Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Telling Moments"

I’m ten years old. I’m sitting in Toronto’s minor league ballpark, Maple Leaf Stadium, at the bottom of Front Street. In those days, Toronto had a minor league baseball team with the same name as the city’s historic hockey team

The Leafs.

My friend as I have purchased front row Box Seats, directly over the (home team) third base dugout. A buck-fifty. A lot for a kid, but we splurged. It’s a special day.

The major league Milwaukee Braves have flown in for their annual exhibition game with their “Triple-A” affiliate, my beloved Maple Leafs. Such games are a longstanding tradition. Decades later, I would witness a similar exhibition between the “A”-ball South Bend Silver Hawks, of which I was then a part owner, and their parent organization, the recent World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

The games have a predictable progression. The big leaguers strut their stuff for a while. But by the fifth inning, the equipment manager is pitching, and the traveling secretary’s playing third base.

It was exciting watching the Diamondbacks playing the Silver Hawks. But not as exciting as when Milwaukee came to Toronto when I was ten.

We arrive early, uncrowned royalty, heading for our front row seats. The Braves are on the field, taking infield practice. Standing directly in front me the Milwaukee third baseman, the spectacular Eddie Matthews. During his career, Matthews would be a nine-time All-Star, hit 512 home runs, and upon retirement, be elected to Hall of Fame. The guy was a superstar. Up there with Mickey Mantle.

So what do I do? I immediately start razzin’ him. And his entire team. And I’m merciless. I mean, the things that came out of my ten-year-old mouth.

“You’re over the hill, Matthews. You can’t play anymore. Big shot major leaguers. Think you can beat up on us minor league nobodies. You’re in for a surprise, Big Boy. We’re gonna make you look silly. We’re gonna embarrass you bad.”

I had no idea where this is coming from. Am I that kid? With the mouth? I’m usually pretty quiet. But, you’re anonymous in a crowd, a few Cokes under your belt…swaggering Bigtimers facing minor leaguers playing in Canada. Though no one had asked me to, I felt my duty to take these visiting hotshots down a peg.

I keep at it for about twenty minutes, really rippin’ ‘em to shreds, especially Matthews.

And then it happens.

First baseman Joe Adcock, tosses an easy grounder to third. The ball goes through Matthews’ legs, continuing into foul territory, towards the third base dugout, stopping

Almost directly in front of me.

And there it sits.

An authentic, professional baseball. Totally unguarded. Maybe three feet away.

The next move is obvious. I jump over the wall, snatch up the baseball, and climb back into the stands, waving it aloft, like an enemy scalp.

I do not do that.

What do I do?


It’s a Moment for Truth. When you show what you’re made of. And I just sat there. Apparently, what I’m made of is Jell-o.

I don’t know, I was probably worried that if I ran onto the field, they’d throw me out. I’m a Good Boy. Good Boys don’t get ejected from ballparks. Good Boys stay in their seats. Even when the ball’s sitting there in front of them. Three feet away.

No. That wasn’t the reason I didn’t move. That’s just the cover-up reason. The real reason was I was scared. Scared of what? I’m not exactly sure. That people would boo me, that I’d pick up the ball and then not be able to climb back over the wall, I don’t know. I just knew this. Nothing bad would happen to me – aside from the lifelong shame and embarrassment – if I simply remained in my seat.

So that’s what I did.

Matthews lopes over to retrieve the ball. Passing me on his way back to his position, he looks me straight in the face and says, “What’s the matter?”

Oh, my God, it was a set-up! Eddie Matthews, enjoying my youthful taunting, had deliberately let Adcock’s practice toss go through his legs, allowing the ball to roll my way, so I could jump onto the field and pick it up. This wasn’t an accident. Matthews had done it for me.

And I just sat there.

There are times you wish you could do things over. This isn’t one of them. Why not? It would not cheer me to discover that if the situation were repeated

I’d do exactly the same thing.


Keith said...

I punked out once in nineth grade. We were in English class talking about personification. The teacher read an example:

"The well belched forth with a gush of oil."

