Way, way over on the “good guy” side of professional sports ledger is a fellow who took a terrible blow ending his National League baseball season this week. Christian Yelich, at 27 a tall, lean, lefthanded, extraordinarily gifted player for the Milwaukee Brewers on a roll toward a possible second straight league batting title and Most Valuable Player honor, drove a fierce line drive into his own right knee, shattering his knee cap and relegating him to the sidelines well beyond the few weeks remaining in this season.
Injuries, of course, are common in pro sports, especially the invisible brain-mashing CTE kind in football, and there’ve been a lot in baseball this year. But in this case, the injury serves as an opportunity to highlight a better side of pro sports as demonstrated by an individual athlete and his impact on his team, his sport and society.
A number of things about Yelich are fascinating. First of all, he is the son of immigrants, mostly from Serbia, but also from Japan (a full fourth of his DNA). In Serbia, the spelling of his name would have ended with the “c” while being pronounced “itch,” but he was raised as a fully Americanized, youth in sunny Southern California in the comfortable outer suburbs north of Los Angeles.
That’s familiar territory to me, being raised in Santa Barbara and playing my high school, college and semi-pro baseball in that territory decades earlier. Is DuPar’s Drive In still there? My claim to affinity is that I was the MVP for my college team, as he is for the National League. Not quite the same thing, except maybe in a quirky, laid back Southern California sense.
Christian has a mom who has taken very good care of him. He’s told the story about wanting to quit baseball on a lazy summer day as a seven year old. His mom bribed him to show up for the game with a crisp $5 bill. The rest, as they say, is history. But she’s also overseen his decent but not outrageous salary, using some of it to invest for him in some modest but very comfortable digs in Malibu right on the beach. (I’d like to believe he’s there even now, or will be soon, where the sun, sand and surf will help speed his recovery.)
He’s got his wild, or should I say goofy, side, knocking back a beer in one gulp at a Bucks game in front of a national TV audience and posing in his birthday suit for a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine.
But it’s clearly in a love-of-life way. He has an instant, wide and toothy grin that he shows off readily on the baseball field, especially when he has made it to first base with one of his pals from the other team to chat with there, like Rizzo of the Cubs or Freeman of the Braves.
Not many players, much less announcers or fans, seem to understand him, but his manager Craig Counsell appears to, a guy with a personality and playing style, from his playing days, not unlike Yelich’s own.
Yelich came within two home runs of leading the league last year and had 44 until his injury this year, nearly the most again. But he’s not a home run hitter, and in this age of home run mania, replete with “launch angle” and other “data,” that can baffle people. He’s a hitter first, a guy who can hit the ball, wherever it goes, so hard that it causes echoes through an even fan-filled stadium, and so solidly that he almost never breaks his bat.
That’s why the line drive to his knee shattered it. He’s wisely eschewed home run mania, bowing out of the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, and thoroughly rejecting the current “launch angle” fad.
But he enjoyed holding a benefit baseball game last winter to support victims of a mass shooting incident and a wildfire in his home area, to visit with a couple teammates a children’s hospital and a Little League team that was not a championship one, but a winless one. Such things are his style.