Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Message From The Secretary

Yesterday someone asked me how I was handling the fact that the Mets looked so horrid in being swept at home by the other New York team over the weekend.

"Who are these Mets you speak of?" I replied. "I do not know of such an entity. I am not familiar with their actions."

Yes, it has come to that. Remember the warning on the tape delivered to Mr. Phelps at the start of "Mission: Impossible"? That's right: "If you are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions." It seems like an impossible mission at this point for the lodgers at Post-Shea Stadium to regain their once-esteemed standing in the National League, or to inspire hope and enthusiasm in their fans. They're like Greg Morris or Peter Lupus dangling over the edge of a cliff by one foot--but without a scriptwriter to get them out of danger.

Last night I didn't watch a single at-bat as the Mets lost their fourth game in a row, 10-6 at Milwaukee. The game wasn't that close. Their best pitcher over the past month, Fernando Nieve, was drilled for 11 hits in less than four innings, and it took a 4-run 9th inning to make the final score that close. I recorded the game on TiVo, checked the score a couple of times, and was spared the sour taste of watching them throw away another game.

The weekend games pretty much sucked the enjoyment out of seeing this team in "action" (using the term loosely). My wife and I lasted only two innings on Friday night, enough to see throwing errors by David Wright and Alex Cora contribute to a four-run 2nd inning which killed the suspense in a 9-1 final. Saturday night, the suspense lasted all the way to the 6th inning, with Tim Redding dueling A.J. Burnett into a three-run homer by Jorge Posada put the anemic Mets hopelessly behind. They got exactly one hit in that game, on the heels of eight hits combined in their previous two games.

Surely that had to change on Sunday night, when they faced the worst starter in the majors this season, Chien-Ming Wang, who had somehow dropped his ERA to just over 11 runs a game after being pulverized for 23 runs in his first three starts this season. It seemed a fair battle: the Mets, with nine hits in three games, facing a pitcher who was subject to give up nine hits in one inning. Instead, the Mets made Wang look like a decent pitcher, swinging at bad pitches and ripping a grand total of four hits before he left in the 6th inning en route to raising his record to 1-6. The game was essentially over in the top of the 1st, thanks to Daniel Murphy. A nightmare in the outfield, Murphy has looked relatively competent at first base (though his offense has largely disappeared), but on Sunday his inexperienced killed him. After a leadoff double, he fielded a sharp one-hopper and got the brainstorm to throw Derek Jeter out at third base instead of taking the easy out at first. He double-clutched on the throw, and Jeter was safe. Later in the inning, he dropped a throw on what should've been a double play, and that cost the Mets another run. It was 3-0 Yankees before the Mets had a shot at Wang, and they never caught up.

My wife and I were done with the game by the 3rd inning, but I did sneak a peak at the top of the 9th, with the Mets close at 3-2. That's when I got to witness what might be considered the absolute low point of the season, Francisco Rodriguez walking Mariano Rivera with the bases loaded and two outs to force in an insurance run that wasn't needed but was assuredly appalling. Rodriguez had no trouble throwing a strike on the first pitch to Jeter with two runners on and the ESPN announcers shitting their pants because he wasn't walking him intentionally to get to a relief pitcher who had come to the plate only twice in his 15-year career. He did walk Jeter, then threw the first two pitches to Rivera off the outside corner. It was almost as if he were nibbling the plate against a real hitter. Insane. Then a called strike, and a lusty swing by Rivera at a fastball. Somehow frightened by the prospect of Rivera getting his bat on a strike, Rodriguez threw the next two pitches a foot out of the strike zone, and Rivera became the oldest player since Satchel Paige to record his first career RBI. Oh, and by the way, he mowed the Mets down in the bottom of the 9th to add his 500th career save to his big night.

I've been trying to think of the right analogy for K-Rod walking Rivera in a one-run game. Remember the worst play in NFL history? That would be Garo Yepremian in the Super Bowl, looking like a four-year-old girl attempting to pass the ball. Suppose the defender had let someone catch that ball. That gives some idea of it. But it isn't close enough. Nothing in basketball or hockey is a parallel situation. How about this: Roger Federer double-faulting on set point--against a ballboy. There you go. Nice job, K-Rod!

