Barring unforeseeable, unthinkable injury, we are standing at the threshold of a remarkable moment in sporting history. Your average sports fan may be too busy getting his burger to address its importance, so it may be little noted nor long remembered. Lenny Harris has 199 career pinch-hits, 48 more than anyone else in baseball history: one more will bring him to the stunning plateau of 200. Pinch hits lack the panache of home runs, and folks may not even notice. But individual mastery of a craft is always worthy of respect. Which reminds me of the kid with the stuffed peppers.
This goes back three decades to when I was 17. I was attending one of those New York Jewish weddings where everyone knows that you have to fill up at the smorgasbord because you have no hope of seeing your entree until about three hours later — after the ceremony, the photographs, and a few dances. Firmly ensconced behind a potted plant, idly pecking at my heaping plateful of goodies, I observed the teeming throngs as they bellied up to the trough.
Then I saw a drama silently unfold, staged upon the features of a human face. An earnest Italian kid was stationed as a server behind a warming-plate filled with stuffed peppers. His love for the dish that he was dispensing was transparent; it verged on reverence. One by one, people were approaching him to ask for one of the treasured delicacies — “but you know what, skip the pepper.” I was fascinated to watch the storm clouds gathering upon his countenance as his horror mounted. Somehow he contained himself from chastising the partygoers for their sacrilege.
Then a fellow approached and held out his plate. “You want it with the pepper or without?” The guest looked bemused. “What’s a stuffed pepper without a pepper?” That’s when the dam burst and the kid delivered an impassioned monologue about the centrality of the role of the pepper in the delicate interplay of taste that is the stuffed pepper. I hope that I never forget that moment: it taught me the meaning of dedication and appreciation for a job or a role, however small.
Pinch-hitting has an honored pedigree throughout history. Think David with his slingshot and Harry with his A-Bomb. Not everyone who ever got the big hit was in the starting lineup.
The easier way is to sulk. In every bar and pub in the world, next to each “Why me?” bewailer muttering into his shot glass is a “Why not me?” bemoaner gazing wistfully into the looking glass. You can sit there feeling bypassed and overlooked, not quite smart enough, not quite pretty enough, not quite talented enough. If you cannot live your dream in Technicolor, you can refuse to live it in black-and-white.
Not so the Lenny Harrises of the world. They are content to wait their turn. Let the golden boys blink into the glare of the cameras. The A Team can prance in the spotlight. The strike-out pitchers can have a ball. The home run hitters can fill their plates. The speedsters can steal the precious seconds of media attention and take thirds at the buffet. But there must come a time in the late innings of outings that the slugger’s bat grows sluggish. Then the manager has nowhere to turn except to the pinch-hitter, the last best hope of mankind.
The trick is to be ready for the call. Milton said they also serve who only stand and wait; the pinch-hitter has a harder job, because he has to wait sitting down. But the service is the same, it consists of the alertness to hear the bell when it tolls for thee; that’s easier said than Donne. And the trick-within-a-trick is to be happy in the role. If you sit around being bitter, the sweet swing will not be there when needed. The box-score symbol for the pinch-hitter is “ph,” and therein lies the chemistry. It all follows the ph level: if you get too low, you’ll be too acid to reach base.
John Kruk of ESPN says that if Harris gets 200 pinch-hits he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and although I am not a Kruk, I ain’t nixin’ the idea either. Harris is the greatest ever at a specific, challenging skill that is significant within the overall schema of the game of baseball. It would not be much of a Hall of Fame if it failed to honor that man whom you could most count on in a pinch.
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