Hello, friends! I want to take a moment to pay a tribute to my all time favorite Pittsburgh Pirate, one Matty Alou.
Matty died last November but at the time I was taking a hiatus from blogging. The Pirates' front office's failure to make any significant moves at the trading deadline really got to me. Opportunities are so fleeting...but anyway, I've revamped the blog and now I'm writing the post I've wanted to write for quite a few months now, which is to pay tribute to the late, great, Matty Alou.
Matty played for the Bucs from 1966 to 1970. he won the batting title in 1966 and went on to be an All-Star in 1968 and 1969. I remember my first baseball game ever. I went with my dad to old Forbes Field, around 1967 or so, and saw the Bucs play the Cardinals. Don't remember much more than that, but going to the ball park a few times every year became a family mainstay. My Dad, brother Sam, and my cousins and I would always make sure to get out there, come thick or thin. Probably no different than most of you, I am sure.
Anyway, the one player I really got to love was a CF we had for a few years by the name of Matty Alou, one of three Alou brothers that all had solid major league careers. It's hard to explain what a little boy likes about a particular ballplayer. But the great thing about baseball is that you see the faces of the players very clearly, whether on TV or in the ballpark, and you see how they carry themselves even while just swinging away in the on-deck circle, or shagging fly balls or taking batting practice. And you start to ascribe personalities to these guys, even though in reality you know little, if anything about them.
So it was that Matty always seemed to this little boy to have a quiet, gentle, and kind personality. It was seen in his smile, his composure, and his calmness, and for some reason he stood out to me. He was a good ballplayer and won a batting title in 1966 so I guess that helped. But it was more the measure of the man, as well as his impressive baseball skills, that led me to consider him my favorite ball player.
That doesn't explain why he became my ALL TIME favorite ballplayer though.
Go back to 1968, and Matty was in a heated but ultimately unsuccessful race with Pete Rose for the batting title (Rose had to finish the season 6 for 9 to beat him out, and did). It was a day to day thing and it was exciting. Now imagine Forbes Field on a kind of desolate, rainy night in September, a little chilly, not a lot of fans in the park as school had started up and the Bucs were as usual going nowhere. So, my little group just kind of sat down around 40 rows behind home plate and watched the game...typical kind of experience at the ball park.
Well, Matty's in the on-deck circle and I just kind of sauntered up a few rows behind him. Usher management wasn't much of an issue in those days, especially on a night like this! Anyway, I called out to him: "Come on, Mattie, you can beat Rose!" and for whatever reason he turned toward me and smiled. That's all it took. A simple, appreciative, but humble smile. I remember it to this day, and THAT is why he's my all time favorite player. A simple smile to a little kid, a fan for life.
Well, a few years later he was gone and I followed his career for a while. He played for a few teams after that and by 1975 he was out of baseball. But the impression he made on me was indelible. In fact, we named our daughter Madeleine Lucille, and we called her Maddie Lou for years. Just one of those crazy coincidences I guess! And on my 50th birthday, my family got me a framed autographed picture of the man that I cherish to this day!
I think what this story really speaks to a certain human dimension of baseball which to me makes it so unique because it can create such connections between players and fans. More than any other sport, you so often see the players' emotions as they play, whether it's celebrating an achievement or standing in the batter's box after a called strike three in the bottom of the ninth when they had a chance to tie up the game. Case in point: In the mid-1980s, our Bucs had a pretty nondescript shortstop named "Slammin' Sammy" Khalifa whose main claim to fame was probably that he was baseball's first Egyptian ball player. He hit two home runs in his short career, both in 1985. My mom and I were there when he hit number one. We both remarked about, and laughed at, the sheer joy in his face as he circled the bases, like a little leaguer! It was one of those moments that will stick with me forever. He was so happy! Like the look on Sid Bream's face when he was called safe...but that's the other side of the story, isn't it?
Well, I certainly don't want to end this blog post on that note, so let me say this: Alou was successful in Pittsburgh in large part because of the work he put in with Harry "the Hat" Walker, the Bucs' manager at that time who worked with Matty and brought out his best. So to you, Matty Alou, a tip of the old Bucco Hat (ok, cap) as I think back on when baseball could be enjoyed for its sheer joy, and I thank you for being a part of it. Rest in peace.