1989: The Greatness that Might Have Been


The 18,172 proud gentlemen who have donned a Major League uniform, plus Boileryard Clarke, can be said to be the finest baseball athletes the world has ever offered. But of course such a statement requires an untenable simplification. It ignores Josh Gibson, for instance, and Sadaharu Oh, and it includes Yuniesky Betancourt. Not only that, but it discounts a great many gifted athletes who, for various circumstantial reasons, were never given the opportunity to excel in this particular sport. One can safely assume that Jesse Owens would have stolen more than a few bags, and that Mikhail Baryshnikov would have made one hell of a shortstop. One once said similar things about Michael Jordan, but one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch, now does it? And why stop there, really? Why not speculate about the baseball IQ of the Duke of Wellington, or the scrappiness of Spartacus, or the mound presence of Moses?

There are good reasons not to do so, actually, including the likelihood that you will be shunned and mocked by your peers. But all such objections dissolve in the face of the photograph above. For as anyone will know immediately, from the most leather-faced old scout to the most casual spectator, when we look at this photograph we are in the presence of Baseball Greatness.

It is a tragic greatness, an empty greatness, to our partial minds, for it is a greatness that never expressed itself in our domain of choice. But of the fact that it is greatness, there can be no doubt. See the set of the gentleman’s jaw, the thrust of his chest, the authoritative crispness of his mustache. See the way his companion, perhaps a footman or valet of some sort, instinctively obscures himself in the shadow of his superior. See how the world itself seems to ripple and part before him. He has won some prize, which he carries, defiantly, in a bag draped across his groin; from its shape, one imagines it to be the heads of enemies. Still he seeks something more, something less tangible: “trouble,” perhaps, or “action.” Yet to say he seeks it is to do him an injustice; it is rather that he commands it to reveal itself.

One longs to see this greatness translated onto the diamond. Keen vision, relentless drive, unwavering confidence: these are the hallmarks of the true ballplayer, and our subject exudes them effortlessly. The date on the picture is 1989. Would he have been out of place in the dugout of that year’s world champion Athletics? He would have owned that dugout, or any other. No rival would there have been, who could have daunted him; no moment, to which he would not have risen.

Let us take a moment together in humble silence, remembering that the greatness we see is but a fraction of the greatness that is.




Original photo by Michael Galinsky

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Is that Wally Backman?


Scouting Report on Mikhail Baryshnikov:

Good actions, smooth, plus footwork, good first step. Terrible hands. Throws like Johnny Damon. Not likely to hit.