“Our similarities are different —“
Dale Berra, speaking about his dad, Yogi
I am often drawn to the oddballs of baseball, from pitchers to catchers, and every player in between; perhaps because I admire their world view. Yogi said it best. You could make sense of his twisted syntax most of the time. Like why it was hard to play left field at Yankee Stadium in afternoon game: “It gets late early out there.” You had to imagine the shadows for yourself. Dale hit pitches that were way too high or too low in the family spirit, but not as often as his dad. He played ten years, which is a long career, then was lost in the shadows of left field.
One of my favorite characters is Spaceman Bill Lee. He had the perfect nickname for a left-handed pitcher. Bill is a little off-center and I like that. We were both high school pitchers in suburban Los Angeles in 1964. I wanted to pitch for USC, but I never heard from coach Rod Dedeaux (Or the Dodgers). Seventeen of the twenty major league teams that year were watching me closely, along with UCLA and Stanford. I had scholarship offers from those two schools. But, in the end the Colt 45’s and Cubs got in a bidding war that produced a bonus beyond all scholarships. I took it. I think Bill got his nickname because he was outspoken as a pitcher; his opinions were “out there.”
I got mine for the occasional daydream.
“Earth to Moonman,” my friend Bill Kringlen would say. “Come in Moonman.” I’d snap out of it. I don’t think there is really that much difference between being “out there” and being “spacey.”
I was a hard thrower. They didn’t have radar guns back then, but it was obvious. Bill Lee was an all-around athlete. He was crafty, but not overpowering. He ran well and was a good left-handed hitter. I think that’s what got Dedeaux’s attention. If Rod had offered me a ride, I might have turned down the money. The Spaceman and the Moonman could have been Trojan horses. It would have been fun playing for my mom’s Alma Mater. Plus, Dedeaux was a legend. One of his good pals, Casey Stengel, was like Bill Lee in some ways. He lived in Burbank, was left-handed, and said strange things. Dedeaux claimed that everything Casey said to him made perfect sense. He was the type of coach a Spaceman and a Moonman could really appreciate.
There was one slight problem with the space cadet scenario. There just happened to be another California pitcher coming to USC off a great year in Alaska. His name was Tom Seaver. Tom Terrific, if you will. He wasn’t as nutty as we were, but he certainly would have competed for the innings. Pitching at USC would have saved me a couple hundred innings during the next three years. Heck, Astros Pitching Coach Brent Strom might have chased me out of there. He led the Trojans to a National Championship in what wouldn’t have been my senior year. I wouldn’t have had to pitch many innings at all at USC.
Who knows what would have happened? I might have ended up with the Cubs.
The Spaceman had an Eephus pitch in his repertoire. The last pitcher to use this weapon was Rip Sewell in the 1940’s. Given the lapse of time the Spaceman claimed the pitch as his own, calling it the Leephus ball, or at times, the Space Ball. It was not out there, but “up there”. The pitch was thrown with the same motion as his other pitches, but its arc was much higher. Thrown properly, the catcher would catch it with his pocket to the sky right behind the hitter.
It traveled further aloft than a slow-pitched softball. For the hitters, it was enigmatic. It could be downright embarrassing. Bill developed the pitch in Boston. He was not easily embarrassed. The Red Sox tolerated the radical things he said, as well as the Leephus pitch, because Lee won a lot of games and had a good E. R. A. When he turned his agile tongue against them, they traded him to the Montreal Expos.
I was already on the junk heap at the time, malingering in the broadcast booth. One night at Olympic Stadium, Bill threw his signature pitch to Astros slugger Glenn Davis. Davis promptly deposited it into the left field seats. It was a sight to see.
“That boy should have known better,” Davis said afterwards on the post-game show. “Down south where I come from, we play a lot of slow pitch softball.”
On another dark night, far away from Olympic Stadium, the Spaceman was riding his bicycle on a trail on Mount Royal. Perhaps the city skyline distracted him. He ran into a chain link fence at high speed sustaining injuries that would require him to spend some time on the disabled list. I could identify with that. My wife and I lived near the posh neighborhood of River Oaks in Houston for a few years. When I got home from a road trip at three or four in the morning, we sometimes took advantage of the sleeping aristocrats by using their wide boulevards for romantic bike rides. How do you explain that the next day if you get hurt?
Ask Bill Lee.
I didn’t have any crazy pitches, but I did fool around with what Christy Matthewson called an outshoot. (a Screwball) It wasn’t in the same league as my teammate Mike Cuellar’s, but I had the element of surprise and it never really hurt me.
I did do one thing that was really “out there.” It sprung from my inability to hold runners on first. Ernie Lombardy probably could have stolen second on me. I started thinking abstractly about how to solve this problem. The rule book stipulated that a pitcher could not throw to an open base. But…if a runner was on the move, he could throw to the base he was heading for. I talked to a couple of umpires and they affirmed my interpretation.
I practiced my Luis Tiant corkscrew delivery in the bullpen. The idea was to spin around facing second base and hold. If the runner on first broke, I would throw the ball to a middle infielder. When I alerted them, they just shook their heads and said, “right”. If the runner did not break, I would just spin back and throw the pitch.
