Monday, May 26, 2014

Nothing Beats a Sunday Doubleheader

I'm old enough to have come of baseball age at a time when Sunday doubleheaders were common. In 1961, the first year I paid close attention to the major leagues as my father and I rooted his hometown Cincinnati Reds to the National League pennant, the Reds played 19 doubleheaders, a dozen of them on Sundays. I attended two of them, both in Philadelphia thanks to my father driving us the nearly through hours from northeast New Jersey.

The first Philadelphia expedition was in mid-June, and we were a bit late, listening to Jim Maloney walk in a couple of early runs before finding a parking spot. We got a break when the Philadelphia policeman sold us a pair of tickets at face value--in the first row by the field, between home plate and the Reds' third-base dugout. Howie Nunn had relieved Maloney by that point and shut out the Phillies the rest of the way as the Reds rallied to win, 7-2. In the nightcap, Jim O'Toole pitched a slick ten-hitter as the Reds swept, 10-0.

On Labor Day, we made the drive again, and I can still vividly remember the first four batters of the first game. Elio Chacon led off with a beautiful push bunt for a single. Eddie Kasko hit a wicked line drive to left-center which barely cleared the wall for a two-run homer. Vada Pinson followed with a ground single up the middle, and Frank Robinson hit a towering shot to left field. From our seats behind first base, it looked like the kind of drive that might clear the roof. Instead, left fielder Johnny Callison made a leaping grab to rob Robby of a home run, and he made the relay in time to double off Pinson. It didn't matter. The Reds had already provided enough support for Ken Johnson, who tossed a four-hitter to win, 5-0.

Have you figured out the pattern yet? In 24 innings, we had yet to see the Phillies score a run. It was worse than that. Johnson's shutout gave the Reds an 18-1 mark against the Phillies that year, with the loss coming the night before. In the nightcap, Ken Hunt held the Phillies scoreless until the fourth inning, when they went ahead, 2-1. "Nuts!" snapped my father. "They scored--we're going!" He was joking, but it was 3-1 by the time we left after the sixth inning. The Phillies went on to win that one, 5-3.

As an original fan of the New York Mets, I saw a number of memorable Sunday doubleheaders during the 1960s. At the top of the list is the twin bill at the Polo Grounds on June 17, 1962, just two months into the franchise's existence. That was the infamous day when Marv Throneberry tripled but missed both first and second bases, an early milestone in the exasperation of manager Casey Stengel. That happened in the bottom of the first inning of the first game. In the top half, a young Cubs outfielder had smashed a sky-high blast that looked like a three-iron shot as it climbed and sailed into the center field bleachers, only the third ball hit to that spot. That outfielder was Lou Brock. The rest of the day did not maintain the same pace of unique occurrences, but so what? I had twice as many chances to see something amazing, and I remember the day more than a half-century later.

The idea of seeing two major league games in the same day is alien to the younger generations of baseball fans, but if you've experienced them, they are a joy. We know what a travesty it is that the folks who run baseball now force some teams to take the day off on Labor Day! So it was a "whoopeee" moment when the Mets got rained out on Friday and I learned that my ticket for the Sunday game against the Diamondbacks would now get me a good seat for a doubleheader. I owe that opportunity to the Wilpons. If they had spent enough money to put together a team that folks couldn't help wanting to see, Citi Field wouldn't have had enough available seats on Sunday to give rain check customers two games on a single admission.

How I came to be going to the game in the first place is the more important story. I attended the game with two good friends, whom I met about 50 feet and a dozen years apart at the Hall of Fame library, but who didn't meet each other until yesterday. I met Dan Heaton in 1991, and close to a decade later, he did the terrific editorial work on my first two books, Victory Faust and Unhittable! That wasn't surprising, since he has now put in about two decades as an editor at the Yale University Press. In recent years, he has become a season ticket holder at Citi Field, attending 15-20 games and moonlighting as a StubHub entrepreneur.

I met John Russell in 2003, when he approached the desk where I was stationed in my first year as a Hall of Fame researcher. I have written about him before, as my nominee for the "best baseball fan" I know [here's the link:]. The essence of the story is this: as a child in England, he saw American soldiers playing baseball. This was in the 1940s, and he never saw another game until the 1990s. In between, he became a fan of the game and listened to the World Series and other treats on U.S. Armed Forces Radio.

But John didn't see another game played until he retired in the 1990s and set about to see all of the major league ballparks. This year marks his 20th trip to the U.S. to watch baseball, and he has seen well over 200 games. Several things are unique about the way John has achieved the remarkable record (even the more remarkable when done by an Englishman) of seeing at least three games at 41 different parks. He has seen at least one series; this isn't some fly-by-night lark to see how many parks he can tally, but rather an excuse to explore the cities which host major league baseball (and a few minor league sites).

That's the other thing about John's approach. He doesn't drive, relying instead on public transport and, more often, his own feet. He's a museum hound and a railroad nut, attends concerts and other public events, and values few things more than a fine meal. Somehow, along the way, he became a Mets fan, so recent trips, which have involved fewer and fewer new ballparks, have seen him attending more Mets games. That was his plan on this trip, which he thinks might be his last (unless the Braves hurry up with a new ballpark or the Athletics move somewhere). All eleven games he attended were Mets games, starting with the four-game series against the Yankees, followed by three games in Washington, a three-day detour to Cooperstown, and four final games at Citi Field.

I had a fine time with John while he was here for his third Cooperstown visit. We explored some of the museum together for the first time, and he came over for dinner one evening, when Linda wowed him with a perfect roast, mushroom sauce, and an onion tart. But we looked forward to the game together on Sunday afternoon. After all his travels to this country, after close to 250 games, after sharing with me his annual written account of his latest adventures, it seemed fitting that I would join him for what might well be his final game. We had never gone to a game, though we've been corresponding about the game for eleven years and counting. It was about time.

After some confusion about tickets, Dan came up with the perfect solution. He has two season tickets in section 414, right behind the plate in the third row of his section. He gave his other ticket to John and was eventually able to secure the one next to it on StubHub. First thing last Thursday morning, I drove John to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, near Albany, so he could return to New York City in time for that night's Mets victory over the Dodgers.

Three days later, I followed the same route, leaving home at 5:30 AM for my big adventure. I caught the 7:15 train, which is the best argument I know of for the pleasures of train travel. Instead of making the 200-mile drive to the ballpark, paying for tolls and parking, dealing with traffic and fatigue (this would be a day-trip), and making the long drive home into the wilds of central New York, I saved time, money, and effort by taking the train. It left Rensselaer at 7:15 and traveled almost entirely along the Hudson River. Most of the time, you could've spit in the river, a handy alternative with no spittoons aboard the train. I worked on some editing while letting the rolling hills and bluffs pass by, enjoying a couple of sandwiches which would largely free me from stadium food.

