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.

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