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Sometimes You See It Comingby Kevin Baker
To see the talent is as much a gift as to have the talent. — Regie Otero
The Color Commentary
The only one who was there from the very beginning, the only one who is always there in the middle of everything, was The Old Swizzlehead, aka Rapid Ricky Falls, who was the closest thing John Barr ever had to a friend. And even his account must be taken with a healthy dose of incredulity — not only because of Falls's renowned propensity for obfuscation, exaggeration, and outright deception — but also for the simple fact that no one ever got that close to Barr, the greatest if not the most beloved player in the game.
He was grudgingly accorded the former title by the writers, the green flies at the show as the players liked to call them, who knew his honors and statistics. By the end, the flies and the fans could duly recite all the batting titles, the home-run crowns, the gold gloves, and the Most Valuable Player awards. They could list for you the long string of division championships, league pennants, and World Series titles he had won for the New York Mets since that day he had first walked onto the Shea Stadium field, fresh off two years in the minor leagues and before that God only knew where, and proceeded to tear off four straight line drive hits. And after that a thirty-one-game hitting streak, and after that thirteen years of unremittingly battering the small white ball around one ballpark or another.
He was the kind of instant phenom they all should have loved. Tall and lean, hawk-faced and loose-footed, looking every inch the ideal, baggy-uniformed ballplayer of the thirties that still bedeviled their psyches. He played hard, worked on his game, stayed alert, took extra batting practice. He was even duly modest and diffident about his tremendous talent, just like the old-time ballplayers were supposed to be. John Barr let his bat and his glove speak for him, and they were eloquent.
He could do everything on a ballfield; that was beyond dispute. In an era of designated hitters, platoon players, spot starters, short relievers, and middle-inning relievers, Barr could play the whole game. Better still, there was a certain quality of danger that attached to him. There have been great players who never had a great moment; men who went on year after year, running up formidable statistics: but were no more fearsome than anybody else in the few, crucial moments of their careers. They popped up or flied out in key at-bats, or did not even fail that spectacularly. They simply singled when they should have homered, cut the ball off from going into the gap when they should have made the diving, sliding catch. They played on no great teams, took part in no immortal moments, and passed quietly and respectably from the game, vaguely admired by all.
This was not the case with John Barr. His very presence at the plate seemed to jar things loose. It caused the opposing pitchers and fielders to proceed in jerky, tentative movements. His appearance at the big moment almost always guaranteed that something would happen, and usually something that entailed a ball whacked viciously into the furthest reaches of the stadium, and his opponents sent stumbling desperately after it.
And yet — by the end he was still no more than a redoubtable shadow to the flies, the fans, even his own teammates. You could not say he was loved, except perhaps by Ricky Falls or Ellie Jay, Queen of Sportswriters, who loved him not so much for the raw talent but the dedication that she perceived. For Barr played wrapped up in himself, in the narrow devotion of hitting the ball. There were never many color stories on the man, no quotes that went beyond a few, monosyllabic words, no glowing or lurid accounts of him from former teammates. Nothing to say where he came from, other than the name of a small New England town with a funny name. No visible family, friends, women, or interest of any kind outside of a ballpark.
The only one who got more inside on him was The Old Swizzlehead, or again possibly Ellie Jay, who divined in him something that not even Falls could quite discern, after all his years with him. Something detached from the workaday problems of run-of-the-mill, superstar, millionaire athlete gods. Something truly not normal.
Yet it was Falls who saw him through his entire career, right from the first moment he set foot on a professional ballfield. Or so he claims. It is The Old Swizzlehead who can better describe the true essence of the great man than anyone else alive — or so he says.
The Old Swizzlehead
He was the best.
I know how the flies like to throw that word around. These days somebody makes a good relay throw, he becomes the best player in the game ever. But John Barr was the best, for real.
You have to think about how unusual that is. Maybe Ellsworth Pippin, The Great White Father, is the best owner and general manager of all time. Maybe the Rev. Jimmy Bumpley is the best TV evangelist. Maybe even Dickhead Barry Busby is the best sportswriter. I don't know.
But I doubt it. And I know John Barr was the best.
Where I grew up, we used to shoot hoop on the outdoor courts on Amsterdam Avenue. We used to play day an' night, nonstop, an', we thought we were pretty bad. But we all knew the best player in the project was my cousin and homeboy, John Bell.
He could two-hand dunk behind his back, every time you gave him the ball within three feet of the basket. We knew he was the best player in the city, best player anywhere. Had to be.
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