Originally our plan had been to go to the (single) ballgame between the Mets and Diamondbacks, then repair to Manhattan to kill a few hours before putting me on the last train (departure: 9:15 PM) back to Albany. John had even picked out a restaurant to take us to for dinner. It would be a perfect cap on the night before his flight back to England. Dan, who normally makes day-trips from New Haven, was also staying overnight in Manhattan before attending today's day game against the Pirates.

Instead of all that time in Manhattan, we got a second ballgame, and we were all delighted by the prospect. I had put Dan and John in touch via e-mail a couple of months ago, and they hit it off right away, as I expected. Just as John is the biggest non-American baseball fan I know, so Dan is the biggest American fan I know of the most popular game of the rest of the world. He even takes a leave of absence from work to watch every match of the World Cup. John is the semi-official historian and spokesman for the Aston Villa Football Club. Both men are also way more obsessed than even I am about travel logistics. Of course they'd hit it off.

After two and a half relaxing hours on the train, I was met by John at Penn Station, from which we walked eight blocks to Times Square to pick up the "7" train to Flushing at its terminus. A half-hour later, we arrived at Citi Field, 25 minutes before the gates opened and 15 minutes before Dan arrived. Within minutes, he and John were deep in conversation, discussing football and schedules. Here's a photo of Dan and John, looking like brothers:

Here's another image of them, along with one of The Apple, a great place for pre-game people-watching even though there was a cacophony of noise from a nearby carnival and a Chevrolet barker:

We spent an hour by The Apple before heading into the ballpark for a stroll before taking our seats. For the next seven hours, we savored a splendid day at the ballpark. It was a gorgeous day, belying a prediction of isolated thunderstorms. The temperature gradually rose to 81, and I came home with a ruddy tint to my bald spot. "It's a beautiful day for baseball!" I declared at the first pitch. "Let's watch two!" 

Our whole area was filled with laughter the whole day. The three of us were "on," as were the father and son in front of us and a leather-lungs a few rows back. The gentleman next to me--who bragged to me about attending the game where Marv Throneberry missed first and second--had a wonderful, robust laugh where he exercised regularly whether there was a punch line in the vicinity or not. Most of it was "you had to be there" humor, but we loved every bit of it. I got a lot of laughs, for instance, by showing everyone where I had marked "Oliver Fucking Perez" on my scorecard when that miserable wretch was brought in by the Diamondbacks. 

The crowd thinned out considerably after the first game, a dreadful game in which the Mets squandered 16 baserunners, scoring just once thanks to five double plays, and lost the game when Daniel Murphy dropped the throw on a force play with two outs in the ninth inning. The game was good only as a source of material for our sarcasm and running jokes. Only the leather-lungs and the guy with the great laugh remained for Game 2 in addition to our merry trio. Here are John and Dan looking slightly thrilled by Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance in salvaging a split (with the laugher top left):

The second game did have more brighter moments: Matsuzaka not only gave the Mets six solid innings in his first start of the year, he singled in their first run; David Wright made the defensive play of the day with a great sliding catch of a popup near the dugout; Daniel Murphy had three hits, and five on the day; and we saw the first (and possibly the last) four-hit game of Anthony Recker's career. Unfortunately, I had to do something I don't like doing--namely, leaving before a game ends. Between games, we calculated the time when I'd have to leave in order to get back to Penn Station without any stress for my 9:15 train, the last train home. At that, I wouldn't get home until 1 AM. The magic answer was 7:30. I remember grumbling at one point, "Dice-K has thrown seven pitches in eight minutes. At that rate I won't make it past the fourth inning." That got us joking about the slowest pitchers we've ever seen; my candidate was Steve Trachsel.

I wound up leaving Citi Field after the top of the eighth inning. I had only a ten-minute wait before heading back on the "7," and alit in Times Square at 8:20. That was perfect. I had one hour to walk eight blocks. I enjoyed the walk just as I had enjoyed people-watching at The Apple and on the subway. There were a lot of people wearing Rangers and Canadiens jerseys in honor of Game 4 of their conference finals, in action down the block at Madison Square Garden.

I grabbed a snack along the way and relaxed in the waiting room at Penn Station, wondering whether the Mets had held onto the 3-2 I had worked so hard to get them. At 9 PM, I went out to the big board to see if they had posted the track for the Empire train. They hadn't. A large group had gathered, and when they announced the train to New Jersey and Washington, most of the crowd raced off to get to the head of the boarding line.

A moment later, as I stood above the stairway, staring at the board, I felt someone putting a bear-hug on me. It was John. He was delighted to have found me. He and Dan had stayed till the end of the game, of course, a 4-2 Mets victory. John set himself the mission of greeting me one more time at Penn Station, partially to satisfy his curiosity about whether I could actually have witnessed the final out and still made my train. As a veteran of train travel, he just had to know. The answer was yes. 

He also wanted to exult one final time in how this doubleheader was "the apotheosis" of his American travels. It was a perfect day for baseball, and he had a much different experience from being on his own in other ballparks. He had Dan and me and a half-dozen innocent bystanders for entertainment. "You never know somebody until you've sat next to him at a ballgame," said John, who had sat  between us. Whatever could he have meant by that? I can't wait to read his British-eye view of that long-neglected but still glorious American tradition, the Sunday doubleheader. 


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mallomars--Twinkies--No Sweets For Me!

Mike Haupert was in town this week, which is always a happy occasion. I've known Mike since 2003, my first year at the Hall of Fame. That winter he and his colleague from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Ken Winter, made one of numerous annual trips to the library to do research. They did groundbreaking work on the business of baseball, in particular making use of the leather-bound volumes of the New York Yankees' ledgers during Jacob Ruppert's ownership. Mike, a Professor of Economics, is the man to go to when baseball historians start wondering about the salaries made by major leaguers.

Linda and I always have Mike over for dinner, and on our cross-country trip last summer, he returned the favor at his home, making a paella we'll never forget. He came over for dinner last night, and Linda knocked herself out preparing a terrific dinner: pork pot stickers, shrimp eggrolls, and a chicken stir-fry with a dozen vegetables. Mike is a great guy and a lively story-teller, and we always have a fine time with him. So it was during dinner this time.

But Mike was also on a mission last night--to play Russball. He bucked the national trend by following my six-part blog on Russball history past and present, quite interested since it reminded him of a dice baseball game he played going back to childhood. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And believe me, he did. He entered the house making a statement, handing over a box of Twinkies as the prize for the evening's competition. "I tried and tried to get Mallomars," he said ruefully, having hoped to echo the recent "Mallomar Classic" I played with Freddy Berowski. Mike lives in Wisconsin, where they've heard of Mallomars but, like many places not close to the factory in New Jersey, they only order them during the winter because the dark chocolate is so rich that it is vulnerable to hot weather.

Twinkies it was, and Mike compounded the confounding by calling his team the Twieners, a shortened form of a running joke in the family regarding two wieners. So be it. I gave him a brief tutorial on the game before we started. He has played other such games but not this one, and he had no trouble accepting my invitation to choose a team of everyone who was not on my champion Speakers, the squad I'd be managing.