That was too much to take, and enough for me to feel comfortable about boycotting them for the time being. They simply aren't fun to watch. They remind me of a scene in one of my favorite movies, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." Blandings calls on several contractors to determine whether the house he has just bought is worth salvaging. One of them takes a long look at the house's structure and advises him, "Tear it down. If your timbers was okay, I'd say keep it. If your sills was okay, I'd say keep it. But your timbers is shot, and your sills is shot. Tear it down."

That's what the Mets are like these days. Their timbers (offense) and sills (defense) are both shot, and their foundation (pitching) is crumbling, too. Their most exciting players are on the shelf, and from one game to the next their lineup is a patchwork of also-rans and never-weres. They're giving away runs, falling behind early, lacking the fire-power (and seemingly, at times, even the desire) to fight their way back, and leaving their fans disgruntled. The only good news is that the rest of their division is mediocre, so they still have time to gather themselves, get their stars back on the field, gain some momentum, and put together that three-game lead they can blow in September like usual.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to boycott them, at least for the time being. I know a lot of Mets fans are ready to kick Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel out of town, prepared to trade anybody and everybody to get somebody who might help, and willing to turn their backs on the team entirely. I'm not that disgusted. This isn't 1977, when The Great Betrayal occurred, the trade of Tom Seaver which caused a lot of fans (including this one) to abandon the team. I ignored them completely from the day of the trade until 1984, when the arrival of Dwight Gooden got me interested again.

This estrangement isn't like that one, and it won't last that long. But circumstances have made it clear that the current squad is trapped in a maze of mediocrity, blundering their way deeper into danger, and since I cannot do anything to help, I am forced to disavow all knowledge of their actions. Go ahead and watch them if you dare. Call me a frontrunner if you wish. I just want it to be fun to watch them. Last season I paid close attention right up to the last out of their latest disaster. Just let me know when they've escaped the trap and are back to playing a brand of ball worth watching, win or lose. Is that too much to ask?

Next day......I really mean it this time. I made a big mistake last night. Set the TiVo to tape the Mets and Brewers, figuring that at least Johan Santana would be worth watching as he tried to be the first NL pitcher to win ten games this season. Working on the computer, I saw that the Mets took an early lead on a home run by David Wright. Who would've imagine something like that would happen? Wright, who has been doing a Mookie Wilson impression with 19 stolen bases and 4 home runs, somehow hit one over the fence. That was promising. I checked the Mets box score a couple of times, and they were leading 2-0 in the 3rd inning, enough to get me over to the TV set to see what Santana could do with the Mets' first lead in five games.

I watched the early action quickly and caught up with reality just as Santana allowed a run in the bottom of the 3rd, but he pitched out of further trouble, giving me the illusion that I might enjoy watching more. That's how I got ambushed by the team's latest version of Little League ball in the bottom of the 4th. First, center fielder Fernando Martinez got his feet tangled on a routine fly ball, took a divot the size of a Tiger Woods 3-iron, fell flat on his face, and made a pathetic flail with his glove as the ball dropped safely for a gift double.

That kind of thing has been happening to Santana all season, sabotage by his fielders, and this time, instead of two outs and a runner on first, he had one out and runners on second and third. Seemingly afraid to let the next batter hit the ball, he threw four straight balls for a walk that loaded the bases. Just what he wanted to do with Ryan Braun up next. Braun already had two singles in the game and was 6-for-11 in his career against Santana. No problem. Santana got him off-balance with two straight change-ups which he weakly tapped foul. A waste-pitch fastball for ball one was just what he needed to set up another change-up. That's what I thought, and that's what he thought.

