Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Time to retire, Roy Hobbs

Shortly after 19-year-old Bryce Harper's major-league debut in 2012, Rob Miech's book The Last Natural: Bryce Harper's Big Gamble in Sin City and the Greatest Amateur Season Ever arrived in bookstores.

Don't worry. This is not another story about the explosive growth of subtitles.

This is a story about baseball players being called, for one reason or another, the Natural. Harper's hardly the first, and it's highly unlikely that he will be the last.

You might guess (as I did) that the impulse to anoint baseball players as the Natural began in 1984, upon the release of the movie starring Robert Redford in the titular role. Alas, you would be wrong, as I was.

Bernard Malamud's first novel, The Natural, upon which the movie was based, was published in 1952. But it doesn't seem that many of that era's sports writers were inspired to compare their subjects to Malamud's Roy Hobbs, even with both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle just then bursting upon the scene.

Then again, Malamud's Hobbs, however talented, was hardly an attractive character. Redford's Hobbs, on the other hand, is largely pure of heart. Which allowed the post-1984 writer to compare a player to the celluloid Hobbs without insulting him.

Except the comparisons began not in 1984, when Hollywood's version of The Natural was released. They actually began in 1982 in the New York Times. Or at least that's the first I've been able to find. The headline on an article by Joe Durso about Tigers outfielder Kirk Gibson read, "Detroit's Kirk Gibson: The Natural." Which proved wonderfully prescient when, six years later, in the first game of the 1988 World Series, an injured Gibson came off the bench to hit a wildly improbable game-winning home run, much like Roy Hobbs' climactic blow.

You know, the one in the movie.

In the book, Hobbs strikes out.

Which probably explains why so few were dubbed the Natural before 1984, but so many have been since.

Beginning with Terry Pendleton, a Cardinals rookie in 1984 who batted .409 in his first 22 games. His teammates began calling him the Natural, but superstardom (and a long-lasting nickname) would ultimately elude Pendleton, as it eluded Gibson. But Pendleton would, well into his career, win a Most Valuable Player Award. Just as Gibson had.

In 1993, Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud's teammates took to calling him Hobbsy while he flirted with a .400 batting average until late in the season. A few years earlier, Giants first baseman Will Clark— like Olerud, a left-handed batter with a textbook swing — was commonly called Will the Thrill, but the Natural was another of his nicknames.

For all their talents, Olerud and Clark would seem to have little connection to Roy Hobbs, except for their sweet swings. (Redford modeled his swing after that of Ted Williams, whose swing might have been the sweetest of all.) Where Hobbs was an aging knight errant, plucked from obscurity and looking for one last chance at redemption, Olerud and Clark were both high draft picks.

In the 1990s, outfielders Andruw Jones and Karim Garcia would both be called the Natural, however briefly. Jones delivered on that early promise and Garcia did not, but neither was associated with the nickname for long.

Which brings up another running theme: youth. Which is odd, considering that Hobbs was pushing 40. But Jones and Garcia were 19 when they arrived in the majors, just like Harper. And so was Ken Griffey Jr., when he reached the majors and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, billed as the Natural.

And then there's Jeff Francoeur, anointed with "The Natural" splashed across his photo on a Sports Illustrated cover. Francoeur wasn't particularly young, 21 when he made his debut in 2005. What Francoeur did have were a tremendous start, batting .400 in his first 25 games, along with the looks of a movie star.

But perhaps the closest we've come to the real spirit of The Natural were a couple of wildly different players: Toe Nash and Rick Ankiel.

Like Hobbs, Ankiel came up as a pitcher. And like Hobbs, Ankiel's pitching career ended shockingly; in his case, first a mysterious inability to throw strikes, then injuries. But years later, Ankiel returned to the majors as a power-hitting outfielder. Just like Roy Hobbs. Which led to the obvious and explicit comparisons (and the "unnatural" tag when we learned that Ankiel admitted using human growth hormone during his comeback).

Nash's story seemed nearly as improbable. In 2001, ESPN's Peter Gammons unveiled Nash, a middle-school dropout from rural Louisiana who wore Size 18 shoes, could hit the ball 400 feet from both sides of the plate and throw 95 from the pitcher's mound. Discovered playing baseball on a field carved out of sugar-cane fields with men twice his age, Nash signed with Tampa Bay for $30,000.

Gammons (or his editor) called Nash the Natural in his headline. That was before The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Nash had been arrested five times in the first year after he turned 18. Nash somehow managed to play for part of a minor league season in 2001, but more legal troubles landed him in jail for most of 2002, and then again from 2005 through 2013.

Oh, and Bryce Harper? In 2015, Harper hit 42 home runs and was the unanimous choice as National League most valuable player.

When Harper was a rookie in the majors, his teammates noticed his bats were inscribed "Wonderboy" — the name of the movie Roy Hobbs' homemade bat — and created a "Hobbs" nameplate for his locker. But Hobbs did not seem to have taken real hold. And Miech's book — in paperback, retitled Phenom: The Making of Bryce Harper — does not mention The Natural even once in the text, let alone suggest why Harper might be the last of the species.

Maybe it's time to retire the Natural. In today's highly corporatized, analyzed-to-the-nth-degree baseball, maybe there simply isn't any room for another Roy Hobbs. Although, come to think of it, maybe there never has been. Sometimes fiction is actually stranger than truth.

— New York Times

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