So it was that my ace, Bob Gibson, faced a lineup of Rickey Henderson, Rod Carew, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Pete Rose, and Sandy Koufax. Okay. Gibson pitched well to hold that crew to four hits in seven innings. The problem was that--right on cue!--two of those hits were home runs by Aaron and Mays, the latter tying the game, 2-2, in the seventh inning. Frank Robinson, my MVP in Las Vegas, stayed hot with a pair of home runs, one his first time up and the other in the ninth inning. The second one didn't matter because of a slight mishap in the eighth inning.

I pinch-hit for Gibson in the home half of the seventh inning, didn't score, and needed a reliever to start the eighth inning. Since Mike is a Cubs fan, I decided to put in Bruce Sutter to pitch. I had several other Cubs on my team he had coveted, like Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Lee Smith, and I got the wry chuckle I hoped for from Mike when he saw Sutter saunter out to the mound. Sutter promptly gave up singles to Rose and pinch-hitter Lou Brock, putting runners on first and third.

At this point, Mike became intent on sending the go-ahead run across the plate on a squeeze bunt. Rickey Henderson was willing but not able, and three foul bunts later, I etched a strikeout in stone on the old scoresheet. Rod Carew was up next, the best bunter of his generation. Surely he could squeeze Pete Rose home. Carew launched the worst bunt of his diceball career, about ten feet in front of the plate. Rose charged in from third, and Joe Torre raced out for the ball--and dropped it. He had been looking forward to planting the tag on Rose's forehead, but instead he was charged with an error as the Twieners took a 3-2 lead.

Sutter fanned Aaron for the second out and almost got away with one unearned run. But Yogi Berra sliced a double down the left field line, scoring Brock and Carew to make it 5-2. I should've given Sutter the night off then, but no. Willie Mays singled to center, and Tony Gwynn's throw to the plate had Berra by ten feet--but Torre dropped the ball. It was his third error of the game (including an earlier wild throw on a stolen base), but he dodged criticism after the game by telling reporters, "To err is human, to forgive is something I don't know about since I started working for Bud Selig."

A slightly traumatized Sutter completed the debacle by serving up a home run ball to Willie McCovey. That made six unearned runs according to MLB, though how a pitcher can give up a home run without having it count against him is beyond me (the official answer is that the error(s) extended the inning and McCovey never should have batted, but he also batted because Sutter surrendered hits to the two previous hitters.

Anyway, the final score was 8-3, and Mike gladly seized one of the Twinkies from the box I was obligated to open as a salute to his managerial brilliance. He said it tasted very, very good. I'm sure it did, though it's no Mallomar.

I used the basic Speakers lineup against Nolan Ryan in the second game, replacing Dave Winfield in the outfield with Vada Pinson. It didn't take long for Mike to revise his lineup to face Warren Spahn, but I was surprised about one change he made. After starting right-handed Rickey Henderson against righty Gibson, he didn't leave him in to face the southpaw, Spahn. Instead, his leadoff hitter and left fielder was Lou Brock, a lefty hitter. Naturally, Brock led off the first inning with a home run (on a dice roll that gave him three chances out of 216 for a home run).

When I was 12 years old, I went to a Mets-Reds doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. In the second game, Pete Rose led off with a home run off Jay Hook, and Jim Maloney made the 1-0 margin stand up for his 20th win of the season. I thought the same thing was going to happen last night as Spahn and Ryan dueled, both giving up just four hits. The only runner I got to second base in eight innings against Ryan was on Wade Boggs' leadoff double in the fourth inning.

Ryan stayed hot and fanned nine, but Mike chose to pinch-hit for him in the home half of the eighth, which surprised me. With one out, Brock singled and stole second, but he couldn't get that insurance run. Into the game marched Tug McGraw, facing Boggs to start the ninth. Boggs singled. Exit McGraw, and enter Hoyt Wilhelm. Also enter Luis Aparicio as a pinch-runner, and he stole second before Wilhelm got Frank Robinson to pop out. Eddie Murray singled in the tying run, much to Ryan's disgust in the dugout, but Wilhelm fanned two of the next three hitters to escape ruin.

In the top of the tenth, I should have scored off Wilhelm. Ryne Sandberg led off with a single, and Dennis Eckersley sacrificed him to second. Tony Gwynn followed with a looping fly ball to center. Sandberg had to hold up, and Willie Mays appeared ready to make the catch, freezing the runner before the ball landed 15 feet in front of him. That made the difference as Sandberg headed home, as May fielded the ball and gunned him down at the plate, Johnny Bench blocking him off the plate.

Eckersley had no problem retiring Bench and Harmon Killebrew in the bottom of the tenth, but his demise came quickly. Henderson pinch-hit, singled, and stole second, setting up Brock to drive in the winning run. A well-placed single would have done the trick. Instead, he belted his second home run of the game, bookend shots to start and finish the Twieners' scoring. Nice. Mike was beside himself with glee. I didn't blame him.

I was laughing, too, but not as merrily. It was the laugh of Walter Huston at the end of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," when he looks as the gutted canvas bags from which his fortune of gold dust has blown away. The numbers tell my sad story. In seven games in Cherry Valley in the last month, playing three people who had never played this game before, I lost six times. Linda, Freddy, and Mike beat me twice apiece, and I managed one bottom-of-the-ninth victory over Freddy. In the meantime, I went to Las Vegas to face the managers who had played hundreds and hundreds of Russball games before--and won 26 of 36 games.

Of course, I was on steroids in Las Vegas, and they had probably worn off by last night. Perhaps that accounts for Joe Torre's erratic performance. Hmmm. Or maybe I'm cleverly disarming the prospective managers of the Cherry Valley Russball league. Linda and Freddy were quickly hooked after playing a few games. The word is that Matt Rothenberg, the new manager of research at the Hall of Fame library, says he might want to manage a Russball team as well. That would make four managers. Come on, folks, let's play a league. It's easy to beat me! You just have to worry about each other. Yeah, that's what I was doing when Mike walked off with the Twinkies last night. Very clever.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Russball Reunion Wrapup: Speakers Rock Vegas

The long-awaited Russball reunion has come and gone--our first four-team, 36-game season since 1998--and it was a terrific weekend we'll long remember. Our host, Stew Baskin, knocked himself out and made all the difference. He put us up and put up with us, and plied us with so much good food that I gained about five pounds over the four-day visit.

We got right down to business Thursday night, starting our draft less than two hours after my flight arrived at 8PM. The draft is always a high point, and this one took a little longer than usual, 100 players drafted in 150 minutes. We had varying amounts of preparation (Stew the most, Tim the least), but I came in with a definite plan. I wanted to draft a team of players I've spoken with to say more than hello to, had some kind of substantial talk with, if only for a minute or two (most of them during my tenure at the Hall of Fame).

Of the 121 players in this set of cards, more than two dozen fit that bill, and I wanted to fill at least half my roster with them. I wound up with 14 players from my wish list, enough to call my team the Speakers. Players I've spoken to, plus a nod to earlier Diceball star Tris Speaker. In addition, I've gotten paid a couple of times in recent months to give public talks, which makes me a speaker as well. So it all seemed to fit.

