When the correspondent from ABC’s Good Morning America asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t need too long to think. “Third basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies,” I responded. I caught my reflection in the lens of the hulking television camera before me; I had burly side-burns and spit chaw, while clad in mid-80’s Phillies home pinstripes. All I needed was about twelve more years developing superior glove-work and defensive range while harnessing the hand-eye coordination and nearly superhuman raw power to lead the National League in home runs eight times and earn an NL MVP nod three times. Okay. Okay. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt because I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt. I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt because he was my father’s favorite baseball player. He was my father’s favorite baseball player because he was the best player on his favorite team. He also embodied the default benchmarks that typified my father’s favorite athletes: he was boring and a workaholic who “played the game right.”
Why was Good Morning America interviewing me? I was chosen as South Williamsport Area Grade School’s “Whiz Kid of the Year” and was invited to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan with other northern Pennsylvania “whiz kids”. Psyche! My Little League team was coached by a gentleman named Fred Heaps, who had been coaching Newberry Little League teams for nearly 40 years at that point. His most notable achievement was leading a local team to the Little League World Series in 1969. More importantly, he was known for doing kindhearted things like buying baseball gloves for kids who couldn’t afford them, or reminding his teams that he loved them, win or lose. What I remember most about him was how he preached “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” and giving me a quarter for answering “Tony Gwynn” when he asked who was the purest hitter in the major leagues. ABC put together a piece on Fred Heaps during the MLB All-Star break in 1988. Coach Heaps passed away two years later, during my final year as a little leaguer.
Larry Bird was born in the tiny farm community of French Lick, Indiana. His youth was dedicated to back-breaking manual labor, and, as far as Bird knew, would always be. Even when he accepted a scholarship to Indiana University -- one of the most decorated collegiate basketball programs in the county -- he bailed out when life at a big-time university proved too overwhelming. He later enrolled in the less prestigious Indiana State University basketball program, where he single-handedly took the Sycamores to the NCAA national championship game in '79. Even when Bird's father committed suicide, he was resolute -- kick ass on the court and remain discreet off of it. THIS GUY, my friends, was not only born to win NBA championships, but also to be one of my father's favorite athletes.
Larry Bird's greatest foil on the court was -- no drumroll needed -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Bird and Johnson met in the aforementioned NCAA championship game, and again in the NBA championships 3 times. But the comparison delves so much deeper. Their nicknames alone are clue enough that a discerning mind would recognize which player my father would idolize.
"Magic": Flashy. Gaudy. "Look at me, everyone."
"The Hick From French Lick": See word "Hick."
However, Magic was the perfect antithesis to Bird. Magic's team was the "Showtime" LA Lakers. Magic's cheesing mug was on billboards and television commercials. Magic bedded nearly as many women as he had amassed career assists. One the other hand, Bird's Boston Celtics mirrored gangly white working class schlubs in both appearance and attitude (yes, Robert Parish did, too). Off the court, Bird's face only appeared in his defender's nightmares. And I'm pretty sure Bird is still a virgin.
Okay, here's the example that perfectly epitomizes Dad's affection for Bird over Magic. While Magic was romancing one woman after another on velvet bedspreads, Bird was putting in his mother's driveway. As a result -- Magic got AIDS, and Bird got a chronic bad back. However, my father respects Magic. The ex-Laker was, and is, a true professional and a stand-up human being (despite now being part-owner of the blasted LA Dodgers). But whenever Dad is outside on a chilly November morning, building a retaining wall or hauling dead trees, he is Larry "The Hick From French Lick" Bird, but in Dickies work pants and a flannel shirt.
The other sport my father enjoys is football. His favorite NFL player should be exceedingly easy to guess. (Dad doesn't pay attention to hockey. His head would explode trying to determine a favorite player because every NHL athlete is either Mike Schmidt or Larry Bird on ice skates, more-or-less. I bet Alexander Ovechkin would be the only guy off the table.) That player is Peyton Manning, duh. Dad has always been a diehard Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts fan, to boot. Peyton Manning is the stereotypical overachiever. His workaholic credentials are legend. In fact, he's such an overachiever that he's ripe for satire -- he shows up to training camp before Valentine's Day; he breastfeeds rookies (in public) until they're mature enough to put on pads on Week One; he's competed in the playoffs with a severed head.
The Colt's vaunted starting quarterback sat out the 2011 football season due a faulty neck. That year, replacement quarterback Curtis Painter "led" the Colt's to a 2-14 record, ensuring Indianapolis the number one pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The team had since decided to draft a young college quarterback to replace a departing Manning, The two choices were obvious: Standford's la-de-da pocket passer Andrew Luck or Baylor's super-charged field general Robert Griffin III. Both were tremendous talents who had celebrated college careers. Both were also dedicated and hardworking athletes who were, by all accounts, respectful human beings. Dad liked them both. Prior to Draft Day he stated in an email to me "I'd gladly take either Luck or Griffin." Either player seemed fully capable of eventually returning the Colts to the Super Bowl. To Dad, the variables of the quarterback were irrelevant; leading the team to victory was paramount. However, all else being equal, I knew my father preferred Andrew Luck. Why? He was boring. Moreover, Andrew Luck looked and acted as though he were divinely born straight from Peyton Manning's rib.
During the 2012 NFL season, Luck spearheaded a Colt's offense to an 11-5 record. RG3 did the same at the helm of the Washington Redskins. Both teams made the playoffs. That Thanksgiving, I was watching the afternoon football games at my parents' house with my father when a Subway commercial aired, starring a hamming-it-up Robert Griffin the Third. Dad grimaced and shook his head, and said "See now, that bothers me. This guy is only a rookie and he's doing television commercials." I reminded him that Peyton Manning has literally been in every other friggin' commercial for five years straight. I should've imagined his response; "That's right. But he's already won the Big One." Touche'.
I never grew up to be the baseball player in the camera lens. Sure, I could've grown badass sideburns and stuffed chew under my bottom lip, but I was destine not to be Mike Schmidt. As much as I daydreamed -- even if I'd tried like hell since I was a little leaguer -- I could never have become Reggie Jackon, or Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson, or RG3. I never wanted to be Peyton Manning -- he who sacrificed a puppy to Satan in exchange for a first-round playoff bye, or appeared in enough Starbucks commercials to gain membership into the Screen Actor's Guild.
I'm not upset that I never achieved my childhood dreams. Nevertheless, I do possess the capacity to build a retaining wall or haul dead trees. Hell, I suppose I could even lay a driveway if I really, really want to. In the minds of some, completing such chores is the everyman's version of winning the Big One.