Real life - once more - intrudes on baseball

Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew announced that his esophageal cancer is terminal on Friday. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew announced that his esophageal cancer is terminal on Friday. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
Posted: May 14, 2011

ATLANTA - Vin Scully, baseball broadcasting's poet laureate, once talked about keeping the sport in perspective. It was important, he noted, to remember there's life beyond the outfield walls.

He was right, of course. At the same time, those fences are imperfect barriers, at best. For most fans, baseball is a sanctuary from their workaday burdens. For those in the game, it's their vocation. For everyone, outside cares and concerns cross the boundary all the time.

The Phillies and Braves faced off at Turner Field last night. As mid-May games go, it carried some added significance. Atlanta was hoping to reinforce the notion it is a serious challenger in the NL East. The Phillies needed to start demonstrating they can beat a team with a winning record.

Except that longtime Toronto Blue Jays pitching guru Mel Queen, who is credited with saving Roy Halladay's career, died yesterday.

Except that Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, one of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's favorite players, announced that his esophageal cancer is terminal and that he will enter a hospice program.

Except that a chastened Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, a former happy-go-lucky Phillies closer, returned after serving a 2-week suspension for his response to heckling fans in San Francisco.

Except that the game marked the opening of baseball's Civil Rights Weekend.

This confluence of events reminded us again that, in the end, baseball still is just a game.

Halladay rehashed the familiar tale yesterday. How he was pitching so poorly in 2000 that the Jays shipped him all the way back to Class A Dunedin. How Queen worked with him both mechanically and mentally. How it all clicked and set him on the path that already has resulted in a pair of Cy Young Awards and seems destined to land him in the Hall of Fame.

"The mechanical stuff was a big part of it. And he kind of kicked me in the ass. He definitely challenged me, I guess is the best way to put it," Halladay recalled fondly. "It's funny how the game's changed. When I came up, we had a couple guys who were tough. Him and Bobby Mattick were old-school. They were going to tell you how it is. They didn't coddle guys. They were upfront. And I think in a lot of cases, you need that. You need the honesty."

Halladay has lost several of his guiding lights recently. Bus Campbell, the legendary Colorado pitching instructor, passed away in 2008. One of Halladay's first Class A pitching coaches, Scott Breeden, died 2 years earlier. Harvey Dorfman, the sports psychologist whose book "The Mental ABCs of Pitching" became Halladay's bible, passed earlier this year. Now Queen.

"You start realizing how many influential people there are in your career," he said. "Unfortunately, I've lost a couple big ones who had a great deal of effect on my career. In a lot of respects, it makes you take a step back and realize how many people were influential and how many you owe a lot of credit to and gratitude to. You obviously can't do it by yourself, and things like that kind of bring it to the forefront."

During Manuel's first big-league camp in 1969, his locker was right between Killebrew and Bob Allison. "I thought that was the greatest thing in the world," the manager recalled yesterday.

Manuel said he also learned about keeping expectations reasonable from Killebrew.

"You'd take him for granted. You'd think he was supposed to hit one every night. Actually, he taught me a lot about the game," he said. "He'd catch his 0-for-20s, too, but if I didn't see him hit a home run, I was disappointed. Because it seemed like he hit one every night.

"I hate that this happened. He's just a super guy. A first-class guy. I feel very sad."

McDowell learned a harsher lesson after being accused of making homophobic remarks and threatening gestures toward fans at AT&T Park. He has undergone sensitivity training and apologized personally to the fans, who hired a celebrity lawyer to press their case against him.

"These past 2 weeks have been very humbling, emotional and a reflective time for me and my family to better understand what happened," he told reporters during a 10-minute news conference, during which his voice cracked several times as he fought back tears.

And the weekend festivities to educate everyone of the links between baseball and the civil rights movement clearly transcends balls and strikes, hits and outs, fair and foul.

It might be unusual to have so much reality muscling in on the world of fun and games at once, but, really, it happens all the time. From Roy Oswalt leaving the Phillies to help clean up tornado damage around his Mississippi home to Major League Baseball's swift response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the days of our lives commingle with our sporting diversions more consistently than we probably realize. *

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