"Now, oil wells don't actually belch, do they?" she asked.

Immediately the punchline comes to me - "Not unless they're really crude"

Perfect set up, just waiting for me to show everyone how clever I am. But I, too, was scared. No reason other than I don't like attention. I think, given another chance, and still being fifteen, I'd punk out again. As David Mamet says in State and Main: The only second chance you get is the chance to make the same mistake twice.

A. Buck Short said...

A true Jean Shepherd moment. Enjoyed.

But if Hank Aaron had fired the ball into third all the way from right field, with Matthews’ this time intentionally letting it fly over his head and into the stands, would you have then given it back? What’s a guy gotta do to give some lucky guy a souvenir, as they used to say?

You would have been considerably younger than 10, but when they were the Boston Braves, playing in Braves Field that is now a Boston University high-rise dorm complex, the pitching duo of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain together once when 8-0 in less than two weeks. Something like a double header , then an extra day off for rain that allowed the pair back in rotation for the next two days, wins 5 and 6 three days after that, then a double header for a total of 8 sequential wins.

This worked out so well, a poem in the Boston newspaper sports section suggested the team go with the same strategy from then on. Something like:

Go with Spahn
Then use Sain
Then a day off
Followed by rain
Back comes Spahn
Followed by Sain
And followed
We hope
By two days of rain.

Later was shortened to “Spahn and Sain and Sain and pray for rain. So what was it with Milwaukee in Toronto: “Spahn, Burdette, then let’s get wet?” And collectively were they the ‘Leafs” because “Leaves” sound like sissies? What’s with that?

A. Buck Short said...

Why Jewz Raz.I think it must be to honor the first “professional” baseball player, who also happened to have been the first Jewish ballplayer, Lipman “Lip” Pike -- by taking his nickname literally. The slugger, who once homered 6 times in a single game, batted a respectable .321 avg. from 1866-1881. He became the first “professional” baseball player when it was discovered in his first year of play that the allegedly amateur Philadelphia Athletics had be slipping him $20/game, and Pike was called before the league to defend himself. It was rumored others had also been paid, but Lip was the first guy for whom it became public knowledge. Which essentially paved the way for everybody and his aunt Sophie to go pro within 3 years.

What Barry Bonds is to steroids is what Lipman Pike was to a sawbuck – and I’d like to think an inspiration to Arnold Rothstein and his 1919 Blacksox.

Amazing, the first player to get paid, not just the agent of the first player to get paid! If I find out Pike also sold the team the material for the uniforms, well his life would have been an even greater work of art.

Only complication is that the Lip himself would never be caught razzin' anybody on the field. He was known as a consummate gentleman at all times. Which is why the rest of us have to pitch in.

You can read about it if you want:



Anonymous said...

That was a great story, Earl. I really enjoyed it. And it reminded me of one of my worst "choke" moments. The scene was back in 1962 and I was 9 years old. The Eastern States Exposition, New England's largest fair, was located in our town. My uncle led the band for the rodeo entertainment and that year, the stars of "Gunsmoke" were the main attraction... James Arness as Matt Dillon and the actors who played Doc, Chester and Miss Kitty. Anyway, my grandmother loved "Gunsmoke" and so my uncle talked them into coming over to our house and surprise my grandmother. I was afraid to meet them, so I went to school while my little brother Mike, then 6 and fearless, stayed home and there is a wonderful picture of Mike sitting on Dennis Weaver's lap, flanked by Doc and Miss Kitty, and you can see the white shoe polish from Mike's shoes staining Dennis Weaver's pants. It's one of our family's favorite photos and one of my earliest regrets that I was not in it. It probably doesn't sound like a big deal now, but "Gunsmoke" was the biggest show on TV back then and I totally blew it. Thanks for dredging up THAT memory, Earl... :)
"Anonymous Brian"

MikeThe Blogger said...

WOW!!! I was THERE - My uncle had third base season tickets right behind Jack Kent Cooke. He used to bring corned beef sandwiches from his restaurant to the players- I have a SIGNED Milwaukee Braves ball from that game in my den.