GOODBYE, HANDSOME STRANGER
My Grandfather, Howard Derr, died on Monday, February 7. He was 89 years old.
I'm not very good at this sort of thingthe late night phone call, the last minute travel, the viewing, the funeral... hell, even trying to capture the whole experience in a piece like this. Perhaps few are, but at these moments I feel as if I'm especially inept, stumbling around, mumbling stupid things, wondering if I'm showing enough emotion, if I'm being funny at the wrong times. As I was flying to Los Angeles from the Twin Cities, I had a backpack filled with books that I thought might help me get some insight, help me to untangle some of the feelings that were screwing around with my head. Packed in the bag were James Agee's A Death in the Family and the poetry of John Donne. Neither workedinstead I feasted on a biography of Preston Sturges I'd brought along in case the others proved too dense. It seemed fitting: Sturges described his life like it was a series of films, him sitting in the projector room, watching them play out in front of him. As our plane lost altitude descending into LAX, I turned to the same device. Except that the films of my Grandfather's life are silent, mysterious, begging explanation that no one has the ability to explain. Black and white and cheap color that jiggles from an unsteady hand. Home movies. All I can do is watch and wonder. Wonder what he was like, what we have in common. What I'll have to remember him by.
The first films are in Technicolor. William Howard Derr, Howard to most everyone, 'Chic' to some of his friends, lived outside Los Angeles, in a suburb of course, called San Gabriel. San Gabriel is a small town of manicured lawns and strip malls, of lemon trees and ranch houses, near the Santa Anita raceway (where Chic played the ponies), all this loafing quietly in the foothills. But it is still, to this Midwesterner, Los Angeles. My Grandfather always meant Los Angeles to me. Whenever I read of the City of Quartz, City of Nets, Philip Marlowe, Hollywood, or even the Dodgers, I felt a sense of pride at knowing that I could trace my lineage back to that city. Grandpa lived there. He cut the hair of Mrs. Walter O'Malley and listented to Frank Sinatra as he drove to the senior center to shoot pool like a pro. Palm trees swayed above his house and the magnolia burst out with white flowers which would eventually tumble to the ground, irritating him. You'd be surprised how powerful this was: back in dreary Michigan, I could watch Gene Kelley get mobbed in "Singin' in the Rain" and think "Grandpa lived near there". Then again, I could also enjoy the near-porn of "Mulholland Drive" and think, "Whoa, I wonder if I can find that apartment next time I visit Grandpa's place." I didn't say it was wholesome, just that it was.
Next, there are the color home movies. In my life, I only visited him in Los Angeles four timesin 1974, 1978, 1984 and last year, 2004. When I was a child, in '74 and '78, the city was infused with a sense of Disneylandish possibility, of sunshine and beautiful lawns and happy people that contrasted with the dark and cramped homes that my divorced mother and my brother and I lived in. There was Mickey Mouse, Bermuda grass without weeds, and especially Dodger Stadium, with its deep blues and palm trees swaying in that warm breeze. Primary colors, unreal, a big blue John Ford sky, homes from Douglas Sirk, and baseball players in white, celebrities themselves, not fresh from prison, like some of the Tigers. They served cocktails at Dodger Stadium and the parking lots were clean. This was a shocking contrast to the dark girders of Tiger Stadium and the blight that surrounded it. Each visit to California, the smells triggered memories that flickered and grew bright: Howard and Phyllis (the second wife) and their dog. The grass that was so green and stiff it seemed fake. Los Angeles and its smog-laden air. And especially that summer of 1978.
The grainy color films from that year show me in a bowl cut, short shorts, an ugly shirt with great wide stripes, and a trucker-style Dodger cap (cheap foam front and plastic mesh in back). There was a shady den that looked unchanged since Sandy Koufax plied his trade at Chavez Ravine. I would sit in the dark reading the creepy biography The Tommy John Story (too religious), listening to Vin Scully on the little black and white TV. My Grandfather used to come in and sit there with me, and make a few comments on the game, but especially on Walter O'Malley, who he admired. But I was distracted: the Dodgers were on their way to a second pennant in a row, and there were updates on Pete Rose's hitting streak. There was small talk, and little else. My Grandfather wasn't a guy to share his fatigues with the world. He would rather illustrate the successes of Mr. O'Malley than his own. He was modest, the type of person who didn't say much that was negative. I barely remember what he said.
