Sunday, June 3, 2012

No-Hitters On the Road

Like every Mets fan my age, I've only been waiting since 1962 for their first no-hitter. Well, that might not be accurate. In those early years there were few illusions about the potential of any Mets pitcher to pitch a no-hitter. We weren't like the fans of the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969, who got a no-hitter from Bill Stoneman a ridiculous ten days into franchise history. We knew better and soon got used to being victims of no-hitters, most notably the Father's Day perfect game by Jim Bunning in 1964, a game I watched on television with my parents. I can still see the last pitch, a sweeping curve that eluded the bat of a helpless John Stephenson.

The wait for a Mets no-hitter began officially on July 9, 1969, the night Tom Seaver was untouchable until the Cubs' Jimmy Qualls sliced a single to left-center field at Shea Stadium to spoil Seaver's perfect game with one out in the ninth inning. From that moment, Mets fans expected a no-hitter every time Tom Terrific pitched; it seemed inevitable, and though it never happened, it is fitting that before Johan Santana's gem Friday night, no Mets pitcher had even entered the ninth inning with a no-hitter since Seaver's third such occasion, in 1975.

But I'm not here to talk about the perpetual waiting or to rehash the unrequited yearning of the past half-century. I want to talk about how I have experienced three particular no-hitters. I have never witnessed one in person unless you count a Little League game I umpired as a teenager. I don't count that one, though I still have a photocopy of the scorebook page. I've watched plenty of them on television, but none as satisfying as Santana's--at least the part I watched.

One of the staples of our daily routine is reading together. Over the years I've read dozens of books to my wife, Linda, and usually we read early in the evening. That was the plan last night, to read until the game started and then settle in to watch Santana try to follow up his four-hit shutout of the Padres last weekend. Instead, the phone rang, a long-distance call that lasted about 40 minutes. By the time the call ended, the game was under way, but we were eager to continue the classic we had started earlier in the week, Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

So we put the Mets game on with the sound off, and I started to read. We were near the end of Part One and built up enough momentum in the reading that I decided to finish the section. Every minute or two I peeked at the screen, where not much was happening. Santana seemed to be walking people, while Kerouac's Sal Paradise hitchhiked his way back to New York from his first road trip to California. The Mets put together some hits in the fourth inning so I paused the reading and backed up the DVR to see exactly how they scored two runs before finishing off the night's rollicking reading, 30 pages in a little over an hour. Sal had reached New York back in 1948, and it was time to turn our full attention to New York in 2012.

Santana polished off the fifth inning as I set Kerouac aside, and only then did I see that he hadn't allowed a hit. The rest is history. We agonized along with Terry Collins over Santana's soaring pitch count, and figured that the dilemma would resolve itself. If his arm got tired enough he'd simply make a fat pitch, give up a hit, and get safely out of there without ruining his valuable arm. But he kept throwing pitches and getting outs, though Linda felt compelled to remind me that I have a knack of jinxing no-hitters. She was afraid to watch; for most of the ninth inning, she mimicked R. A. Dickey in the Mets dugout, who wrapped a towel around his head, leaving a tiny opening through which he peered at his teammates' efforts. She listened while I whooped it up after each out. After the no-hitter was history, we watched the post-game interviews, exhilarated by the moment, the man, and the memories. The next morning I watched the earlier innings on the DVR, and I'll save it for future viewings.

I thought it was a cool piece of synchronicity that I spent the first half of the game reading about Kerouac's alter ego returning home to New York, but that was nothing compared to what my friend Dan Heaton experienced. The proprietor of a fine film-review site (cheeseblab.blogspot.com/), Dan's Friday night routine is to watch a classic film and write about whether it was worth revisiting, then catch up with the baseball action. So he watched "Key Largo," a fine drama starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, and Edward G. Robinson, though the only Oscar was won by Claire Trevor for Best Supporting Actress. By the time it ended, the Mets were starting the eighth inning, but he already had his synchronicity in place. What is the name of the boat in "Key Largo"? Yep, it's the Santana.

I've been thinking today about two other no-hitters I experienced while literally "on the road." One happened on Friday, September 16, 1988. I was working in the poker room at Sam's Town casino in Las Vegas and got off work around 6pm. I grabbed a quick dinner and took off for the middle of nowhere. My friend Stew Baskin belonged to an astronomy club which was having a weekend gathering in a state park in central Nevada, nearly a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. You don't have to go far from that neon oasis to get a clear view of the night sky, but these folks were taking no chances. About a dozen of them hauled their telescopes and high-powered binoculars out to a pitch-black wilderness, each instrument trained on a different celestial wonder. They'd been at it for awhile before I arrived, and I spent several hours out there before heading back to Vegas for my Saturday morning shift. It was surreal out there in the blackness, listening to disembodied voices identifying planetary moons, stars, and nebulae, the only light an occasional pencil flashlight beam keeping someone from tripping on tripods. One of the voices belonged to the magician Jonathan Pendragon, but I didn't know what he looked like until I saw him on television a couple of years later. That was a strange and wonderful evening.