On the long flight to Las Vegas, I did some mock drafts, putting myself in each of the four drafting spots to see how I might have a chance to grab the players I wanted. I had a core group of ten Speakers I wanted--my starting infield, a catcher, an outfielder, two starting pitchers, and two relievers. I wound up getting eight of them in my first eleven picks, a very good showing, including six of my first seven. I drafted fourth, giving me a double pick every time in our "snake" draft (1234-4321). Here's a look at the draft sheet most of the way through (click on it to make the names readable):

Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken were my co-captains; during the draft, I wore one of the two shirts I got for working at their 2007 induction (I wore the other one during the second day of action). I got three of my infielders (I wanted Paul Molitor to play second base but settled for Ryne Sandberg), got Joe Torre to catch (I interviewed him in his office in St. Louis twenty years ago when he managed the Cardinals), and got three of my four pitchers (missing out only on Juan Marichal). The check-marks on my roster are the players from my wish list.

As always, there were surprises in the draft. Tim did his usual off-the-wall job, taking both Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench early, and Stew was pleasantly shocked to pick up Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver (the two top-rated starters) in the fifth and sixth rounds. George, realizing he was shut out of the top starters, focused on his offense and bullpen, waiting until the final rounds to pick up what in Russball was a second-tier rotation (Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, and Vida Blue). When the smoke cleared at the approach of midnight, I looked over my roster and declared, "Well, I have no power and no speed, but I have a bunch of guys I know!" By Friday morning, I was convinced that Stew was the pre-season favorite, with his combination of great starting pitching (he also picked up Nolan Ryan) and power. Facing the top pitchers, home runs have a lot of impact in Russball, and I'll note here that all four teams averaged more than one home run per game this season.

Two of the guys named their teams after their pets. Stew was the Ferocious Beasts, as his son described their two dogs. As it turned out, the beasts were docile through the weekend. I'm not fond of big dogs and was concerned when they bounded out, barking and jumping, to greet us on Thursday. But by Monday, I was good friends with the dogs: Gladys, a German shepherd, and Rosie, a nine-month-old golden retriever. Great dogs, but not ferocious. Tim has recently gotten a couple of black kittens, and brandished a photo of them lying side-by-side in opposite directions. So his team was the Two-Headed Kittens. The Russball version of them was pretty tame, too. George had a more sentimental team name, choosing from the five or six choices he detailed for me on the drive from the airport. In preparing for the draft, he found an old notebook in which he had recorded all of the previous two dozen or so drafts. The only other thing in the notebook was some geometrical drawings made by his mother as therapy after a couple of strokes during her final year. So, in honor of her favorite decorative hobby, he was the Pine Cones, keeping a small pine cone near the playing board as a good-luck charm (I had a photo of myself with Tony Gwynn, which you can glimpse at the top left of the photo above.

The first two days of play were grueling. We began around 10AM, took a lunch break after the first three-game series, played two more series before a longer dinner break, and two more series after dinner. We would have been happier playing a dozen games each of the three days, but Tim had to get back to Colorado late Sunday afternoon to go to work Monday morning. By those final series, we were dragging. We're not as young as we once were (all but Tim were born in 1951), and after a hard day of rolling dice and pigging out, that final series was taxing. Between games, I tried to sneak out to the patio and bask in the sun. After a too-long, frigid winter in upstate New York, I was determined to savor that sun, and Saturday was the hottest day of the year there so far, closing in on 100 degrees. Linda detected some color on my face in the light of dawn today; mission accomplished.

Some of you reading this followed the Facebook updates I provided during the long weekend. But many of you (I hope) didn't, so what follows is a game-by-game account of how my Speakers fared in one of the most exciting Russball seasons ever. In the 72 league games played, we had ten extra-inning battles and 19 times when a team tied or won the game in the ninth inning or later. There were some amazing individual feats and one of the best all-around seasons ever by a Russball hitter. We had a blast from start to finish, except for the losing streaks and the frustrating games where someone got the tying run to plate in the ninth inning and didn't get a chance to swing (in this game, the pitcher rolls first and can get "automatic" outs preventing the batter from swinging "off his card"). So here we go.

Game 1: Speakers 5, Pine Cones 4 (10 innings): Clearly, hindsight brands this game as a great indicator of things to come. Here's George, manager of the Pine Cones, along with a shot of us playing our opening series:

I was the home team, with Bob Gibson facing Hunter. The Catfish was tough, taking a 4-2 lead to the bottom of the ninth, but he tired and, for some reason, George didn't go to his vaunted bullpen. Cal Ripken doubled in a run and Ryne Sandberg tied it with a single, sending our season opener into extra innings. In the tenth, Wade Boggs led off with a double and, two outs later, Eddie Murray singled him in with the winning run. It was the first of many key hits Murray got during the first half of the season.

Game 2: Pine Cones 4, Speakers 1: Vida Blue was very tough in this one, holding me to two hits in six innings. Still, I had a 1-0 lead at that point, but George got four runs off Don Drysdale in the next two innings to beat me. The winning blow was a Thurman Munson home run, the first on his path to a Russball career high of seven.

Game 3: Speakers 3, Pine Cones 2: This was a vintage Russball thriller. Murray's home run was the only scoring through the first six innings, as Warren Spahn and Gaylord Perry staged a great duel. Spahn took a 2-0 lead to the ninth inning, cut in half by Roberto Clemente's one-out home run. With two outs, Kirby Puckett singled, and George went into one of his cherished offensive modes, utilizing speed. Maury Wills pinch-ran and stole second, racing to third on Ted Simmons' throwing error. Rickey Henderson singled him to tie the game. But in the home ninth, Tim Raines singled, stole second, and scored the game-winner on a Ryne Sandberg single. Dennis Eckersley relieved Spahn to get the final out and pick up the victory.

Game 4: Speakers 8, Kittens 3: I was on the road for this one; in fact, due to a scheduling quirk, I played the next nine games on the road, followed by nine at home, nine more on the road to finish up Saturday, and the final six at home on Sunday. Here's Tim:

Cal Ripken was the star of this game, with a pair of home runs good for four RBI. Ferguson Jenkins pitched well for me until the sixth inning, when a 2-0 lead turned into a 3-2 deficit thanks to Lou Whitaker's three-run blast. Tony Gwynn quickly tied it in the seventh inning, and Tim Raines singled in the go-ahead run. Four runs in the ninth inning sealed the deal as my offense awoke after scoring just ten runs in the first series. Meanwhile, history was being made in the other series as Catfish Hunter drove in seven runs (he had driven in two in his start against me). Four came on a grand slam; amazingly, the only two grand slams hit all season were by pitchers, Don Drysdale getting the other one (both off Stew). This gave Hunter the early lead in the RBI race with nine in nine at-bats, so there was talk of installing him as George's cleanup hitter.