Another reel. Now we have real color, television color, like "This Week in Baseball". Howard took us to Dodger Stadium, which, in my mind, is Hollywood's idea of a park. Tom Bosley sat in the stands, a real celebrity. People were well-behaved, and didn't spit or chew on cigars or pull their tops off like they did in Detroit (though I enjoyed seeing the girls with their tops off). There were a lot of men like my Grandfatherdressed as if ready for an afternoon of golf. We sat in seats given to him by the O'Malley'sgreat seats, the same section he had for that '65 World Series. When we drove away, it was in an orderly queue, not a mess of traffic wobbling out of some empty dirt lot. I like the dirt lots of Tiger Stadium. But I also like the cleanliness of Chavez Ravine. Years later, I'll sometimes look at a sunsethere in Minnesota, in San Francisco, or in Michiganand it reminds of the dusk at Dodger Stadium, nearly every time.
Unfortunately, in '84, the city was sinister: it was the washed out color of "Chinatown" with yellow smog that burned my lungs and hid the mountain range that Grandpa's front window faced. This was Christmas, and I missed the snow. My Grandfather had little white fake tree that I thought summed up the experience. Then again, I was in high school, and everything seemed awful and rotten at that age.
A new reel flips on, bright, clean, fresh film. Last summer, the city had regained much of its glow. I was in town to work with the Baseball Reliquary, the Dodgers were playing well, and some of the smog had cleared. We see Dodger Stadium again, crystal clear, but my Grandfather isn't there. He bought tickets but didn't go because he was too tired. It would have killed him to roast in that blinding sun anyway. Instead, he let Vin Scully tell him about the game, and we talked about it afterwards, going over my scorecard. That summer, just last year, we watched a few other games with him, quietly, still talking about the O'Malley's. Overall, he didn't care that much about actually visiting Dodger Stadium. He was one of the many thousands who appreciated what Walter O'Malley did by bringing the Dodgers to town, and building Dodger Stadium. When television became big, Howard embraced it. Dodger Stadium became the stage on which the drama of baseball was played, narrated by Mr. Scully. We were content to sit and watch, to drink Coca-Cola, and talk about business or the weather. There was that soft, melancholy feeling that this was going to be one of the last times. My Grandfather was fragile, grumbling about the fistfuls of pills he had to take, and throwing randy barbs at his nurse, Leonore. Because he was so much older, things seemed to move slower, not just for him, but for everyone. We sat and played cards, and we watched a lot of television, including the Dodgers and Vin Scully. Or we just sat, content to listen to the house, the breathing, the rustle of a newspaper.
This winter, we buried him in the rain, and the clouds that passed over reminded me of the ones he tried to escape from in Detroit.
On one of these rainy days I discovered a box of old photos. Truth be told, I don't know much about this Howard Derr, nor much of the people from that side of the family. I grew up in Michigan; they lived in California. But old photos bring out stories. My Grandfather had a dad who was an alcoholic, who drank and abused people around him. Apparently his mother divorced this guy (or he was the one who died stepping out drunk into traffic, I'm not sure). Fifteen-year-old Howard moved to L.A. with his mother and stepfather Otto. In those early photos, we see a young man, leaning against a car, looking like something out of "Bonnie and Clyde". Other photos with this family, he seems straightfaced, as if hiding a deep sadness. Did California offer something new? There couldn't have been just the promise of jobs, because my history tells me that Detroit, at that time, had more opportunity than L.A. This was the Depression. Maybe they were following a dream of sorts. What that was, we'll never know. He didn't say much about Detroit, except that he hated the cold.
The new reel shows a young Howard who seems happy. He's been in Los Angeles for a time, scratching out a living as a hairdresser, trying to make it into the movies as a makeup artist. Howard is smiling. He is in a fedora and suit, stepping onto a ferry bound for Catalina island to dance at the Avalon ballroom. In another, he has hooked tuna from the docks. Next, we see him in a sombrero, hamming it up. These are the days before my mother and Uncle Richard, and at these images they laugh and smile. A lot of this is a mystery to them. Who tells their kids of these reckless days? That I drank and partied and slept with so and so. You don't tell your children these secrets, if only because part of their pleasure is their being yours and yours alone. Yes, they heard of the ballroom at Catalina, of the parties in his Hollywood apartment, the boozing it up. He married my Grandma and went to Korea right after WWII in the occupying army. There he is again, cutting hair in fatigues, laughing with the Korean children, more hamming. But who is this guy? Is that Howard? And all I can do is stare and wonderthis is well before my time.
