Steve Garvey

February 6, 2008

Born in the USA

(continued from Tom Seaver)

Chapter Five

“In the immediate aftermath of the war, the nation experienced a self-conscious, collective amnesia.” – George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam (1979)

In late March 1975, a CIA operative named Frank Snepp made a report to his superior in Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin had been appointed to his post because of his reputation as a hard-liner who would never admit defeat. Snepp told Martin that he had just witnessed, from a plane window, thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in abject retreat from the advancing North Vietnamese Army, shedding their guns and uniforms and racing into the sea.

The implication was clear to Snepp. It was way too late for heroes or happy endings. Saigon was fucked.

“I don’t believe you,” Graham Martin said.

“He had drifted,” Snepp recalled in Christian Appy’s 2003 book, Patriots, “into a complete dream world.”

A couple weeks before the fall of Saigon, Sports Illustrated featured a picture of a handsome clean-cut man on the cover. The year before, as the American President was being forced from office for criminally subverting democracy, the handsome clean-cut man had become the first baseball player voted onto the all-star team as a write-in candidate. Democracy is dead. Long live democracy!

“Steve Garvey: Proud to be a hero,” the cover caption read.

The magazine was surely still on coffee tables and in waiting rooms when the most desperate images of the fall of Saigon reached home. These images—people crowding rooftops, awaiting rescue that would never come—found an awful echo on American soil, across the East River from me, some twenty-six years later.

Look away. Keep dreaming. Look away.

When I was a kid I used these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, the one I believed existed somewhere far away. A True American was happy and painless. A True American was clean-cut and handsome. A True American looked you right in the eye, no sarcasm or fear or complicated feelings. No weird hippie food or long hair or unusual family configurations or night terrors or secrets. A True American stood proud and tall. He didn’t skulk through his own town like an outsider when he needed to go buy more baseball cards. A True American played every game and collected two hundred hits every year and a hundred RBI every year and was elected to the all-star team every year and wore red, white, and blue and was proud and was a hero.

Denis Johnson’s 2007 Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke has no central character, no hero. The titular term comes up at various times in the narrative, first as an apocalyptic biblical reference from the Book of Joel (“there shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke”), later as the name for a shadowy rogue operation dreamed up by a CIA operative named Colonel Sands. The Colonel, a charismatic, domineering personality and hero of an earlier heroic American war, is out of sight for most of the novel, his general absence heightening the sense that the world of the novel is one without a center or the hope of some kind of redemptive heroism.

In one of his rare appearances, the Colonel gives a pep talk to some soldiers that may or may not be under his leadership, this characteristic ambiguity mentioned at the beginning of his speech when he says, “I do confer with your lieutenant; I don’t pass orders to him. But I do direct our operations in a general sense.”

He goes on to give a long speech about the 1966 football game between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the so-called “Game of the Century” that ended in a tie when Notre Dame elected to run out the clock instead of trying to go for the win. The point, which eludes the interest of the soldiers, those pioneers of a post-heroic world, is that they shouldn’t leave the enemy battlefield without a victory.

“We will win this war,” the Colonel assures no one.

Steve Garvey was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1966 but elected to go play baseball and football at Michigan State instead. Freshman were not eligible to play on the varsity in those days, but it seems likely that Steve Garvey was very near the mythic action in the Game of the Century. It would seem likely even if he hadn’t been a budding football star at the university that hosted the game. When I was using these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, Steve Garvey seemed, more than anyone else, as if he had sprung straight out of myth, as if he hadn’t been born and raised somewhere but instead had gradually come into focus, going from an indistinct figure on the misty margins of older myths of glory to a distinct and gleaming hero in the bright summer sun.

Five years and one day ago, February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations, attempting to strong-arm support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The wall behind him held a tapestry version of Pablo Picasso’s famous depiction of the horror of war, Guernica. The work has no central character, no hero, just the wide howl of a living world torn by bombs. But as Colin Powell used the fictions of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida to justify war, none of Guernica was visible behind him. A blue curtain had been hung to hide the tapestry from view. A few weeks later, bombs started falling far away.

Here are two versions of history. Both could be said to follow the logic of dreams.

Version one: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because he was a star. He had been a star in college and he was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers and one year later he made his debut in the major leagues, and once you were in the major leagues there was no more Vietnam. The year he made his debut, 1969, he played in spring training alongside a struggling minor leaguer named Roy Gleason. Gleason had played briefly for the Dodgers in 1963, doubling in his only at-bat, then in 1967 after failing to further distinguish himself in the minors he was drafted into the army, the only man to serve in Vietnam after logging so much as a single moment in the major leagues. He was sent home on a stretcher, wounded with shrapnel from a blast that killed the man standing beside him, his friend Tony Silvo. He left behind in Vietnam some personal effects, including his 1963 World Series ring.

Version two: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because there was no such thing as Vietnam. Look at the card at the top of this page and tell me there was such a thing as Vietnam. Look at that card at the top of the page and tell me there was a place somewhere full of contradictions and ambiguity and needless suffering. Tell me there was a place where America has been defeated. Tell me there was a place that replaced our innocence with the knowledge that we were capable of unspeakable cruelties, that mutilated or killed our young men, that even stole one of our 1963 World Series rings. If you tell me there was a Vietnam I’ll tell you I don’t believe you.

Some years after I first used this card to dream myself into the dream of America, Steve Garvey left the team with the red, white, and blue uniform. The jarring sight of him in nauseous brown and yellow foreshadowed the coming disillusionment that he was at least as complicated and fallible as anyone else. And the devaluing of the myth of Steve Garvey that accompanied revelations that he, as Bill James put it, “couldn’t keep his underpants off the infield” was followed by a gradual devaluing of his accomplishments on the field, former reverence for his ability to collect hits and RBI replaced by notice of his inability to get on base as often or hit for power as effectively as many of his lesser known peers. History has hollowed Steve Garvey.

The again, history says that Ford and then Carter led this country after Nixon’s resignation. But if a whole country is dreaming, couldn’t it be said that the figure nearest the center of that dream is the leader? Couldn’t you make a case that in the amnesiac years where Vietnam ceased to exist, those years between the faraway intimations of defeat and the coming of the supreme amnesiac American Dreamer, Ronald Reagan, Steve Garvey minded the store? Couldn’t you make a case that Steve Garvey, the people’s choice, the write-in candidate, the proud hero, was the leader of America Dreaming?



  1. 1.  Really great stuff, Josh. Recreated the sort of two-faced nature of that era beautifully. As a Dodger fan growing up in the 70s and 80s, I always appreciated Garvey more than I actually liked him. I liked the more imperfect players like the big-butted “Penguin” (Ron Cey), the kooky Steve Yeager, Reggie Smith, more than the Ken doll-ish Garvey. Then we were also subjected to his Barbie-ish wife, Cindy, on local TV, and knew that there was something creepy underneath the surface of the two of them, there had to be, we just knew it…

  2. 2.  Jayzus, will someone get this guy a book deal? Just terrific reading.

  3. 3.  Roy Gleason’s page on baseball-reference.com is sponsored. The sponsor wrote this, likely not knowing the irony, “1963 World Champions For what might have been. Cherish that ring!”

    This is another superb entry. I particularly like the creation of Garvey description.

  4. 4.  That was probably my favorite baseball card at the time…

    I think you make a powerful case with your “version two”, since to look at that card again takes me back to the simplicity of looking at the 200 hit, 100 RBI, play every game guy that I found to be my hero, and having found him in a pack of cards, at last.

  5. 5.  I think we know which version the current powers that be would pick:

    “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ … ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'” – Unnamed Bush aide, as quoted by Ron Susskind in the New York Times Magazine, 10/17/04

  6. 6.  The real problem is what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. “Trust us” is not a philosophy suitable for use in government, and that philosophy is enshrined in our constitution, and most peculiarly in the Bill of Rights. That the current administration has chosen to spit on that same constitution is therefore not a surprise.

    The problem is that the alleged opposition party has the same philosophy.

  7. 7.  s/b “… that skepticism is enshrined …”.

  8. 8.  nice, poignant post, Josh. While I was born shortly after the war ended, Garvey was still my first sports hero.

    You’ve touched here – as you have in other posts – the importance of sports for so many. It’s more than just a distraction from reality. It’s a place where we can dream of how things are supposed to be.

    And, it’s also a place where we don’t need to be rational in our support for, or opposition against opponents. We can just like our teams and dislike their competitors. And that’s Ok. We don’t need to burden ourselves with seeing both sides of the story. I can dislike the Giants because I can. I wish it were so simple in real life. anyhow, none of that makes sense, but thanks for the post, which makes a lot more than sense than I can articulate.

  9. 9.  Josh, these are simultaneously the nicest and most damning words I’ve read regarding the mirage named Steve Garvey. Thank you for refusing to print the legend, at least without the backbenchers’ response.

    Outstanding. I cannot wait to see where you’re taking us.

  10. 10.  I meant to include this in my previous comment: some time in the early 1980s (I want to say 1982?), I was still taking The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated at home. I believe they both had cover stories on Garvey to highlight their spring training reports that particular season, so I can’t remember in which magazine I read this quote. Garvey’s divorce with Cindy had become public news, and he responded to a question about being the white knight knocked off his horse that, yes, he was only a foot soldier now.

    My father (a lifelong Yankees fan, mind you) saw the article and cut out the section with the quote. He laminated it and carried the quote around in his wallet for years. Like Garvey, he was recently divorced, and like Garvey, he was a philandering, self-delusional asshole. At some point, my father played the mental illness card and ducked most of the responsibility for his actions, while Garvey became a Padre. History will decide which was a more heinous dereliction of duty, but I tell you as an eye witness to the former, it’s a close call.

  11. 11.  5 : Cripes, what a quote.

    6 : You know, I think Garvey, in his first years of banishment from the golden glow of baseball, briefly wrestled professionally under the nickname “The Banality of Evil.”

    10 : Yes, that “Is Steve Garvey too good to be true?” SI cover was in ’82 (I saw it when I was searching for the “Proud to be a hero” cover):


  12. 12.  I wonder why ‘Guernica’ was covered that day at the UN? Who had the authority to do that?

  13. 13.  12 : Here’s an article about the cover-up of Guernica that asserts the decision resulted from U.S. pressure:


  14. 14.  13 Thanks Josh, that was quite a read. To read the history behind Guernica, (I never knew the exact specifics which are horrifying) and then to see a plan being made to essentially do the same thing that the Luftwaffe had done by the US…..I don’t know. That is pretty sad that our government would feel the need to pressure the UN into covering a painting that was depicting an atrocity of the past. I hope our country never feels the need to cover a work of ART again. Shameful. Thanks again for the writing and the link. Shalom.

  15. 15.  “The supreme amnesiac American Dreamer”…


    Thanks for this, I just e-mailed this article to my ex-pat father, the first time I have ever sent him an article from the toaster.

  16. 16.  I would love the hell out of it if Steve Garvey somehow stumbled across this … and I would dearly love to see the look of complete vacancy on his face as he totally fails to Get It.

    “No Vietnam? American Dreaming? Huh?” he thinks for a moment, before the knock on the door from the mortgage company brings his attention elsewhere.

  17. 17.  Mortgage company? I allus figgered it would be the liquor store.

  18. 18.  10 & 11

    I remember reading an article about the Garveys from around then — I thought it was from Inside Sports (remember them?), but that cover makes me think it might have been SI.

    Anyway, the writer described the spotless Garvey living room, and took particular notice of the magazines on the coffee table. They were splayed out in a manner that at first appeared offhanded, but the writer was bothered that they seemed to be too perfectly offhanded. That’s been an indelible image to me for over 25 years now.

  19. 19.  Maybe slightly related, the “Bronx Banter” blog on Toaster has an article posted today (link in the upper right corner of this page) on another piece of America being cancelled–MLB’s decision to end the Hall of Fame Game. As someone who lives in that neck of the woods, and who has gone each of the past 6 or 7 years, I’ll be real sorry to see it go.

    I posted my thoughts on it there, but its the erosion of another slice of Americana that we’ll never get back. Kind of like the erosion of Steve Garvey as a slice of Americana.

  20. 20.  I’m sure it’s inconvenient for the players, so eliminating the HOF game as an in-season exhibition (as every team did some time ago with its games versus their AAA affiliates) is unfortunate if somewhat understandable.

    I will say, with all the inherent selfishness of a Memphis resident, that the Civil Rights game was properly sober and yet really fun last year, and I’m looking forward to 2008 (the game will tie in with many 40th anniversary tributes to MLK Jr’s death). I realize that doesn’t do much for the folks attending the ceremonies in Cooperstown, of course.

  21. 21.  This is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

    19 I actually wondered if this post was related to our discussion on DT recently about Mattingly, and how, at least for me, you don’t want to find out that ball players are real people with problems like the rest of us.

    A couple of loose ends of the old Garvey mythology . . .

    he was, or at least was purported to have been, a Dodger spring training batboy as a youth in Florida.

    he had those immense forearms. You could have put him in a comic book without very much in the way of physical exaggeration.

  22. 22.  19 : During my one visit to Cooperstown a couple years ago my wife and I had a lot of fun watching a little league (or maybe Babe Ruth League) game at Doubleday Field (or is it Doubleday Park?); I remember thinking that it must be really cool to watch big league teams play on that field. Sorry the game is headed toward the dustheap.

    20 : The civil rights game sounds like yet another reason for my Elvis- + Sun Records- + Stax Records-loving self to finally visit Memphis one of these Marches.

    21 : Yeah, I’ve read in a few places that Garvey was a Dodger batboy.

  23. 23.  Man, did I ever hate Steve Garvey. Much (probably most) of that had to do with his helping the Dodgers beat the Phillies twice in the NLCS. But there was also his transparently manufactured All-American Boy persona. Pure Hollywood flimflam. This is what an All-American Boy would look like if we wanted to make a movie about an All-American Boy. And of course sports figures in the media capitals of NY and LA have a huge headstart in the race for media adulation. But what was worst was that he did everything he could to promote and cultivate the image, and the media ate it up.By the time he was revealed as a philandering asshole, All-American Boyhood had moved onto new pastures (Don Mattingly, then Mark McGwire, then …). Thus it e’er shall be, at least as far as the media are concerned. But the rest of us don’t have to swallow it.

  24. 24.  Oh, and Kirby Puckett.

  25. 25.  Brilliant. Positively brilliant, brilliant stuff.

    Moving, lovely, touching, emotional, historical, gorgeous writing.


  26. 26.  Come on down and see us any time, Josh. Where else are you gonna go for Elvis/Sun/Stax?

    The Redbirds are terrible, but AutoZone Park really is a gem. When there’s a good-sized crowd in there, like last year’s Civil Rights game, you can close your eyes and almost (but not quite) feel like you’re in the big leagues. I don’t know if the Sawks are permanently ineligible to participate in any Civil Rights games, but don’t let that stop you.

  27. 27.  Garvey was already a Padre by the time I started watching baseball. I remember his big forearms, but I’m surprised that he was a football player. He seemed too short and stubby to be a QB and too slow to be anything else.
    I don’t know anything about Roy Gleason, but his baseballreference page says he weighed 220 pounds and pinch-ran in seven of his eight appearances with the Dodgers. With that size and speed, Gleason sounds more like a football player. He was probably the All-American boy in his hometown.

  28. 28.  By the way, the Dodgers gave Gleason a new ring in 2003. The story says that he felt he’d lived an unfulfilled life:

  29. 29.  27 : I couldn’t find much definitive info about Garvey’s football career, but I remember seeing mention somewhere that he played defense.

