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.

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