There is some evidence that Howard was a lonely man, and here the films change, become almost noirish, shadows and odd angles and long shots. He fought with my Grandmother, and they divorced. His best friend moved across town, and Howard followed him, only to watch his pal die of lung cancer just a few years later. Then he marries a woman who doesn't like his son, destroys every photo with his first wife and this friend of his that meant so much. She drankhe did too, this was L.A. in the 50s and 60s after allbut she to excess. But he loved her, even if there was some estrangement from his older son. They took care of one another. When she died a few years ago, fighting cancer after cancer, it tore his heart out.
I learned much of this over that week. There have never been many stories in my family. Just rumors that burst forth every once in awhile. The funeral certainly brought out the talesthat is what funerals are for. When I arrived, everyone sat around his house, stunned, watching TV much too loud. Even though it was February, that first day the sun was out, the grass was green, and if I had been young I'd have brought my tennis ball and mitt and gone outside to pretend I was Don Sutton. Sitting in that living room the first night, I wished there was a game on, even though it was still nearly two months to opening day. But it never seems as though you can have Vin Scully on too loud.
During that trip, I lay awake at night, and woke early each morning to the sound of wild parrots screeching from their perch on the telephone wires. In the dark, I listened to my mother shifting in the other room, no doubt failing to sleep herself, and I thought about life. I wondered about Grandpa, thought about the fact that I'll never see his house again. No great revelations. Just that feeling that you wish there was something you could do, something you can say, anything
The last reel ends. Now the film is flipping around and around in the projector, and a square of harsh light fills the screen. I sit and consider what I've seen. I think that Howard Derr came out to Los Angeles chasing a dream, trying to escape a world that I think had roughed him up. On that I think he succeeded: he had a nice home and played golf and had his hobbies. He raised my cousin Diana to be a good person. He had a successful business. But he also thought it was important to be kind to those around himprobably in stark contrast to his own father. His employees, neighbors, friends and relatives could have tasted some of his bitternesswhich he had, we all dobut instead they remember, vividly, his enduring kindness. Howard Derr could have been bent and twisted by his past, and even by the city of Los Angeles, but he wasn't. I share some things with him: like his green thumb, his lankiness, maybe even, to a degree, that sense of loneliness I can't shake even when I'm around people. I hope I share some of his good manners, and his kindness.
At his house after the funeral, we fingered the trinkets he'd accumulated in his lifetime. A 1965 World Series ticket. A brass-colored tripod. An old Kodak camera with colored lenses. Photocopied jokes that seemed to have come from Playboy magazine. Paintings. Photographs. Many dozens of postcards from the many places he and his second wife visited. Pages of Mudville Magazine I printed for him to read.
I turn the projector off and the room falls into darkness, lit only by the red glow of an EXIT sign. In that darkness, I ruminate over what I've seen. To my surprise, it is baseball that gives me pausethat series ticket I found, a photo of the stadium, thumbing through my old Dodger yearbooks (I have a couple of them that he sent me years ago). On the way home, at the L.A. airport, I bought the awful Street & Smith's Baseball Yearbook, mostly to see how they'll rate the Dodgers. It didn't help much. My Grandfather wasn't a big fan, and I'm not going to start donning Dodger caps anytime soon.
But he loved to talk about this website you're reading, and I loved hearing him talk about it. Since he lived so far away, we didn't share any of the usual clichés that I know mean so much to so many kids. Do I wish he tossed me a battered ball next to his Meyer lemon tree, or that we talked Sandy Koufax and Steve Garvey and Fernandomania? Well, sure I do. I wish I'd shot pool and checked out Sinatra at the Sands with him. I wish I'd known him better. You tell yourself you have to be content with what you have, but who is? "Saints and poets, maybe," according to Thornton Wilder. I'm neither. So when I think of Los Angeles, think of the Reliquary and the Dodgers and maybe even the Angels, I'll think of him, if only a little. I'll take whatever straw I can grab.
Peter Schilling Jr.
STEWART AND STEPHENS EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
This is going to take a lot of getting used to, alas.