More importantly, that's also what Braun thought. The pitch came in maybe six inches off the ground, the recipe for a double-play grounder, but caught the middle of the plate, and Braun was waiting for it. He rocketed the ball over Gary Sheffield's head in left, and it was a parade around the bases. The Mets had half a shot on the relay to catch the third runner at the plate, but the throw clanked off Omir Santos' knee and went back to the backstop. That's where Santana picked it up and, seeing Braun making a too-wide turn around third, winged it to David Wright to salvage an out. Well, that was the theory. In fact, the throw sailed way over Wright's ahead, allowing Braun to saunter home. Four runs on a double, and that was the ball game.

Once again, the Mets gave away a game, and once again I felt suckered by even caring enough to watch. Reportedly, manager Jerry Manuel lectured the team for 25 minutes after the game. I'm not sure what he could have said to them besides "good luck" and "isn't it about time you guys got your heads out of your asses?"

Realistically, what can be done about the Mess? Omar Minaya isn't exactly dealing from strength if he tries to make a trade. About all he can do is make sure all the contract-insurance policies are paid up. The only consistently productive spot in the lineup has been at catcher, where their corps leads all major league catchers in RBI. Their best hitter, Wright, is terrific with the bases empty, but his averages are atrocious in all run-producing situations. Gary Sheffield has been solid, but he's 40 years old with bad legs that are going to limit his playing time. The defense has been horrible, the bullpen has reverted to the ugly form of the last two seasons, and now the starting pitching is in shambles, too.

Of course, they're still only three games out of the division lead, albeit now in third place. So it's too early for an official panic. A simple boycott should be enough to dull the pain. It's TiVo time for me, and no watching until the game is over, I know they've won, and I want to see how the hell they did it.

Actually, the fact is that there is nothing wrong with this franchise--nothing, that is, that a no-hitter wouldn't cure. Yeah, I'll just wait for one of those. How long could it take?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Hall of Fame Classic

Father's Day, June 21st, was a special day in Cooperstown because of the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic game, capping a weekend of events which fulfilled one of the Hall of Fame's three missions--connecting generations--in spades. The HOF Classic replaced the longstanding Hall of Fame Game, which was discontinued by Major League Baseball after last year.

The Hall of Fame Game was the last remaining in-season exhibition game, and it had been clear for years that, for the most part, the visiting players would rather have been somewhere else. The long season is a grind, midsummer days off are few and precious, and even though some of the players were thrilled to visit Cooperstown, tour the museum, and meet fans, the logistics of getting to and from central New York made it an ordeal of sorts. That's one reason why in recent years, the teams' stars typically played only an inning or two, took a token time at bat, and then vacated the scene, leaving the spectators to watch the rest of the game played by second-stringers and minors leaguers called up just for the occasion.

In lieu of the defunct Hall of Fame Game, the HOF formed a partnership with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, a very active group of ex-players who play a number of exhibition games around the country each year. Judging from the crowd response to the first Hall of Fame Classic, this event will become a highlight of Cooperstown summers for a long time.

We weren't sure, however, if the game would even come off. The same weather system that wreaked havoc with golf's US Open downstate threatened to batter central New York as well. There was plenty of rain on Thursday and Friday, making us wonder whether Doubleday Field would be playable by Sunday. Saturday the rain held off, which helped drain the field, and Sunday the dark clouds which filled the sky all day mercifully opened up only once, during the 5th inning, and then left us alone.

A crowd of 7,000 or so gathered at Doubleday Field after a parade through town, for about 90 minutes of pre-game festivities. I had a great assignment; I was the official scorer (thanks to the traditional HOF Game scorer, Jim Gates, having to go out of town). That put me out behind the batting cage amongst the players, since I had to match up roster names with uniform numbers. The players wore their old uniforms, some with names on the back, some not. In addition, three members of the Military All-Stars had been invited to play in the game, and I tracked them down warming up in right field to get their names (I assumed, brilliantly, that the words on the backs of their camouflage-style shirts were not their names, since one of them read "Korean War").

Being on the field gave me a chance to talk with some of the players as they hung around the cage for batting practice. It was clear that they were all happy to be there, rewewing friendships (and razzing rivalries) with former comrades in the players' fraternity. They ranged from recently retired stars like Jeff Kent and Steve Finley to further-back favorites like George Foster, who was surprised to hear that I'm still a Reds fan even though they are a far cry from Foster and the Big Red Machine.

