I got a funny little nostalgic feeling seeing Sammy Sosa pull on that white Baltimore Orioles jersey at a press conference Wednesday. What was funny about it was that I have no emotional involvement with the Chicago Cubs, who traded Sosa to the O's after 13 seasons and 545 home runs, nor with the Orioles or Sosa himself. I wasn't particularly sad to see Sammy leave Wrigley or happy to have him headed to Camden Yards.
Also funny is that I'm not a big fan of nostalgia. The past is fine and everything. It's where a lot of my stuff lives, like this tank of a Volvo wagon I used to have that had 120,000 miles on it before I attempted to drive it through the rear end of a pickup truck. But today's where it's at, even in sports. I'm not one of those guys who thinks the games were better back in the day when players knew the fundamentals and it wasn't all about the money. 2005 is just fine with me, bling-bling and all.
But memories are memories. All pleasant things gone forever take on a certain glow, even if you don't want to go back to them. Sammy Sosa's new Orioles pajama top was my petite madeleine because it made me think of something I hadn't thought of in almost 30 years: the strangeness of seeing Reggie Jackson on the cover of Sports Illustrated in an Orioles uniform.
Here's another funny thing. I remembered it wrong. Jackson was one of the game's top sluggers as a member of the championship Oakland A's of the early '70s. A week before Opening Day in 1976 A's owner Charlie Finley, knowing that Jackson would escape via the new avenue of free agency after the season, traded him to Baltimore in a blockbuster deal, Ken Holtzman also going east for Don Baylor and Mike Torrez, with a throw-in player on each side.
What I thought I remembered was a Sports Illustrated from that spring, with Jackson in a gleaming white home uniform, relaxed, smiling, holding a bat in one hand and pushing his batting helmet onto his head with the other. Reggie in his new uniform. The smile was familiar, the wire-rim glasses, mustache and No. 9. But an Orioles uniform?
It's hard to convey now how strange that was, to see a superstar in his prime change teams like that. It happened from time to time, but it was rare.
Jackson was a veteran by the time of the trade, but he was not yet 30. He was a six-time All-Star, a regular-season and World Series MVP and the defending home run champion, his second time leading the league in three years. This will also sound strange to people who have come of baseball-watching age in the last decade or so: Jackson's league-leading home run totals were 32 in 1973 and 36 in '75.
Anyway, guys like that just didn't change teams very often, and not just in baseball but in every sport.
The top five in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 2004 were Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, Gary Sheffield of the Yankees, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz of the Red Sox and Miguel Tejada of the Orioles, not one of whom began his career with his current team, and only one of whom has spent more than two years in his current colors. Ramirez has been in Boston for four seasons.
In 1975 the top five were Fred Lynn of the Red Sox, John Mayberry of the Royals, Jim Rice of the Red Sox and Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson of the A's. Of those players, only Mayberry had ever changed teams. He'd been traded from the Astros to the Royals after the 1971 season, when he was only 22 and hadn't yet stuck in the majors for a full year. Lynn and Rice were rookies, but we can look at the next two, Jim Palmer of the Orioles and Thurman Munson of the Yankees, a couple of veterans who had never changed teams.
But like I said, I had the memory wrong. The Jackson cover appeared in August, just before the college and pro football preview issues -- with quarterbacks Rick Leach of Michigan and Bert Jones of the Baltimore Colts on the covers -- and Reggie was wearing a gray road uniform, not home whites.
And it was still jarring, four months into Jackson's year in Baltimore.
I'm not saying this was better, the best players spending most of their careers with one team. It was the result of an unfair system, after all, one that gave all the options to the team and none to the player. And under free agency, the offseason can be great fun, with superstars changing teams left and right. On the other hand, the rampant team-changing in the NFL is the result of a salary-cap system that favors the teams.
Either way, a certain delicious thrill is lost when something rare becomes common.
Another memory: a weekday routine. My dad comes home from work, and as he puts his keys and whatever other grown-up stuff on top of his dresser in my parents' bedroom, I jump on the bed and ask him, "Are there any sports on TV tonight?"
The usual answer: No.
And we lived in Los Angeles, where there were five pro sports teams, two big-time college sports programs and -- get this -- seven television stations, not counting UHF. Everyone under the age of 25 just went straight to Google to find out what UHF means.
I remember being excited one April to find out that Channel 11 would be televising 26 Dodgers games that season. When the Dodgers and Reds were in one of their pennant races in the late '70s, the station broadcast the Saturday and Sunday games of a July weekend series those teams played. At Dodger Stadium! That was really something, seeing the local team playing a home game on TV.
I drifted off to sleep Wednesday night with thoughts like this. The first Super Bowl I watched, this being Super Bowl week and all. Every kid eventually makes the joke that his elders had it easier in history class because there was so much less history to learn back when they were in school. When I started watching the Super Bowl, I'd missed three of them, two wins by the Packers and one by Joe Namath and the Jets.
I didn't think it strange at all that an AFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, beat the NFL's Minnesota Vikings in that game. Just a year before, or 100 years to me, the Jets' victory had seemed unthinkable. There are people who think fondly of that feeling of shock over an AFL team winning. That's from their set of memories. This bunch is mine. Everybody gets their own.
In a few years my son will start amassing his own set of impressions. He'll build up a cache of memories of things that I find routine and he'll think of as odd relics of the misty past. Cable TV, maybe. "Monday Night Football" or the way old guys like me once thought of hockey and boxing as major sports. These things won't be any better or worse than the things I remember or whatever will be going on when he's grown and looking back.
But assuming he becomes interested in sports, he'll be lucky to have these memories. That's something that the sports world does. It runs along a spectrum of time, well-recorded time. It provides guideposts to memory.
The week before Reggie Jackson, the cover of Sports Illustrated featured the new quarterback of the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropping back to pass in an exhibition game. The Bucs would go 0-14 that year, which would turn out to be Steve Spurrier's last.
Steve Spurrier. What ever happened to him?
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