When logging onto the Internet (capitalized in assorted style guides back then) required a dial tone, they pumped up to four baseball games into my childhood home for the price of a cable-television package. A great bargain — especially for me because my parents paid the bills. In addition to the beloved Detroit Tigers, there would be a Chicago Cubs game on WGN, an Atlanta Braves contest on TBS, and for a few years, the occasional New York Mets tilt courtesy of WWOR. Fond memories of circling the channel guide tucked into the Sunday paper and highlighting the games I intended to watch that week remain, like the creep Elaine Benes met on the subway.
Initially, the Mets were a clear fourth option, only to be used an emergency in the same way a bachelor might spread tuna fish over some crackers when a shopping trip simply wasn't an option. But a funny thing happened on Opening Day 1996. A 25-year-old rookie shortstop named Rey Ordóñez took his position and immediately revealed himself to be a defensive wizard — perhaps the most flashy and dynamic since peak Ozzie Smith.
They talk of love at first sight as a romantic thing yet it exists in the nuanced ways all other complicated feelings do. Because I loved Ordóñez from the moment he took a grounder. There was something magical in the way he moved, a magnetism that radiated in standard definition half-a-country away with someone who was beginning to grapple with the pubescent rite of realizing that the childhood dream of playing shortstop in the Majors would exclusively be something other people did.
Ordóñez was the infield version of Joe DiMaggio's Yankee Clipper, navigating choppy seas from deep in the hole to the second base bag. He dove headfirst, feet-first, knee-first and without abandon. He showcased his world-class arm on relay throws and could negotiate a fastball from every angle. The most entrancing actor working with the most spectacularly challenging material.
A limited media diet brought on the nightly meal of waiting to see the day's Web Gems on Baseball Tonight, then loyally disagreeing with his disrespectful exclusion or ranking. All of this was decidedly trivial and just one of the many things you keep to yourself in your early teens. But perhaps that was the point.
It was my little thing, one of the first things outside of the monoculture that brought passion. No one was walking the streets of West Michigan discussing this slick-fielding player from another coast and league. It felt like this little secret, this corner of the world I could enjoy as much or as little as I wished. Being the only person in my life who cared this much about the New York Mets created a cycle deepening the connection.
Looking back it makes a lot of sense why Ordóñez resonated so much. Sure, there was the surface level similarity that like him, I couldn't hit all that well but loved to play the prestigious position. Deeper than that, though, even then I understood he was a deeply flawed player. That his presence on offense was minimal. Twelve career home runs in 3,415 plate appearances and a steady flow of sub-.300 slugging years drives that home with more power than he ever had.
This was the time all the crippling self-consciousness and hormones converged in a symphony of uncertainty. It was the time to see all limitations and imperfections for the first time and learn, oh so clumsily to deal with them all. It was a time of self-limitation and acceptance of flaws. The pure dream of childhood of superstar receded and was reshaped into a more realistic size: a light-hitting defensive middle infielder. In time it would move to utility man and then to the more healthy guy who drinks beer shirtless or scribbles word about the sport online.
They stopped carrying WWOR around the time Ordóñez won his third Gold Glove. There were other worlds to conquer and getting a car to conquer them took precedence. There were new and largely less healthy was to channel whatever the hell was going on with my emotions into.
But I think about that period of life a lot. And if it really mattered who Ordóñez was as a player. Or if he was simply a canvas upon which to work things out, one faulty or flimsy projection at a time.
He somehow turns 50 today and the brittle bones inside my body feel as though they could turn to dust in full Last Crusade fashion. And then a revelation rocks synapses.
This lens never changed. The loss of childhood wonder gave way to a new template, in sports and in life, where a public figure or artist is harnessed, transmogrified and contorted to mean something you want it to mean.
Perhaps the best we can do is to find the muse who allows our spirit to take flight, even if it's in the form of a 6-4-3 double play.