I attended my first game at the age of 8 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Dodger Stadium was not in existence yet. The Dodgers were playing the much hated Giants, and Don Drysdale was pitching. Attending that game made a tremendous impression on me. It wasn’t just the game itself, it was being in the middle of 30-40,000 cheering people, mostly adults, who were invested in the outcome of the game. It was at that point I began to see baseball as more than just ‘a game’.
My parents made me attend church every Sunday, but by the age of 9 or 10 I decided that baseball was my religion. Koufax and Drysdale might as well have been gods, and Vin Scully, the Dodgers radio voice the High Priest. Each game was like a sermon. You learned about baseball, the players, and the history of the game.
One day in the 5th grade, my best friend found out that Sandy Koufax was going to be speaking at a $100 a plate luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was about a four mile bike ride from where we lived, and it was in the middle of the week, so we would have to figure out how to miss school.
When we arrived at the Hilton, we searched until we found the banquet room where Sandy was the guest of honor. We asked the doorman if we could just look in and actually see Koufax. When he opened the door we saw Sandy sitting at a podium at the front of a large banquet room with at least 300 people having lunch and listening to various speakers. We both waved at Sandy, much to our surprise, he waved back.
It made our day!
We thanked the doorman and asked if Koufax would be coming out through these doors because we wanted to get his autograph. He told us that he would and we walked off looking for a good place to wait. As we were walking away, the doorman said, “Hey boys come back here”. He told us that Sandy wanted us to come in and join the luncheon. We couldn’t believe it, and we knew no one back at school was going to believe us either.
The waiters actually set up another table for us in the very front of the room, right near the podium. We were surrounded by wealthy businessmen wearing suits, and there we were in our jeans and T-shirts. It’s not everyday you get to meet God, but on that day 50 years ago, we thought we had. Needless to say, Sandy autographed our baseballs for us but it was so much more than just an autograph he had given us. It was a priceless memory and an act of kindness which showed that Koufax was more than just a great pitcher
Becoming a professional baseball player was a life long goal. Signing a contract to play in the Oakland A’s minor league system was emotionally satisfying, validating years of hard work. However as satisfying as it was there was also a downside to professional baseball. Everyone who has ever played professional baseball learns very quickly, that although the competition is better and the game itself hadn’t changed, we weren’t just playing baseball anymore. We were in the business of playing baseball.
Every minor league player has the same dream and shares a common goal: playing in the big leagues. But for 95% of them, the dream comes to an end in the minor leagues. To see one of your teammates released, and realizing it was the end of a life-long dream was painful. It was almost as if someone had died, in a very real way part of them had. The joyful innocence of a neighborhood pick-up game was a distant memory, replaced by the harsh realities of professional baseball.
Most of the players I have known will tell you that their time in the minor leagues was more enjoyable than the time spent in the major leagues, if for no other reason than minor league players spend more time together. Major league players live with their families at home and have a room to themselves on the road. Minor league players are roommates at home and on the road. They endure 10 hour bus rides, worry about playing time, slumps, injuries, and the possibility of being released. Most of all they share the dream of playing in the big leagues.
I got off to a great start in my second year playing for the 1976 Chattanooga Lookouts, the Double A affiliate for the Oakland A’s. I was 8-3 half way through the season, had a moving fastball in the mid 90’s, and good command of a sharp breaking slider. If it
wasn’t for the fact that the A’s were a team with several established veteran pitchers, I would likely have been called up to the big leagues.
In 1976, baseball was in the early years of free agency. By mid-season, A’s owner Charles Finley decided to trade and sell off his star players rather than lose them to free agency. Catfish Hunter had been traded to the Yankees and Reggie Jackson to the Orioles. When Finley attempted to sell Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Sal Bando, Bowie Kuhn who was the Commissioner of baseball prohibited the sale, saying that, “It wasn’t in the best interests of baseball”. Well it would have been in my best interests!
There is a very good chance that if those transactions had been allowed, I would have been pitching for the A’s that summer. Unfortunately I tore a tendon in my elbow later that season, eventually underwent elbow surgery, and spent the next two years
rehabbing, trying to get back on the path to the big leagues. I became a different pitcher by necessity. The velocity and movement on my fastball were diminished, and a curveball replaced my slider. The narrow and treacherous path to the big leagues became even more precarious.
In June of 1979, I finally made it to the promised land, and won my first game in Yankee Stadium in July. I felt privileged to have competed on the same field as Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, but even better having beaten the defending World Champions. I ended up with a with a 8-7 record on a team that lost 108 games.
