The Things We Shared

When this first base business is over, Eric Nusbaum will still be here.

I admit there was a slightly cynical subtext to our early discussions about a 1990s first basemen week. On the one hand, the 90s first basemen topic gave us a range of personalities to explore and celebrate, it gave us avenues to discuss everything from urban blight to steroids to the strike to usual standby memory. On the other, the 90s are good business for people like this blog’s editors, born in the 1980s. The 90s are a gold mine of nostalgia.

The 90s were when we learned baseball. Its stars were the first stars we formed opinions about in the present-tense: by watching, by collecting cards, by reading sports pages. I know about Mickey Mantle but I know Ken Griffey Jr. This feeling, this owning of recent history, is the very premise of VH1. It’s the reason that The Tenth Inning felt so disconnected from the rest of Ken Burns’ Baseball. There’s been an unopened Cal Ripken Jr. Wheaties box in my parents’ pantry for over a decade.

So yes, we knew, or at least hoped, that the topic we chose, the 1990s first baseman, might capture the zeitgeist a bit more than our usual stuff. We wanted that, and thanks mostly to an unbelievable array of guest posters, some famous, some heretofore unknown (even to us), but all generous and talented, we got it. And further, thanks to the flurry of memories and old baseball cards and long winding essays of these past two weeks, I’ve been able to put off writing about Eric Karros

The powers that draw children to their favorite players have been written extensively. We know of the mystical nature of baseball fandom. Thanks to Josh Wilker we also know a little bit about the strange personal bridges we build to our own imagined versions of sports stars. There was never such a mystical connection between myself and Eric Karros. Instead, there were other things. There was timing and there were coincidences.

Karros was never my favorite player. My favorite player growing up, and still to this day if I had to pick one, was Raul Mondesi. Raul Mondesi was the player who made professional baseball – even when it was played live right in front of me – seem like the kind of thing that somebody had to have made up solely for my benefit. Everything about Mondesi was kinetic, dynamic. His arm. His grin. The way he hacked at bad pitches and slid only head first and when he did slide head first, always seemed to lose his helmet.

Karros was similarly inept at taking walks, but otherwise, he was nothing like Raul Mondesi. He plodded. He drifted. Where, say, Jeff Bagwell went to war each time he crouched into his high-tension batting stance, Eric Karros went to sleep. Eric Karros was and is an un-charismatic man. His game reflected this.

But I liked him. I liked him enough that in the years when Mondesi was my established favorite player, Karros slid comfortably into the two spot. There was so much about Karros for me to latch onto: his name was Eric. His number was 23 (my brother’s birthday, my grandmother’s lucky number in roulette). He was a tyall, slow-moving first baseman, which a small part of me must have known was the kind of player I’d become by high school.

And he was there. We traded Pedro. We traded Piazza. We traded Mondesi. We even traded Paul Konerko because first base was already locked down. But it took a decade for the Dodgers to trade Eric Karros. So I grew up with him. As much as Vin Scully or the ubiquitous Tommy Lasorda or Dodger Dogs or whatever else, Eric Karros was a staple of my baseball development. A stolid, not-quite-beloved but certainly well-liked constant from the time I was six, to the time I was sixteen.

* * *

The story should end here: a workmanlike remembrance of a first baseman past. But it doesn’t. Because things happened toward the end of Karros’ career, and I began to understand better. And Karros became a broadcaster. Now this is an essay about coming to terms.

Eric Karros has not broken my heart. He has not made me a cynic and he has not changed the way I think about my childhood, or the Dodgers, or whatever else. But watching Eric Karros on television now is painful for me. And not just in the way that it’s painful for anybody subjected to watching Eric Karros on television. I genuinely want to like him. I genuinely want that player who was so perfectly suited to my youthful circumstances to also suit my adult circumstances.

Instead, Eric Karros is the worst kind of ballplayer-turned-announcer: the kind who can’t help but turn every on-field incident into a personal anecdote. The kind who is vain, unthinking, and genuinely boring to listen to. Watch Eric Karros in the studio, or listen to him in the booth, and you will experience a man who seems to have no sense of how he is being perceived.

Karros the broadcaster is probably most famous for making an inappropriate on-air comment about his colleague Erin Andrews during the 2006 Little League World Series. Via Deadspin:

Erin Andrews was doing a bit piece about an injured player who was hurt playing ping pong. She throws it back to Brent Musberger and Eric Karros, and Musberger talks about Kirk Gibson and how memorable that was. Karros replies, “Yeah, I think all of these boys will have something to remember with Erin Andrews.” Musburger responds, “yeah,” and is followed by 15-20 seconds of silence.

That’s a tasteless comment. But let’s face it, it’s the kind of thing that any baseball player – or any man, really – might say off the air to no consequence. And it doesn’t make Eric Karros a bad person, it just makes him a regular former ballplayer, a typical color commentator. Hell, even this, the most scandalous side of Eric Karros, is pretty bland. The consequences of his professional worst are a mere awkward silence, a few chuckles.

(Allow me this caveat: I don’t think Eric Karros is a bad guy. When Jose Offerman shoved him in the dugout during a game, it was almost certainly because Jose Offerman was a crazy bastard. When he fought Ismael Valdes in the shower, it was probably just one of those things. And when he was finally traded and said it was his own fault for not producing enough, Eric Karros showed about as much dignity as a man could in that situation.)

In the end, Eric Karros is typical. He’s a nice enough guy. He’s a little vain. He’s the all-time leader in home runs by an L.A. Dodger, and yet he never won a playoff series with the team. He never made an All Star game. His numbers look a whole lot worse than they did in the 90s.

Even with these last two weeks of first base adrenaline pumping through me, I’m unable to muster the enthusiasm I want to about Karros. Maybe because unlike teammates Mondesi and Piazza and Nomo, and unlike so many other 90s first basemen, he was never an outsized figure. Maybe because his career went fine for a decade then faded into effectual play and a quiet exit bow, like careers are supposed to do.d

Eric Karros became a dull broadcaster. Nothing in his career indicated that any other path was possible. Nothing in his career indicated that Eric Karros would differentiate himself as an intellect, as a wiseacre, as a stylish or otherwise memorable commentator.

The more I think about it, the less disappointed I am. Because Eric Karros and I still share a name. I still have a blue Dodgers batting practice jersey with the meaningful number 23 on it high up in my closet. These things are enough. I expect nothing more from Eric Karros. I deserve nothing more from him. Nobody does.

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