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My father is the single most influential person in my life, I love baseball because he taught me to love baseball when I was a little kid, and the way I love baseball today is largely a product of how he taught me the game. I suspect that there are only fifteen or twenty million other American men for whom that sentence is true.
My baseball experience isn’t really a fan’s experience. I attended two Phillies games in person before I went to college–in fact, I saw the Phillies play at Camden Yards and Turner Field before I ever saw them play at Citizens Bank Park. Attending games in person wasn’t all that important or convenient, so we didn’t. My dad wasn’t a big baseball player growing up and all the kids in my neighborhood were bigger hockey than baseball fans, so I grew up playing hockey instead. I played baseball until I was 12, until, after six years of being the kid for whom they had the rule that said everyone has to bat at least once and play at least three innings in the field, I quit. I moved six months ago and forgot to pack my baseball glove, and being without it doesn’t particularly bother me.
Doesn’t sound like much of a baseball fan’s upbringing, does it? Well, that’s not how I experience the game. I’m a terrible athlete, I don’t like big crowds or the summer heat and fresh-cut grass makes me sneeze. My dad didn’t buy me tickets and equipment and jerseys: he bought me books and magazines. Just absolute oodles of them–biographies of Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds, collections of short stories, novels and old newspaper and news stories. I owned, for all intents and purposes, the entire collected works of Dan Gutman, a writer who lived two towns over and had written dozens of children’s novels and nonfiction books about baseball. I can still cite, chapter and verse, Gutman’s book on the five best World Series ever.
My father taped Ken Burns’ Baseball when it aired and let me watch it over and over until I had it more or less memorized. My friends’ parents taught them how to throw a curveball and how to properly swear at Bobby Cox from the 700 level at the Vet. My parents bought me Baseball Weekly and showed me where to find Jayson Stark’s column in the Inquirer.
By the time I was ten years old, I was imagining my own lineups and trades. I couldn’t run or hit worth a crap, but I could tell my Little League teammates about Ozark Jeff Tesreau‘s role in the 1912 World Series and Joe Adcock collecting 18 total bases in a single game. I really wasn’t a player or a fan as a kid–I was a historian or a folklorist. In short, a nerd.
My dad also watched a ton of games with me on television–I’ve told the story here a million times how I discovered baseball as a six-year-old, through the 1993 Phillies, a team I started watching because my dad always had them on while he was cooking dinner or folding laundry or something. And when the game was over, he told me about the perennial loser from his childhood who came out of obscurity to contend for a title. And thanks to my dad growing up in a different time and in the wrong end of New Jersey, that team, for him, was the 1969 Mets.
Which brings us to Tommie Agee.
I was probably about 20 years old before I realized that Agee wasn’t a borderline Hall of Famer. I paged through my own well-worn copy of Bill James‘ New Historical Baseball Abstract on Friday to see where he ranked among the all-time greats. James rates Agee as the 78th-best center fielder ever, among such luminaries as Ellis Burks, Jose Cardenal and Ron LeFlore. Agee was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1966 and led the Mets in home runs, RBI and runs scored in 1969. He was, apart from his childhood teammate Cleon Jones, the best position player the Mets had that year. He had, looking at the stats, about five good seasons, two with the White Sox and three with the Mets, and never really contributed much of anything beyond 1971. He was out of baseball soon thereafter and went on to run a bar near Shea Stadium and do charity work in New York and his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, until he died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 58.
I didn’t know any of that until this week. I knew Agee’s 1969 stats by heart, and the two amazing catches he made in the World Series and that the way my dad talked about him sounded a lot like the way I talked about Lenny Dykstra. I revered Tommie Agee because my dad told good stories about him, because I already knew about Tom Seaver and was interested in a player who wasn’t so obvious.
I get accused (though not as much as you might think) of being the kind of joyless empiricist know-it-all who only cares about the numbers and not the game. That’s simply not the case. Numbers and statistics are a means to an end. To hell with the numbers. Numbers help you understand baseball, and understanding baseball helps you tell a better story. Sometimes the numbers themselves are the story and help you realize how special that thing you’re watching is. But I’m not into baseball because looking at box scores is fun (though it is), or because drinking beer in a parking lot and screaming terrible things at Chipper Jones is fun (though it is).
The reason I love baseball, to the point where I spend all my free time thinking about it and watching it and reading about it and writing about it, is because of the folklore, the history and the sense that what you’re watching can be special. I got that as a kid, watching Ken Burns’ miniseries and reading Jayson Stark’s columns.
But you’re reading this now because of my dad, and because he used to tell me stories about Tommie Agee.