Monday, August 09, 2010

Jim Gentile Walks Off a Champ, as Do Baltimore Orioles

by Greg Couch
National Columnist

It's because something is just right about this, something simple. It just feels good, I guess, to see someone in today's huge-dollar sports world do a basic, right thing.

On Friday, the Baltimore Orioles had '60s slugger Jim Gentile come on the field to throw the ceremonial opening pitch and to honor him. And when he got there, Orioles president Andy MacPhail walked out onto the field with one of those big, phony checks they use to show a crowd that they're giving someone some money.

MacPhail told Gentile, "This will take care of what my father started."

The check was for $5,000.

"I couldn't ask for anything better," Gentile told me a few minutes later. "I'm overwhelmed.''

Congratulations to Gentile. And congrats to the Baltimore Orioles, too. You did the right thing, and you did it perfectly. It showed heart. It showed an honoring of the past. It showed class.


Gentile became the first 76-year old grandpa to win the AL season RBI title last week. In 1961, one of baseball's most cherished years, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased down Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. Maris, as you know, passed him on the final day, hitting homer No. 61.
Well, Gentile was in that race too for most of the season, fading in the end and finishing with 46 homers. He also had 141 RBI, but Maris' 61st homer was his 142nd RBI.

So Gentile fell one short of the RBI title that year. But last week, baseball acknowledged that Maris had been credited for one RBI mistakenly. A run had scored on an error, not when he batted it in. So baseball took away that RBI, leaving him with 141.
And that made Gentile the RBI king -- tied with Maris -- for the year. Yet for all these years, Gentile's part in that great year was lost entirely. He wasn't even mentioned in the movie "61*" several years ago about that great season.

So I called Gentile -- admittedly, I'd never even heard of him -- and asked him about it, and he told the best story. See, he had been a longtime minor leaguer until 1960. And after 1961, he had to negotiate a new contract -- players didn't have agents back then -- with the Orioles GM at the time, Lee MacPhail.

Gentile got a raise, he said, from $15,000 to $30,000. And MacPhail told him at the time that if he had won that RBI title, it would have been worth an extra $5,000.

That's the $5,000 that MacPhail's son, Andy, gave him Friday night.

"I didn't expect anything like this," Gentile said. "You got it started.''

This is where I spend an immodest second to say that I did write that day that the Orioles should throw a Jim Gentile Day and give him the $5,000. The response from you readers was big, and frankly, you are the reason this happened.

But also, picked up on our story, and USA Today and the Baltimore Sun. Hundreds of you wrote me letters, mostly to say that Gentile deserved his money. Some said I was making too big of a deal of it, just one RBI, and just a single-season mark at that.

It took 49 years for the someone to make right by Gentile, and in these past few days, that's exactly what the Orioles did. He had never been able to celebrate his moment.

But in all honesty, what makes this special is that it was just a single-season RBI mark, and it was just $5,000.

Gentile represents a different era, a simpler one. Sure, that era was not all apple pie the way we celebrate it today. But that's how we feel about it.

And the reason I got so worked up over this – and many of you, too -- was that Gentile brought back that feel. So many of you wrote to talk about what Gentile meant back then, but plenty of you wrote about other baseball heroes from your childhood.

When Gentile was lost, so were those heroes. And when he was found last week, so were they.

On top of that, that whole era has been pushed back, knocked away by players who aren't happy making millions of dollars today, players who are entitled. And the great Maris record and so many other records, and feelings about that era? Ruined by steroids.

Gentile's 141 RBI that year were the most an Oriole had ever hit. That team record was beaten, and Gentile erased from the books, by ...

Rafael Palmeiro. Steroid cheat. That mark was passed in 2004 by Miguel Tejada, who had some issues, too.

You know about Maris' single-season home run record, surpassed by Mark McGwire and then Barry Bonds. Can you say steroids?

It's hard to know what to do. You can't just wipe away records and say they never happened. They did.

But for a few days, the Orioles made it right. It wasn't hard to do, as Gentile, who now lives in Edmond, Okla., and his son, Bo, and his grandson, Jim Gentille III (Tre) were planning to be in Baltimore anyway for an Orioles Hall of Fame weekend.

They wanted Tre, 15 1/2 months, to see what grandpa did.

Well, for the past several days, I've been getting emails from Gentile, his wife and his son, Bo. First, the Orioles announced that they would have Gentile throw out the opening pitch on Friday and honor his 1961 RBI record, as well as his career.

No mention of the $5,000.

On Thursday, Bo wrote to say that his dad had been swarmed for autographs at a team Hall of Fame signing event, and then was asked to go on TV.

Bo also has been sending me pictures, which you can see above.

Then, another email said that the Orioles had provided field passes for the family, and also for Jim's longtime friend, Scott Smith, for Friday night. What a thrill.
And on Friday, well, you already know.

"Tre was out on the field," Gentile said, "running around and smiling.''

You brought back a great era, Orioles. Jim Gentile, 1961 RBI champ.

One more thing: Jim, how did the opening pitch go? Did you hit the catcher?

"I didn't do it," he said. "I forgot to throw the ball. They gave me the check and I just walked off.



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