I'm a great admirer of the game of soccer. It's fast, relentless and requires amazing athletic skill. I was reminded of that while watching the incredible performance by the U.S. soccer team in its World Cup games against Mexico and Germany.
But I don't think I can ever love soccer. One reason is that I don't think human beings went through two million years of evolution in order to invent a game that prohibits the use of hands.
But there is an even more important second reason: It makes me think about the roof of the San Francisco Giants dugout at Pac Bell Park.
Let me explain.
I'm hardly the first American to notice that World Cup level soccer is not only incredible athletic but also shockingly histrionic.
Every foul is followed by the recipient rolling and writhing on the grass as if gut shot; and every goal is followed by the player ripping off his jersey and racing about the field, arms out in a campy don't-you-love-me gesture that would make a Judy Garland impersonator wince.
But the absolute nadir came during the U.S.-Mexico game, when a Mexican player was fouled and dropped to the field as if dead. With all of the solemnity of a warrior's funeral he was gently lifted onto a stretcher and carried off the field. The crowd sobbed at the horror unfolding before them.
The camera followed the cortege to the sidelines … and just before it pulled away, the lens caught the player leaping off the stretcher, Lazarus-like, to run back out onto the field. James Brown could learn from this guy.
Spirit of Baseball — Fearless, Combative, Tough
It was at this point that I suddenly and inexplicably found myself thinking about that dugout roof.
At least once during every Giants game my eye wanders down there to the collection of eight emblems painted on the roof. They are a century of Giant Hall of Famers.
Four, bearing numbers, represent players I saw in their prime: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda. The other four simply show the NY emblem of the old Polo Grounds Giants. Two are legendary hitters: Bill Terry, the last National Leaguer to hit .400, and Mel Ott, pound-for-pound the greatest slugger of all time.
But it was of the other two names that I thought as I watched the Mexican player chew up the Korean scenery: John McGraw and Christy Mathewson.
More than anyone, even Babe Ruth, McGraw defined the spirit of baseball. As a player, he was fearless, combative and tough. As a manager he was all of those things, only more so.
It wasn't hard to imagine what the Little Napoleon would have said to that Mexican player: "Rub some dirt into it and shut the hell up."
As for Mathewson, perhaps baseball's greatest pitcher, and certainly its beau ideal, one could only compare all that gnashing and weeping on the soccer field with the indelible image from the last game of the 1912 World Series: Having pitched his heart out for 10 innings, but betrayed by error after error by his teammates, Christy quietly walked off the mound at the end of the game without a word of excuse or complaint.
Secretariat Never Mugged for the Crowd
That's what baseball is all about. You either take the shot or charge the mound. You don't swoon and fall into the on-deck circle.