The Braves and Astros, Joe DiMaggio, and an old Cuban fisherman

Published 10:48 am Saturday, October 17, 2020

With baseball in full swing – the Braves and the Astros still hanging in trying to punch their tickets to the World Series, I thought of one of the greatest baseball players of all time. I could name many such players, including several Hall of Famers who died recently – Joe Morgan, Lou Brock, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Jimmy Wynn – I thought back to this great player who left us in 1998. I want to share what we wrote back then about Joe DiMaggio.

I picked up the paper on Saturday morning and read with interest that the 84-year-old Joe DiMaggio continues to startle doctors with his resiliency. Later the same evening on the television news, I listened with satisfaction that the baseball great had awoken from his coma and was sitting up in bed today, defying those who thought the game for him had ended. It is only now – thirty years after I first encountered the drama I’m about to relate – that I think I really understand the rest of the story.

I probably wasn’t ten years old when I was first introduced to the following story one sultry Georgia summer afternoon. I jogged over to the fire station by my house to watch the noon “Playhouse theatre” movie one day, as I often did during the summer since we didn’t have a TV. It was then I encountered the courage of an old man named Santiago in Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea.

Quite a story it is: The old man goes out on the boat fishing, the fisherman of notoriously bad luck. He hasn’t caught a fish in more than 80 days. But this day will be different. He gets out to sea and hooks the greatest fish of his life, his greatest accomplishment, a marlin bigger than any fish any Cuban from his village has ever caught.

But the fish is too big for the old man, Santiago. It pulls the old man further and further out to sea, controlling him as some men’s dreams do them. You understand.

For days and nights the old man fights the great marlin. When his body and spirit’s weariness cause him to relax and rest, the fish runs with the hook in its mouth; and the line that the old man holds tears rapidly through his hands, cutting and piercing hands now tattered and raw. By the way, there is an allusion there to the greatest man who ever lived.

The old man’s back is bent and tired; the sun, beating upon his brow, has blistered his face and drained his strength. The discouragement from within and the pain from without take their toll on the man with mala suerte – bad luck. But this Santiago has a special strength about him – that’s the great point of the story. He is not easily discouraged, he is not one to give up. He gains his strength from deep within, thinking of lions on the beaches — a mental imagery that serves as a tranquilizer for his pain.

Hemingway describes the old man’s resiliency in this famous quotation: “A man may be destroyed but not defeated.” As long as he doesn’t fall out of the race – as long as he doesn’t succumb to the pain and give up the battle – he can prevail. He can win. He may be beaten down and destroyed physically, but he will not be defeated mentally. Again, I’m sure you understand.

Something else Santiago thinks about besides the lions on the beach. Something else gives the old man courage and stamina when he grows so tired physically. He thinks about a baseball player who is the epitome of toughness, whose 56-game hitting streak in 1941 still stands as a symbol of mental stamina. The player Santiago thinks of is one who played on through the grueling pain of bone spurs without ever giving in.

At this moment, this same player is fighting a battle for life against a serious lung disease. And he fights so valiantly and long that the doctors are amazed that he could be so destroyed but not defeated. Ah, you already know, don’t you, that when Santiago’s back and hands ache and his will grows weak that he thinks about one of baseball’s greatest, a man of courage who’s trying to keep that hitting streak alive for one more game.

Joe DiMaggio.

That was the writing we shared in December 1998. Now, if only our Braves and our Astros can hang on, just hold on to the rope, dig down deep and stay alive even when others think they are about dead in the water, then we will have an Astros-Braves World Series. With all the hardships these two franchises have endured, it will be a survival story that would make even the great Joe DiMaggio proud.

And an old bad-luck fisherman named Santiago.