Where Have You Gone, Joe Garagiola?
I was ten years old when baseball really found me. I had always played the game. Any kid in the sixties played baseball. It was a law. It was a kid's first addiction. Television wasn't an addiction yet, as it would be for my own children. For me, any minute outside was a good minute, and any minute playing baseball was sublime. 1969 was a magical year filled with many good minutes.
I lived in Air Force housing in Atwater, California. Geography made me a Giants fan. It also made me an A's fan. I listened to every game I could on the radio, and watched the A's on channel 47 on the VHF dial. I turned the volume up on a radio that I plugged into a long extension cord that I ran into the house from the carport. Then I'd throw a tennis ball against the back wall of the carport, pretending I was Juan Marichal. I had the high leg kick down, and pitched numerous no-hitters that summer. I counted a ball that I bobbled after it bounced back from the carport wall as a single. If it got past me in the air, it was a triple, and on the ground a double. If it rolled all the way to the street, that was a tater, a home run.
Scores were usually around twenty-five to nothing, unless it was the Giants against the A's in the World Series. Those usually went twenty to nineteen or so. Either side could win.
Most games were A's or Giants blowouts, assisted by my deliberately inept fielding when the Dodgers or Twins were in the field. Ron Hunt or Hal Lanier would make diving stops and incredible throws, cutting down hapless Dodger runners with throws to Stretch McCovey at first. Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds would make diving catches and amazing throws to double runners off at second.
Maury Wills had long since lost his range and balls would easily get past him into the outfield. Tommy Davis could hit, but he had a powder puff arm and the Giants would run on him with impunity. With Sandy Koufax gone and Don Drysdale fading out of the picture, the Dodgers staff couldn't stop the murderous bats of the Giants. Every time the Giants batted, Mays and Willie McCovey would blast towering home runs. (Of course, someone had to make the outs, so I think Lanier, Hunt and Dick Dietz probably only batted around .020 between them.)
Willie Mays. Willie Mays was a god to me. Without really knowing everything about him that I would learn later, I knew that he was Willie Mays. He was baseball. As Babe Ruth once defined the national pastime, Mays did it for me. Willie Mays could do everything. If he'd had today's pitching and steroids, he might have hit a hundred home runs in a season. Jose Canseco would have been coveting Mays' record of 60 homers and 60 stolen bases. I mean Mays had to bat against Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton. These weren't pitchers. They were legends.
After he retired, Bob Gibson lived down the street from my father. He had a big RV and a satellite dish. We never went to his house for anything, not even Halloween. Bob was mean, probably bitter that men with a tenth of his talent now make a hundred times more money than he ever did. We understood. The men who'd faced him at the plate knew. They knew you never dug in against Bob. Not if you wanted to live.
The man had a 1.12 earned run average in 1968! 1.12! The man pitched over three hundred innings and had a 1.12 ERA. He had thirteen shutouts that year. Guys don't get that many in a career now. 1.12 ERA and still lost 9 games. Of course, Mays would light him up in my carport. Six for six, with six home runs and eleven runs batted in. I'm sure Bob would understand. I always figured he'd bounced balls off the walls in his carport, imagining himself to be Satchel Paige slipping a changeup past Josh Gibson. Of course, he might have been imagining himself to be Whitey Ford or Dizzy Dean firing one past Ted Williams. I mean, I was a white kid in the sixties pretending to be Willie Mays or Reggie Jackson, so he might have pretended to be a white player. I doubt it though.
The summer of 1969 ended with the 162-0 A's and 161-1 Giants facing off in the World Series. (I think Bob Gibson shut them out once. Mays and McCovey had an off day.) I suppose it might be tough to fathom how the A's could have been so good in the carport league. Surely you remember Reggie Jackson? He was the heir apparent to Willie Mays in 1969. He was chasing Roger Maris' asterisk that year, blasting home runs at an incredible rate. I think he finished the carport season with two hundred homers, edging Mays by one. The math doesn't work out, I know. You've got to remember I was ten, so my math skills were somewhat limited. I think the A's won the first series and the Giants the second, because I couldn't decide who I wanted to have win. I simply created an alternate universe where the Giants won. The A's beat Baltimore in the playoffs by an average margin of about thirty runs a game. Reggie blasted nine homers in Game 4. He was already better than Willie.
My uncle visited that fall, traveling to California from Wisconsin. He might have been in the Army at the time or traveling with my grandparents, I don't remember. What I do remember is that he told me that the Orioles were going to kill the Mets. We made a bet, my first one ever. He gave me a lot of grief after the Orioles won the first game, but got quieter and quieter over the next few days. I wasn't even watching the games, but reveled in my adopted team's five game triumph anyway.
