This week’s question for Pandemic Baseball Book Club members: What is a phrase, sentence or paragraph from your book of which you are particularly fond?
Pitcher Gene Brabender said he still liked Bouton, but thought he had used bad judgment in writing the book. “A guy making his living at it has no right to knock the game,” he said. Without the benefit of time, none of the marginal Pilot players could have realized that by making them human, Ball Four had made them immortal.
“A lot of times, if you have the right last name and you have a bunch of money, you can do whatever you want,” Wright said, “That’s never the case in baseball. They couldn’t care less.”
It’s baseball’s cruel reality and part of its charm: Nothing is ever handed to you, and even what you earn for yourself can always be taken away.
My book Hall of Name aims to inform and educate while entertaining. I like to inject some humor into my discussions of the origin stories of player names. One example is with a fellow named Ralph Works, a pitcher for the Tigers and Reds in the early 1900s:
THE WONDER OF HIS NAME: This guy makes our “All Verb” team (or he could be on the “All Noun” team I suppose). He could have been part of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine ...
Costello: Your pitcher?
Costello: Your pitcher works?
Abbott: Yes, Works.
Costello: Yes, I know he works, but who works as your pitcher?
Abbott: No, who’s on first.
Costello: I’m not asking about first. I’m asking about the pitcher.
Abbott: I told you. Works.
Costello: I know he works, but I’m asking what his name is!
Abbott: What’s on second.
Costello: I guess he works too?
Abbott: No, he’s the pitcher.
Jocko Conlan and Ted Williams are the only two Hall of Famers spending eternity in Arizona. The following is a passage from my chapter on AZ that compares the fates of the two men, and features one of my favorite turns of phrase in the book:
Despite having nearly concurrent careers (Williams played from 1939-1960, while Conlan umpired from 1941-1965), the two greats only appeared on the same field three times, in the 1947, 1950 and 1958 All-Star games. They served in different leagues, and regular season interleague games were still decades away. Today, the two men are a study in fire and ice, with one spending eternity baking under the Arizona sun and the other waiting at sub-zero temperatures for science to catch up to the dreams of his son.
The thing about Valenzuela wasn’t that he was an unknown pitcher making his first major league start on the early season’s biggest stage. It wasn’t that he spoke virtually no English, necessitating Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin to translate for him at nearly every turn. It wasn’t that as a kid from the dusty plains of Mexico he had not yet adapted to life in Los Angeles. It was not his pudgy cheeks, or his stomach bulging over his belt, or the unique hitch in his delivery in which, with his lead leg lifted, he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. It was not his habit of constantly blowing chewing-gum bubbles, sometimes in the middle of his windup. It was not that he was a 20-year-old who looked to be in his middle thirties. It was not even that he was left-handed, or that his out-pitch was a flippin’ screwball.
It was all of it together, a full package containing mystery (The guy barely talks!), comedy (That belly! That haircut! That form!) and straight-up befuddlement (How does he do nothing but win?) Baseball had seen its share of flashing mound talent over recent years—Mark Fidrych in 1976, Vida Blue in ’71—but nobody quite captured the collective imagination like Fernando. The guy had been so anonymous that in a baseball card industry recently flush with competition, only Fleer saw fit to include him in its 1981 set … and misspelled his name.
Juan Aréchiga never went to war, but sometimes it seemed like he lived life like a war. He could be funny and charming and also mean and mercurial. He was always looking for something, looking for his place in the world. He was a seeker—of adventure, of money, of meaning—and a fighter against injustice when he saw it. Juan was not formally educated, having dropped out of school before he could even properly read. But Juan saw the way that people like him were treated in this country. He heard the way the politicians talked about people like him. Why should he die for a country like this? When it came time for his army physical, he played deaf.
“Repeat after me,” the officers said.
It's late summer of 2007, and Yogi Berra is visiting a dying Phil Rizutto at a New Jersey nursing home.
The two men reminisce about DiMaggio, White, the Mick, and so many others. Eating Momma Berra’s pasta when the Yankees played in St. Louis. Buying cannolis from their favorite Italian bakery in Jersey City after visiting their friend Ed Lucas, the blind sports reporter. And golf, always golf. So many great times together.
Yogi stops talking as Phil falls asleep, then kisses Rizzuto on the forehead. “I’ll see you soon, buddy,” he whispers, then tiptoes out.
Rizutto is gone just a few weeks later.
The year was 1984. Fans who once dreaded going to Shea Stadium were now coming in droves. Those who occupied a section in the left-field corner hung “K” signs with each strikeout he racked up. And there were a lot of them. He kept everyone in his purview enthralled—fans, teammates, and those unlucky enough to face him. When the young man they called “Dr. K” was at his best, it was hard to envision anyone better.
There is a direct correlation between the Tom Seaver trade in June 1977 and the moment when Shea, for all intents and purposes, went dark. While Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry brought attitude and power, respectively, when they arrived in 1983, it was Dwight Gooden—at a mere 19 years old—who brought the electricity back.
Terrmel Sledge can only thank manager Frank Robinson for being patient with him, mentoring him, guiding him, coaching him, accepting him when maybe the hard-nosed manager could have just abandoned him and had him dispatched to the minors.
There are plenty of reasons Roger Angell is the poet laureate of baseball, and here’s one. For the “24” book, I asked Roger, who was 98 years old and saw Babe Ruth in his prime, about Willie Mays’ grace and style. The answer provided one of my favorite passages in the book:
“He was always a kid with that high voice and excitement level, always with a boyish enthusiasm. The Say Hey Kid and rightly named. I can see DiMaggio with his long strides, never hurried, and I never remember him falling down or lunging for something. He was remarkable. But Willie would run faster and farther and make a great play. He engaged you. You’d go wow. You'd never go wow with DiMaggio, who had grace and style but kept you at a distance. Willie had tremendous speed. Deadly hitter. Great fielder. He caught the ball a new way, and all around the country, kids were trying basket catches.”
My 11,341-mile road trip over 49 days in the summer of 2015 required a breakneck pace. The passage below represents one of the few times that I literally stopped everything and was still. That moment fishing in the backyard of my childhood home is one of my favorite memories from what ended up being a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
My eyes are locked on to a fixed point—the bobber—which darts underwater if a fish grabs the worm squirming below. But for the most it just floats there, directing all of my focus and attention to its slightest shift in direction. My breath slows, my body loosens, and the spaces between my thoughts grow larger, creating stretches of complete presence where the past is long gone and the future is still in motion.
Control what you can control, Rance told me.
Let it go, Steve Yeager said.
I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond, Don Carman said.
I’ve been sitting here on the dock for an hour without having caught a single fish. I feel as content as I have since leaving Oakland.
Fishing isn’t about catching fish.