Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals' beloved, intimidating ace, turned 77 on Friday. I celebrated, like any 25-year-old, by looking for animated GIFs.
When you grow up with Bob Gibson as a basically cheery-sounding guy in a red blazer it's hard to appreciate him in the way people who saw him pitch will insist that you should. It'll be easy with Albert Pujols; Pujols's baseball card yields up his metronomic consistency without a fight, and the scowling face he's making on the front of it fills in the how. It's easy with Ozzie Smith—the backflips and "Go crazy, folks!" and the Gold Gloves and two or three of an infinite number of clips of him making bounding astroturf-dives and off-balance throws against a bleeding, bright-green background, and there he is.
It's even easy with Stan Musial. He's the goofy statue and all those records and the hustling—the triples he hit, and just how long he hit them. But Bob Gibson I've always had trouble with. All there is is the 1.12 ERA and all of the pictures of him looking, in follow-through, as though he's just tried to throw a baseball through a pyramid of milk-bottles and the skeptical carnie behind them. For somebody with a less imposing reputation, that would be plenty.
But Bob Gibson is Bob Gibson, postseason hero, headhunter, competitor. And in the 15 years or so people have been telling me about Bob Gibson, conventional stats and advanced stats have both come closing in on him. Strikeout rates are up so high that his career rate, 7.2 per nine innings, would put him half-a-K below last year's National League average, and in a decade a 100-mile-an-hour fastball has gone from something Mark Wohlers did once, you think, on TNT, maybe, to something Trevor Rosenthal does on a whim.
Meanwhile, league effects crept up on that 1.12 ERA. It still has its particular, alien appeal—imagining how a game might feel when a starter's ERA is floating around a run per nine innings and he plans, without reservations, on pitching all nine of them—but when you don't have to get Total Baseball off the shelf to see what 1968 really looked like the whole season rapidly takes on, dilutes that same unknowable quality.
And having grown up with pitchers in a much more hostile environment—hulking shortstops everywhere, 50 home runs as something Greg Vaughn can do—I'm stuck trying to figure the difference between allowing one run when everybody else is allowing three and allowing a run-and-three-quarters when everybody else is allowing five.
Ultimately, though, it's visual. I saw Greg Maddux, paunchy and squinting, throw changeups to either corner against hitters who walked 100 times a year; I saw Randy Johnson's trebuchet arm release sliders at left-handers' elbows; I've watched Chris Carpenter, and I know exactly how I'll try, maybe unsuccessfully, to explain him 20 years from now. But I didn't watch Bob Gibson, and the record he left behind plays pretty low-fidelity against thousands of modern-baseball hours.
Apparently this is why people lucky enough to have circled Busch Stadium, at the time, keep telling me about Bob Gibson.
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