It all comes down
to perspective, really, to understanding and angle. Thus, seen through the
screen of Jim Plunkett's kitchen door, Harry, the Japanese gardener, seems to
be harvesting a bumper crop of lemons. He picks them, plump and green, from
Plunkett's favorite tree near the swimming pool and drops them into a plastic
sack. But the lemons aren't for squeezing or selling. The "harvest"
isn't what it appears to be.
fruit fly may have spread to Atherton, Calif., which is 25 miles southeast of
San Francisco, and the lemons could be infested with Medfly eggs. Plunkett's
lemons will soon join the other sacks of fruit lining the curbs of his
fashionable neighborhood, to be carted off and buried by National Guardsmen.
Later, a huge swath of land in the Santa Clara Valley will be sprayed from the
air with Malathion.
outside, Plunkett, seated heavily at the kitchen table, could be assumed to be
mourning the loss of his lemons or wondering why Harry is whistling as he
strips the trees, or at least brooding about the coming dousing with the
insecticide, which some of the local residents fear may be harmful to humans.
But he isn't. The lemons must go; that's that. We're talking about obeying the
law, about $500 fines and/or up to six months in jail.
Some of the
locals are carrying placards and threatening sabotage if the government sprays.
Not Plunkett. He believes in law and order, in the best sense of the words. In
1966, when he was a heavily recruited senior at James Lick High School in San
Jose, Plunkett wanted to stay near his parents, both of whom were blind, so he
reduced his choices to Stanford, in Palo Alto, and the University of
California, in Berkeley. He soon ruled out Cal, however, because the student
protest movement had already begun there and that wouldn't be a good atmosphere
for a hard-core jock like him. And now, regarding this Malathion—hadn't some
state official drunk a glass of the stuff (diluted with water), crossed his
eyes and stuck out his tongue for the cameras and proclaimed, by God, there's
nothing wrong with me?
thoughts are far beyond fruit and politics.
"There was a
baseball player at USC a while ago, a really good pitcher," he says,
watching Harry reach for a high cluster. "He was great, a sure thing. But
after school he bounced around in the minors, and he never made it to the big
leagues. One day they found him on the pitcher's mound at SC's Bovard Field
with his diploma and an NCAA baseball award with him. He'd shot
dark-haired, dark-eyed, gap-toothed but appealing, Dondi at age 33, drums his
fingers on the table. There was a time when he was down low enough to at least
view at eye level the netherworld which could give rise to such an idea.
"It's a shame
that that pitcher couldn't live without succeeding," he continues, "but
obviously there was nothing more important to him. He hadn't come to any
realizations about life yet. A few years ago I was very depressed, too—in 1978,
after the 49ers cut me. But then I started to get things in perspective. I
realized that a home life and the company of friends and your family are very
important things. I realized there are things to talk about other than
football. That doesn't mean the game becomes less important. When you screw up
on the field, you'll always die for a minute. You throw an interception, the
team loses, and it kills you for a while. But that's good because it shows what
the game means to you. But then you've got to let it go. You've got to bounce
So here we are
already in the heart of sports clichédom—the bounce back, the comeback, the
limp back, the crawl back, the return-from-the-dead back. These returns, of
course, are sometimes authentic, but that depends mostly on perspective. It's
illuminating to point out that whenever Jim Plunkett speaks of his own
comeback—from Whipped Dog to Super Bowl Hero—he does so in mechanical, almost
dazed tones, as though repeating lines handed him by a theatrical but earnest
P.R. man. Plunkett was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in 1980, but
it's clear as he talks that he isn't certain he has come back. Coming back
means having first gone somewhere else and he's not sure where he went or even
that he left at all.
implies change in a person, not his surroundings, and Plunkett's line about his
new perspective notwithstanding, he's still the same shy person from a poor
section of San Jose that he was when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1970. Why,
even his hands, unadorned except for a tarnished Stanford football letterman
ring, take one back a decade. He's been confused and hurt and unwanted and even
afraid—but gone, dead, no good?