Banks, Bergman, and The Heart of The Game

Banks
The recent passing of two former players – one a legend, the other a folk hero footnote – brought to mind the immeasurable yet unforgettable meaning of the “heart” players – the guys that will never make Cooperstown, but that will define an era, a ballpark, and a team for their everyday reliability, on and off the field. There’s a Rangers lineup for a whole ‘nother article here – and I’m writing it in my head and heart now – but with these words, let’s remember Ernie Banks, Dave Bergman, and their ties to Texas baseball.

Ernie Banks, who fully lived every day of his 83 years and left us January 23, 2015, is in as high a league as a “heart” player can go. The Dallas native won consecutive MVPs for bottom-feeding teams, and birthed the “shortstop as lineup force” concept (apologies to dead-ball era all-timer Honus Wagner). More than that, or even celebrated teammates like Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ron Santo, Ernie WAS the Cubs. He was a legend in and above the game – a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. His time as a shortstop for Chicago can only be challenged by the prime of Wagner and Ripken.

But there’s more – and more to set up our follow-up on the heart of Rangers baseball: through his enthusiasm, grace, dignity, and effervescence for baseball, an Ernie Banks who only measured up to the second half of his career would still be a Chicago landmark. And understand, the Banks that moved across the diamond to first mid-career from then on resembled an everyday bedrock that would only have been an all-star in the pitching-dominated 60’s. From 1963, when he began his odyssey at first base, to his 1972 retirement, he averaged a .252/ .301 /.436 slash line. He fell well below the standard of a hall of famer, but by his presence, his consistency, and the enthusiasm that truly did bleed over in his every on and off-field moment, he WAS Cubs baseball. His “Let’s Play Two!” became cliché. But rest assured, he meant it. And for that, he was loved for it, and set himself as the patriarch of the “heart of the game” team.

Ernie Banks was born in Dallas, and because of that, you ought to be proud. He started out so young that scouts found him in the Negro Leagues. None of us can truly understand the Negro Leagues. It is an institution of greatness and tragedy that transcends a game, but offers a chance for dreams and legends to meet in the middle of reality to embody eras. I can only advise that you take a trip to Kansas City and understand that, well before and after Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson, great players were allowed only to paint their story in shades of gray because of the immeasurable injustice perpetrated on them for the color of their skin. Banks – along with no less talent than Willie Mays and Hank Aaron – rose from these ranks to ascend the pantheon of greatness. To embrace Banks fully, you see, Dallas would have to acknowledge that he was never welcome on our fields as an integrated equal, and so he became – appropriately – the epitome of the city of broad shoulders, the standard bearer of one of America’s three great melting pots (along with Los Angeles and New York). Ernie Banks was born and raised in Dallas. Of that we should be grateful, because the likes of him does honor to us all. But he had to move on to find a city worthy of his progressive character. Of that, I can only say that I believe we have learned and grown.

On such a heavy note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize a light-hitting first baseman – less renowned but memorable for both his quality as a great team’s unsung glue and his oft-misplaced spot in Rangers history.

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1984 World Series Champion Dave Bergman

 

I felt quite old today when I read that Dave Bergman had died, at 61. If you want a proper treatment of the man, read the coverage given to an everyday-everyman first baseman in the Detroit Free Press. They do a wonderful job of capturing his at-bat against Toronto in 1984 — Rangers fans, this is akin to David Dellucci’s 2004 double against Oakland late that September to complete a sweep in one of the greatest games in Rangers history, and keep the AL West title dream alive into the final days of the season. Bergman’s at-bat against Roy Lee Jackson – ending on a 13th-pitch game-winning homer to right – was undoubtedly his greatest moment as a Detroit Tiger. And for the Tigers, he was a consummate teammate. As noted by the Detroit Free Press, he was beloved in the clubhouse. His support of journeyman Rusty Kuntz to a Detroit beat writer in the spring after their “Bless You Boys” run to immortality in ’84 is the epitome of selfless support of a teammate. It’s the kind of thing that keeps a middling player in the lineup at a power position for a contending team for almost a decade.

But Dave Bergman should matter to you, Rangers fans, because he cost Nolan Ryan his sixth no-hitter a season early, and two starts before he moved from fireballer to legend with his 5,000th strikeout.

Three times in the 1989 season, Nolan Ryan made it to the 8th inning with a no-hitter or perfect game. For 42, such is not a bad accomplishment.

In April in Milwaukee, Ryan’s attempt at a 6th no-hitter ended with a Terry Francona single in the 8th.