Game 5: Speakers 4, Kittens 2 (10 innings). This was a classic match-up between Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, with both hurlers on their game. George went ahead in the fourth inning, 2-1, on back-to-back homers by Yogi Berra and Willie Mays, and that score held until the ninth inning. Cal Ripken and Ryne Sandberg doubled to tie it, and off to extras we went. In the top of the tenth, Frank Robinson led off with a double, his third of the game to go along with a single, and Joe Torre drilled a home run that proved the game-winner. Dennis Eckersley picked up his second win with two solid innings of relief.

Game 6: Speakers 4, Kittens 2: I polished off the sweep thanks to a strong start by Don Drysdale, who went eight solid innings. Home runs by Tim Raines and Ryne Sandberg sparked the offense, and there was a scary statistical omen I noted at the end of the series. Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, my two table-setters, were off to a horrible start with a combined 8-for-50 log, and Frank Robinson hadn't driven in a run. Yet my record was 5-1, thanks to the bottom half of my batting order. Over the years, I've probably been known as the manager who tinkers the most with lineups. My usual mode is to adjust the lineup almost every game, depending on who performed well in the game just ended. With so many Hall of Famers and All-Stars on your roster, any one of them can get hot, so I'm always looking for the hot hitter and benching someone who doesn't get a hit in a couple of games, not to mention rearranging the batting order. But this season was different. In the first two games, I had Boggs lead off and Gwynn bat second. After that, I flip-flopped them, and for the rest of the season I had six starters in the same spot in the order. The top four were Gwynn, Boggs, Robinson, and Murray. Torre did most of the catching, batting fifth or sixth along with a rotation of left fielders, followed by Ripken and Sandberg. The lineup jelled; there was no reason to tinker with it. 

Game 7: Speakers 7, Beasts 2: Still on the road, I pummeled Jim Palmer for 13 hits in eight innings, giving Warren Spahn an easy win on his four-hitter. Eddie Murray starred with four RBI, three on a fifth-inning home run that gave me the lead for good. Gwynn and Boggs started to jell, combining for five hits, and Robinson added three more, giving him 14 knocks in his first seven games. Here's Stew, minus the beasts:

Game 8: Beasts 8, Speakers 5: In this one, I took a 4-0 lead against Sandy Koufax in the fourth inning but immediately gave it back as Ferguson Jenkins was knocked out in the home half. Stew broke it open with another four-run explosion in the sixth inning off Bruce Sutter that included a triple and a pair of doubles, and Dick Radatz polished off the final three innings. 

Game 9: Beasts 9, Speaker 3: My pitching struggled again as Don Drysdale trailed 7-0 after three innings. I was never in it after that as Stew took two games in the series and dropped me to 6-3 one-fourth of the way through the season. The good news was that all three other teams were stuck at 4-5, giving me a two-game lead. Nolan Ryan was the winner, striking out 11 before leaving with one out in the ninth inning.

Game 10: Pine Cones 5, Speakers 3: My losing streak reached three games as Bob Gibson faltered, giving up home runs to Joe Morgan and George Brett. Boggs, Robinson and Murray all went hitless against George's pitching trio of Vida Blue, John Franco, and Tug McGraw. This was the low point of the season for me, as the dice started turning against me (in a short, intense season like this, short-term aberrations of the dice are accentuated, and you can get hot or cold in a hurry). I gave myself a stern talking-to in order to reverse the negative expectations, and it worked. 

Game 11: Speakers 7, Pine Cones 5: This game should have been a blowout like Game 9, as I built a 5-0 lead in the first three innings with Cal Ripken driving in four runs. Warren Spahn cruised through seven innings with a 7-0 lead but gave up four runs in the eighth and hit the pines. Munson's home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth made it 7-5, and a single and a walk put the tying runs on base. That's when George trotted out the base-stealing crew. His problem was that Rickey Henderson (one of three guys with the top steal rating, along with Maury Wills and Lou Brock) had been removed for pinch-hitter Willie McCovey, who had walked. Wills pinch-ran at second base and Bert Campaneris ran for McCovey at first, and George called for a double steal. I opted to try for Campaneris, the potential run, and Ted Simmons gunned him down for the key second out of the inning. Bruce Sutter retired Pete Rose, and I held on to win.

Game 12: Speakers 15, Pine Cones 6: The Speakers drilled Don Sutton and three relievers for 19 hits in this route. It was 4-4 until Eddie Murray broke it open with a three-run home run, and he drove in five runs. Tony Gwynn had four hits and three steals, and Vada Pinson, making his first start of the season, added four hits and scored four runs. That day, I wore my Hall of Fame shirt from the induction of Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, and Eck went six strong innings in relief in this one to pick up his third win of the day.

Game 13: Speakers 8, Kittens: My offense stayed hot as the Speakers ripped Juan Marichal for seven runs and 13 hits in five innings. In Russball, a hot pitcher can tame any offense, but any starter who wasn't hot against the Speakers this season got roughed up. Frank Robinson was the star of this game, going 4-for-4 with a home run and a pair of doubles, and Joe Torre drove in three runs. Warren Spahn went the distance to raise his record to 3-0.

Game 14: Kittens 10, Speakers 0: Steve Carlton was the hottest pitcher I faced all season in this one, holding me to four hits (only one after the second inning) and getting automatic outs about two-thirds of the time. Four home runs sealed the deal here, one by Willie Mays and three by damned Yankees--Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Don Mattingly. That's what I got for starting a Yankee of my own, Ron Guidry. I once gave a library tour to Guidry and a couple of his Cajun buddies, and liked him a lot, a very down-to-earth guy with an easy laugh. I wasn't laughing at this laugher, however.

Game 15: Speakers 7, Kittens 1: I bounced back with a strong effort to finish the long Friday with a 10-5 record and a three-game lead. Bob Gibson was just as tough as Carlton had been, losing his shutout on a Mantle home run with two outs in the ninth inning. Frank Robinson starred again with four RBI as he and Joe Torre both homered. Meanwhile, George and Stew, buddies since their college days at Penn State, finished off the night as George won in ten innings, the first of four straight extra-inning battles he would play.

Game 16: Speakers 5, Beasts 1: Saturday began with a great match-up between Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. Gibson was on his game, striking out a season-high 16 and holding the Beasts to a lone first-inning run. Frank Robinson had three more hits, but once again Eddie Murray had the key blow, a three-run home run in the third inning to give Gibson a 4-1 lead he had no trouble holding.

Game 17: Beasts 4, Speakers 2: It was Nolan Ryan's turn in this one as he struck out 13 and took a 4-0 shutout to the ninth inning before striking out Murray to seal the win. Bert Blyleven made his first start for me but was hurt by a pair of Paul Molitor triples. I had brought him up to replace a faltering Ferguson Jenkins, and I took some razzing after this one. "A four-game lead halfway through the season, and you haven't found your fourth starter yet?" Nope, I hadn't. The halfway point of the season is the last time we can dip into the minor leagues, and after Game 18 I brought up two more starting pitchers for the second half (dumping Blyleven and Jesse Orosco, who had pitched just one inning), Dwight Gooden and Mike Cuellar. 

