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FROM FIRST AND SPRING

Getting Swept Away by a Human Vacuum Cleaner

An Editor's Note

July 23, 2006|Rick Wartzman

I don't follow baseball nearly as closely as I once did, but every morning I still open the paper and go immediately to the box scores, where I check on my Baltimore Orioles. It's as inveterate as brushing my teeth or grabbing a cup of coffee.

To be sure, the Dodgers have hooked me. There's nothing more pleasant than sitting at Chavez Ravine with my son, Nathaniel. But I was raised on the O's and remain so steadfast that I almost wouldn't let Nathaniel sleep in the house when he wound up on the Yankees--the Orioles' nemesis--for T-ball.

Many a night as a boy, I'd curl up by the radio and revel in the exploits of Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson--especially Brooks Robinson. The Human Vacuum Cleaner, as the nimble third baseman was known, was my hero--a hero without an asterisk.

When I played catch with my dad, I would have him toss me grounders far afield so that I could try to dive for them and make the throw off my knees, just like Brooks. Mr. Oriole, as he was also called, was with the team for 23 years.

It's been tougher for Nathaniel to fall in love with one player, lest he risk having his heart broken. He worshiped Shawn Green, only to see him traded when owners Frank and Jamie McCourt got to town and blew apart the roster. The McCourts, who've taken a lot of heat for their actions, are saying the right things now, as evidenced by Pat Jordan's piece on the Boston transplants ("Frank and Jamie McCourt Sooooo Love L.A.," page 26). "This franchise," Frank McCourt told Jordan, "deserves to be great again."

The question is: How many times will they scramble the clubhouse to achieve said greatness?

No era in baseball has been perfectly tranquil. A study by writer Robert Elias found that before the free-agency system started in 1975, a Hall of Famer played on an average of three teams during his career. The average since then: also three teams. Staying with a single club as Brooks did, in other words, has always been the exception.

Still, there's little doubt that the churning has increased. Maury Brown, an analyst with the publication Baseball Prospectus, says that through the '70s and '80s and into the '90s, there would typically be four to six players per team who found themselves on a new ballclub at the start of the season. That number is now closer to nine. Some of it, he suspects, is because more teams have become flush, giving them an opportunity to wheel and deal. Perhaps it's even part of a larger cultural phenomenon--the shattering of loyalty between employer and employee.

And what does Brooks make of all this? "I think most fans have conditioned themselves not to get latched on to a certain player," he says.

How very sad. During our last outing to the stadium, Nathaniel was in awe of hot-hitting Nomar Garciaparra. I just hope he doesn't look up one day to find that, as far as the Dodgers are concerned, Nomar is no more.

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