It now seems an overnight transition, but something seems not quite right about the literature of the Boston Red Sox turning toward triumph and away from tragedy. But then something probably seemed not quite right, too, about the Red Sox themselves turning tragedy into triumph and triumph transdimensional.
Hadn't Aaron Boone merely hammered home the point in October 2003, when he sent gallant Tim Wakefield's first pitch of the bottom of the eleventh flying parabolically into the lower left field seats, and yet another Yankee pennant at the expense of the Olde Towne Team flying up the flagpole? Wasn't that supposed to be the newest and cruelest reminder that, in the letters of baseball, the Red Sox' destiny was tragedy portrayed half as farce and half as Original Sin?
Stewart O'Nan, novelist (A Prayer For The Dyingdoes that figure?), became a Red Sox fan after a childhood enraptured by the unlikely triumph of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. From that he was embraced by a proposition Red Sox fans might otherwise have found preposterous: "I grew up pitying the Yankees as hard luck losers." Stephen King, novelist (it only begins with The Dead Zone, which was not a euphemism for Fenway Parkwe think), once believed that seeing Jim Lonborg's career year when he was eighteen ensured the Red Sox would win the World Series while he still lived.
That was then, this was spring training, 2004: "Now, holy shit, I'm fifty-seven, I've been hit by a car, I had a lung practically go up in smoke this winter, and I realize maybe it really won't happen
I used to joke, you know, about having a tombstone that read: STEPHEN KING with the dates, and then, below that, a single sock, and below that: NOT IN MY LIFETIME. And, below that: NOT IN YOURS, EITHER. Not a bad tagline, huh?"
Such was the state of these two authors, friends, Red Sox recalcitrants, at the outset of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle The Historic 2004 Season (Scribner, 26 clams), which is the next best thing to being permitted to eavesdrop as these two friends and fellow sufferers engage the season in question, both in direct conversation and in separate but coordinate observations, at and away from the ballpark. Since only a star voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant does not know how the season concluded, and at whose expense the Red Sox were lined up to start the World Series at all, it is not unreasonable to note the state of these two at the finish. "You know how the papers are always saying you bring the team bad luck?" quips O'Nan to King, whose exercises in transdimensional horrorific phantasmagoria have made him an eternal best-seller. "Well, the one year you write a book about the club, we win it all. Another fake curse reversed."
So it took such a writer/Sox fan as Stephen King, then, to break the Curse? And here you thought there were those who believed exhuming Babe Ruth's piano from Boston Harbour would be the talismanic release. Such fools those mortals been.
King at seasons beginning has trepidation enough that perhaps the last thing he needed was for the Red Sox to do It at long enough last. He muses upon this on Opening Day, hours before Sidney Ponson (he of the Baltimore Orioles, the blubber belly, and the judicial beatdown in his native Aruba) is due to pitch to the first Sox batter of the campaign. "I am a baseball junkie, pure and simple. Or, perhaps it's even more specific than that. Perhaps I'm a Red Sox junkie, pure and simple," wrote the author of, among others, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, hooked around the once-Boston hard enough luck reliever. "I'm hoping it's choice B, actually. If it is, and the Sox win the World Series this year, this nearly forty-year obsession of mine may break like a long-term (very long-term) malarial fever."
He even rejects the so-voluminously analyzed ingredient of Red Sox fans requiring a Curse, maybe any Curse, never mind the Curse, to believe one way or the other that, if it wasn't for bad luck, as Albert King once warbled, they wouldn't have no luck at all. "Outfitted in the off-season with strong pitching and defense to go with their formidable hitting, the Sox suddenly find themselves short two of their most capable players: Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon. 2003 batting champ Bill Mueller, suffering supposed elbow problems
, has seen little spring training action. And Cadillac closer Keith Foulke has been, let's face it, nothing short of horrible."
At Opening Day's endfollowing an 0-for-5 collar by Johnny Damon, the spiritual leader of the Idiots; fourteen men left on base; an 0-for-4 for Jason Varitek; Mike Timlin in relief of "very mortal" looking Pedro Martinez burping up three earned in two-thirdsO'Nan is a clenched-teeth valedictorian: "What's demoralizing isn't losing
it's playing badly. If this had been the first week of the NFL season, the announcers would have said this team has a lot of work to do." On the morning after, he is a little more generous: "I wish the Sox were playing today so we could get back on the winning track and ditch this bad morning-after feeling. It's just impatience. I've waited all winter for (Curt) Schilling. I can wait one more day."