Over the next few years, the Giants and A's continued to dominate my league. We moved to Nebraska and I had a two-story house to toss my tennis ball off of. There was a trim piece across the impact area of the second story. I'd aim for that, because a ball striking that would either shoot radically downward requiring an incredible Tommie Agee-like diving catch or if it hit the upper part of the trim strip, a Paul Blair over-the-shoulder catch out in the street. Cars were in play, according to the ground rules and they could be the cause of some exciting inside the park home runs. If I threw it over the roof, it was a wild pitch and the runners would move up a base.
We gathered the neighborhood kids and played huge games with fifteen or twenty on a team. We'd play up the hill from my house, which accounted for some great ground rules. If the ball rolls under the swings, it's in play even if somebody is swinging on them. A ball that hit the library, on the fly or on the bounce was an automatic home run. An overthrow that went down the hill was one base, like a ball in the dugout. A foul that hit a house was a signal for everyone to run. The batter had to retrieve the ball. We each kept a little notebook with our stats and the scores. I led the neighborhood in home runs most years, but then I never missed a game. Plus, games would last six or seven hours with scores of 50 to 46. I think I had a couple nine-homer games myself.
Sometimes we'd play across the street from my house. There was a long sloping field there. Sometimes home runs would hit the uphill houses on the fly. This field had the same ground rule as the other field. Run like hell. Colin even got a window once, in his girlfriend's house. He couldn't run from that. That's where I played first base during the summer of the broken ankles. Two broken ankles and about nine plaster casts. I'd destroy them playing ball.
Sometimes we'd play 500. One guy would fungo balls out to us, and we got 100 points for catching a fly, 50 points for a liner and 25 points for a grounder. I don't remember if we subtracted for errors or not. If we couldn't find someone who wanted to hit balls to us, we'd gather under the telephone and power lines to play 500. A couple of us with the best arms would throw the balls up so they'd drift back into the wires on the descent. Everyone was eligible to make the catch and we got some really great diving catches when the ball would carom off the wires at some crazy angle. In fact, I think we'd play to a thousand and you had to dive to make your catch. Of course, when I couldn't find anyone to play with, I'd be out there by myself.
The A's really were winning World Series now. Real ones. Who couldn't love the 1972 A's? The A's won three straight series, beating the Reds, the Mets and the hated Dodgers. 1975 saw a playoff loss to the Red Sox. Then Reggie left. Of all places, he had to go to the Orioles. I couldn't cheer for the Orioles, not even when they had Cal Ripken. It just wasn't in me. I could, however, cheer for the Yankees. That's where Reggie ended up finally. Got himself two more World Series rings. He got them while I was starting out in the Army. I was in Airborne School at Fort Benning while Reggie was blasting homers all over during the 1978 series.
The Army gave me the chance to play ball and I relished those moments. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost, but baseball gives one fleeting moments that live for a lifetime. You know about those. Sure you do. You surely recall your own.
Playing right field in the post championship game and the star hitter on the other team hits a liner my way. I slip as I start to move in and the ball sails over my head. It's a scoreless game and the ball rolls to the fence. I chase it down and whirl, hitting the shortstop who has come way out into right field to take the cutoff. He whirls and throws the runner out at the plate. The runner throws a fit, gets ejected and we win 1-0. From this I learn that in chaos there is opportunity. I also could have learned that even when things go bad, you need to stay the course because good things might happen. That's not the lesson I got, though.
My greatest moments have always come in the field, not at the plate. I was always a Punch and Judy hitter, all my dingers of the inside the park variety. Good batting average, lots of runs batted in, just no out of the park shots. (I never could dunk a basketball either.) I'll always remember throwing a guy out at first base from center field or the time I froze the winning run at third base with a strike from right field to the plate. Later, as I aged and slowed down, it was the 3-6-3 (first to shortstop to first) double play I started. There was a foul pop I caught Willie Mays style, spinning to throw and double the runner off second. Most of these came in losses, but they were moments when things just went perfect. Most of my life is imperfect, so those moments still have their shine. I pull them out every once in a while and buff them with my sleeve, then put them back in my virtual trophy case.
My simulated games moved from carports to board games while I was in the Army. I played full seasons of the A's and the Brewers with Statis Pro Baseball. Kept all the stats. Played World Series and playoffs against my baseball friend John Weber, including a 25-inning marathon played on a bus while driving to glacier training in Alaska. Mike Epstein got hit by a pitch in the bottom of the 25th with the bases loaded. Then I played stats based baseball on an Apple IIe computer and finally on a PC. I played to collect the stats, as any baseball junkie already knows.
