Nellie Fox would have turned 70 years old on Christmas Day. I happen to know that, though I never met the man, the same way I know he went 98 straight games without striking out in 1958. He had 2,663 hits and three times as many triples (112) as home runs (35). He was the American League's MVP in '59, leading the Chicago White Sox to their only World Series in my lifetime, or my father's. The Go-Go Sox lost in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Little Nel hit .375 in that Series. I was seven, and in my innocence I'd been certain he would score the winning run.
That season turned me into a baseball fan for life. Or so I thought. By the time Jacob Nelson Fox, my childhood hero, was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer, I had turned from the game. The 1994 strike had been the final straw, but my alienation had been a long time coming. Players, owners, agents, umpires, autograph hounds, cynical sportswriters: I wished a pox on all their houses. Somewhere along the way the joy had been wrung from the game.
But this fall something happened that brought me back to baseball. Against all logic, I started to follow the fortunes of a 27-year-old second baseman on the Florida Marlins, Craig Counsell, whom I'd met briefly while reporting a story in August. There was something different about this fresh-faced kid who had spent six years in the minors, who, like Fox, hit left, threw right. Also like Fox, he had no power but could put the bat on the ball, bunt and hit behind the runner. He had a good eye, was a smart base runner and understood the little things it took to win.
Those endless Series games? I watched them because of Counsell. And who comes up in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, Marlins on first and third, one out, Florida behind by a run? The scrappy kid who'd started the year in Triple A. Counsell hit a sacrifice fly off Cleveland closer .lose Mesa, tying the game. In the 11th, after reaching base on an error, Counsell sprinted home with the winning run (below).
As his teammates leaped joyfully around him, I thought about Nellie Fox.