A u g u s t   2 0 0 1


Plimpton steps up to the plate
The ability to swing
by Mark Anderson

Maybe it's all George Plimpton's fault.

The $8 beers. The $45 tickets. The $200 sneakers. The $25-million-a-year salaries. And our fixation with celebrity, which places style before substance and suggests the unhealthy notion that everybody needs to be a star.

Back in the 1960s, Plimpton, the godfather of participatory sports journalism, blurred the lines between reader, writer, player and personality with a string of man-in-the-trenches books.

Solid lineup: "Home Run" sports 17 hard-hitting writers.

He went to football training camp with the Detroit Lions, and "Paper Lion" chronicled his temporary life as bench-warming quarterback. Plimpton actually played a set of exhibition-season downs. The book became a 1968 movie, the movie starred Alan Alda, and our slide down the slippery celebrity slope began.

Plimpton tried the trick many times over -- boxing, baseball, basketball, hockey, driving, conducting a symphony -- ending up with a similarly themed TV show and a healthy gumbo of a résumé: college athlete, author, editor, actor ("Good Will Hunting," "Reds," "L.A. Story," "Lawrence of Arabia"), man-about-town. Bravo. Well-earned. Good for him.

Too bad for us. We put poor-man's Plimptons on TV, doing stupid human tricks on some camera-filled island or answering silly quiz questions in contrived situations for a shot at fortune ... celebrity ... fame. And then we watch them in droves. Hey, maybe these people will hone some real skills one of these days. Maybe not.

The eternal Ivy Leaguer turns 73.

Meanwhile, the 73-year-old Plimpton has settled into his role as the eternal Ivy Leaguer. He's long been New York City's honorary fireworks commissioner and still edits The Paris Review.

Last month he was in Portland promoting "Home Run," his new collection of short stories by 17 authors -- including John Updike, Garrison Keiller and Don DeLillo -- and revolving around baseball's greatest hit.

Writes Updike, who in 1960 witnessed a 42-year-old Ted Williams homering in his final Fenway at-bat: "... there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of those times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future."

Keiller envisions a near-death Babe Ruth on a train-tour exhibition, trying to poke one out of the park during a stopover in Lake Wobegon.

Observes 1930s-era sportswriter and novelist Paul Gallico: "One of the penalties of too close association with heroes and daily sports-reporting is the suspicion and cynicism ... You eventually learn that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either. And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something."

But the book's best bit, 40-some pages of DeLillo fiction, is a day-in-the-ballpark account of Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world." The 1997 piece, which became the prologue of DeLillo's "Underworld," imagines several engaging scenarios during a game that includes one of last century's truly epic moments -- replete with Toots Shor, Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra among the box-seated minions, wisecracking their way through nine boozy innings.

During the actual 1951 Polo Grounds moment when Thomson connected, Plimpton reports, DeLillo was really seated in the chair of his New York dentist with a mouthful of hardware and hands.

The book's underlying theme: these pieces are written by and about professionals who didn't take the easy route. They just happened upon celebrity on their way to someplace else.

Nowadays we watch from the couch while ordinary folk chase their done-to-death 15 minutes. And we're left fighting the overwhelming impression that fame is the ultimate goal. Not to mention the ridiculous price of the suds, the seats, the sneakers, the salaries.

Plimpton's greatest hit.

Everybody knows who gets left with the tab.

What can we do? Other than yanking out the cable and a few other like-minded grassroots crusades, probably not much. Sometimes just being aware is well worth the while.

We all have our guilty pleasures -- and the '50s and '60s offered them, too.

Maybe it isn't even Plimpton's fault. Just like they said about Elvis Presley during those same seemingly innocent days: If George Plimpton hadn't come along, we probably would have invented him anyway.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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