I broke it out against the Reds in the Astrodome, and it was a big success. I looked over my right shoulder in the set position. When I corkscrewed around, Joe Morgan edged back toward first. The hitter, George Foster, was confused. He took couple of feeble swings and struck out. I thought I really had something going. My next start was in Philadelphia, home of the most brutal fans on the planet. When Larry Bowa got on base, I went into my act. On the first pitch, he just observed. On the second, he set sail for second just as I was turning back to the plate. My off-balance throw toward second rolled along the ground. I fell over backward, and the umpire yelled “balk!” Bowa stood on second laughing at me and the crowd went nuts. Well, hell, he would have stolen second anyway.
In September of 1969, the Astros were in the pennant race for the first time. We were two games behind the Braves when I took the hill opposite Phil Niekro. I had a no-hitter going in the seventh inning of a scoreless game when another guy who was “out there”, veteran Jim Bouton, came in from the bullpen to help me relax. When he saw me sitting there, singing Rocky Racoon, he went back to the bullpen. This incident is chronicled in Bouton’s tell-all tale Ball Four.
Bouton was the type of teammate I liked. Half nuts. This type of player was in short supply back then and is practically extinct now. I smile every time I think about that book. I come off pretty well in it, unless you think writing bawdy songs for the team to sing on the bus is unpardonable. It Makes a Fellow Proud to be an Astro was our favorite, probably because it lampooned our trainer and our manager, Harry Walker. I survived that without being exiled to Canada.
Now that I think about it, writing and pitching may have something in common. All the books I can think of that have been authored by baseball players, as opposed to ghosts, were written by pitchers. That defies the odds, as most teams carry more guys who play on flat ground. Someone will call me on this and I made a brief attempt to Google it but came up empty. Off the top of my head, ballplayer authors include Christie Matthewson, Jim Brosnan, Jim Bouton, Pat Jordan (who should probably be described as writer first and pitcher second), yours truly, Dirk Hayhurst, and Jerry Reuss.
All the rest of the baseball books have been written by pros. I thought Ted Williams wrote My Turn at Bat. He was “out there” too. Upon checking, I found that he was assisted by a writer like all the other hitters and most of the pitchers who have been caught between the covers. A former outfielder by the name of Doug Glanville has written some great columns. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has written a book by now.
All of this palaver is but a preamble to what I intend to do with this blog – to color outside the lines, to escape the reservation. I hope to present some new and possibly unconventional ideas. Or to play Devil’s Advocate with the rule makers at MLB.
Years ago, the Astros hired me to write a column for their in-stadium magazine. Prior to that season, MLB announced that instant replays would be used to review umpires’ calls — the perfect idea for column number one. I’ve seen the replay system in practice now and I haven’t changed my mind. It’s even worse than I thought it would be. Two umpires standing in front of the dugout with headsets on (yawn) waiting for repay judges to tell them whether they got it right or not.
The ones they miss on the bases are few and invariably so close that the cameras need super slow-mo, which the umps don’t have, to get it right. If anything, it shows how good they are. They don’t get any respect and they’re not as funny as Rodney Dangerfield. It’s a hell-of-a fix. Seriously, which would you rather watch… managers going bananas, or umpires standing in front of the dugout wearing headsets?
I hated running out there to argue when I was managing, but I had to. My players and our fans expected me to stand up for them. Sometimes, when I knew I was right and it was a game changing call, I was out there before I knew it. I went jalapenos, not bananas, on those occasions. I still smile at the mental images of Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Tommy LaSorda, Dallas Green and other skippers. Kicking dirt, spitting, and throwing their hats down. One time, Lou Pinella pulled third base from it’s moorings and spiked it. It was good theater. And no other sport had it. Headsets? C’mon. Do we have to keep copying football?
Of course, the outcomes of a few games are changed by overturned calls. My contention is that after 162 games, the same teams will end up in the playoffs. Once the playoffs start, I’d go with the replays because there aren’t enough games for things to even out. After playing six months to get into post season, it would be devastating to get knocked out by a bad call. It has happened. Ask Whitey Herzog and Todd Worrell.
I was already convinced that baseball made an egregious mistake experimenting with the DH in 1973. And from that year until this, MLB has shown football envy in practically every rule they’ve changed. I was floored when the Astros told me they could not put my column in the magazine because MLB wouldn’t approve it.
“Who cares,” I said. “I’m not speaking for them. It’s just my opinion.”
“But,” I was told. “They have to approve everything in our magazine.” (Including my opinion)
In other words, I was to toe the line, something I’ve never been any good at. I wrote pabulum the rest of the year and then retired as a columnist.
So, this is where we’re going from time to time. Most of my material glorifies the game. But sometimes I can’t resist the corkscrew pick-off or the barbed opinion. You don’t have to agree with me. In fact, you can let me know how you really feel, especially if you’re a fellow traveler or perhaps a left-handed pitcher.
Responses are welcomed below, so have at it!