“I’m trading me into retirement”

Claude Osteen, Thomas Boswell

In this Washington Post photo, Thomas Boswell (right) interviews former pitcher and then-Phillies pitching coach Claude Osteen during the 1980s.

If Roger Angell isn’t baseball’s Homer because Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell, it’s also accurate to say something about Thomas Boswell. So I’ll say it. He isn’t baseball’s Publius; Publius was the American founding’s Thomas Boswell.

When Boswell was named a Washington Post sports columnist in 1984, together with Tony Kornheiser, then-Post editor Ben Bradlee (as Kornheiser liked to joke) said neither man alone was good enough to replace departing Dave Kindred—so he hired both to replace him.

In the years before and since, Boswell has proven that if Publius was our founding’s Boswell it took three to make one of him. Maybe you’ve heard of them: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. And they weren’t half as potent a top of the order as Rickey Henderson, Mike Trout, and Willie Mays.

Therefore, The Federalist is merely the nation’s second most important book, behind the five-way dead heat known as How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, The Heart of the Order, and Cracking the Show, the four known anthologies of Boswell’s baseball writings, plus Game Day which collects his writings on lesser games but also some choice baseball writings.

I spent a year working for a Washington think tank, at a time when think tanks actually thought and thought wasn’t considered either politically incorrect or an impediment to Making America Great Again. My days began with reading the two most important writers the Post had to offer—Boswell and his elder Shirley Povich in the sports section.

Only then would I make the trek in to work.

Well before that, I spent an Air Force hitch in Omaha and trekked to a particular bookstore downtown to pick up the Post on the days Povich and Boswell appeared on my way to Offutt Air Force Base. My days there were incomplete until I could spend lunch with the pair.

When I was done with each of their essays, I returned to finish my day’s work well assured that I was better informed about the things that mattered than the colleagues and superiors with whom I worked gleaning the mischief of the Soviet Empire and the vicissitudes of the Middle East as an intelligence analyst.

Povich went from this island earth to the Elysian Fields in 1998. Boswell remained. He never once failed to engage, instruct, enlighten, inspire, and entertain. He never once forgetting both the men behind the players or the play that needed to be made for the sake of the game itself. And I don’t mean just a fielding error or an errant double play grounder on a meatball that should have been turned into a line drive or a parabolic bomb.

Over all those years and in all those essays and books, Boswell wrote with insight and empathy about such men as his boyhood idol Roy Sievers (Boswell grew up a Senators fan), Hall of Famers such as George Brett, Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Sandy Koufax, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, and Carl Yastremski, to name a few.

The Sievers piece I remember wasn’t collected in one of Boswell’s books but, rather, in a book called Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful. It also ran as a cover story for The Washington Post Magazine while I worked in that city. I kicked myself in due course for losing the copy I saved when moving back upstate New York, but I never forgot Boswell’s for-Opening-Day appreciation of the 1957 American League home run champion:

A baseball hero is a toy of childhood. Electric trains, cowboy guns and plastic soldiers are the same find. But with a baseball hero, a youngster reaches out, for one of the first times, into the world outside the family. That connection with a big, mysterious environment gives a certain sense of power; children discover they can invest their affections and actually get something special back in return. However, hero worship also brings with it the first morsels of the sort of pain and fear that we come to associate with the word “reality.” We begin to learn about adult disappointments and the profound uncontrollability of nature.

I was fortunate. I got a wonderful hero. When I was eight years old in the spring of 1956, somebody gave me my first pack of baseball cards. Pathetic as it sounds, I can still remember where I was standing when I opened them: beside a coffee table in the living room. In that pack was only one player from my hometown team, the Washington Senators. I’m convinced that, by the luck of the draw, the player on that card was destined to be my first (and, as it turned out, only) hero. It could have been Herb Plews, who made four errors in one inning, or Chuck Stobbs, who lost 13 games in a row.

But it was Roy Sievers.

Boswell republished it in the Post when Sievers died in 2017. If you think he was able to balance the sentimentalism from the substance talking about his boyhood hero, you should have read him when he wrote about the consequences of fan insanity married to human frailty equaling one grotesque, tragic denouement, Donnie Moore shooting his wife before killing himself:

You and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose . . .

Numerous other athletes who’re in trouble—taking heat, answering tough questions, hearing catcalls—got themselves in hot water by doing what they knew was wrong. All Moore did was pitch despite a sore arm, throw a nice nasty knee-high forkball, and watch it sail over the left field fence . . .

The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.