Game 18: Speakers 11, Beasts 9: This was one of the most exciting games of the season, a true back-and-forth thriller. Smoky Burgess' home run gave Stew an early lead, but I roughed up Tom Seaver for four runs in the third inning, three on Frank Robinson's home run, and led 5-3 to the fifth inning. Don Drysdale got in trouble after hitting Molitor with a pitch, the first of several key times when his ornery inside pitching got him in trouble (Drysdale has the only pitching card in Russball with a hit-by-pitch number--other hit batters occur randomly). Stew stretched the lead to 8-5 in the seventh inning, but I came back against Dick Radatz, starting with Eddie Murray's two-run home run. Wade Boggs singled in the go-ahead run in the eighth, but Bruce Sutter couldn't hold the 9-8 lead. His balk sent the tying run to second, and Molitor's single sent the tying run home. But Joe Torre's two-out, two-run home run in the bottom half brought my record to 12-6 halfway through the season, with a three-game lead over the Pine Cones. Meanwhile, George and Tim played three straight extra-inning games. Kirby Puckett was amazing, banging extra-inning homers in the first two games as George prevailed, and following up with a two-run triple in the tenth inning of the finale. But Tim stormed back with three runs to avoid the sweep.

Game 19: Speakers 3, Pine Cones 2: I parlayed the momentum from that last win to a hot streak at home, beginning with another gem by Warren Spahn. This time he took a 3-0 lead to the seventh inning, thanks mainly to Ryne Sandberg's two-run home run off Catfish Hunter. He led 3-1 to the ninth inning but gave up a quick run on a Roberto Clemente single and a George Brett double, before Dennis Eckersley came on to get two outs and strand the tying run at third base.

Game 20: Speakers 6, Pine Cones 5 (10 innings): Mike Cuellar and Vida Blue started this one but neither one made it past the inning, which ended with George ahead 5-4. The bullpens were stronger, and it was still 5-4 heading to the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Ryne Sandberg single but was thrown out  stealing, which seemed to doom me. However, Andre Dawson got his first hit of the season, a startling game-tying home run off Tug McGraw. In the tenth, two-out, back-to-back doubles by Eddie Murray and Tim Raines gave me my third victory in a row.

Game 21: Speakers 7, Pine Cones 5: I secured the sweep with another come-from-behind win after Don Drysdale's temper cost him again. After George Brett's two-run home run in the sixth inning put him behind, 4-3, he hit the next batter, Fred Lynn, and he came around to score as well. I tied it 5-5 on Joe Torre's two-run home run, and won it on Eddie Murray's two-run double in the eighth inning. At this point, Murray was averaging an RBI per game and staking his claim to MVP status if I could maintain the pace that now had me with a 15-6 record. After the game, we got this shot of me watching Stew and Tim do battle:

Game 22: Speakers 11, Kittens 6: Back on the road, the Speakers extended their win streak to five games, pounding a not-so-hot Steve Carlton for 15 hits and ten runs in eight innings. Both teams scored three times in the first inning, but I broke it open in the third on six straight hits. Again, Dennis Eckersley won in long relief (6 2/3 innings), raising his record to 5-0. Murray did nothing this time, but Wade Boggs had four hits while Tony Gwynn and Joe Torre had three apiece.

Game 23: Speakers 3, Kittens 0: Warren Spahn matched Eckersley at 5-0 with this gem, a slick six-hitter to defeat Whitey Ford. Eddie Murray again drove in the winning run on one of his three hits. This sixth straight win raised my record to 17-6 and brought the first suggestions that I might take a run at the all-time best Russball record. That was 26-10, by George's Dirt Sox in the first Russball season ever, matched later by my Gabe Sox. 

Game 24: Speakers 8, Kittens 3: This sweep made it seven straight wins, as I roughed up Kittens starter Luis Tiant early and often. Wade Boggs was the hitting star with three hits and four RBI, three of them on a bases-clearing double that gave me a 6-1 lead in the fourth inning. Don Drysdale had more room to maneuver because of that, and took advantage of it by beaning Willie Mays after Don Mattingly's home run made it 8-3. 

Game 25: It was dinner time on Saturday but Stew wasn't hungry enough yet to grill the cheeseburger feast he had planned, so he suggested playing one more game before dinner. Fine. Naturally, we soon launched the longest game in Russball history. Most of our games take 25-35 minutes, but this one took over an hour, while George and Tim eventually repaired to another room to watch baseball highlights and listen to their stomachs growl for burgers. Meanwhile, this one had all the markings of a great duel, as the hot-trending offense of the first half of the season ran up against two very hot starters. I sent Bob Gibson out to face Nolan Ryan, and they were both hot. Eddie Murray's RBI single in the top of the first inning held up until the eighth, when Billy Williams doubled in the tying run. I chose to remove Gibson after nine innings of work that included 15 strikeouts (I had rested him during two series after he struck out 16 beasts in his previous start), and my relievers fanned nine more batters, greatly frustrating Stew. But I couldn't touch his bullpen, which wound up allowing just two hits after Ryan left following the eighth inning. This one dragged on to the 17th inning, when Stew broke through with an unearned run. After a one-out double, Sparky Lyle, his last reliever, had to bat, tried to sacrifice, and was safe when Bruce Sutter bobbled the bunt. After Sutter struck out Rod Carew for the second out, Billy Williams burned him with the game-winning single. That was a tough way to end a seven-game win streak, but the good news was that we all very much enjoyed what George dubbed "the longest wait ever for a hamburger." Final score: Beasts 2, Speakers 1 (17 innings).

Game 26: Beasts 2, Speakers 0: My offense had been a juggernaut for about ten games before Stew's staff stopped my hitters in their tracks. Tom Seaver spun a dominating gem, fanning 16 and giving up just four hits. That extended my scoreless streak to an astonishing 25 innings, and Warren Spahn took the tough loss to drop his record to 5-1.

Game 27: Speakers 11, Beasts 2: After the scoreless streak reached 27 innings, my offense revived, exploding for ten runs in the next five innings off Jim Palmer and Sparky Lyle. Frank Robinson began his advance on a .400 average with five hits in this one, a triple and four singles, and the onslaught was capped in a six-run seventh inning when Don Drysdale crushed a grand slam off Lyle, one of his three hits. That raised my record to 19-8, and I had pretty much killed the suspense of the pennant race (second-place money remained up for grabs until the final out of the season). The big question seemed to be whether I could win seven of my final nine games to get to 26-10.

Game 28: Pine Cones 7, Speakers 2: That goal got off to a rocky start in the final series of a long Saturday session. Catfish Hunter was strong for George, going the distance and scattering seven hits, four of them consecutive in the fourth inning when I scored my two runs. Mike Cuellar got his first-ever Russball start (Dave McNally was in the league briefly many years ago) but was knocked out in the third inning, having given up home runs to Kirby Puckett and Alan Trammell.