Prior to the 1980 season the A’s hired Billy Martin to manage the team. He turned a horrible (54-108) team into a winning team (83-79) by maximizing the teams strengths which were starting pitching and speed. Rickey Henderson stole 100 bases. We led the league in ERA and set a modern-day record with 94 complete games.
1980 was also the year I lost 20 games. Despite pitching well, I suffered from a lack of offensive support. 20 game losers are almost always found on 90-100 loss teams. However, I managed to lose 20 games on a winning team, something that hadn’t been done since 1922, and very likely will never happen again. The hardest part of losing 20 games for me was the fact that I was the only one losing. The twenty game losers on those 100 loss teams had company. They say misery loves company, well I was all alone!
Billy Martin was a great manager. Few could match his knowledge of the game and none could match his willingness to take risks. He was a master of the element of surprise. Billy was a very intense individual. His intensity was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. The famous Lombardi quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, is the perfect description of what Billy was like. For Billy, losing was like a small piece of death.
As a player Billy was combative and frequently involved in fights. As a manager Billy could go from a great motivator to a bullying tyrant very quickly. He occasionally became involved in fights on and off the field, several of them with his own pitchers. One night at the hotel bar in Kansas City after a loss Billy decided he wanted to fight me. I didn’t see it as a wise decision for either of us. Obviously it wouldn’t be a good career move for me, and Billy was sure to get at least a short beating before thecoaches could intervene. We walked outside, me alone, and Billy with his entourage, his coaches as bodyguards, to get it on. When Rickey Henderson noticed everyone headed outside he asked what was going on. He was told to not get involved. To his credit he thought I looked outnumbered and disobeyed the coaches. Rickey was there for me if I needed help.
Billy began by poking me in the chest with his finger. I grabbed his hand and wouldn’t let him retract it. He tried to swing his other hand at me and I grabbed it too. The coaches rushed in to break it up, no punches landed by either side. Needless to say, 1980 was a very long year for me. Losing 20 games in a season is hard on any pitcher but doing it for Billy Martin made it twice as hard.
Billy could play the nice guy too. One time on a flight after I had pitched well but lost, he told Art Fowler to bring me up to the front of the plane where Billy and the coaches sat. He told me I had thrown a great game that day and he was proud of me. He said,
“Next year will better. You’re going to win 20 games next year”. I returned to the back of the plane and about 10 minutes later I see Art coming down the aisle again looking straight at me. “Billy wants to see you again” Art said. This time Billy was on his second bottle of wine. He said, “With you’re stuff your going to win 23 games for us next season”. The guys in the back of the plane wanted to know what Billy had told me. I said “The first time he said I was going to be a 20 game winner next year, and this time I had made it up to 23 wins. If this flight lasts long enough, who knows, I might have had a shot at winning 30!”
The next two years saw us go from a playoff team in 1981 to a 4th place finish in 1982. Our pitching staff that had completed 154 out of 271 games during the 1980 & 1981 seasons began to show symptoms of overuse. Billy’s relationship with the owners deteriorated quickly, and he was fired after the season. I was sold to Boston and ended my career with the Giants.
Baseball comes to an end for everyone who has played the game. The end may come in high school, college, or perhaps in professional baseball. Very few leave the game on their own terms. The longer you play the game the more it becomesa part of your life and the harder it is to say goodbye.
Satchel Paige was right when he said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you”. For a very longtime, that “something” was my baseball career. It was several years before I could enjoy talking about it and revisiting the memories. The end of a career can be like a divorce when someone you still love has decided to move on without you.
Despite not throwing a baseball for 25 years, teammates from college and high school convinced me to play baseball again in the MSBL World Series. What I discovered playing MSBL was beyond my greatest expectations. I rediscovered the joyful innocence
of playing baseball we all experienced as kids, playing the game because we love it. It was almost a shock to see guys hustling and playing hard because they wanted to and having a great time.
Baseball has always been more than just a game. Playing baseball for me is like going home again. New friends are made, and old friends are reunited. Vin Scully once said “It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between the All-Star Game and an old timer’s game” For some of us it has been five of six decades since our first game as a kid, yet it too seems like a mere moment. Our time together is magical, but unfortunately comes to an end all too soon.
They say that professional athletes die twice in this life, and the first time is when you stop playing. Thanks to the Mens Senior Baseball League, I am still trying to decide if I have been reincarnated or born again. Either way I consider myself lucky, not everyone gets to die three times. No worries though, old ballplayers never die, they just fade away.