PARTING SHOT

Where Have You Gone, Johnny Madigan? Remembering the Mythical Blue Sox

In a recent Esquire profile, the New York Mets’ Darryl Strawberry comes across as a special sort of guy. He’s the sort of guy who calls in sick for a game and then shows up in Queens to pitch his rap record, “Chocolate Strawberry.” He publicly rips his slumping teammates for “quitting” and whines that his manager is an idiot. On the brighter side, Strawberry has patched things up with his wife. She had retained Marvin Mitchelson, divorce shark supreme, to help ease her passage through life without Darryl.

Now there’s no doubting that Mr. Strawberry can also play some baseball. He hit thirty-nine homers and stole thirty-six bases last year while driving in 104 runs. But here’s a feet: there’s no way this guy could ever play for the Blue Sox.

Thousands of former kids remember the Blue Sox as the greatest team that never played. Created by author Duane Decker, the Sox (no city name was ever given, so everyone could claim them) dominated major league baseball, fiction division, from Decker’s first Blue Sox novel in 1947 ( Good Field, No which introduced third baseman Johnny Madigan) to his last in 1964, The Grand Slam Kid.

This year, with the return of spring and baseball, accompanied by profiles of spoiled millionaires, bloodsucker agents, and all the sorry attendants of the modern game, I fell to thinking! about the Blue Sox books-what they meant, and how impossible it is to imagine them being written or read today. Decker gave each starting player a book of his own, leading off with Madigan, the spiritual spark plug of the team. Each player starred in his own book and played supporting roles in the other guys’ books, and the lessons of [Decker’s fiction started with that basic fact:i nobody was the star all the time; everybody was vital to the success of the team, from the batboy (who became the starting first baseman after several books) to the switch-hitting centerfielder Russ Woodward, whose power and gazelle-like speed made him a ringer for Mickey Mantle.

The stories were not primarily about superb hitting and fielding and pitching, even though the Sox were always in the pennant race and usually won the Series. No matter how glittering a player’s stats, he was a person [first and a legend second. There was no place on the Blue Sox for the superior but cold, aloof, and selfish ballplayer, the guy in it for the money and the headlines.

The thirteen Blue Sox books, from Starling Pitcher to Hit and Run and Rebel in Right Field, were tar from great literature and would no doubt seem maudlin and naive beside me adolescent books of today, in which realistic kids grapple with divorce and incest and teen pregnancy and all the dreary problems of the real world. No, Decker’s books were about the old verities: facing your fears (like a fast ball high and inside), overcoming handicaps (like being too small to hit homers), They taught pride in yourself and responsibility to the group at the same time.

In Third-Base Rookie, my favorite, young Vic Scalzi comes up to the big club to take over from Madigan, who at thirty-eight has just had his poorest season ever. The manager would love to nudge the old warrior into a coaching job, but when Madigan learns that Scalzi is the one to replace him, he says they’ll have to carry him out. Why? Today, the conflict would arise because Scalzi signed for more money than Madigan. Or maybe the kid got to make a wine cooler commercial with Bruce Willis. But in Decker’s league, Madigan balks because he and Scalzi happen to be from the same home town, and he knows that me kid was once arrested for burglary. Well, no punk kid with a record is gonna take Johnny Madigan’s job, not without a Fight. “Play me or trade me,” Madigan demands, but the Sox know a trade would haunt them. Playing for a rival team, the spurned Madigan would find a hundred ways to beat his old comrades.

So Madigan demands a chance to fight for his job against the brilliant rookie. The Blue Sox, out of loyalty to a veteran (mis is fiction, remember), give him the chance. For a while the fading star seems reborn, playing on anger and pride, but in fiction as in life the calendar must win. Madigan wilts in the dog days of August, the team falters, and Scalzi takes over. Naturally, Scalzi turns out to be innocent of the old charges (he was taking the rap for a pal), so he and Madigan respect each other. Madigan takes the coaching job, and the Sox win another Series.

Money, the bane of modern sports and their eventual ruin, was not absent from the Blue Sox books. Scalzi signs for a $60,000 bonus, not a bad haul in those days. But money was not the reason for living or playing ball. Many of the Blue Sox players had jobs in the off season and it was understood that only the greatest players would finish their days in Palm Springs. For the rest baseball was a wonderful interlude in die springtime of life, but reality beckoned beyond the last game. Anyway, Decker knew his audience: kids are not truly impressed by large sums of money, which is unreal and abstract until you’ve had to earn it for a few years. And no abstraction can compare with the thrill of the ball and the runner converging on home plate; or the second baseman swooping like a gull to pluck a sure hit off the outfield grass. To rny childish mind it seemed that any adult could be rich (okay, wrong on that one), but getting a hit off Sandy Koufax? No mere millionaire could do that.

If kids read baseball romances today, they must read them as they would science fiction or, say, The Wind in the Willows. A frog driving a roadster seems about as believable as one of Decker’s heroes. But I was pleased and astonished to find that the Dallas Public Library owns almost all die Decker lineup, lacking only Madigan’s debut in Good Field, No Hit and The Big Stretch, written in 1952. Of course the Blue Sox books are long out of prim, but they’ll be there until they’re squeezed out by Let’s Talk About Abortion and Bobby Jean Visits the Sandinistas.

It’s also pretty unlikely that anyone is writing in die Decker vein anymore. To do so, a writer would have to ignore too much that we have learned about the business of baseball, the egos and prima donnas. Decker died in 1964, just as thousands of his boy readers were giving up baseballs for Beatle albums and guitars. Too bad he missed die grand drama of the 75 World Series and Tom Seaver’s 300th win. (Seaver could have pitched for the Blue Sox.) But he also missed Dwight Gooden’s trouble, Steve Howe’s shame, Pete Rose selling Grecian Formula. And how would Duane Decker ply his trade today?

“Kevin ’T-Bills ’ Thompson dug in at the plate. Bottom of the ninth, two out and two on, and this was his last chance. The Blue Sox were in seventh place and losing this one, 13-3, but so what? One more RBI and Kevin would make his incentive clause, netting an extra 300 shares of IBM, which had acquired the Sox in a leveraged buyout. He’d have to call his broker…”

I don’t know, Somehow it just doesn’t have that old ring.

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