Game 29: Speakers 8, Pine Cones: The final score was closer than the game, as my lineup beat up Gaylord Perry and two relievers for 15 hits, including three more by Frank Robinson. Bob Gibson led 5-0 through seven innings and 8-2 going to the bottom of the ninth before allowing Roberto Clemente (who once broke Gibby's leg with a line drive) to hit a home run that made the final closer. 

Game 30: Pine Cones 10, Speakers 9: This post-midnight, sleepy-managers battle closed off the second day of battle and seemed to cost me a shot at that 26-10 record. It was another seesaw marked by nine home runs, five of them in the first three innings. In both the second and third innings, Joe Morgan and Thurman Munson homered off Don Drysdale, who once again beaned the batter who followed a Munson blast. That only cost him two more runs, and he was done after three innings, trailing 7-3. But I rebounded against Ferguson Jenkins (originally a Speaker--and extremely gracious when I talked pitching with him during a Hall of Fame induction weekend) and Tug McGraw. In the fifth inning, Eddie Murray's three-run homer, his second round-tripper of the game, tied it 7-7. In the home half, Morgan belted his third homer of the game, but I scored two quick runs to take a 9-8 lead that lasted until the bottom of the ninth. George Brett homered off Bruce Sutter leading off the inning to tie the game, and George won it on a Willie McCovey single, a stolen base by pinch-runner Rickey Henderson, and a game-winning hit by Alan Trammell. At the end of Day 2, the Speakers had a 20-10 record and a four-game lead with six games left in the season.

Game 31: Speakers 2, Kittens 1: The final day began with my Speakers hosting the last-place Kittens, whose offense had struggled despite being centered around Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Yogi Berra had five hits in the season opener and batted .344, while Mantle was the runner-up in the home run race with 10 and drove in 26 runs, but the rest of the offense sputtered, Mays hit just .253, and the Kittens averaged 4.1 runs per game, lowest in the league. Bob Gibson held them down this time as the only run scored on a double play, and I did all my damage off Whitey Ford in the first inning. With one out, Wade Boggs singled and Frank Robinson homered, and we spent the rest of the game watching Gibson cling to that lead. 

Game 32: Speakers 9, Kittens 5: This was a rout until Don Drysdale got in a pissy mood again and hit the leadoff batter in the eighth inning, leading to a four-run comeback. I got home runs by Vada Pinson and Cal Ripken in the fifth inning to go ahead 6-1, and broke it open the next inning on a three-run double by Joe Torre. Frank Robinson had another four-hit outburst, with three of the hits doubles, overcoming home runs by Mantle and Mays. Oh yeah--this win also clinched the pennant, raising my record to 22-10.

Game 33: Speakers 6, Kittens 5: This exciting battle gave my Speakers a sweep and a shot at 26-10. Warren Spahn seemed to be cruising again with a 3-1 lead heading to the eighth inning, but went cold and surrendered five straight hits. Suddenly he was behind, 4-3, but I regained the lead in my half of the inning on Joe Torre's two-run home run. Winning in Russball isn't that easy, however. Mickey Mantle's sacrifice fly tied the game in the ninth before I won it with a funky rally against Wilbur Wood. With one out, Wade Boggs walked and advanced when Frank Robinson took a knuckler off the kneecap, taking one for the team. Eddie Murray followed with a sharp single, but Boggs was thrown out at the plate. With two outs, Vada Pinson singled, and this was another close play at the plate. Frank Robinson slid under the tag to score the winning run. 

Game 34: Speakers 7, Beasts 5: The season ended with my Speakers hosting the Beasts, who started the series with a two-game lead over the Pine Cones for second place. The Pine Cones and Kittens played three one-run games, the first one going 13 innings as George won to challenge Stew after this victory that went down to the wire. Home runs by Eddie Murray and Tony Gwynn staked Dwight Gooden to a 4-0 lead, and he left in the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead after putting the first two runners on base. I made a key move by bringing in John Hiller to pitch to Smoky Burgess, and he induced a double-play grounder that ruined that threat. It was 5-2 with two outs in the ninth inning when Carl Yastrzemski kept Stew's hopes alive with a game-tying, three-run home run. But I had the last laugh in the home half when Gwynn belted his second home run of the game (and third of the season) following a pinch-hit double by Keith Hernandez. Dennis Eckersley, by giving up the home run to Yaz, scavenged the win to go to 6-0, while Hank Aaron secured the home run title with his 11th of the season. 

Game 35: Speakers 6, Beasts 4: Warren Spahn gave up two unearned runs in the top of the first inning, but it was all Speakers after that. Frank Robinson starred again with a pair of home runs and a single, and Spahn led 6-4 to the ninth inning. Dale Murphy homered with two outs to make the score closer, but that was that as Spahn took the wins title with a 7-1 record. George had a great chance to tie Stew, leading 3-1 to the bottom of the ninth, but Tim rallied for three runs to win and keep Stew one game ahead going into the finale. More importantly for me, it meant that one more win would bring my record to the all-time mark of 26-10.

Game 36: Speakers 7, Beasts 2: It was a traditional pairing of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax with a lot on the line, but the Koufax who showed up was the late-1950s version, not the vintage Koufax of the mid-1960s. He walked seven Speakers in the first five innings and nine in seven innings of work, and the Speakers took full advantage of that wildness. Frank Robinson's home run keyed a fifth-inning rally that gave me a 4-0 lead, and Gibson cruised after that, striking out 12 more Beasts to clinch the strikeout title (five statistical categories were worth $10 apiece: strikeouts (Gibson), wins (Spahn), hits (Pete Rose edging Robinson, 63-62, both breaking Rose's old record of 59), home runs (Aaron), and RBI (Murray). Meanwhile, Tim and George were locked in another dandy in their finale:

George needed this win to tie Stew for second place once I completed my sweep. A three-run home run by Don Mattingly gave Tim an early lead, but Luis Tiant was ruined by a pair of sixth-inning errors which helped George take a 5-4 lead. It was 6-4 to the bottom of the ninth, when Yogi Berra's home run made it 6-5. But Dan Quisenberry retired Tony Fernandez for the final out to clinch a second-place tie at 17-19.

So my Speakers were the only winning team in the league, winning all six games on Sunday to reach the 26-10 elevation. That made me happy (yes, and amazed):

It truly was a team effort by the Speakers, an offensive juggernaut most of the season except for that strange 27-inning wipeout midway through. The team averaged 5.7 runs per game and fell just six runs short of a one-season record (set by those 26-10 Dirt Sox). I had five players drive in at least 20 runs and five score at least 20, and Eddie Murray did earn the MVP Award with his clutch hitting as I built up my cushion. He finished with a .310 average, 10 home runs, and 32 RBI. But Frank Robinson earned the equivalent of the "Player of the Year" Award with one of the most impressive offensive displays in Russball history. He became the first everyday player to bat over .400 (it has been done a few times but mainly by platoon players with not much more than the minimum 72 at-bats). He finished at .405 on his 62 hits, leading the league with 35 runs scored and 18 doubles (in 36 games!). After driving in just one run in his first ten games, "F. Robby" pounded 28 RBI in his final 26 games to finish as runner-up to Murray for the RBI title. 

