Yesterday's Sports pages are full of the names of faded phenoms nobody remembers, flashes in the pan who flared brilliantly for a year or two before fizzling out.
Baseball, more than other sports, is a showcase for such Hash dancing. It's a streaky, skimpy game in which players can be awesome one season—or one month, or one week—and awful the next. "You settle into an orbit in which it seems you can do no wrong," says Bill (Spaceman) Lee, who charted his own weird trajectory in the big leagues for 14 years, most of them with the Boston Red Sox. "When you finally spin out and reality sinks in, you think you'll never get back on course again. And a few players don't."
One of the flashiest falls of all was taken by the late Bob Hazle, who earned the nickname Hurricane after storming into Milwaukee at the end of the 1957 season. The 26-year-old rookie hit .403 in 41 games and helped the Braves win the pennant. By '58, Hurricane was little more than a zephyr. He got beaned, lost his equilibrium and lost his place in the outfield. With his barometer holding steady at .179, a trade wind took Hurricane to Detroit, here he hit .241 in 58 at bats. He never played again in the majors.
Hazle succumbed to injury, or maybe success. He figured he'd get better: instead he got figured out. After a while a book goes out on every major leaguer, and once it's published, every team knows what he can't do. If there are too many holes in his game, his career becomes a short story.
The pages on a player's flaws should be as blank as his mind. Baseball is, after all, a game of instinct, not intellect. "Thinking can be fatal," says Lee. "To stay on top, you've got to bypass your brain completely so that impulses shoot directly from your eyes to your fingertips. Technically speaking, you must rely on your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems."
To keep in perfect parasympathy, players must remain kids. The trouble is that fans, managers, general managers and sportswriters insist that these outsized children act like adults. Listening to other voices instead of their own, many so-called flashes lose their way. They forget what got them to the top.
The symptoms of this form of amnesia include feverish second-guessing. Many Hashes are not too sure of their ability in the first place, and they get tighter and tighter until they lose the capacity to relax. That's the thing about baseball: It'll smoke out any hidden psychological problem a player has.
Teams have little sympathy, much less parasympathy, for a player who fails to live up to his early promise. When his talent deserts him, the team does too. "Good guys who go bad are gone in a heartbeat," Lee says. "Ironically, management, through its own insensitivity, is as much to blame as anybody. Ballplayers are finely tuned machines worth millions and millions of dollars, yet teams put in bad plugs and lousy oil and wind up having to trash them."
Our selection of discards includes a joker, a free spirit, a dreamer and an innocent—each a castaway drifting in fantasies of what might have been. Four characters in search of an offer.
SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE