Yesterday: Fond Farewells. Today: Victory Laps

“The Long Goodbye” has always been to me the very best of the incomparable Raymond Chandler’s splendid tales. You know, the one about that amiable drunk Terry Lennox and how he lead the relentless gumshoe Philip Marlowe on a merry chase through the shadier dens of iniquity in Mexico and Lotus Land  before arriving at the sort of spectacular resolution no literary craftsman ever crafted better than Raymond Chandler.

But that was then and now is now. And suddenly the term, “long goodbye” has new and very different meaning.  Big Sport, which has a way of co-opting some of the nicer nuances of the culture, has laid claim to it as the label for the ponderous art form of formally bidding farewell to another of our sporting demigods.

Maybe it was inadvertent, but the Yankees – long lovers of all such theatre – may have raised the gig to a level of obligation with the recent and elaborate back-to-back dispatching of a princely pair of their big ticket items.

The more sophisticated may have found it a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary while the more practical may have wondered why guys who made hundreds of millions playing a kids’ game further deserved to be showered with stuff they’ll neither need nor want in the Real World.

But for better or worse, the sporting public seemingly couldn’t get enough of it, lapping up all the ritual and ceremony in town after town, even as it inevitably got hopelessly redundant and something of a strain on the honorees.

The precedent has been set, maybe cemented. It’s an odd business, but methinks we’re stuck with it. It may even get to the point where a jock’s true measure can only be defined by the largeness and loudness of his sendoff into retirement. Perish the thought, although you should never underestimate the largeness of the ego of these characters, nor their acute need to have it salved.

So who can blame David Ortiz for contending that what’s good enough for Brothers Jeter and Rivera is certainly good enough for him. And if you want to quibble about their relative greatness you’ll understand Ortiz has no time for that. He’s set the wheels in motion with a slick off-season announcement that gave everyone plenty of time to plan their tributes. Doubtless he’ll graciously. accept such booty as comes his way. The David Ortiz Victory Lap will be a major subplot of the forthcoming season, no matter how the ballclub fares, or where it finishes.

That much – the Victory Lap, if you will – is new, although fond farewells are hardly new. In the good old days – that would be roughly into the 1960s – the revered departing star would be accorded his very own “Day,” with the mayor and/or governor further gracing it with the body politic’s approval and the issuing of lofty proclamations. Believe it or not. that stuff was actually a big deal, they being simpler times.

The ultimate example, at least hereabouts, was the sendoff accorded a grumpy and essentially unwilling Ted Williams at Fenway Park on the day of his last game, Wed., Sept. 28, 1960. He merely remained very much in character in finding the entire business a needless aggravation. A reluctant Ted got a fishing rod, a boat, a bundle of other such toys, and one last chance to impart his lofty disdain to his good-buddies up in the press box – his beloved “Knights of the Keyboard” – before magnificently bidding us all adieu with a parting homer that also gloriously gave him a chance to not tip his cap one last time.

It was vintage Ted, laden with the salty impertinence that had flavored his entire two decades of sharing his greatness with us. Not surprisingly, it left us thrilled to the core and still capable of being weepy over its tender memory. Amazing!  

Tributes back then weren’t confined to the almighty. Often they were extended to lads for simply being good guys, deservingly well liked. It was on that basis that the Red Sox in 1961 gave Vic Wertz his “Day,” one replete with swell gifts. Then the next day, they traded him. Only on the Red Sox! If memory serves correctly, Sibbi Sisti, a career utility player, got comparably honored by the old Braves.  “Days” were as much frolics for the fans as for the guests of honor. They were also aimed at goosing the gate, especially if business was slow. Gifting was creative. If a player had a farming background, he might get a cow; if a hotshot from urban America, maybe a red convertible; if old, a rocking chair. Everybody got a watch. Sometimes even the writers chipped in with a gift.

It’s baseball, so long dominant in our sporting scene, that has featured most of this stuff. There have been stray such moments in the other games – special occasions over the years – but it’s baseball that minted the art form and baseball that has milked it most. When their retirements are firmly established well in advance, players of stature have long been expected to stand for tearful farewells in their own ball yards, like it or not. The 1983 tribute to Carl Yastrzemski was a fine example: a joyful moment, even for the painfully introspective Yaz.

On the other hand, the ranks of the indisputably great who were given no such tributes are even more impressive. Everyone knew Joe DiMaggio was at the end of the line in 1951, but he skillfully ducked any reveling in public, for which he had no taste. Babe Ruth would have loved to have received the honors he richly deserved from the Yankees, but they managed to duck the obligation for 14 years, until he was on his very last legs.

Few consensus immortals have eased more quietly into retirement than Jackie Robinson. In the 1960s, the three arguably foremost stars of the era – Baseball’s Sandy Koufax, Football’s Jimmy Brown, and Basketball’s Bill Russell – all slid softly away with terse and unexpected off-season announcements. None of them, you see, had either Mr. Ortiz’s enthusiasm for the limelight or Mr. Jeter’s  skills at managing it. Moreover, times have changed.

If baseball has always hogged this show, three of the most tender occasions I’ve witnessed have come from other games.

In 1978, the farewell to John Havlicek was near letter-perfect, just like the man himself. None was more emotional than the wonderful tearjerker that Bob Cousy’s farewell became in 1963, all the more engaging because it was clearly unscripted with that anonymous fan punctuating the proceedings with a wail straight from the heart of our town: “We love ya, Cooz!” And then there was the farewell to Bobby Orr, also at the old Garden.  The avalanche of applause enveloping the humble hockey hero as he stood with head bowed at center ice reverberates near four decades later. It seemed like it would never end.

That was a soaring moment, but also bittersweet, in large part a tribute to what might have been. In the end, all these occasions have some such burdens. They are celebrations for sure, but also implicit acknowledgements of the rigidity of mortal limits. It is from that painful awareness that all these tributes derive.

The surpassing example is the first and most inspiring: the overwhelmingly wrenching tribute to Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when before 62,000 people, and with almost poetic grace, the dying slugger prayerfully delivered the most touching farewell address in all of sports history.

It was not as if tragedy was then new to the business.  Addie Joss and Ray Chapman had fallen at the height of their careers. Christy Mathewson, gassed in World War I, was every inch the hero. A plane crash in a cornfield had claimed football’s Knute Rockne. When hockey legend Howie Morenz died of an embolism at 34, his services were held at center ice in Montreal’s Forum as tens of thousands wept in the driving snow outside.

By 1939, tragedy was hardly new to sport. Yet Gehrig’s tragedy touched a higher chord, never since approached. For none have been obliged to face up to their doom so publically nor handle the unfairness of it so brilliantly. His was the ultimate “Goodbye.”