Show of sportsmanship marks a World Series to remember

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My generation grew up appreciating Major League Baseball. It was our summer entertainment. We listened on the radio, and occasionally we were lucky enough to catch a game on television. We studied the box-scores in The News and Courier, and in our playground contests, we used wooden bats with popular stars' names burned on the barrel. I still have my "Mickey Mantle" and "Vic Wertz" editions somewhere in the attic.

Willie Mays of the Giants and Eddie Matthews of the Braves were my heroes. My brother Bill was a Yankees fan, no doubt because the Yankees seem to always win the World Series. And when the Yankees and Pirates took the field to play Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, I was a truant, waiting for parents to leave for work and then doubling back on my walk to school. Heck, it was Oct. 13, my birthday. Watching a classic baseball game while skipping school was a rite of passage, right?

Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski ended this famous extra-inning game with a lined homer over the head of Yankees' Yogi Berra. He was playing left field that day. I'll always remember that moment - and also my Dad's stern "accountability" lecture. My brother, uncourageous to the possibilities of playing hooky and understandably jealous that I had watched this great game and he had not, told on me.

The 2017 World Series was another classic - with many contrasts to 1960. One example: Game Seven 1960 was the only World Series game ever with no strikeouts. There were strikeouts aplenty for the Dodgers and Astros, and pitching strategies keyed each game's outcome. These days, most hitters seem to swing for the fences. A strikeout, the data specialists now avow, is usually not much worse than a groundout.

But the 2017 series also provided a range of personal stories and instructive sportsmanship.

The Astros' 28-year-old centerfielder George Springer was the Most Valuable Player. He grew up wanting to be like Willie Mays. When a 2014 Sports Illustrated article boldly predicted the Astros would win the 2017 Series, Springer was featured on the cover. The article was all about how professional baseball is now based more on data and less on the gut instincts of managers.

Houston's Yuli Gurrie provided a live TV display of utterly bad behavior when he pulled on the corners of his eyes after homering off the Dodgers' Yu Darvish, who was born in Japan. The Cuban-born Gurrie also used a derogatory term directed toward Asians. It was a striking contrast to Hall of Famer and Yankees legend Mickey Mantle's view of "home run" sportsmanship. "After I hit a home run," said Mantle, "I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases."

Darvish was furious when he finally saw the replay. So were millions of international television viewers - and most of Gurrie's teammates. Within hours, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Gurrie for five games next season - a $320,000 hit on his income. When Gurrie arrived at the batter's box three games later to face Darvish once again, he raised his helmet to Darvish, clearly a signal of regret - and respect. Here's betting Gurrie considered this an expensive learning experience - and, let us hope, so did an audience of youthful baseball fans worldwide.

The Astros went home to Houston as superheroes, to a metropolis still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey's winds and flood waters. The club's very first World Series championship was a spiritual lifting, not unlike the resurgent effects of the New Orleans Saints following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Astros star pitcher Justin Verlander was a parade no-show. His absence was excused, though, and his team and his city wished him well; he was off to Italy to marry supermodel-actress Kate Upton.

But the sweetest gesture of American sportsmanship came five days after Game Seven. The Dodgers placed a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle's Sunday editions, conveying a simple message of congratulations to the Astros. The ad was illustrated by a photograph showing Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts leaning into a congratulatory embrace with Houston's field boss A.J. Hinch - the image of the loser saluting the winner on a field of professionalism, the image of a winner saluting the loser for contests well played and a season for the record books.

The Chronicle ad was more than a mere gesture; it was a genuine message of honor to a deserving team and to a city that genuinely appreciated it. It was corporate sportsmanship at its best, classy, dignified - and human.

For sure, sports has become big business in every respect, and winning is the currency of success. Losers go away, and winners soar. Kinda like identity politics, huh?

But sports and politics are very human enterprises. The sportsmanship we were taught and embraced still is a value package of humanism. It can also be a nurturing connective in political discourse that just might help get a challenged American political system moving again toward getting good things done.

Yes, winners soar; losers go home. But surely we will always consider sportsmanship to be a "winner" in the equations of virtues that make America great - right?

Editor's note: Sumter resident Bobby Richardson was the only player in World Series history on the losing team to be named MVP after the Yankees lost to the Pirates in 1960 on a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski. He hit a grand-slam homer in the losing effort and had already been voted MVP by the sportswriters before the Mazeroski blast.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of The Post and Courier, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbin1013@gmail.com.