Notably, there is no concrete evidence that this single contributed to Francona’s ability to manage a minor leaguer named Michael Jordan five years later, or to lead curse-breaking World Series winner in ever-suffering Boston 15 years later. I will take literary liberty to suggest it did. Because if you break up a no-hitter by The Express, it might as well lead to greater things.

His last close call, back at the place that he made “The Big A” against the Angels in Anaheim, he took a perfecto into the 8th before former and future teammate, Brian Downing, broke things up with a  one out eight-inning single. Don’t dismiss the meaning of this one too fast. Brian Downing’s success may have played a major role in Nolan becoming Nolan. I could devote an entire article to this – and if you’re interested, I will – but long before steroids, when greenies were the flavor of the day in performance enhancement, Brian Downing changed his career through the taboo of weight training before the 1979 season, emerged for his lone All-Star campaign that season with a .326 average. His popularization of weight training, although very niche, helped open the door for the Astros savant of the art of conditioning, Gene Coleman, to help Nolan build on a program he had started as far back as 1972. By his signing with Houston in the winter of 1979, Ryan was able to use the momentum gained by the success of Downing to continue his weight conditioning, despite increased attention from his status as baseball’s first million-dollar-a-year-arm.

I would argue that, had Downing and Ryan not both had success as teammates that 1979 season, the powers that be in traditional baseball might have shut down his program once he became a million-dollar asset – on the outdated notion that weight training would inevitably lead to muscle-bound lack of flexibility and explosiveness. Had that happened, perhaps despite his stubborn Texas soul, Ryan might never have grown into the first athlete to embody modern middle-age vigor. One could argue – and again, this is an article all its own – that Nolan Ryan is a Rushmore-like figure in the progress of modern middle-age fitness.

And all of that comes from a Brian Downing single? No, but it is fun to dig into, eh?

So, now we come to our dearly departed Dave Bergman. This one means something to me because, unlike Francona’s April breakup or the last-start spoiler in Anaheim, I was watching. I remember, because we were all tuned in, not for a no-hitter, but for something more magnificent. We were certain that, any day, Nolan could hit 5,000 strikeouts. There was no chance he’d reach it that day – at least to anyone logical. He was 27 strikeouts short. He came into that August 11th game against Detroit with 4,973 strikeouts. To reach 5,000, he would literally have to strike out every single hitter he retired for 9 innings – unthinkable except to a 9-year-old believer-in-the-impossible sitting in front of a TV in Richardson. My dreams were impossible. He finished with 13 strikeouts, with 14 left until the milestone. But the remarkable nature of that Detroit game emerged well ahead of any milestone. Nolan entered the 9th with a real chance. He had struck out 13, two whiffs apart from his team record set earlier that year against Milwaukee in another near no-hitter. But Bergman was not unlike a hitter 15 years his junior.

Any Rangers fan would have watched Bergman and seen the shadow – lesser, but akin in shape and style – to the young Mike Hargrove that never frightened with power, but dared to slap the ball into some wide prairie gap.

And so he did. With two outs to go, Bergman lined a 0-1 pitch into left-center for a single. “The pitch Bergman hit was a good pitch. I felt he was sitting on a curveball,” Ryan said to the gathered press corps. “He just hit it in the gap where there wasn’t anybody.” After the single, Matt Nokes doubled off the fence in left center on Ryan’s 149th pitch of the night.

Yes, kids, that’s a 42-year-old who was working on a no-hitter at the border of 150 pitches. You’ll have to trust us fans of the time that that pitch count was not shocking for Nolan (again, please show me interest in an article on Ryan’s fitness routine. Many of us lived it in high school. It will put steroids to shame). Jeff Russell closed out the game – the 4th time Nolan had gone into the 8th with a no-hitter that season. Consider this: TWICE in April – the aforementioned Milwaukee game and a complete-game one-hitter at Toronto on April 23 – Nolan STARTED the first month of his time in Arlington with two near no-hitters in a handful of starts.

This is where I leave you today. Ernie Banks reminded me of what a passion for the game, combined with great talent, can mean. Dave Bergman reminded me what a passion for the game can mean regardless of how talent measures to Cooperstown, because the true meaning of your career (as Banks would echo) is what reverberates from the walls of the clubhouse in which you lived, day in and day out.

Banks and Bergman will never cross paths in Cooperstown.  But in the comfortable clubhouse that encompasses eternity, I am confident Ernie would be proud to have Dave dig his throw out of the dirt, or foul off pitch after pitch to get him one more at-bat. Even against the likes of a kid fireballer that spanned the two decades between their careers.

The grin they will share as they saunter and enter the pearly gates would make anyone want to play two.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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