05/31/2002 00:00 am ET
Modern players need history lesson
By J.S. Trzcienski / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- Barry Bonds' impending home run number 586 has brought some renewed attention to the only other man currently holding the mark, and that person just
happens to be the Expos' manager.
Frank Robinson -- for a very short time, presumably -- sits in fourth place on the all-time home run list, yet as is his nature, he seems nonplussed by the frequency with
which his name and his career are being brought up on sportscasts across the country. The fact his various feats and accomplishments (1956 NL Rookie-of-the-Year, 1961
NL MVP, 1966 AL MVP, 1966 AL Triple Crown, 1966 World Series MVP, to name a few) are recalled when only one of his career marks is on the verge of being surpassed,
however, is something he finds if not distasteful, then at the very least unfortunate.
Not that Robinson has any interest in self-promotion. On the contrary, he finds it merely a shame that many of the lesser-known players of a bygone era -- who were still
very good and worthy of appreciation in their own right -- are being allowed to fade into the shadows of memory by their modern brethren, who no longer have a keen interest
in celebrating the past.
"A lot of young players don't know the last generation of players; they only know the current players," he says. "This generation doesn't know much about history. They watch television; they're not watching news or anything like that. Information is not passed on to their peers like it used to be. Grandfathers and fathers always stood around and talked baseball with their sons. [Now] they don't want to hear nothing from anybody. The veteran players used to talk about players and pass along stories of an era and incidents and information to younger players. Now, they don't want to hear it."
The matter of knowing one's roots, in Robinson's estimation, is very much an issue of principle. He fondly recalls some of the colorful characters he followed and
appreciated growing up, citing such forgotten names as Luke Easter, Jungle Jim Rivera, Sad Sam Jones, Camilo Pascual, Lew Burdette, Gene Conley, and Luis Arroyo. He
finds it hard to figure how players from his time sought out and read information about those who blazed trails before them, while today's average big leaguer simply fills his spare moments with television, video games, and other distractions, at times questioning him on how he knows anything about a slider or split-finger fastball since those pitches "weren't around" back when he played.
"I just think they're missing something in life," he suggests. "It's not just the baseball side of it -- they're just missing something, because it is as important to know your business as it is to know how it was possible for you to be in the business. For you to be in business, someone else had to blaze the trail or take some of the hits. It's nice to know something about those people; that's the way I look at it."
The sentiment is one that is shared by several veterans in Robinson's clubhouse. Lee Stevens, a self-professed student of baseball who cites When it was a Game
as his favorite DVD, takes time to actively seek out books and footage on the game from decades ago, and admits things aren't like they used to be.
"No question it's changed," he said. "Three or four years ago, I was with a guy in Texas who told me he had never heard of Rod Carew -- he had no idea who he was. And
this guy was from California. He was 24, 25 years old, too. This guy wasn't young -- 18, 19 whatever. He was 25 years old, and he didn't know Jim Rice, Rod Carew."
"I think it's a shame. We [veterans] talk about guys all the time -- 'Do you remember this guy?' -- and the [younger players] will never have heard of them. Even some of the
big names who played in the olden days. I think it's just a personal thing with every player -- how much you love the game, and the passion you have for it. I think a lot of
these guys don't even realize what their coaching staffs have done, how many years they've played. It's the history of the game -- that's why we're all here."
Joey Eischen, who wears his socks up above his calves as a tribute to the great Negro League players of the past, is one of the few other historians in the Montreal
clubhouse. In his estimation, the gross change in what was once a reverence for the past is as much to blame on society itself as any definable trend in baseball.
"It's people in general, just in the world," he suggested. "Nobody really worries about the other guy and what the other guy thinks. That kind of stuff just doesn't exist nowadays. Everybody's more concerned with, 'What can I do to get further ahead. Who can I step over, who can I step on,' instead of doing the right thing and just trying to live your life right and appreciate the stuff that's given to you. That's what upsets me more than anything about the players nowadays. They think the game owes them
something. The players nowadays don't look to the past, because they don't care about that kind of stuff. They just want to know, 'What can you do for me, now; who cares
who those guys are, what can I get, now.'"
In contrast to Eischen and Stevens, Troy O'Leary readily admits he's not one for history, conceding he wasn't even aware Bonds was on the verge of overtaking Robinson on
the all-time home run list. While he enjoys learning about past greats as he goes along, he theorizes there's simply too little time in the nomadic, suitcase-lugging life of
today's players to absorb an extensive degree of information.
"There's already stress enough trying to be here," he says, perhaps all-too-cognizant of his month-long stint in Triple-A to open the season. "I'm still nervous every day when
I'm out there. The only time you can reflect on history is when you're going through magazines when you're not playing the game -- on the flight, on the bus, talking with
"I sure didn't know [much history] when I started," he adds. "I just wanted to do well and try to help the team. Once I started with the Red Sox, Jim Rice taught me a lot
about it. Even Tommy Harper, Chili Davis ... With people like that around me, you tend to soak in some of the history, and appreciate it more."
Ultimately, irrespective of whether the past is celebrated on a given team or not, it's clear that baseball's pioneers and their subsequent generations are being paid
increasingly less attention. The possibility for change in that regard, it would appear, is bleak. While Stevens is glad for the opportunity to revisit the past when a pursuit of a record comes along -- as is the case with Bonds and Robinson -- he isn't overly optimistic that a return to the days of old is possible.
"I don't know what can be done about it," he says. "I guess the only thing is that the older players who are still around can try to pass it on. That's all you can do."
As for the man who will likely lose his fourth-place slot on the all-time home run list in the coming week, he sees little chance for his contemporaries -- and those who
preceded them -- to be celebrated with much frequency in the future.
"As older historians pass away, and as the older veteran guys pass away," says Robinson, "that's just going to become something of a lost era."
J.S. Trzcienski covers the Expos for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.