Earlier this month, I attended the Atlanta Braves’ Alumni Weekend, which is one of my favorite events of the year. It’s always fun to see old teammates and guys I’ve gotten to know through baseball. People often ask me, “What do you guys talk about when you get together?” I always say the same thing: “Our playing days. And the older we get, the better we were.”
Very seldom, though, do we talk about specific games. You might think there’s too many games in a season, let alone a career, for us to remember many.
Well, you’d be surprised.
There was one game in particular that I brought up to Pete Smith, who was one of our up-and-coming pitchers in the late-1980s. Pete was pitching a shutout at Candlestick Park, it’s the bottom of the 7th inning, and a fly ball is coming my way. It’s the kind of ball I’ve caught a million times. But that time, I didn’t. I misplayed it, the Giants rallied, Pete lost his shutout, and we lost the game.
I felt terrible. I felt like I let the team down – Pete, especially.
Well, we were at an alumni game a few years back, and I go, “Hey, Pete, you remember that one game at Candlestick…”
Pete cut me off before I could even finish.
“You mean that game when I had the four-hit shutout in the 7th? Runners on second and third? Two outs? You messed up that fly ball, I lost the shutout and we lost that game? You mean that game?”
(See what I mean? Baseball players have a great memory.)
Seeing how quickly Pete recalled the particulars, I started feeling bad again. Pete busted out laughing.
“C’mon, Murph! That was 30 years ago! Forget it!”
But that’s the thing: Baseball players don’t forget.
You want to know what Pete does now? He’ll have someone come up to me and say, “Hey, Murph, I always wanted to ask you something: Do you remember that one game Pete Smith was pitching? I think it was at Candlestick…”
Then I’ll look over, and Pete’s in the corner, laughing his rear end off.
Long story short: When the old guys get together, we definitely talk about baseball. We also talk about our health – or lack thereof. “Gee, you look great!” is becoming an increasingly common expression among people in my age bracket, which reminds me of that old joke. There are three stages of life: youth, adulthood, and “Gee, you look great!”
I recently had a 30-minute conversation with an old teammate about CPAP machines.
Ah, the joys of sleep apnea…
But in all seriousness, we do talk a lot about baseball – and not just about our era. Inevitably, we talk about today’s game and how much it’s changed over the decades. Yes, there are some obvious differences, and sooner or later, we sound like typical 50- and 60-year-olds.
“Kids these days,” someone will say. “They’ve got it so good! Remember when we used to play on fields that we shared with the local NFL team? Remember all those bad hops? Remember when we used to fly commercial? Remember when we had to wait until the next day to read box scores in the newspaper?”
In short, “Remember when…things weren’t that great?”
Well, today’s game is great in so many ways – and by “today’s game,” I mean today’s players. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about things that were wrong with baseball. The next week, I wrote another. Like anything in life, some people agreed with me; some didn’t.
But here’s something I think we can all agree on: today’s players would run circles around us. Not just in baseball, but in all sports. For example, I love watching the Golden State Warriors. I love listening to debates about whether this team from this era could beat that team from that era. I always chuckle when I hear someone say, “There’s no way they could beat [insert team from 20+ years ago].”
Truth be told, they probably could.
While the “Who would guard Kevin Durant?” question rages on, just know this: players today are better athletes. The things these kids do never cease to amaze me.
Key word being kids. Never before have the best players in baseball been this young. You know about Mike Trout (27) and Bryce Harper (25). Well, Cody Bellinger is 23. Ronald Acuna Jr. is 20. Juan Soto is 19. The list goes on.
It’s not that there weren’t good young hitters in previous eras. There were. But not like this. These days, there are so many good young hitters. They have better swings, more coaching, and have played more baseball by 18 than we played by 25.
Hitting is much tougher these days, too. Yes, there are too many strikeouts now – and some of that is the hitters are trying to lift the ball too much. But it’s also because they’re facing many more pitchers with “strikeout stuff.” When I played, every staff had a few “finesse” pitchers. We would face two, maybe three pitchers a night, and they usually maxed out in the low-90s. Today, guys see 3-5 pitchers a night, and they all throw gas. Every single one of them. Guys today survive because they understand hitting. They know how to hit the ball the other way, and they self-correct a lot quicker than we ever could at this age.
As for athleticism? It’s not even close. YouTube some Ozzie Smith highlights. Look, I love Ozzie, he was the premier shortstop of his generation, and I could watch his stuff all day. They didn’t call him The Wizard for nothing! And yes, I was there the day Ozzie made his most remarkable play. I mean, it was amazing stuff for back then, but these kids take middle-infield play to a new level with their jump-throws, glove flips, and their arm strength. It’s incredible stuff. And also, middle infielders these days can hit!
But I guess that’s what makes sports great. As incredible as today seems, tomorrow could be even better.
In his book, “For the Love of the Game,” Michael Jordan wrote:
Somewhere there is a little kid working to enhance what we’ve done. It may take awhile, but someone will come along who approaches the game the way I did. He won’t skip steps. He won’t be afraid. He will learn from my example, just as I learned from others. He will master the fundamentals. Maybe he will take off from the free-throw line and do a 360 in midair. Why not? No one thought they would see a 6-foot-9 point guard or a 7-foot-7 center. But here we are. There are now more 6-foot-10 perimeter players than at any time in history. Magic would have been a center 30 years ago. Evolution knows no bounds. Unless they change the height of the basket or otherwise alter the dimensions of the game, there will be a player much greater than me.
I listened, I was aware of my success, but I never stopped trying to get better.
That book came out in 1998. LeBron James was 13 years old. Kevin Durant was 10. I don’t know if either of those guys is better than Michael. Some will say they never will be; others will say they already are.
Here’s what I can say for sure: While there are some things about today’s game that I would like to change, I still love the game. I still marvel at today’s players. I hope that they do as Michael advised and never stop trying to get better. Because one day, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, they’ll be at an Alumni Weekend talking with former teammates about how good they once were and, in all likelihood, how much better “today’s” players are.
I certainly hope so. The names, faces, and stadiums will change, but there will always be a “Pete Smith” to laugh with and reminisce.
The older we get, the better we were.
Except for that one night at Candlestick…
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