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Ashburn Remembered As A Guy’s Guy

My wife is mourning Diana. I am mourning Richie Ashburn. I am thinking of writing a book about the difference between women and men. The tentative title is, “Women Are From London; Men Are From Philadelphia.”

Don’t get me wrong. I feel terrible about the senseless death of a vibrant young mother, I respect her altruistic impulses, and I’m sorry she died on the run from her dysfunctional in-laws and the hellhounds from the tabloids, but I feel no psychic connection to Diana because, generally speaking, guys do not grow up relating to princesses.

There is more than a little Diana in many women, as more than a few teary-eyed female friends have told me in recent days. My sister-in-law, Nancy, who is working hard to raise four children, told my wife that Diana’s death has given her a dream, when the children are grown, to visit London someday and place a flower in memory of the princess. My London dream is seeing a cup game at Wembley.

Guys relate to flawed heroes, men with proud bearing and unusual skills, who perform bravely in the face of injury or fate. For a lot of guys, it was the Mick. The success of women’s professional basketball reminds us that female fans have the capacity for idolization of athletes, but the great American sporting pattern of this century is guys cheering guys.

We dream of flicking the game-winning assist like Bryan Trottier, who has just been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. We cringe when we hear of his financial setbacks and emotional dips.

We dream of shrugging off defenders and slinging in the winning goal like Mario Lemieux, who has also been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But we shudder when we think of his courage in coming back from Hodgkin’s disease.

When I heard that Richie Ashburn had died the other day in his hotel room at the age of 70, I remembered the feisty gladiator fighting off pain and defeat in his one glorious season in New York, when he prodded Marv Throneberry into accepting his lot as Marvelous Marv.

One day in Pittsburgh, Ashburn ran into the right-field wall in spacious old Forbes Field, and the ball got loose for a hit. Dazed and battered, he argued with the umpires that the ball had been foul, then he insisted to Casey Stengel that he stay in the game.

After the game, Ashburn railed against the umpires, and a reporter said tactfully that it was a tough way to lose a ball game. Incredulous, Ashburn insisted that the Mets had not lost the game. That’s when they packed him off to the hospital.

“From the fifth inning on, this man has been playing on nothing but reflex,” a doctor said.

Richie Ashburn played his entire career with tenacity, fouling off pitch after pitch until he saw the one he liked. He was a Hall of Fame center fielder and he was a terrific announcer, and fans of all ages could admire his caustic wit, his sporty caps, his resourceful tennis game, his joy for life. He could even write a sports column by himself. Within our American sporting context, he was a guy’s guy. I’ll miss bantering with the tough old bird.

Come to think of it, I already miss Diana at Wimbledon. She used to visit the Royal Box until the separation. (She must have had a bad divorce lawyer; most American wives get to keep their share of the season tickets in the settlement.)

The press section at Wimbledon is only 20 yards or so from the Royal Box, very convenient for observing this beautiful young woman in the front row. Most of the royals seem mummified, but Diana was always turning from side to side.

Sometimes she even seemed to be looking into the wriggling mass of scraggly haired, pot-bellied and scruffily dressed wise-cracking tennis writers. Her laser-blue eyes seemed to be staring right into you. My guy fantasy was that Princess Diana was thinking, “Those people are having more fun than me.”

As it turns out, she actually might have been. The current New Yorker, devoted to Diana, contains a memory by Tina Brown that includes this touching quote: “When all the Americans come in July for Wimbledon, you can feel the energy go up. It all collapses again when they leave.”

The princess was thrilled by the karma of that sporting event. We had something in common, after all.