Now baseball is softball, at least for me to play. I have a steel knee and can't run, read forbidden to run. I'm reduced to playing first base, and some occasional outfield. I still have a gun and I can play the angles, but it must be pitiful to watch. My brain remembers what the 20 year old could do and demands it still. Stupid legs! Stupid eyesight! Stupid calendar! Stealing my glory days page by page. Don't let anyone fool you. Vicarious thrills suck.
I can't watch baseball now. The games are too long, all the strategy is computerized and the pitchers aren't what they used to be. In 2004, the National League ERA was 4.30 and the top team had 14 shutouts, but only 6 complete games. In 1968, Bob Gibson completed 28 of 34 starts. The six he didn't finish he was lifted for a pinch hitter. You couldn't get Bob Gibson out of a game except at gunpoint. In 1968, the National League ERA was 2.98. In 2004, the only 20 game winners were some guys named Oswalt, Santana and Curt Schilling. Him I know. (OK. I do watch the playoffs and World Series. But that's about 100 games a year less than I used to.) In 1969, there were 15 twenty game winners. In 1971, there were 4 just on the Orioles team!
Yeah, I know the game's changed. I've heard it all before. That's not my problem. It's their problem. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire have been fun to watch, in much the same way as watching a hockey fight. You have to watch a 500-foot home run. I just can't help thinking what Willie Mays or Willie McCovey would do nowadays. How many home runs would Henry Aaron hit? What could Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, have done with 13 teams of diluted pitching talent? (More with inter-league play.) What could Bad Henry have done had he had access to steroids? I like to think Hank and Willie would have passed on the juice.
I know who's out there to watch now and I'm not impressed. In 1969, I got to see Ted Williams when he was managing the Washington Senators. He could probably still have hit .300 in that expansion year at age 51. (If we dug him up now, I think he'd hit .250.)
I got to see Henry Aaron hit number 715. So did Al Downing. I don't care if Barry Bonds beats Aaron's record. Henry will always be the man to me.
I watched seven Nolan Ryan no-hitters. I watched Roberto Clemente play. I got to see Luis Tiant, Denny McLain and flaky Mark Fidrych. I watched the fielding show Brooks Robinson gave in the World Series. I watched Frank Robinson the player and then the manager. I got to meet George Brett and Pete Rose. I shook their hands at the 1980 World Series before Game 3. I was part of the color guard. I got to watch Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench catch against each other in the World Series shortly before Thurman left us.
Those days are long gone. Pitching has been reduced to serving the ball up for the bulked up sluggers. Even the coverage of the games has diminished. I miss Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek and Curt Gowdy covering the Game of the Week. Players back then appreciated the chance to talk to the fans and media. Now they have little respect for the media, the fans or the game.
What hope is left? Just when I thought baseball was doomed to a future akin to the NBA, (I don't even watch the playoffs there any more. Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan, wherefore art thou, Michael Jordan?), the Boston Red Sox come from three games down in the playoffs against the (now) hated Yankees and then sweep the series. There is some justice in the game. Curt Schilling pitches brilliantly on an ankle held together with staples, duct tape and the prayers of Bill Buckner. Maybe there is hope after all. Let's see if the Cubs can pull something off soon. I might watch that.
I think my life with baseball can be summed up with a look at baseball movies. Kevin Costner has been in three of the best baseball movies of all time. First came Bull Durham, a story of a man playing baseball in the minor leagues, long past any chance of making it back to "The Show", because he loves the game so much. Then came Field of Dreams. This was a story about a man's faith in what the game of baseball means to himself and others. It is summed up perfectly by, "If you build it, they will come." The final image of headlights stretched out into the distance is one only a true fan can understand. Or shed a tear for. Finally, there came For Love of the Game, based on Michael Shaara's book. A veteran in the decline of his career summons up a gritty performance and tosses a perfect game. It means little to his team's place in the standings, but everything to him as a professional pitcher and a man.
My early life with baseball was built on the faith a child of the sixties had in America's pastime. I played because everyone played. It was the X Box or PlayStation 2 of its day. I adored the players and could name every player on every team. As I grew to adulthood, I still played well past any hope of fame or notoriety, simply for those sublime moments. Just for the chance of making a diving catch, or an off balance throw right on the money or a perfect slide into second to beat a tag. Now, when the game holds mostly distant memories for me as a player and a fan, I find the game can still deliver that perfect moment. Just when I've all but given up on the game, it gives me a Red Sox Series win. Ted Williams must have had something to do with it. He was bugging them up in heaven, I'm sure. The fact that it took him two years makes me believe they're all still Mets' fans up there.
You gotta believe! (Tug McGraw, 1973)
©2005 by Patrick Rasmussen