Far be it for these two gentlemen of letters to have predicted the Red Sox would batter the Evil Empire for six out of seven in April, lead the American League East through May, and then collapse in June as though they had been deprived of food and water for a month's swath through a desert. "Getting beat by a horse like Matsui is one thing," muses O'Nan, "getting beat by a BALCO boy"he means, of course, Jason Giambi, and this was before the grand jury leaks and Giambi's winter of self laceration"and the Ghost of Tony Clark is another." In spite of Damon homering twice.
King has even deeper forebodings the day after: "About five days agojust before my trip to BostonI discovered a nearly perfect crow-shit Yankees logo on the windshield of my truck
I told myself it wasn't an omen, but look at last night. Dick Cheney shows up in a Yankees hat, the Red Sox commit three more errors, the Yankee hitters are patient, the Red Sox hitters aren't. Derek Lowe, who has lately shown signs of his old craftiness, last night looked like an escapee from that old Spielberg film, 'The Goonies'."
Except that, one month later, and in a chapter entitled (appropriately enough) "Turn The Page," comes the Saturday Night Showdown at Fenway. Featuring Bronson Arroyo's unintentional plunk of Alex Rodriguez; A-Rod jabberjawing at Arroyo as he takes a step or two up the first base line; Varitek getting between his pitcher and the yammering Yankee, urging him to take his base and knock it off ("
saying either "Take your fucking base" or "Get the fuck to first base"); A-Rod telling Varitek exactly where he could shove that base; Varitek shoving his mitt into A-Rod's grille; the rumble that ended with Yankee pitcher Tanyon Sturtze with a cut on his own grill ("David Ortiz," observed King, who had had to get it second-hand: he was in Los Angeles and unable to get much beyond the Los Angeles Times's game coverage, "might have had something to do with that"); about five players with an early night off. And, Mueller ending the game with a bottom of the ninth walkoff bomb.
"They won Sunday's game 9-6, and are schooling the Orioles tonight behind Pedro: the score is 12-5 in the bottom of the seventh," King writes. "If this is the place where the season turns aroundand stranger things have happenedthen you can give Jason Varitek the MVP for getting in Alex Rodriguez's face."
Stranger things were due to happen, of course, and O'Nan and King were due for pithier observations en route the final destination not even Rod Serling could have treated properly. "You were dead right about how nice it would be getting 15 games over .500," O'Nan muses to King, on 22 August, "but I sure didn't count on the A's, Rangers, and Angels ALL streaking alongside of us" in the wild card standings at the time. "There's four cars and the tunnel's only two lanes."
King is invited to throw out the first ball before a 4 September game, with a ten-game Red Sox winning streak on the line. Rarely have the notorious Boston gods been tempted so elementally, and King knows it. He has done this once before, on the threshold of publishing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Well, now. The Red Sox lost that game, and Gordon himself for the season, soon enough. And King himself was plowed by a van while ambling the side of a road a month later. The last thing he needed with a ten-game winning streak hanging in the balance was to throw out a first pitch with disaster in the stitches.
"If I throw out the first pitch and the Red Sox lose, if their ten-game streak ends this afternoon, I will get some of the blame," he writes, knowingly enough. "Because I'm not only a Red Sox fan, I'm (creepy music here) NEW ENGLAND'S HORRORMEISTER!!! And worsewhat is someone gets hurt (someone else to go along with Trot, Pokey, and Johnny Damon), or the game ends with a bum call, orGod forbidthere's some sort of accident in the stands? Or what if the Red Sox go on to lose ten straight, end up nine back of the Yankees again, and four behind Anaheim in the wild card? Nor is this an entirely unbelievable scenario, with three coming up against Oakland (on their turf) and then three more in Seattle, who has suddenly gotten hot. I'LL GET BLAMED FOR THAT TOO! THEY'LL SAY IT ALL STARTED WHEN THAT BASTARD KING THREW OUT THE FIRST PITCH ON SEPTEMBER 4TH!
"So of course I say yes."
