you’d just asked him the stupidest goddamn question in the world. Like he wanted to make yo afraid, the son of a bitch.
THE OLD SWIZZLEHEAD
We used to call em his drowned mans eyes. You messed with him in any way, that’s what he’d give you. He’d go into second base, spikes high, lookin to rip the shortstops ball off. Even on a nothin play, with us up five runs in the eighth inning, he’d do it.
Anybody else did that kind of shit, there’d be a fight. But with John Barr the shortstop would just curse n dance around for a while. Maybe he’d make a mistake an say somethin out the corner of his mouth.
Barr would give him those drowned mans eyes. Dead an grey an lookin right through you. He’d shut up, look kind of coweyed toward third base, an throw the ball back to the pitcher.
ELLSWORTH PIPPIN, THE GREAT WHITE FATHER
John Barr is a great ballplayer. As far as that goes.
THE OLD SWIZZLEHEAD
He’d stand up there every time, with that perfect stance. Every time, exactly the same. Legs planted like a bulldog. Elbows out, bat cocked up high behind his ear. It was like somebody painted in the spots where his feet were supposed to go.
Every time. The only movement was when he would roll that bat around a little bit in his hands, like a big lazy cat swishin its tail. Then the pitch would come in, an it was like somebody pushed a lever. His whole body would turn on it. Legs an knees an arms an head, all moving together.
Perfect, every time. He would turn on that pitch and drive it, be off up the line, bat dropped behind him, not botherin to look where he hit it. He knew. He looked like he didn’t even have to think about it. I told that to him once, an he looked at me an almost smiled: “I think about it all the time,” he told me. “Every time I’m up there. But it ain’t the stance.”
He never had a real slump. Not one, in all the time I played with him down in the bushes and in the major leagues. Not until that last year.
CHARLIE STANZI, THE LITTLE MANIAC
There used to be better ballplayers when I played. They had to work at it harder. One year when I was still a busher I got a job workin construction in thee winter. They had a foreman who hated my guts, and one day he threw sand in my face while I was carryin a full load of bricks. You can bet your ass I didn’t drop a brick. An I came right back there the next day, too. I had to support my mother an my two sisters, an you couldn’t do it with what you made during the season.
That’s why he could never be as good as they used to be, I don’t care what the writers or the statistics say.
THE OLD SWIZZLEHEAD
But he was.
He was the kind of ballplayer who wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. He lived for the game. He had every detail down perfect, an not just the hittin. He was the best rightfielder in the game. He could throw a strike to home plate from every corner. He wasn’t that fast, but he would steal a base every time you didn’t keep him close Every time whether it was a close game or not. That was how he played the game. He was the kind the flies all said they loved. The gung-ho, white-boy ballplayer. Not afraid to get his uniform dirty. Didn’t know any other way to play the game. Played with the small hurts. An all the shit. But they didn’t like him. They were afraid of him. An he wouldn’t give em anything. Not a quote, not a smile. Not the littlest indication at all that he was even human.
It was the same thing with the fans. Usually they go wild every time some white boy runs out from under his cap, even if he misjudged the ball to start with. They always think a black ballplayer like me makes it look too easy.
But they never warmed to John Barr, good a he was. Everybody in the ballpark paid attention when he was at bat, but that didn’t mean they liked him. Sixteen years I played with him, includin the minor leagues an he never made one gesture on the field that even looked human. Until the end.
THE COLOR COMMENTARY
Which Rapid Ricky Falls was there for, too, just as he was there for the very beginning of John Barr in the game. Though you have to keep in mind the source: The Old Swizzlehead, the original trickster, whose whole game is a deceit. Walking up to the plate like an old man carrying wood bent over, bat balanced precariously on his shoulder like it was too heavy for him. Still bent over when he got up to the plate, knees buckling, bat propped up on one hip barely above his waist. Until the ball came in, and he would slash at it and be off around the bases like a dark streak, throwing everything into confusion.
The Old Swizzlehead, whom the media people would cluster around like flies after honey (his teammates used another word), waiting for whatever outrageous thing he might tell them next and laughing nervously because they could never tell whether he really was a character or just having fun with them. And usually his version of John Barr was the most outrageous story of all. Though it still might be true
© Copyright HarperCollins 2001