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The Niceness of Rod Carew & Why I Wish America Was More Like Him

On how hearing a nice man on the radio made me happy, then sad, then happy, then sad ... you get it.

Washington Prepares For Second Inaugural Of President Bush
Sniffing for bombs. Or for squirrel pee.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

I was driving back from the store today, and not wanting to be at home. Nothing against my home! It’s a perfectly nice place, in a perfectly nice town, with the most kind and considerate spouse imaginable.

I just didn’t want to be there because I’m so sick of being me.

I turned on the Twins game, and Rod Carew was a guest in the booth. He was promoting his heart-health-awareness charity, he talked about how his trauma made him want to help heart disease prevention efforts. Then he chatted for awhile about baseball stuff. Which players on the current Twins he really likes, his old stories. Standard baseball-legend jibberjabber. It seemed both very cool (nice charity, sir!) and very normal (baseball fans love talking baseball).

It made me happy for a few moments. Then it made me incredibly, overwhelmingly sad.

Because why in the blistering, howling depths of hell isn’t Rod Carew considered the norm?

Of course, his sports talent is not normal. And his courtesy is more than I could manage (I’d be grateful to a family whose deceased loved one helped save my life with a transplant, but I’d be way too shy to meet them.) Carew is, from what I can tell, a really nice guy. Not a superhero; he never saved a baby by fighting off a hungry bear with a toothpick. Merely a nice guy.

Why isn’t that normal?

What’s normal is, eh, other people’s problems aren’t my problems.

What’s normal is, I got mine.

What’s normal is, I can bully whomever I want to, and that makes me the biggest winner of them all.

Reacting to a personal trauma (like heart attack) by doing what you can to prevent others from experiencing it, that’s not normal. Being willing to let very serious old issues slide and be at peace with what’s-past-is-past, that’s not normal.

Why is this? Shouldn’t Carew be seen as a normally nice guy, rather than some kind of saint?

As I listened to him on the radio, he struck me as some kind of saint. Because his basic human decency seemed so ... abnormal.

————-

20 or so years ago, I was living in a rented room in a house whose owners fancied themselves socialites, and whose grown-ass son was clearly a drug dealer. They hated me as the trailer-trash lowlife I am, and I hated them back for being such oblivious hypocrites, but still, roof over head, fuck it, no big shakes.

Until the house caught on fire.

I was up late (playing baseball on the original PlayStation) and smelled smoke. I assumed, at first, I’d dumped an ashtray prematurely into my grocery bag which doubled as a trash can, and some barely-lit cig butt had ignited a Kleenex. It’d happened before, and would again.

Nope. Grocery-bag trash, clear of smoke. Checked out!

But the smell of smoke didn’t go away. It’s not the smell of regular nasty-ass cig smoke; it’s the smell of wood or paper burning, which is unforgettable. I followed it out my door, and walked down the hall to where the downstairs, main living quarters stairwell was.

This stairwell, my landlords insisted, must be locked at all times. (We tenants had access to a different stairway.) They wanted to keep out the riff-raff, you see. (Like the guy who lived one door down and said he enjoyed getting his dates drunk, because, as he put it, “once they’re passed out” . . . you can imagine the rest.)

Smoke was billowing out from under that stairwell door.

I pounded on that door like a crazy person. “Wake up! Wake UP! WAAAKE UP!” I heard groggy voices, cursing me for using the wrong stairwell. “NOOOO! WAAAAKKKKE UPPPP!” I kept pounding and screaming until I heard them yell, “oh, My God, FIRE!” and then I ran like crazy down the unlocked stairway. I figured, my work here is done. If they’re trapped to death down there, it’s not my job to get them out. But it was my job to wake them up.

They were fine. The house was half a wreck, but they were fine. Turns out their even-more-trailer-trashy-than-me son had stiffed the wrong dealer guy, who soaked a rolled-up carpet fragment in gasoline, jammed it to block the front door, and set the house on fire. Eh; that’s glamorous living in Santa Barbara. I’ve heard of far worse.

What really bugged me was the next morning. This couple absolutely gushed over “if you hadn’t woken us up, we’d be dead.” OK, whatever, sure. I don’t LIKE you people. “We’ll always owe you our lives.” Well, that’s not something I want any responsibility for. “Can we do you any favor in return?” Yeah, I wanna get the hell out of here, can you return my safety deposit, please?

“Oh, where are you moving?”

“I was thinking of trying Minnesota.”

The couple looked aghast. “You can’t move there! It’s full of rednecks!”

I said, “well, Garrison Keillor comes from there.”

They responded, “that might be okay, then. We must have been thinking of Iowa.”

————-

The point of this story is, it was considered by my snooty landlords to be some kind of good behavior. IT’S NOT. I’d simply feel terrible if I escaped, while the landlords died of smoke inhalation. (Obviously, I called 911. I wanted the fire put out before my PlayStation and baseball game burned up.)

It was much easier to bang on their stairwell door than to run away and wonder if I should have yelled.

How did we get to the point where this is something unusual? The way I was raised, it was normal. It was the bare damn minimum. That cranky-ass neighbor who bellowed, “you kids, keep the ball outta my yard,” he was a loathed neighborhood figure. Yet if you heard faint screams of “help” from his house? You’d go tell a grownup that something might be wrong.

A nice guy like Rod Carew was once considered an above-average citizen for all the neat stuff he’s done. Not some exemplary figure. Just a really nice guy.

Once upon a time, I would have heard Carew on the radio and thought, “oh, what a neat ex-ballplayer!” Now his voice almost makes me weep. His basic human decency is so rare, cruelty such the norm.

We’ve worshipped selfish monsters too long. We’ve made them into our heroes. We’ve gotten to the point where our community spirit is so broken that abject unkindness for its own sake is considered a supreme virtue.

And we consider this the normal. Rod Carew? Abnormal.

I see this over, and over. I’m so tired of it, I sometimes can’t even function. The winners are those who are meanest, the losers anybody who lacks that special wherewithal to be bullies. It sickens me. Literally, sickens. As in, when I experience the worst of it, I spend most hours of most days controlling the urge to vomit.

How did we invert these standards?

When did Rod Carew become abnormal for being nice, and bullying/viciousness/cruelty the gold standard of American behavior? With regular schmucks like you or I stuck somewhere in the bizarro space vortex of “I’m not a super person, but I try not to be a colossal jerk?”

Happy 4th, and try not to burn off all the hairs on any arms or legs, folks. I’ve done both. It’s kind of a “whoops, I set that one off a little too close” moment.