And, of course, the Red Sox lose the game, battle though they make it after the Texas Rangers pin them, 9-1, abusing Wakefield in particular, leaving Stephen King 0-2 in games preluded by his throwing out the first pitch. "(T)omorrow," he writes, "the newspapers will blame me. I just know it." He is just right about that, at least so far as the Boston Globe was concerned. He is just wrong about that, at least so far as ONan is concerned. "Hey, Hideo," O'Nan hollered at him the day after, "YOU didn't give up the three-run dinger to Michael Young. And Bellhorn's comeback granny was some kind of magic. For a game we were basically out of, it was damn close. The way today's was for Texas. (The Rangers turned a 6-1 deficit into a 6-5 not-quite, Schilling getting the win.) Yeesh! Foulke had absolutely nothing. We'll take the W and plant it on their grave. On to Chokeland!"
Onward and upward to such surrealities as even Stephen King could hardly conceive, no matter how much he and his partner analyze (with the endearing aplomb of the gifted amateurs) the Red Sox's neo-Moneyball team assembly, no matter how much he and O'Nan break down such externalities as the actual or alleged Sports Illustrated Curse (Curt Schilling on the cover), Terry Francona's Grady Little moment (leaving Martinez in a little too longand Hideki Matsui sending the second pitch into the game-tying ether, before Ruben Sierra knocked the tiebreaking RBI singleand provoking Pedro's soon-infamous "they're my Daddy"), the season-ending clinchings ("Billy Beane," scribbles O'Nan, after the Angels pasted the A's, 1-0, in Oakland, before clinching the West with a late-game comeback win, "you are not a genius"), and what prove to have been remarkable predictions.
"If we can get past the Angels," observes King," I think the world (series) may be ours."
"(A)s in last year's division series, our fate may rest in the shaky hands of Mr. Lowe," says O'Nan. "But that's the playoffs: maximum stress finding the weakest link."
Picture if you can this pair of novelists groping, wrestling, wringing, thinking, weeping, whelping, and bear-hugging their way from the long season to the extraterrestrial postseason atop which the Red Sox sat, like the wandering Israelites, after eighty long years of tribulation, pestilence, breakdown, and resurrection, the Promised Land theirs at last. And you will have imbibed the remainder of this sweet book with the heartiness by which the Red Sox drank a champagne that can be savoured only once, but oh, what a once it surely was.
ANALYZING THE ANALYST
Let's face it the list of even halfway decent reasons to watch the Chicago Cubs on TV during the late 1980s and early 1990s would probably fit on the front of a single Post-it note. For starters, with the exception of the 1989 team, those Cub teams were a near perfect study in how not to win baseball games. As for individual stars, you had Sandberg, of course, and Dawson and Grace. And you had Maddux, although that was before he met Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone and instantly morphed into The Best Pitcher on the Face of the Earth. It would be a few years before baseball would be "berry, berry good" to Sammy Sosa. And Mark Prior still toed the rubber for a team who wore the name of a local pizza joint on the back of its jerseys.
Beyond the occasional bright spot, what you had in those Cub teams were a bunch of baseball no-names duking it out for the chance to be among the possible answers to an AFLAC trivia question of the future: Which former Cub player was the most likely to be replaced by a department-store mannequin in a cap and jersey without diminishing the team's chances of winning? Doug Dascenzo? Jeff Pico? Vance Law?
In fact, the biggest superstar on the payroll at that time didn't even wear a jockstrap to work (as far as I know). Harry Caray had the famously thick glasses. He had the seventh-inning stretch. And, of course, he had "Holy Cow!"
Caray was the legend in the Cubs' booth; everybody knows that. But a lot of people don't know that the talent in the booth was analyst Steve Stone, Caray's partner and, much of the time, his crutch.
Caray had started to show his age in embarrassing ways by the late 1980s. He stumbled and mumbled and slurred his way through what had to be some of the weirdest and most confusing broadcasts in baseball history. He butchered, or else completely forgot, players' names. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he failed to describe entire at-bats. Stone, meanwhile, patiently did his job which was, essentially, to humor Caray and still make the WGN telecasts worthwhile to watch.
When you're a kid, as I was at that time, everything you perceive tends to be magnified by a thousand. For instance, I didn't just think that Stone was a fantastic professional; I believed that he harbored secret psychic powers. How else to explain the way he saw a game unfold with perfect accuracy before it ever happened? Stone told you what pitch was coming next and exactly how effective it would be before the catcher settled into his squat. He told you the starting pitcher was overdue to lose his command, and the next three hitters caught free passes to first. He mentioned that the outfield was swung-around too far toward left for a certain hitter, and lo, on the next pitch, that hitter slapped one down the right field line for a triple.
