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4/16/2007 11:56:00 AM

NL West: Here's to Mrs. Robinson

Rachel Robinson
Rachel Robinson has carried on Jackie Robinson's message.
By Jon Weisman

Rachel Robinson was married to Jackie Robinson for 26 years. She has been a widow for nearly 35.

So much was written about Jackie over the past several days, I fear that people might be suffering from Robinson fatigue by the time this piece hits your browser. And yet, I'm finding that one more thought lingers ...

On Sunday night, sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium with my wife of nearly seven years and my stir-crazy 2- and 4-year old children as Rachel spoke to the crowd and the national television audience, wondering whether I'd be able to keep things under control at least until the first pitch was to be thrown, I listened carefully to Rachel's words but kept returning to the same question: How has she done it? How has she kept it all together?

Practically a newlywed during Jackie's first season in the majors, Rachel endured, along with no small amount of loneliness as the only black baseball wife in the majors, the grief and fear that underscored his pioneering career -- a tension destined to either break their partnership or bond it tighter. Clearly, the latter happened. As Jackie's baseball life transcended, so did their marriage.

Jackie retired after the 1956 season. Sixteen years later -- a snapshot in the life of the 84-year-old Rachel -- Jackie passed away at age 53. His death came a year after an automobile accident killed the Robinsons' oldest son, Jack Jr.

Thirty-five years ago, the finely crafted structure of Rachel's life shattered.

Yet instead of retreating into her grief, Rachel remained in the public eye. She founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides academic scholarships for minority children. She carried on Jackie's essence, combining it with her own, and helped ensure that those of us who weren't fortunate enough to see Jackie play or witness his courage firsthand could have as strong a sense of it as possible.

Don Newcombe and Vin Scully can tell us what Jackie Robinson was like, and it's a precious thing to hear them bear witness. But Rachel shows us. At the exhausting end of an exhausting day of an exhausting life, Rachel gave us a speech Sunday brimming with optimism about the future while admonishing us not to forget the hard-earned lessons of the past, and we intuitively realize that if Jackie had one-tenth of Rachel's character, he truly was a man to be in awe of. And rumor has it that Jackie might even be Rachel's equal ...

Eleanor Gehrig was probably the most famous baseball wife of the first half of the 20th century, immortalized when her husband Lou died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a stature only enhanced when the angelic Teresa Wright portrayed her in The Pride of the Yankees.) Rachel Robinson, it would seem, has transcended her to become the most famous baseball wife of all time. Rachel's fame is truly deserved, though there isn't a lot of competition. The list of well-known baseball wives ends shortly after that.

But the importance of these women throughout baseball history can't be underestimated. They have had to be supportive of their husbands while going it alone for long stretches of time, raising children single-handedly in many cases. For most of baseball history, material rewards were few. For all of baseball history, they have had to battle the anxiety of their husbands cheating on them while on the road. While realizing that not every baseball wife has earned the right to have Teresa Wright play her, watching Rachel Robinson on Sunday made it clear to me how much thanks baseball and its fans owe to baseball wives for making our heroes stronger. In Popeye terms, they're the spinach.

There's no Baseball Wives Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, though it sure wouldn't hurt to have, say, a resource spotlighting some of the great wives of the past. But right now, I suppose, the Baseball Wives Hall of Fame exists right inside Rachel Robinson, who embodies how important they are in this sport's history. I honestly don't think it's overstating the case to call Rachel a national treasure.

D'backs' promising start

Staff ace Brandon Webb has a 5.21 ERA, and Randy Johnson hasn't thrown a pitch yet. Nevertheless, the Arizona Diamondbacks aren't disappointing anyone who pegged their youthful core as NL West-leading material. After taking two of three games from Colorado over the weekend, Arizona is off to a 9-4 start, including eight wins in its past 10 games.

Yet for all the focus on youth, the guys leading the offense for the Diamondbacks are relative fogies compared to their much-heralded kids: 29-year-old second baseman Orlando Hudson, who had an EQA of .350 through Saturday's games, and 31-year-old outfielder Eric Byrnes, who was at .303. Meanwhile, 25-and-unders Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson were around .250, and 24-year-old Carlos Quentin hasn't even gotten off the disabled list to play yet, though 27-year-old Chad Tracy (.289) bridges the gap a bit.

Mostly, Arizona has thrived thanks to capable starting pitching from people of all ages: 24-year-old Micah Owings (1.59 ERA), 31-year-old Doug Davis (1.64 before Sunday's game, 3.37 after allowing 13 baserunners in five innings but still getting a win) and 32-ish-year-old Livan Hernandez (1.80). A team can make or break its season on how well it does when its ballyhooed players are producing less than the ballywho are. Playing .692 ball while getting nondescript results from Webb, Johnson, Drew, Jackson and Quentin bodes well for the Diamondbacks' season-long competitiveness -- though of course, two weeks are just a small window into the season.

In an early matchup of perhaps the two most popular choices to win the division, Arizona will host the Los Angeles Dodgers (just a half-game back in the standings at 8-4) tonight and Tuesday. The Dodgers have been a story of extremes these first two weeks, with fine performances offensively by Luis Gonzalez (.320 EQA), Russell Martin (.324) and surprising Wilson Valdez (.327) overshadowing chalk-scraping starts by Juan Pierre (.178) and Wilson Betemit (.067).

Pitching has been the Dodgers' strongest suit: starters Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf and Brett Tomko are averaging 6 1/3 innings per start and a 2.72 ERA, and the bullpen has thrown 38 2/3 innings at a 2.58 ERA. The biggest worry is free-agent signee Jason Schmidt, who has mostly resembled a batting practice pitcher in posting a 7.36 ERA over three starts totaling 11 innings.


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