But I digress. There was ballgame, too, that night, but I shouldn't have been able to listen to it. The Dodgers spent the weekend in Cincinnati, so the Friday game was scheduled to start at 4:30 PM Nevada time. It should've been almost over by the time I climbed into my Dodge van for the drive. But there was a rain delay before the game of nearly two-and-a-half hours, so it didn't start until I was already northbound. Perfect. I had the mellifluous baritone of Vin Scully to accompany me on the drive; when he described an outfielder catching a fly ball by saying "he reaches up into the night and picks it off," I saw a sky full of stars ahead, ready to be captured.

The bad news was that Scully kept me company for less than two hours. The good news was the reason: a mere 54 batters appeared in the game. The Dodgers' Tim Belcher gave up just three hits and an unearned run, but he was topped by Tom Browning, who pitched a perfect game! Scully, always attuned to each game's unique drama, rose to the occasion even though his team was on the short end of the gem. And I relished every pitch as I wound my way along the ribbon of road toward my own rendezvous with infinity.

I had quite a different experience in mid-June of 1978. Having concluded a three-year contract to teach at the University of Montana, I packed everything I owned into my mother's old Plymouth Satellite and a ten-foot-long U-Haul trailer, and headed east. The journey lasted 2,460 miles, ending at my parents' place in the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania, and every mile was brutal. Less than a dozen miles into the trip, while crossing the Continental Divide, the Plymouth overheated, and I drove the rest of the way with a balky radiator. I couldn't go more than 40 miles an hour without the temperature gauge flirting with the "H," and I couldn't use the air conditioner. I was miserable for the entire four days, during which I discovered that nearly the entire United States is uphill east-bound. (I suspect that if I had been driving from Pennsylvania to Montana it would've seemed all uphill west-bound as well.)

Four days of misery as I traversed the sweltering midwest summer was bad enough, but that wasn't all. I was lucky to get across South Dakota alive. Not long after I entered the state on I-90, my U-Haul trailer was rammed from behind. And again, and a third time. The perpetrator pulled around me and alongside, staying even with me. I could feel his eyes glaring at me, but I didn't glance sideways, playing it cool as if everyone should drive 35mph on an interstate. He zoomed way ahead of me, pulled onto the shoulder, and when I toodled on by he quickly got behind me again and rammed the trailer five or six times. Once more he made as if to pass, lingered by my side for a moment, then veered in front of me and onto an exit ramp. When I stopped for lunch a short time later in Rapid City, I called the state police, told them what had happened, and gave them his license plate number.

Ten hours later, near the eastern edge of South Dakota, a trooper's flashing lights brought me to a halt. I figured I was getting a ticket for dangerously slow driving, but no. He wanted me to write an affidavit about what had happened that morning. It seems that after the maniac exited the highway, he was arrested for firing several gunshots at the local populace. That shook me; for all I knew, he'd been pointing the gun at me, waiting for me to turn my head so I could watch him shoot me. So there I was, chatting with the trooper, when my cat, who had spent those first two days of the ordeal hiding under the seat, decided to make a run for it. She jumped out the window and disappeared on the hillside below the highway. Twenty minutes later, thanks to the trooper's high-powered flashlight and our chorus of "here, kitty!" we captured the terrified tabby and I was free to continue my all-time Trip From Hell.

There was more. In Minnesota, a torrential downpour caused flooding on I-90 that forced me into a three-hour detour. In Illinois, road construction north of Chicago resulted in a single lane of traffic with nowhere to pull over; this 20-mile stretch took me well over an hour, and eventually I turned my side mirror sideways so I wouldn't have to see how long a parade I was leading as they serenaded me with honking horns. In Ohio, backed up on the highway at just a few miles an hour, my trailer was rear-ended by an inattentive, apologetic fellow who said he'd pay for anything damaged inside the trailer. But we couldn't get into the trailer because the collision jammed the padlock shut. It remained off-limits until I got "home" and someone used an acetylene torch to open it.

Finally, on the fourth day, June 16, I reached Pennsylvania, a state consisting primarily of trees and a gradual uphill slope from west to east. I crawled along all day, but the evening brought a treat. I picked up the Cincinnati Reds broadcast, with Tom Seaver facing the Cardinals. He didn't have his overpowering stuff that night, fanning only three hitters, but he got 13 ground-ball outs en route to that long-awaited no-hitter. Sometimes you don't even realize you're getting a break. If I had been able to drive the speed limit, I would have arrived in the Poconos sooner and missed the treat of listening to my favorite pitcher toss his only no-hitter. When I joined my parents later that night, I felt mainly relief. But I was also ecstatic at catching the radio gem that had helped me survive my four-day nightmare on the road.

2 comments:

cheeseblab said...

You should make a soundtrack for the trip: "On the Road Again," "Psycho Killer," "Take It Easy" (wrong geography, of course, but I'm thinking of the mph imperative) . . .

Gabriel Schechter said...

Good ideas for the soundtrack. I'd add "Into the Night" (by Santana), "Slow Ride," and of course "I Can't Drive 55."