Steve Garvey is resolved to be a hero, not an antihero. He used to be the Dodgers' bat boy and idolized their first baseman. Now he is their first baseman, and not only that but the National League's Most Valuable Player. If a lot of boys do not idolize him now, they are missing a trick, because he smiles at everybody, gives autographs like a garage gives calendars and is a known gentleman. At 26 he has a bright, beautiful wife, a fine baby daughter, a cute if careless cocker spaniel named Duffy (which plunged into the ocean at Vero Beach this spring and was nearly swept away) and a nice tie-in with Pepsi.
If there is anything imperfect about the way Garvey's real-life story has developed, it is that last winter was not, as he points out, the best off-season in history to be an MVP. Endorsements were down along with the economy.
However, plenty of people around the country have been after Garvey to accept awards and to make talks. He has sometimes appeared gratis for charity, but there were enough paid appearances over the winter to earn him half again his '74 salary, which was an estimated $45,000. This year, his performance having done much to bring them a pennant, the Dodgers amicably agreed to pay him about $95,000. He is worth that much in nice publicity alone. "The Dodgers are very P.R.-conscious," he says. "You have to be in Southern California."
At this point, the reader who likes to think of himself as P.R.-resistant may be tempted to grumble. But wait. One of the stories Garvey often tells an audience goes like this:
"In 1971 I went to Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles to visit a boy named Ricky Williams, who was suffering from cancer. The boy had just had an operation to remove the lower part of a leg, and he was in a bad way. It was a hollow feeling, seeing him there on the bed. His mother said, 'Thank you for coming.' The doctors said he had an 18% chance of living. He was heavily sedated.
"I took his small hand in mine. His mother said, 'Ricky, Steve Garvey's here.'
"And I started to feel a little squeeze from that 10-year-old's hand. He started opening his eyes. Although he couldn't talk, when he opened his eyes it also opened mine. I could feel the strength in that little boy's hand. I knew then that Steve Garvey had a place.
"Last year in Dodger Stadium Ricky Williams walked from the dugout to first base with Steve Garvey, on an annual night for crippled children.
"I don't really believe that I have any special powers. But Ricky that night gave me a medal, with an inscription that said, 'To Steve Garvey. Thank you for giving me the will to live.' "
O.K., now say something smart. Say "But I like antiheroes." Or "Sure, it's a storybook career, but who reads storybooks anymore?" Or " Lou Brock should've been the MVP. He probably visits hospitals, too, and he stole 118 bases." You can't take away the pleasure that a number of people around the nation are getting from shaking the hand that held the hand of Ricky Williams.