In 1969, when Astros manager Harry Walker called me into his office to tell me I had made the All Star team, I was overjoyed. I didn’t let him know how happy I was because it was my habit to play it cool – a habit that served me well on the mound. I wasn’t that surprised actually as I was having a career year. But there were plenty of pitchers to choose from back then. Off the top of my head going team by team, there was Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver and Jim Bunning. And that’s just the Hall of Famers.
The game was held at Memorial Stadium in Washington D. C. We had a workout the day before the game. Just being in the same locker room with so many superstars was thrilling. There were four or five dozen balls on a small table waiting to be signed. On a larger table, there were gifts such as a sterling silver punch bowl with goblets, crystal glassware, a color TV, a set of golf clubs. I would guess that there were ten items, each of them worth $500 or so. My eyes were popping out. Which gift should I select? About that time Henry Aaron strolled by and said something to the effect that it would be nice if they got some new gifts because he already had everything on the table. This is not to suggest he was greedy – quite the opposite. The point is, making the team was a much bigger deal for me than for him and many of my other teammates, like Willie Mays for example.
After the workout, we were bussed to the White House for a tour and an audience with President Nixon. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but that really made me feel important. Sure, Nixon was a polarizing figure who was later forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal. But he was also a baseball fan. Perhaps he was prepped, but I was surprised when he asked me if I was going to turn my slider loose on the American League. He seemed to know something about every one of us. And there wasn’t a single player who skipped the White House reception for political reasons.
That night there was a Gala with a lot of stuffed-shirt speeches and a dance band. I cut out when the dancing started and went back to the Shoreham Hotel where we were staying and had a few drinks with some other players and their wives. It was not unusual for a player to have a drink in that hotel on the night before a game. Check Jim Bouton’s classic book, Ball Four, which was written that year, for hilarious details.
It rained the next day and even though the forecast showed no signs of clearing, we went to the ballpark. The game was washed out and re-scheduled for the next day. During batting practice, Willie Mays hit about 10 home runs in a row. After four or five, early-arriving fans started cheering. When the streak finally ended, he got a standing ovation, probably the first and only to occur before a game even started, and perhaps the inspiration of the Home Run Contest that precedes the All Star game these days. As it turned out, it was a day for the long ball. Willie McCovey hit two of them. Johnny Bench, Frank Howard and Bill Freehan also connected.
The National League carried a seven game winning streak into the game and didn’t waste any time protecting it. We scored nine runs in the first four innings and coasted to a 9-3 win. McCovey won the MVP Award. I got to pitch a third of an inning. Viewers in Houston told me later that I yawned as I got out of the golf cart that shuttled me to the mound, which proves that you can yawn even when you are nervous. I got two strikes on Boog Powell right away and threw several sliders trying to strike him out. But I was too amped up. I just couldn’t get it down around his ankle where I wanted it. He ended up hitting a waist-high slider for a jam-shot single to right. Reggie Smith followed and popped up to end the inning. I got him with a change up, my fourth best pitch!
In 1971, I made the team again after starting the season 10-1. My last start before the game was at Candlestick Park. I had been pitching with elbow pain, but not so much that it affected my velocity or control. I thought it was just a sign that I was throwing my slider right. But that night, the pain was severe and it did affect my pitches. We scored two in the first and the Giants kept making outs. They finally knocked me out of the game in the eighth. I was 11-6 with an ERA of 2.60 at the time and I had heard rumors that I was going to start the All-Star game. Instead, I went on the disabled list and my teammate Don Wilson replaced me on the team and pitched two scoreless innings in Detroit. Reggie Jackson hit a towering home run into the lights in right center that day. It looked like the blast Roy Hobbs hit in The Natural but this was Detroit, not Hollywood and there was no eruption of fireworks. The American League did finally win after losing nine straight to the senior circuit.
The atmosphere wasn’t quite as exciting that time, probably because I was disabled and had already made the team once. It was a lot different in Atlanta in 2001. That year, Bobby Cox selected me as a coach because we had won our division in 1999. He selected Bobby Valentine of the Mets and Buck Showalter of the D’Backs for the same reason. Everything about that game was hyped beyond my imagination. There were lots of receptions, dinners, parties and interviews. They even interviewed me, for some unknown reason. There were probably fifty dozen balls to sign. The gifts they showered on us were lavish. The Nike bag of goodies alone was worth a couple thousand dollars.
The home run contest was amazing, coming as it did in the midst of the steroid era. I can’t recall who won it, but Sammy Sosa hit two or three that were in the five hundred foot range. My son Ryan came to the park with me both days and we were sitting in front of the dugout watching the power display. He even got to shag balls with me during batting practice.
The American League won that game and all the hoopla that preceded it diminished the game itself. It was obvious that there was no league pride, no burning desire to win. It was more like a spring training game with a big crowd.
Still, these games are among the many things I am grateful for. I didn’t ask for the ability to play major league baseball. I was born with it. I never had to agonize over what I wanted to do for a living like my children – like most children. Sure, I practiced a lot. And I was a good enough student to learn to speak and write, which led to a broadcast career and numerous writing opportunities. But without the strong throwing arm, I would have faced the unknown world of employment like my children.
The All Star games were the icing on the cake. The division championships as a manager were a longer process, more like making the cake from scratch. But all of it would have been impossible but for the folks that sometimes feel under-appreciated – the fans, who pay for it all.
How often does someone come up to you and tell you they enjoy your work? It happens all the time in sports. What is a pat on the back worth. A lot of pats on the back. It’s has been worth a lot to me and want to thank all of you for it.
Aloha nui loa
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