I was also excited to meet Bill Lee for the first time, having previously only talked to him on the phone while he was writing the foreword for "This BAD Day in Yankees History". Surely one of the funniest characters in baseball, Lee sported a wild, graybeard look and clearly still found the act of playing baseball a source of pure joy. In the dugout during the pre-game hitting contest, he cracked me (and Brooks Robinson) up by pointing at George Foster and chirping, "Look at that--his calves go right down into his shoes. If he broke an ankle, he'd die!"

Kent defeated Finley in the hitting contest, both hitting numerous blasts over the cozy fences and into the sprawling oaks of the surrounding neighborhood. I got my rosters set and took up my spot over the first-base dugout, not far from the two announcers, the HOF's own John Horne (who did a great job calling the contest and doubles as the PA announcer of the minor league Oneonta Tigers) and legendary Frick Award winner Bob Wolff, who is in his sixth decade as an announcer. Bob introduced the lineups and the dignitaries, and with the rain miraculously holding off, it was time for the game.

The first pitcher in the game was another miracle of sorts, 90-year-old Bob Feller, who had driven in from his home in Cleveland the day before. Nobody has lived more years as a Hall of Famer than Feller, who was elected in 1962. Earlier, I had said to him, "Take it easy on these guys--some of them are old." He grunted, but later told leadoff hitter Paul Molitor, "If you don't bunt on me, I won't buzz you." Molitor hit a sharp single, advanced on a ground out by Bobby Grich, and scored on a Steve Finley fly-ball single that the outfielders couldn't quite motor fast enough to reach. That was it for Feller, who basked in the continuing cheers as he made his way back to the dugout. He was replaced by fellow Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, who yielded one more run before retiring the side.

How he retired the side turned out to be the highlight of the day. Shortstop Steve Lyons had gone out to the right field bleachers before the inning and coaxed a youngster, 11-year-old Zach D'Errico, to join him in the infield. The kid got to play catch a little with Feller--where else but in Cooperstown will you see an 11-year-old playing catch with a 90-year-old Hall of Famer? Stationed in front of Lyons, D'Errico fielded a sharply hit two-hopper and started a brisk 6-4-3 double play to get his pitcher out of trouble. Later, he was interviewed on the field and got his name in the newspaper--and in the official box score.

He wasn't the only on-field guest. In the 3rd inning, Lyons recruited Sawyer Graham, a member of the Cooperstown High School softball team, to help him in the field. Johnny Grubb smashed a wicked line drive over his right shoulder; somehow she got a little glove on the ball, and it almost caromed into Lyons' face. But they escaped damaged, and on the next batter, she caught a popup and also made the box score. Later in the game, Lyons was joined by another kid, who let a high popup drop untouched. I charged the error (the only one in the game) to Lyons--for not having one of his abler assistants on duty.

The seven-inning game was a mixture of hits (25, 21 of them singles and just one home run, a long shot by Kevin Maas onto Susquehanna Avenue), good fielding plays (notably a line drive speared by Grubb and a leaping catch by Finley), a parade of pitchers (one per inning, including a few who still had decent stuff, like Lee Smith), and plenty of laughs. Jon Warden was the chief clown. Warden, whose only season in the majors was 1968, looks like John Goodman and has become a favorite at the HOF fantasy camps. He could be the next Max Patkin if he wanted to be. He had plenty of shtick when he batted, called time-out halfway to first base on a ground ball, and kept everyone loose with a deftly wielded water pistol. At one point he donned a fright wig, stationed himself 15 feet behind the plate umpire, and doused the seat of the ump's trousers with the pistol. That's something we never saw at a Hall of Fame Game!

Team Collins led Team Wagner (the squads were named after the two teams in the Doubleday Field exhibition game in 1939 when the HOF was dedicated) 4-1 going to the home sixth inning, when the home team rallied. Bill Lee hit a ringing double into the right field corner to knock in the first run, a scoring ground ball made it 4-3, Steve Lyons' third single of the game tied it, and Mike Pagliarulo's double gave the Wagners a 5-4 lead. Rick Surhoff, who recorded two saves in his major league career, picked up another one here, and the Wagners held on to win 5-4.

