In 1985, a young(ish) late-night comedian named David Letterman made a joke about a baseball player. Today, David Letterman is one of the most famous people in the world, but in 1985, his show was just starting out. He was decidedly a niche figure, a brilliant comedic mind trying to figure out an audience after Johnny Carson, doing weird things just because he could. For someone like Letterman, with an audience of the stoned collegiate and the insomniac insane at 11:30, any opportunity to crossover to the mainstream was most welcome, necessary. He found it in Terry Forster.
Terry Forster was always a good pitcher. He led baseball in saves with 24 in 1974 -- he threw 134.1 innings that year, and started a game, in case you were wondering just how much relief pitcher usage has changed in the last 40 years -- and won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1981. He was a LOOGY before there were LOOGYs, and by the time Letterman discovered him in '85, he was one of the best relievers in baseball on one of the worst teams. No one had ever noticed him much.
This was back when Letterman's monologues were less topical rat-a-tat jokes about the news of the day and more freeform ramblings about whatever happened to be on Dave's mind. And on June 17, 1985, Dave's mind was on Terry Forster. He'd caught a Braves game over the weekend -- this was back when the Braves were the team constantly on television because of the TBS SuperStation -- and he couldn't get over how rotund Terry Forster was. He was flabbergasted, so to speak.
"The fattest man in all of professional sports. I mean the guy is a balloon. He must weigh 300 pounds. The guys doing the ball game. Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson, not once do they mention that this guy is enormous. They pretend the guy couldn't be in better shape. He is a L-O-A-D. Not once, when they see this mammoth figure, this silo, get up in the bullpen ... I just want them to say 'Terry Forster's warming up, he's a lefthander, an ERA of 3.5 ... what a fat tub of goo.' Nobody says a thing. It ruined my weekend."
Letterman's career was new enough at that point that he probably couldn't have predicted the storm that would arise. It became a national story: It was the first time many people had heard of both Letterman and Forster. Forster was offended by the comments at first before recognizing the value of playing along. Eventually he showed up on Dave's show, and everyone had a grand laugh about it.
You know what the funny thing about watching that video today? Terry Forster doesn't look all that fat to me.
Last night, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams hit a soaring moonshot in the eighth inning that essentially secured the Cardinals' trip to their third consecutive National League Championship Series. It was a monster shot for a monster man. Adams is officially listed as 260 pounds, 50 more pounds than Forster was ever listed at, and a number I suspect both men are lying about. Adams is 6-foot-3 tall, and roughly that distance wide. Cardinals fans call him "Big Mayo."
As a Cardinals fan, I'm aware of the long history of fat Cardinals. We have employed a list of them from Bob Horner to Terry Pendleton to Ray King, my personal favorite. (King always looked like he was just about to pop, exploding burrito refuse in all directions.) But Adams' homer is without question the greatest Fat Cardinal Moment in team history. It's going to be difficult to top it.
For years, my friends who are not baseball fans have used the occasional appearance of the fat baseball player as a criticism of the game, as some sort of cudgel with which to bludgeon the sport's players. Look at that guy. That guy is a professional athlete? What kind of sport is this?
Of course, this is a dense, thick-headed way to look at baseball. One of the best things about baseball is that anyone can play it. You don't have to be 6-foot-6. You don't have to be rippling with muscles. You don't even have to be particularly strong. There are so many different positions, so many different specialties, that it takes all kinds. Jamie Moyer wasn't just pitching at 49, he was doing it while looking like your favorite whimsical philosophy professor. The game takes place so much in the mind that physicality, while important, isn't everything like in so many other sports. If you want raw athleticism, you have plenty of sports you can watch; I'm sure you'll be awed by all those swimmers and gymnasts. But we're talking about baseball here.
Now, it certainly doesn't hurt to be athletic in baseball: This isn't bowling. But that a man like Adams can use his weight for him rather than against him -- can find that exact combination of balance and power, to shift the weight from here to there to allow this -- is a celebration of the game, not an indictment of it. Tony Gwynn was still hitting .300 looking like this; CC Sabathia wins 20 games and Cy Youngs like this. (And he was always like that.)
Players are fatter than they were in 1985, at least at the extremes. This is in large part because everyone is fatter than they were in 1985. (Watching an episode of "Cheers" recently, I was taken aback by how average-looking Norm appeared. Today Norm would be Mike and Molly's skinny friend next door.) But they're using their weight different: They are fat but somehow toned, if that makes sense. It's a healthy fat. It's a productive fat.
I'm just glad to watch a sport in which I get to cheer for people who don't look all that different than my uncle. I know that I will never play professional baseball. I know that it's incredibly difficult and it requires otherworldly talent I can never understand. But I can look at guys like Matt Adams, and CC Sabathia and Juan Uribe, at all of them, and I can feel like this is everybody's game. The game has changed so much since Babe Ruth, the patron saint of baseball, the origin myth of the game, launched the sport into the public consciousness. It is a relief, though, to know that central fact hasn't changed at all. Huge dudes eating cheeseburgers with nicknames like "Big Mayo." This, truly, is America's game.