Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hero worship, sports, and Mormons

Sports is often a big part of youth and sometimes adulthood – at least for boys and men.  Growing up in Salt Lake we didn't have any professional teams, so for various reasons I became a fan of the Cowboys (football) and the Astros (baseball) and I practically worshipped guys like Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Harvey Martin, Nolan Ryan, and of course – my hero – J. R. Richard.  It wasn't until the Jazz moved to Utah that we had a pro basketball team, and it wasn't until the mid 90s that they became a great team with guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, and Mark Eaton.  And it was a lot of fun following them – very stressful, at times, too! – but I remember one place I worked, every morning after a game, we'd all stand up and discuss the game over the cubicle walls.  We felt like the team put Utah on the map and it gave us a lot of pride.

So I can relate completely to John Moody when he writes about the team of his youth in Kiss It Good-Bye: The Mystery, The Mormon, and the Moral of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates hadn't been a winning team until they won the World Series in 1960, beating the Yankees, and a big part of their success that season was due to a pitcher named Vernon Law.  Law was a Mormon from Idaho whose fastball and clean living set a great example – especially for a boy like Moody – and the hard-working "iron man" once pitched 18 innings in a single game.  But in the revelry following winning the National League pennant, some drunken and rough-housing teammates injured Law's ankle.  In spite of the painful injury he won Games 1 and 4 of the Series, but by Game 7 it became apparent that it was affecting his pitching.  Because he had to adjust his delivery, it also caused him a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, and his career never really recovered.

First let me clarify that Moody is not a Mormon; he is simply a great admirer of Vernon Law.  He explains a lot about the Mormon Church, and not only does he get it right, he is also very admiring of Law's religious beliefs.  But in spite of his hero-worship, the book is about more than just Law; it's about a team that pulled together and did something unexpected, as well as a story about the smoky town of Pittsburgh which didn't get a lot of respect back then.  It's also his own story of growing up in "Steel-town," and it all comes together in a book that anyone who's ever had a sports hero can relate to.  At first, his condescending comparisons of players and kids then and now was annoying, but he had some valid points.  And the chapter where he chronicles the Series was told with such excitement that I could barely put the book down.  I'm not sure how important or well-known of a "mystery" it was over who caused the injury to Law, but I found the book to be a fun, easy, and nostalgic read.  Even though 1960 was way before my time, I could easily relate to the worship of a sports hero, and the way a favorite team gave a small city something to cheer for.

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