Back in Hall of Fame Game days, the greatest hustle we saw was when the players raced to their buses after the game's last out. On Sunday, the players hung around for a half-hour after the game, signing autographs. Kids got to run around the bases, and the atmosphere was festive. The players had fun, therefore the fans had fun. An informal feeling prevailed. Two players' sons played, and so did the American Legion Player of the Year, Patrick Singletary. Some of the guys were far from swift afoot, but only one of them fell down, and he got right up again.

It should be the start of a long tradition. By my reckoning, it'll be around the year 2045 when former major leaguer Zach D'Errico returns to Doubleday Field and stands around the cage during batting practice, trying to get his comrades to believe he really started a double play at shortstop when he was 11. You should've seen it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Real Tom Seaver Fanatic

The other day I wrote about Tom Seaver salvaging at least a bit of enjoyment from a horrible drive from Montana to Pennsylvania. About six weeks earlier, I had another Seaver experience that also turned out pretty horribly.

A lifelong Reds fan, I also became a fan of the Mets in their first year of existence. When Seaver arrived on the Shea scene in 1967, naturally he became my favorite Met and my favorite pitcher (supplanting Jim Maloney of the Reds). Just as with my favorite hitter (Pete Rose), I got in the habit of carrying around Seaver's career statistics in my head. It wasn't that tough to do, just a half-dozen key numbers which I could update after each start and extrapolate into possible career totals (Seaver reached the statistical goals I projected for him, while Rose persisted long enough to exceed my boldest estimates).

I thought that made me a fanatical Seaver fanatic, but I met my match in Missoula in an English department colleague named Stanley (name changed to protect his guilt, since he's still there) who was a New York native. He obsessed about Seaver, and though he was too numbers-phobic to keep running statistical totals in his head like I did, the first thing he'd ask me after a Seaver start was "what's his ERA now?" He didn't mean his ERA for the season. He meant his career ERA. That impressed me.

Fortunately I kept that figure handy. Seaver was about 375 starts into his career (nearly 60% of his final total) and his ERA was still in the vicinity of 2.70, so the answer to Stanley's question was always satisfying. Even a bad start wasn't going to put much of a dent in that excellent stat. It would take several over-the-hill rough seasons to raise his ERA to its final figure of 2.86. All that one bad start could do would be to ruin Stanley's day, as I discovered on May 1, 1978.

I was a single slob living in the basement of a house in Missoula, and I didn't do much entertaining. Stanley and his wife had just had their first child and weren't very mobile either. But May 1 seemed like the perfect excuse to invite Stanley and family over for dinner. That night, the big "Monday Night Baseball" game would be telecast from Cincinnati, with Seaver facing the Phillies and his rival as the best pitcher in the National League, Steve Carlton.

My father used to be a chef so he taught me a few things about cooking. I don't have a wide repertoire, but there are a few things I make very well. In 1978, my standard dinner for company was chicken and peppers--chicken sauteed with green bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and wine, simmered for a couple of hours, and served over saffron rice. It's still my favorite dish to cook, and still good every time. It tasted especially good that night, shared with friends and with the Seaver-Carlton matchup as dessert.

Stanley, joined by wife and baby, arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the dinner before the game started. Fully satisfied, we relaxed in front of the television for what loomed as a terrific pitching duel between the only National Leaguers to strike out 19 batters in a game. The Phillies were up first. Bake McBride led off with a single and promptly stole second. Stanley and I frowned at each other, but Seaver eased our worries by striking out Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt. He almost fanned Greg Luzinski, too, but wound up walking him. No problem. Or so we thought.

Richie Hebner singled, scoring McBride. Garry Maddox singled, scoring Luzinski. Stanley and I yelped in dismay as Luzinski lumbered across the plate. You didn't want to spot Carlton two early runs in those days. Working too carefully, Seaver walked Tim McCarver to load the bases. Stanley's wife looked worried. But rookie Jim Morrison was up, with all of 13 at-bats in his career, and surely Seaver would mow him down. No. He walked him, too, forcing in the third run of the inning. Stanley looked ill.

