steps up to the plate
ability to swing
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.