Honestly, if Stone had been a televangelist, I'd have opened my mom's purse and sent him money. That's how amazing I thought he was.
This all happened in the dark days before there were satellite sports packages, and besides the Cubs, the only other baseball team I could watch on an every-day basis were the Atlanta Braves, who played on TBS. Given the chance, I'd have watched the Cubs and the Braves, but my mom had rules about TV, and for some crazy reason, she thought six hours of baseball a day for three months might be a little excessive. So, during the spring when I was twelve years old, I had to make a decision about the upcoming summer: Would I follow the Braves, who had just been to the World Series, or the Cubs, who, to put it nicely, had not just been to the World Series?
The Braves were good. They'd just stolen Maddux away to join their already illegally good pitching staff. And Ted Turner promised to send you a hundred dollars for every game you watched okay, not really. But, unlike the Cubs, the Braves did play all their games at night a major bonus, as I'd just discovered from talking to friends that spending my summer afternoons at the public pool instead of inside on the sofa watching baseball meant I'd get to see lots of high school girls in bikinis.
As I ready myself to write this next sentence, a mob of angry Cub fans with torches and pitchforks and Harry-Caray novelty glasses have gathered outside my window. Oh, what the hell I'll write it anyway: Had the choice been between Caray and the Braves, I'd have picked the Braves, hands-down. But before these folks set fire to my house, I should probably qualify what I mean. I'm an adult now, and I can fully appreciate what Caray meant to baseball. He was a bridge between what the game had been years before and what it had become, and I feel fortunate to have seen so many of his telecasts before he died. But honestly, when I was twelve, the only thing Harry Caray gave me that the Braves couldn't was a serious case of the willies. He was like the Grandpa you never wanted to visit: he was old, he was confused, and he usually sounded as if he'd been drinking (which, if you can believe the rumors, he had).
The point is, while Caray's legacy was the main reason the Cubs' popularity actually increased during a period of time when they continued to put ahem less than impressive teams on the field, not he, but Stone, is the main reason I personally bleed Cubby blue today. Nobody else seemed to care that Cubs never won after all, they had Harry! Nobody else seemed to care whether or not Caray could pronounce the player's last names after all, he was Harry! Well, I cared.
And I just might have jumped ship and become a Braves fan, too, if I hadn't also cared about the analyst. I wanted to listen to someone who was more just a voice to fill the silence while the play-by-play guy caught his breath or took a bite of his salami and cheese sandwich; I wanted to listen to someone who could explain all the delicate nuances of baseball strategy. Stone was the best I've ever heard at this, and he more than made up for Caray's play-by-play deficiencies.
What was the deal with this double-switch thingy? And why in the world wouldn't you want your pitchers to do well at the plate on a hot day?
Listen to Steve Stone and you knew all this and more.
When I said that things tend to be magnified when you're a kid, I didn't mean to imply that you find them any less impressive when you become an adult. They just don't impact you in the same way.
I stopped watching the Cubs regularly in 1994the year of the strikeand didn't start up again until 2003, when Stone returned to the WGN booth after a two-year health-related absence. I had been getting my Cub fix from the radio for several years by the time Stone stepped away, and I thought the chance to hear him again had passed. When the Cubs announced he would be on board for 2003, I ponied up the cash for a satellite package, curious to see if he was really as good as I remembered.
He didn't disappoint. In fact, in 2003, he might even have been a little better than I remembered him. But there was a difference. I'd gotten older, and as we age, the things that once seemed almost supernatural start to lose a bit of that magic childhood aura. In much the same way it had once occurred to me that Bozo the clown was just some regular guy made-up to look like a goof, it occurred to me, finally, during a Cub broadcast sometime during the 2003 season, that Steve Stone was not, nor had he ever been, psychic. He just did his homework and happened to know a hell of a lot more about baseball than any other analyst in the game.
I am not a psychic either. I don't know Steve Stone, and I won't pretend that I can tell you his mind. But I can tell you that for someone who has admired his work for a long time, the 2004 season was more brutal to watch than a collection of bloopers and outtakes from the Surgery Channel.
