July 4, 1939 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, before sixty-two thousand
adoring fans, Lou Gehrig referred to himself as "the luckiest man on the
face of the earth".
He had been stricken with the deadly illness ALS (amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis), he was forced to retire from baseball, and the man known as
the Iron Horse had barely enough strength to walk out to the pitchers
mound to make his speech. Yet he considered himself lucky.
Lucky to have
a good family. Lucky to have a loving and supportive wife. And lucky to
have been able to spend seventeen years playing in the major leagues.
This past week minor league journeyman Alan Zinter, after toiling 'on
the farm' for thirteen seasons, finally got a shot with the Houston Astros.
Before he got the call, Zinter seemed to be living out the real life story
of Kevin Costner's "Bull Durham" character Crash Davis. Crash spent his
entire career waiting for his shot and chasing the dubious minor league
home run record.
Zinter hit 200 home runs – that's an awful lot of minor league at
bats – while watching other players get called up and waiting for
That moment came against the Cincinnati Reds on July 1 when Zinter came
into the game as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. In his sixth at-bat
as an Astro, Zinter launched a first pitch fast ball over the right field
wall. His first big league hit. His first big league home run.
My guess is that when the ball landed in the Astros bullpen and he was
rounding the bases, that 34-year-old 'Rookie' felt like the luckiest man
on the face of the earth.
Gehrig ended his career with 493 home runs. Zinter has one. Gehrig had
over eight thousand at-bats in seventeen seasons, Zinter has seven in
a week and a half. Gehrig is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest baseball
players of all time. Zinter may have visited the Hall of Fame once or
But both these men had the opportunity to live out their dream. That's
the magic of baseball.
And it gave baseball fans a brief reprieve from all the b-s about steroids
and collective bargaining agreements and work stoppages - at least for
the time it took ESPN to report Zinter's accomplishment.
I wish there were more baseball moments like the one Zinter provided.
Where hitting a home run is a thrill and not just another reason to add
a few more zero's to the end of a free agent contract.
And when someone hands you the ball you hit over the fence, its (in Zinter's
words) "… beautiful, awesome" – not just another piece of
merchandise to auction off on E-bay.
When my youngest son swings his oversized orange bat and parks a plastic
ball in the neighbor's yard, I want him to think about Alan Zinter. Not
grab his crotch, spit bubble gum juice on the grass and mutter something
about re-negotiating his allowance.
And when he opens up a new pack of trading cards, I want him to stick
a few in the spokes of his bicycle, not calculate the incremental value
of an Ichiro All-Star special edition collector card.
I don't know if Topps plans on printing an Alan Zinter card anytime soon,
but if they do, I'll tell my son it's a keeper.
And when the time comes for the MLB Player's Association to vote on whether
or not to strike, they should look to Alan Zinter for inspiration. Maybe
then they'll realize what they have and how much they risk losing by holding
out for more.
Until the enormity of participating in the baseball experience becomes
more important than the size of the paycheck, the special moments that
an Alan Zinter brings to the game will become fewer and farther between.
That's a shame.
In that famous July 4 speech, Gehrig made it clear how much he appreciated
his baseball experience. The fans, his managers and teammates, and simply
the opportunity to play.
A fitting day for such words – the anniversary of the birth of the
land of opportunity.
Here's wishing all 115sports fans a very happy and safe 4th of July weekend.