The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Let's play ball!

April 5, 2010 | 12:43 pm

UPDATE: Well, things didn't go so well for all of us long-suffering Cubs fans. We got blown out 16-5 by the Braves, with Carlos Zambrano giving up six runs in the first inning, including a mammoth home run by Braves rookie Jason Heyward that looked like it landed somewhere in South Carolina. Oh well. 1 down, 161 games to go.

I'm back from vacation and just in time, since today marks the opening of the baseball season, which for me is like New Year's Eve, Oscar night and Kentucky Derby Day all rolled into one. My beloved Cubs are in Atlanta, playing the rejuvenated Braves, but who knows -- maybe the luckless Cubs will look better than we did last year. As any Cubs fan will attest, hope springs eternal.

Bobgibson The great thing about baseball is that it lends itself to storytelling, which is why there are so many great baseball movies and books floating around. So here's one great story that I heard during the off-season when St. Louis Cardinals greats Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver were being interviewed by Bob Costas.

Perhaps the best pitcher of the '60s (with apologies to Sandy Koufax, who might've been the best pitcher of the first half of the decade), Gibson was a fearsome presence on the mound, famous for his knock-down pitches. If a batter hit a home run off him or showed him up in any way, Gibson would get his revenge the next time the hitter came to the plate. 

This applied to anyone. In fact, when one of Gibson's roommates switched teams, the first time his old roomie showed up in the batter's box, even though it was a meaningless spring training game, Gibson knocked him down. But McCarver tells the story to top all stories. In Gibson's last appearance of his career, he gave up a home run to Pete LaCock, a journeyman first baseman (and son of "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall) who played a few undistinguished years in the majors, only hitting 27 homers in his entire career.

But Gibson clearly never forgot the one that LaCock hit off him. A dozen or so years after his retirement, Gibson was pitching in an old-timers game. These are games at which over-the-hill players, now in middle age, horse around, catch up with old friends and generally have a good time. But when LaCock came to bat against Gibson, the pitcher hadn't forgotten the indignity of that last clout. Gibson glared at LaCock, reared back, put some muscle on his old fastball and promptly knocked him down. 

It was a stirring reminder that the great competitors, whether named Bob Gibson, Michael Jordan or Bret Favre, hang on to that desire to win and dominate long after they hang up their spikes or sneakers. And what really makes it a great story is that when Costas asked Gibson if he was really meant to knock LaCock down, Gibson said, with an old pro's smile, "I guess the ball just slipped out of my hand." 

So as people have said for oh, so many years: Let's play ball!  

Photo: Bob Gibson. Credit: Associated Press.