    28 : Thanks for linking to that ESPN article about Gleason.

  30. 30.  22 If I’m not mistaken, I believe the quaint little ballpark in question is now known as Verizon Wireless.com Field.

    I could be mistaken.

    The Horror. The Horror.

  31. 31.  The discussion of Garvey led me to recall a piece by Roger Angell, in which he describes Garvey talking to reporters around the batting cage. Garvey makes a series of unsolicited remarks about American culture, saying in effect that we’ve created too many anti-heroes and that our nation needs true heroes to admire following Vietnam, Watergate, etc. He then excuses himself to take BP while just look at each other, slack-jawed and collectively thinking, “Gimme a break.”

    I had thought this anecdote was from a Roger Angell piece but I couldn’t find it in cursory glances at the books and the google. Maybe it was from the SI piece mentioned above. I wish that I had the actual quote handy because it’s so absurdly self-aggrandizing that it’s funny.

    Anyway, that story about batting practice always summed up why so many of us loathed Garvey – he was obsessed with projecting an image of himself that seemed distasteful then and was shown to be dishonest later. Perhaps it was wrong to be gleeful when Garvey was later exposed as a serial adulterer but I only wish the scandal could’ve unfolded after his retirement, during a campaign for political office. Then the fall would’ve been complete, all the way down.

    Thinking about Garvey and the way he looked, carried himself, and was obsessed with projecting a public image reminded me so much of Mitt Romney. Not to imply that Romney is a philanderer or anything like that but the “All-American Hero” assembly-line look makes me wonder if they’re both from the same planet.

  32. 32.  I absolutely loved Steve Garvey growing up. My first baseball memories are of following the 1977 and 1978 Dodgers, and being in awe of this clean-cut, clutch hitter. In t-ball in 1978, my team was named the Dodgers, and I begged to wear number 6 and play first base. I remember how proud I felt when I made a play at first base, and some kids sitting around waiting for the next game shouted–“he’s just like Garvey!”

    Many years later, I still can’t shake my admiration for Garvey, as much as I want to. It doesn’t make any sense–I’ve read all about the adultery, obviously, and heard stories about how most of the other players on those Dodgers teams hated him. I guess that I just don’t want to rewrite anything about my youth that is associated with pleasant memories.

  33. I remember when I was in fifth grade I received an “B” on a paper. My friend at the time had been getting rewards from his parents each time he got a passing grade. When I asked my mother for a reward for my “B” she told me there would be no reward as decency is something that is expected by society. Something obviously had gone wrong in Steve Garvey’s childhood and he became a symptom of an ever sicker society in which he felt he deserved accolades for behaving in a manner which is considered normal by the rest of us. Steve Garvey is nothing but a filthy crying little baby and after the cheers died down and no one any longer cared about Steve Garvey he found the need to foul himself for the attention that he craved.

  34. Funny Steve Garvey story. (Who knew Kato Kaelin and Garvey were such good friends?) http://www.hobartpulp.com/baseball/stevegarvey.html

  35. Hitler. Stalin. Garvey.(Answer to question-what are the three worst things to be) http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/hitler-stalin-garvey/

  36. Thanks for passing along those Garvey links. Very amusing.

  37. The Mighty Garvey, (with my appologies)

    Two on and down a run in the ninth in la la land that day, Smith on second and Lopes on third with one more out to play, in the on deck circle was the very dangerous Cey, but situated in the hitter’s box the mighty Garvey stood in the way.
    With his heavy bat the Garv took a mighty rip, ball going to the backstop, just a foul tip. Not to be discouraged a second swing he took, loosed a drive, down the right line line, foul by a foot. Next two pitches were too low the next one way to high. 30,000 had already left the park, now driving fifty-five. Then was hurled a splitter three inches off the plate, Garv swung his heavy bat but was already much too late. Those few remaining fans all let out a shout, but there was no joy in la la, mighty Garvey had struck out.

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