If Boswell has anything in daily newspapers resembling an equal for trying to remind Joe and Jane Fan that those who play baseball aren’t automatons squeezed out from a single algorithm and design, it might be the New York Times‘s venerable Ira Berkow. (If you don’t believe me, invest wisely in Berkow’s anthologies Pitchers Do Get Lonely and It Happens Every Spring.)

Why neither has been made a Hall of Famer via the J.G. Taylor Spink Award escapes. Maybe someone in the Baseball Writers Association of America should kick off a loud drumbeat on their behalf the way Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle did for Roger Angell. Angell needed the drumbeat because he wasn’t a daily newspaper essayist but bloody well deserved to be there as the most elegantly lyrical of baseball writers who practised their professions for weekly or other magazines.

When Pete Rose first ran into the dumpster fire of his own making, in 1989, Boswell asked, “[W]hat happens when you become larger than life? The ego needed to be great and the judgment required to be wise aren’t often found in the same package.”

When Mike Schmidt shocked the game by retiring in May 1989, while he was still among the National League’s RBI leaders though he wasn’t hitting often or hard anymore, Boswell wrote, “Most great players these days torture their teams, their fans, and themselves, playing for years past their prime, for the checks and the cheers.”

Instead, Schmidt left memories—of the player who finally dragged the Phillies to five division titles, two pennants, and their only world title . . . Even with three MVP awards and a World Series MVP behind him, he lived a slump as though he had never been in one before and might never get out of this one . . .

Schmidt . . . was not meant to comb gray hairs. From him, we only expected the sublime. He looked like some huge, graceful shortstop misplaced at third base. When he came to bat, the number 20 on his back might have stood for the number of rows he intended to hit the ball into the bleachers.

For many fans, Schmidt’s departure was a shock that left a sense of loss. Didn’t we half expect him to hit 35 more home runs this year as though the trick were done without effort? Once in awhile, however, the man himself knows best. On Memorial Day, Schmidt connected again. He did what so many great athletes have failed to do; he left us wanting more.

When the Astros were hoist by their own illegal, off-field-based, electonic sign-stealing petard, unable or unwilling to say plainly that they cheated and were sorry about it, before the coronavirus shut 2020 spring training down, there was Boswell to tell it like they weren’t: “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed . . . ”

Unfortunately, getting caught is usually what does it. Then, in the Astros’ refrain of the day, [outfielder Josh] Reddick said, “If we win, we shut everybody up.”

No, you don’t. The Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Seventy years later, they were still in a metaphoric cornfield in “Field of Dreams,” coming out at dusk to ask whether they could just be allowed to play a game of baseball again.

Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma — most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

As of 30 June, Boswell is pulling the brake on his Post career. The pan-damn-ic kept him from covering last year’s World Series up close and personal; five eye surgeries last year married to that convinced him, as he wrote 7 May, “I’ve gradually gotten the memo, sent from me to myself: ‘This is the appropriate time’.”

Branch Rickey said, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

I’m trading me into retirement. I’m happy about it. But I’m going to miss many aspects of the only job I’ve ever had. To my surprise, with age, it’s now clear what I will miss the most — the readers.

I’ve been one of them ever since I picked up a copy of How Life Imitates the World Series. Until then, Boswell essays published outside Washington and around New York were about as frequent as excursions to Atlantis. Boswell hasn’t published an anthology since Cracking the Show in 1994. He’s as overdue for a new one as the Cubs were for winning the World Series in 2016.

Baseball players learn the hard way that there comes time when the spirit remains willing, the brain keeps believing, the heart still beats, but the body orders them where to shove it and they can’t let themselves obey. Just ask Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Steve Carlton, and Albert Pujols. The rarest are the Schmidts, the Jackie Robinsons, the Sandy Koufaxes who obey the orders before their legacies get shoved.

Writers whose pens, typewriters, word processors, computers never fail them may be more rare than than the Hall of Famer who fields like a vacuum cleaner and hits like you could put him into an old-fashioned telephone booth and he’d still hit one across the Grand Canyon.

“To avoid the column-decompression bends,” Boswell concluded, “I will be writing and chatting several more times until June 30. By then, the cicadas will leave. And so will I. They will go underground for seventeen years. I hope to go everywhere else.” The column’s headline said, “it’s time to see what I missed.”

Just please tell me it’ll be the way Alan Freed once signed off his nightly radio shows, “It isn’t goodbye, it’s just good night.” Even one Boswell exegesis a year is worth two hundred from anyone else and ten times that many from me.

Otherwise, I’ll wish Boswell and his wife, Wendy, nothing but joy in their human journey still to come. I just hope the BBWAA re-awakens enough to make bloody certain that their itinerary includes Cooperstown—and not as tourists.

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