Now Carlton came up, and Seaver could limit the carnage to three ugly runs. Or so we thought. I can still see Carlton's sharp grounder finding the hole between first and second, rolling into right field on the Riverfront Stadium's damn carpet, with Hebner and McCarver racing home to make the score 5-0.

"Excuse me," said Stanley, getting up quickly and darting into the bathroom. As Seaver finally got the third out of the inning, Stanley's wife and I listened to him puking up dinner. The entire dinner, from the awful sounds. Pete Rose had already grounded out to start the bottom of the first inning when Stanley emerged, looking quite pale and gazing at me through a despondent haze. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "We have to go."

His wife gathered up the baby, and away they went. Stanley had somehow matched Seaver's dismal performance. He lasted only a half-inning, while Tom was gone after two innings of a 12-1 shellacking. I don't remember whether I watched the whole game, but I do know that dinner still tasted great, and I was grateful that I wasn't so devoted to Seaver (or anybody else) that it would literally make me sick to watch him fail.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Tom

Today is June 16, the anniversary of Tom Seaver's only no-hitter in the major leagues. I remember that evening in 1978 very well. It was the final day of the worst cross-country trip I've ever made, and the only good memory I have of that debacle.

After a three-year stint teaching freshman composition at the University of Montana ("learning kids to write good" is the way I sum it up), I packed all my belongings and my cat into my mother's old Plymouth Satellite and a 6'x9' pull-behind U-Haul trailer and took off on a 2,500-mile drive to my parents' home in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. I didn't think the long trek would be a lot of fun, and that notion was cemented exactly 12 miles east of Missoula. On the climb across the Continental Divide, the Plymouth overheated.

The only way to keep it from overheating was to drive below 45 miles an hour with the air conditioner turned off. Exactly what you want to do driving across the heartland of this country in the middle of June. That damn U-Haul trailer really did a number on my car. Their slogan (since discontinued, for obvious reasons) was "Adventure in Moving". Not convenience, efficiency, ease, or satisfaction. Just adventure. Yeah.

I tootled along at 45 across Montana and Wyoming, and by noon the second day was heading into Rapid City, South Dakota. That's when the maniac attacked me. That is, some driver rammed his car into my trailer. Twice. Waited a few seconds and rammed me a few more times. Maybe I shouldn't have taken it personally. Maybe he was just a former U-Haul customer. Suddenly he pulled ahead of me and zoomed away, but I saw him pull onto the shoulder. When I passed, he got behind me again and rammed the trailer another half-dozen times. I couldn't go anywhere, not at 40mph. Finally he got into the fast lane and drove alongside me for fifteen seconds. I looked over, and he had a gun in his hand. That's when I hit the brakes, and he veered in front of me and off an exit into Rapid City. I got off at the next exit and called the state police, had some lunch, shook it off, and continued on my sluggish way.

Late that night, near the eastern border of South Dakota, I was pulled over by the highway patrol. I figured it was because I wasn't going fast enough. But no. He wanted me to write an affidavit to be used when the maniac went to trial. It seems that when he got into Rapid City, he fired a few shots at the local populace. Glad to, officer. The trick was that while my window was open for our conversation, my cat, who had spent the first 36 hours of the drive hiding under the seat, made a dash for freedom by flying through the window. Picture me and the trooper wandering through the high grass alongside the highway, his flashlight searching for fur as we called out and eventually coaxed the cat back to the car.

The misadventure continued in Illinois as I approached Chicago. Exactly 35 miles north of the city, highway construction narrowed the interstate to one lane--all the way into Chicago. It was midday, and my cruising speed at this point was somewhere below 30mph. I led what eventually became quite a lengthy parade of cars. More than a few of the folks behind me thought I could be going faster, but they were wrong. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the entire country is uphill eastbound (though I suspect that if I had been lugging that U-Haul westbound I would have made the same discovery), including the approach to Chicago. There was also noplace where I could pull over. For mile after mile, I heard the cacophony of car horns behind me, and my only defense was to turn my side-view mirror to the side so I wouldn't have to see how many people were stuck in my wake.

