Being the decidedly in-the-moment guy he is, Dennis Eckersley could probably care less. But when he faced the Athletics' Shane Mack—the first batter of his 24th season in the bigs—Eck reaffirmed a startlingly simple fact: You can trace the entire history of baseball through eight players.
Eckersley's debut on April 12, 1975, was against the Brewers, a team that featured Hank Aaron. In 1954, Aaron's first year, Bob Feller was still going strong for the Indians. In 1936, Feller's rookie season, Rogers Hornsby was still active with the St. Louis Browns. Hornsby had broken in in 1915, while Honus Wagner still played for the Pirates. Wagner's first season was 1897, when he faced Cap Anson (above, right) of the Chicago Colts. In 1871 Anson's Forest Citys of Rockford, Ill., played against the New York Mutuals and primordial shortstop Dickey Pearce. During Pearce's rookie year of 1856, he played against the New York Knickerbockers and Doc Adams, who was still active with that club a decade after it had played the first recognized baseball game.
Adams, Pearce, Anson, Wagner, Hornsby, Feller, Aaron, Eckersley. Eight generations of the game's family tree. One can take other routes back. Sometimes the nip requires nine men, or 10. But the heritage is still that compact, still lingering around every ballpark as surely as it does not linger around every NFL camp or NBA arena. Stan Musial's career overlapped with those of both Lefty Grove and Pete Rose. Al Benton pitched to both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Warren Spahn broke in opposite Carl Hubbell and bowed out opposite Steve Carlton.
When the game's lush past is so easily connected to its present, when the fans of today inherit some intuitive knowledge of the grace of Joe DiMaggio or the passion of Roberto Clemente or the durability of Cy Young, when baseball alone among the sports not only supports but virtually mandates Old-Timers' Days, why doesn't the game do more to preserve, emphasize and even boast of its heritage? That's like asking, How in the heck did Apple ever lose to Microsoft?
Of course, we're talking about baseball here, a sport whose defending champion is nothing more than a no-freezes Rotisserie team, a sport willing to sacrifice its identity for the short-term profits of interleague play. The inescapable lesson to fans born with the marvelous ability to travel backward or forward within baseball? Stand still, shut up and buy whatever memorabilia are thrown at you.