Spring Training is all about new things … new players with new teams, new uniforms, new lineups.
But beneath all that sparkling newness, there is always a swirling undercurrent of finality trying to sweep men away into that vast darkness of a post-playing-career world. It’s here that stories of struggle and frailty and determination and grit and, ultimately for everyone, acceptance grow.
Because Spring Training is for the rookies and the young, yes, but it’s also for the game’s old men trying to put together one last run, break camp and head north with the Big Team one last time.
Today, on Day 41 of my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, I’m celebrating those guys who are fighting one last time against the pulls of time … in cardboard.
And, while he may not have gone to Spring Training in my lifetime (though he may have … not sure) no one was better at looking old on baseball cards — on some of my baseball cards — than Minnie Minoso.
Sure, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry looked like grandpas on the mound forever, and Harmon Killebrew was famously white-haired on his 1975 Topps issue, but none of them brought the weight of time to their baseball cards like Minoso did on his 1977 Topps Record Breaker card.
Those lines on his brow speak of a lifetime’s worth of stress, not surprising considering he was 50 years old when the photo was snapped, and 51 when the card came out.
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Those heavy eyes, gazing off into the distance at a world that’s maybe better than ours, tell of the struggles he has seen in his life and career. As a black man who came to the Major Leagues with the Cleveland Indians just two years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier, his path had to have been a rough one.
The hunched shoulders speak of a physical burden born of years on the road, chasing his baseball dreams, and catching most of them … and of the years he’s been away from the game, settling into an uneasy retirement as best he could.
And, yes, I realize that this card exists only because of a publicity stunt perpetrated by the Chicago White Sox and Minoso himself. He would play in four different decades, and then five, the first man to do it!
And he would do it as a member of the Southsiders, by golly.
Retirement couldn’t stop him, either.
See, Minoso hung up his spikes in 1964 at the age of 38, but Bill Veeck brought him back for three games in 1976 at 50 to make him a four-decade guy.
Four years later, as the 1980s dawned, Minnie was back for yet another go — two games, two at-bats, two outs.
Ten years after that, Minoso was scheduled to make a minor league appearance with the Miami Miracle to become a six-decade professional, but Major League Baseball kiboshed the idea, robbing us of the chance to see a 64-year-old man on a baseball card as an active player.
It was an opportunity lost for all of us, because Minnie Minoso carried the torch for all us old men who thought — think — that if things break just right, maybe … just maybe … there’s still a chance.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.