At least nobody rammed the trailer. That didn't happen until I got to Ohio. There was a snarl somewhere and traffic was crawling, but that didn't stop some bozo with a short attention span from slamming into the trailer. This mishap caused us both to pull over, and the apologetic driver insisted that I check to see if anything in the trailer had been damaged. That's when I discovered that the door had been smacked shut. I had put a small lock on the door, and the lock had been rammed up into itself. I couldn't get into the trailer until I reached my destination and someone used a blow torch to untangle the metal.

Finally, on the fourth day, June 16, I made it into Pennsylvania, which is packed with dense forests traversed by long climbs up endless hills. I was amazed that the Plymouth was still running, even though I had nursed it along at speeds that now stayed below 40mph. For a couple of days, I had doubted its ability to survive The Drive From Hell, but if I could only make it up the last umpteen hills, I might even get the cat out from beneath the seat again.

So it was a pleasure to hear the Reds station come in on the radio as I crawled across the Alleghenys. And my favorite pitcher, Tom Seaver, was pitching! In his first full season with the Reds, he was riding a six-game winning streak, and he showed no mercy to the visiting Cardinals. After walking a couple of guys in the second inning, he buckled down and retired 19 straight batters. It actually wasn't a typical Seaver game [I'm getting this info from Retrosheet, not from memory], because he recorded only three strikeouts (against the team that struck out less than any team in the league that season). There were 14 outs on ground balls, so he kept everything at the knees or below and trusted the Big Red Vacuum Machine to make the outs.

He walked the leadoff batter in the ninth inning and had to face the top of the St. Louis lineup as I whooped it up in the car (scaring my cat even more, if possible). Lou Brock flied to left. Garry Templeton grounded to short but the Reds couldn't turn two, so he had to face George Hendrick. I've seen the footage many times since that night of Hendrick hitting a weak chopper to first base, where Dan Driessen gloved it easily and stepped on the bag to polish off the no-hitter.

It may have been uphill the rest of the way, but I coasted on the glory of my favorite pitcher pitching a gem for my favorite team. Eventually I got over the trauma of the drive, a vaguely sickening blur in my memory except when I focus on dredging up the details as I have here. Instead, I remember the joy of those two hours when, like so many baseball fans in so many difficult circumstances, I blinded my eyes to the woes around me and let my mind's eye picture the ballpark history being relayed to me on the radio.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Tough Act To Follow

I've been making the rounds of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) regional meetings this spring, publicizing my new book "This BAD Day in Yankees History," and these gatherings are always fun. The one I attended in Pawtucket, Rhode Island last Saturday promised to be a special one, with Peter Gammons billed as the guest speaker. As it turned out, it was an experience I will not soon forget--a strange, surreal experience.

I made the 220-mile drive almost in time for the 10:30AM start of the meeting, missing only the presentation by fellow author Paul Zinn, who's been traveling the same circuit. There were three other talks in the pre-lunch part of the program, held in a covered picnic area just past the right field fence at McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox. Gammons, who drew a good crowd of 60 or so people, stood at the back of the picnic area, chatting with people and managing not to lend an ear to any of the research presentations. They were good, too, including SABR longtimers Fred Ivor-Campbell on Bill Sweeney's 18-strikeout game in 1884 and John Holway on assorted myths involving Ted Williams.

We broke for lunch, which was hotdogs, chips, and lemonade prepared by PawSox staff, plus a chance to talk to baseball friends I haven't seen in awhile. That's one of the great things about a SABR meeting, and you can learn some baseball, too. I was scheduled for the afternoon session, along with some PawSox officials and Gammons. Program director Len Levin told me that I would give my talk right before Gammons, which sounded like a good plan. But it didn't work out that way.