The pitching was strong as well, especially the big three of Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, and Dennis Eckersley. Any one of them could have won the vaunted Lefty Grove Award, given to the outstanding pitcher in each Russball season. Gibson went 5-1 with a 2.19 ERA that was tops among the league's starting pitchers, and led with 80 strikeouts (43 of them in three starts against the Beasts, 37 in six starts against the other two teams). Eckersley went 6-0 and did have the best ERA in the league at 1.93, just qualifying for the ERA title. And Spahn led in wins with his 7-1 record, added a fine 2.66 ERA, and would have put up even better numbers except for a few late-inning slips.

There you have it: How I Did It at the big Russball reunion weekend. Much more energy was devoted to the Russball than to the reunion itself, something we'd like to change next time around by playing three 12-game days and leaving more time for visiting. That will happen sometime down the road, but we pulled this weekend off in fine style. Thanks again to Stew, George and Tim for making it such a great weekend. And thanks to anybody who has stuck with me through reading this happy recap. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Mallomar Series: A New Russball Classic

I'm heading for Albany airport in a few hours for the long haul to Las Vegas and the big Russball reunion. Fueled by prednisone and the hunger for competition, I can hardly wait. I felt that way 24 hours ago, but after last night's exhibition series, I'm much more psyched. Let me tell you why.

Freddy Berowski came over for dinner yesterday. Freddy was my colleague and sidekick for seven years at the library of the Hall of Fame, and we became such good friends that we called ourselves "Bat-Mensch" and "The Goy Wonder." He recently left the Hall of Fame to run the library at the college in his hometown about an hour away from here, but was in town this week for a librarians' conference. So last night he came to dinner, and Linda made a delicious dinner--roast chicken, roasted potatoes and onions, corn on the cob--which we quickly devoured before getting to dessert: a game of Russball.

I introduced Linda to this wonder of table-top baseball a few weeks ago, and Freddy had never played the game. Now, after last night's thrilling series, they're both ready to start a four-team league, as soon as we can round up a fourth manager.

I let Freddy have his pick for a starting lineup, and he came up with: Henderson, Carew, Mays, Aaron, Schmidt, Berra, Banks, and Mattingly. That left me to struggle along with a lineup of Gwynn, Clemente, Brett, Frank Robinson, Bench, Murray, Molitor, and Ripken. Even though our starting pitchers were immortals, too, only one of them was sharp enough to avoid decimation at the hands of these scary squads. We also chose three relievers and three pinch-hitters apiece, and headed into action. Freddy, using a team name which has won him several pennants in fantasy leagues, managed Sonic Death Monkey, while I, in honor of the prednisone, captained The Invincibles (or so I hoped).

When I played two introductory games with Linda, the lineups weren't as formidable and the starting pitchers were hot, so we saw just eight runs in two games. Last night, we saw eight runs in the first inning! I led off with a single, triple, and two doubles off Warren Spahn, but Freddy came back with five runs off Tom Seaver, including two singles and two steals by Henderson. I tied it in the fourth inning on back-to-back homers by Molitor and Ripken, soon fell behind 7-5, and rallied in the seventh inning against the beleaguered Spahn, who lasted long enough to surrender 16 hits. Bench tied it with a two-run homer and Gwynn singled in the go-ahead run.

But Sonic Death Monkey got two runs and the lead right back on RBI hits by Banks and Mattingly, leading to the thrilling ninth inning. Facing Dennis Eckersley, I got a leadoff single by Murray and a ground-rule double by Molitor, but Cal Ripken (3-for-3 up to that point) took a called third strike. In came John Franco, who got Wade Boggs on a comebacker and fanned Gwynn to save the 9-8 victory.

Between games, Freddy wandered into the kitchen and spotted a box of Mallomars. "Be careful," I told him as he opened it up and found only one of the cherished cookies remaining. He groaned and said he couldn't take the last one from me. But as we began the second game, Linda started busting my balls for not letting Freddy have the last Mallomar, and pretty soon it was decided that if he beat me again, he could have it. Fair enough, though the ballbusting continued and it became the running theme of the rest of the series.

I was the home team in the second game, pitching Sandy Koufax against Bob Gibson. Koufax had nothing and Sonic Death Monkey jumped all over him. Berra's three-run homer capped a four-run second inning, one more run followed in the third, and Mays' two-run shot in the fourth game him an 8-2 lead. He said he could already taste that Mallomar, but Russball isn't such a simple matter. No lead is safe unless you have a hot pitcher, and Gibson soon faltered while my bullpen duo of Dick Radatz and Tug McGraw took over from Koufax after the fifth inning.

Bench hit another two-run homer in the sixth inning to make it 8-4, and doubled in another run in the seventh. In the eighth, Hoyt Wilhelm relieved Gibby and was greeted by back-to-back homers off the dice-bats of Ripken and Carl Yastrzemski. That set the stage for another thrilling ninth inning. John Franco, hero of the first game, had replaced Wilhelm after the Yaz blast to mow down three straight Invincibles to hold the 8-7 lead. But he weakened in the ninth inning, giving up a one-out single to Clemente and walking Bench. Molitor singled in the tying run, with Bench racing to third. In came Eckersley, but his first pitch sailed high and past Berra for a wild pitch that brought in the winning run.

After coming back from the 8-2 deficit, I felt pretty good about protecting that Mallomar. We even added another reliever and pinch-hitter to give us more managing options, but that turned out not to be a factor. I started Nolan Ryan against Juan Marichal, and it was the Dominican Dandy (known fondly in our traditional Las Vegas Russball leagues as "the high-steppin' Dominican motherfucker") who proved the only starting pitcher hot enough to stifle the opposition.

Ryan had nothing and was drilled for seven runs in the first three innings. Four straight hits fueled a three-run outburst in the first inning, and home runs by Willie McCovey and Banks opened up a 7-0 lead after three innings. I got one run back in the fourth, but Radatz weakened in the fifth, and Aaron's three-run homered made it 11-1. "You're only ahead by one," I said in a feeble attempt to slow the momentum, but Marichal was too hot, leaving after seven innings with that 11-1 lead. Aaron hit his second homer of the game in the eighth inning, and even a three-run rally by The Invincibles in the ninth didn't spark much excitement.

The whole series was a hoot, with 84 hits (42 for each team), 13 home runs, and five different guys putting up four-hit games (Robinson, Molitor, Clemente, Aaron, and Carew). Cal Ripken had the most impressive series with seven hits including three homers and three doubles. There was plenty of excitement, lots of razzing, running jokes, and the usual roller-coaster of Russball emotions. Now Linda understands why this weekend in Las Vegas is going to be fun. What she isn't sure of is how we're going to make it through 15 games a day, considering how drained I was after a mere three-game series last night.

Meanwhile, who knows if we'll get a Cooperstown Russball league going. Freddy will certainly play some more. Next time, we're playing for a whole box of Mallomars! Bring it on!