Memories Of an Era Long Gone

By Sean P. Flynn Hoya Stafff Writer

It was a sad week for this baseball fan. Gary Gaetti, the major league’s greatest fogey, finally retired at the age of 41, and with him, so died the no-ear flap helmet.

For a baseball rules buff and a lover of late-’70s/early-’80s baseball cards, Gaetti was the final link to my childhood, when the flapless helmet hovered on top of an overgrown head of hair. But in a move to sacrifice fashion in favor of safety, after the 1982 season, the league mandated that all players must wear one- or two-flapped helmets, with the exception of those players who wished to be grandfathered.

One by one, our favorite no-flapped players retired, including Dave Winfield, Pete Rose, Ozzie Smith and Reggie Jackson, whose Afro kept the helmet from guarding much of his noggin. Last year, only Gaetti and Tim Raines remained, but Raines was sidelined with lupus and retired this spring after 20 seasons.

Gaetti, despite a bum knee, started opening day for the Boston Red Sox, but 10 at-bats and 10 outs later, Gaetti decided to hang up the flapless helmet.

Now we’re relegated to being satisfied with Seattle’s John Olerud, who, because of a brain aneurysm during college, has a special exemption to wear a no-flap helmet at first base, or catchers, many of whom gave up the helmet and mask when the league legalized hockey masks. Perhaps I’ll be satisfied when I see one of those weird, face-covering helmets that Terry Steinbach and Kevin Seitzer wore for a while after beanings, but it won’t quite do. Like the single-bar helmet for old-time football kickers, the Gaetti-type helmet was a sign of longevity in the majors, a tip-off that this guy had done his time.

As for Gaetti, the flapless helmet helped make him represent to me everything that is great about baseball. I didn’t know Gaetti personally, and his career was not terribly extraordinary. He did hit 360 home runs, win one World Series and hit the game-winning homer for the Chicago Cubs in the 1998 wild-card playoff against San Francisco.

He never did much more than be a quality everyday third baseman, something that allowed his career to span 19 years. What I enjoyed most was that only in baseball can a guy in his 40s be such a positive factor and do so by looking so grizzled. His slightly pudgy look and relaxed batting stance seemed better fit for a softball beer league and made his home runs seem like a much bigger feat.

Maybe the fact that I care about this is the real issue here – I’m a 22-year-old coming to grasp with his old age. It’s 2000, and most of the players I grew up cheering for have long since been forgotten. When I was 3 years old, Bill Buckner was my favorite Cub, and now it has been 14 years since he became one of the biggest goats in sports history for the Red Sox. I remember vividly when Shawon Dunston came into the majors for the Cubs, and I remember how he was a disappointment, never really learning how to take a walk – now he’s a respected veteran who sees ample playing time at several positions for the Cubs’ greatest rival, St. Louis.

So with Gaetti’s retirement, we can bid goodbye to the flapless helmet and to one more piece of my childhood.

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