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.

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