The PawSox guys were great. Their two radio announcers spoke for a few minutes, followed by the general manager, who turned the hand-held microphone over to manager Ron Johnson. He had a booming voice that didn't seem to require a microphone, and I decided that I wouldn't need amplification either. Besides, I had my hands full without a mike. I had a page of notes for my talk, a list of the favorite quotes from the book which I wanted to share with the crowd, and I also had a copy of the book I'd have to thumb through to locate and read. Who needed a mike?

I was ready to take my turn, but a strange thing happened. While Johnson talked, Gammons stood in the wings, talking with the other PawSox guys. I guess Len Levin didn't tell Johnson about his grand scheme of things, because when he was done, Johnson handed the microphone to Gammons. And that was that. No dramatic intervention by Len, insisting that the kid from Cooperstown go next. No shouted protests from the audience that they'd rather hear about bad days in Yankees history than about good days in Gammons' gilded career. And not a peep from yours truly, who sensed his publicity campaign going swiftly down the drain.

Gammons was great. He talked for 20 minutes or so on the role of intelligence in baseball. It turns out that intelligence does help, and not just in convincing a group of smart people to show up to hear Peter Gammons talk for free. One example he gave was a trio of shortstops. Cal Ripken was renowned for his great positioning, which compensated for his merely average quickness. By studying hitters, pitchers, hitting patterns and swing arcs, he had a good idea of where the ball was going to be hit. Gammons says that young Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie exhibits a Ripken-like dedication to constant study of what batters do. By contrast, he mentioned an All-Star shortstop who still has his head down when the batters are waggling around and presenting evidence to more attentive infielders. I won't say who it is, but if you're a Mets fan you don't need to be told.

After his presentation, Gammons fielded questions, and there were plenty. He even answered most of them, though he refused to badmouth easy targets like the Washington Nationals and Sammy Sosa. A stubborn optimist, he likes people and gives them the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are likely to be sources for good information he can use. For the record, he did say that he feels Luis Tiant and Ron Santo are the most deserving players not yet in the Hall of Fame, and Bert Blyleven also belongs.

Gammons seemed willing to field questions as long as people kept raising their hands, but Fate intervened. This is where it got truly strange. It turned out that the Pawtucket club was staging another event Saturday afternoon--a free baseball clinic for kids. A hundred or more loomed in the distance, taking the field, and they were welcomed by club officials--on the stadium loudspeaker system. When that booming voice filled the stadium with a cheerful greeting and instructions on what would be happening where, Gammons said, "I guess that's it for me," passed the microphone to Len Levin, and headed for the gate. The Pied Piper of sports journalism was instantly followed by pretty much the whole crowd, who wanted to pepper him with more questions out of earshot (if possible) of the raucous directions being shouted over the PA system.

At that moment, I knew how the band felt on the Titanic. I had nowhere to go, but everyone else seemed to. Len croaked into the microphone, "we have one more speaker," but it was difficult to hear him over the cacophony. I stood next to him, watching more than half the crowd flee from the picnic area before Len chirped, "Here's Gabriel Schechter to tell you about his book" and turned the microphone over to me. Wonderful!

What could I say? Well, here's what I shouted into the mike: "Thank you, Len--and I want to thank Peter Gammons for opening for me. Way to warm up my crowd!"

That actually got most of the stragglers to laugh and sit down. For the next 20 or so minutes, I shared 20 or so great quotes from my book with 20 or so listeners. The voice on the loudspeaker was a steady presence, but I kept up a pretty continuous stream of words on my microphone, too. I knew the folks could hear me because they laughed in the right places and didn't leave. When it was over, a very nice man named Seamus Kearney told me, "That was a great presentation in the most difficult conditions. You still had us at the end." Thank you, Seamus. Seamus also bought a book. So did some other people. I'm sure more would have if they hadn't trailed Peter Gammons out to the parking lot. Perhaps non-attendees would be buying copies today if Gammons had been there to hear my presentation and share his delight with his great unwashed public.

Of course, the What-If Department is always prominent in baseball matters, so why should my little SABR presentation be an exception? I trust I'll never have another like it, fighting a bozo on a stadium loudspeaker to be heard by a crowd Peter Gammons was good enough to prime for me.