How Athletes Ensure Immortality

Not all greats make the Hall of Fame. Not all Hall of Famers are remembered. But a player who forges a personal connection with fans will live on.
Royals pitcher Dan Quisenberry, an almost great (Lennox McLendon)

It’s getting tougher and tougher to become immortal.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame last weekend announced stricter voting rules for recently retired players, reducing the maximum time they can stay on the ballot from 15 to 10 years. Not every ballplayer can get a plaque in Cooperstown, of course. As Syndrome, the villain in the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles puts it, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

This new rule would have booted such late bloomer Hall of Famers as Ralph Kiner (15 year wait), Duke Snider (11 years), Bruce Sutter (13 years), Jim Rice (15 years), and Bert Blyleven (14 years). But perhaps their supporters would have voted for them during Year Nine if the deadlines had been different then.

As it attempts to slam the door on future borderline candidates, the Baseball Hall of Fame will still face the same level of second guessing as the judges for Olympic skiing or figure skating. What separates the Great from the Almost-Great?

On Sunday, while Cooperstown enshrined one of its largest induction classes in recent memory, I was thinking about one of my childhood favorites who didn’t make it—a guy whose name sounds more like a Cap’n Crunch cereal flavor than a ballplayer. Kansas City Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry was one of the most dominant closers of the 1980s, being the first pitcher in history to rack up two 40-save seasons and who finished second or third in the Cy Young voting for four straight years (1982-85). 

But that’s not why I liked him. I was a Quisenberry fan because he threw underhand—the same way my dad pitched Whiffleball to me when I was six years old. Quisenberry had magic powers. Instead of blowing the ball by hitters, he continuously tricked them into weakly grounding out. His deceptive submarine delivery helped the Royals reach the World Series in 1980 and 1985.

Quisenberry, who died of brain cancer in 1998, had an outside chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year by the Expansion Era committee, which examines overlooked contributions from 1973-present. He was passed over in favor of former managers Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre.

I was primarily rooting for him because he was my pen pal. Well, sort of. He only wrote me once, but it was a two-page handwritten letter—the equivalent of at least two dozen personal Tweets in current-day player-fan correspondence.

“Dear Darren,” he wrote during the middle of the strike-shortened 1981 season. “Thank you for your letter. I get hundreds of letters and never write back, but I am this time because your letter was so creative.”

As a 13-year-old, I would rather have been praised for my fastball over my prose, but in retrospect, I’m smitten by an athlete who even bothered to notice a kid’s writing skills. (Quisenberry, incidentally, later published two volumes of poetry.)

I never made a copy of my fan letter to Quiz, but I do remember spelling out his name vertically and listing positive adjectives as if I were writing a Valentine. Something like:

Quick

Underrated

Indispensible

Sharp

Effective

Never Gives Up

Bold

Energetic

Royal

Really Awesome

Young (as in Cy Young)

Quisenberry’s letter to me focused on three questions I asked about how I, too, could become a professional ballplayer. He shared that he used to frequently throw a tennis ball against a wall and practiced his batting swing or pitching delivery in front of a mirror when no one was around to play catch. He wrote that he developed his stamina from throwing alone and not from lifting weights, adding “or else God just made it that way because I don’t think I am strong compared to other teammates.”

Darren Garrick

Surprisingly, the Royals star also told me that running would be important for my general health when I get older, but “if you are a young teenager, I don’t think you would need it.” I took his advice and spent a lot of time playing video games.

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Darren Garnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and journalist based in New Hampshire. He is currently writing  Why Can't I Be President?, a comic book about history's "Oval Office Underdogs," and blogs about politics and pop culture at CultureSchlock.com.

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