Maybe Stone, like so many of the rest of us, had finally gotten fed up with watching Cub teams fail who knows? But for whatever reason, he wasn't the same in 2004. Don't get me wrong. His commentary was as dead-on as it had ever been, but for the first time, he seemed preoccupied with making sure that everyone else knew exactly how dead-on.
The expectations for the 2004 Cubs were sky-high. The team had come within a game of the World Series the year before, and they'd upgraded their talent during the off-season. But the new Cub team had trouble meeting the expectations and coping with the pressure. Stone was less than gentle in his about speaking his mind, but he was hardly unfair. He called out individual players a number of times for underachieving, and those players responded both publicly (through the Chicago media) and privately (by confronting Stone away from the ballpark). Reliever Kent Mercker allegedly even threatened Stone physically over some of the comments made on the air.
Stone's response was to crank up the level of criticism even higher. He questioned the way Cub pitchers approached certain hitters and, because he was Steve Stone and he knew what he was talking about, those hitters inevitably came through with crucial hits. But unlike he had in the past, Stone didn't even pretend to try to hide his personal feelings; during replays, his voice took on a sarcastic tone, and he reminded viewers that what they were seeing was exactly what he'd said would happen.
One of Stone's best virtues, besides his intelligence, had always been his tact; after all, in fifteen years, he'd managed to cultivate a decent sense of humor without once, by accident or by design, humiliating Harry Carayno small accomplishment, when you consider how many times during that same stretch Caray humiliated himself.
But now, at certain times, Stone came off sounding less like the genius he was, and more like a bitter know-it-all.
I do wonder what it must have been like for Steve Stone. To work in the shadow of a legend. To carry that legend when he when he could no longer carry himself. To give twenty outstanding years of work to one organization. And to find, in the end, that it all added up to zero respect.
You'd have to understand all of that before you could ever begin to understand why he changed.
When the story of the Cubs' problems with Stone leaked to the media, reporters repeatedly asked for his take on the issue. His answer: He was only doing his job, trying to be honest, telling it like he saw it. That was almost, but not quite, the whole truth. He was being honest about what he saw, but what he wouldn't say, and what anyone with at least one functional ear could tell you was that it was honesty with a very nasty, very personal edge.
An example: One of Stone's favorite targets was outfielder Moises Alou, who, apparently, at the age of 37, after thirteen seasons in the big leagues, suddenly forgot how to run the bases. At least ten times over the course of the season Alou got doubled off on routine fly balls. When it happened in June, Stone was firm but forgiving in his criticism. When it happened in September, in the middle the stretch run, when every out could potentially affect the Cubs' playoff chances, Stone was downright harsh.
"There you go, folks. That's just fantastic base-running," he'd say, and you'd need a whole roll of paper towels to soak up the irony.
If you didn't have any context, you might have thought that his reactions came purely out of a desire to see the Cubs succeed. But Alou had been one Stone's most vocal critics, and there was more than a little contempt in the analyst's voice.
What happened between Stone and the 2004 Cubs will probably never be completely clear to outsiders. After the season, different versions of the same stories came out. Mercker claimed he never threatened Stone. Other players claimed that they had never really had any problems with Stone's style. Stone, meanwhile, kept his side of the story to himself.
After the season, WGN picked up his contract for the 2005 season, but he declined, and in the end, he walked away from the Cubs for good. That's probably for the best. As good as Stone was at his joband last year he was once again outstanding, if you could get past his attitude and concentrate only on the substance of his commentsI don't think I could stand to watch another season like 2004. Stone had meant too much to my education as a baseball fan.
The other day, while looking into renewing my satellite package for the 2005 season, I started to think about Stone. It's funny his replacement, Bob Brenly, has an impeccable resume (he's a World Series-winning manager) and yet, I'm not convinced he'll be able to handle Stone's job with the same skill.
I wonder how Stone will be remembered in the future. The Cubs immortalized Harry Caray with a statue outside of Wrigley Field; it's probably safe to assume, after the way Stone's final season went, that we shouldn't expect the same treatment for Stone anytime soon.
Stone himself has said on a number of occasions that the job of an analyst is to educate baseball fans; in that regard, he was a complete success. On one hand, I can honestly say I wouldn't enjoy baseball half as much if not for everything he taught me during those summers of the late 80s and early 90s, when the Cubs were unbelievably bad, and he was unbelievably good, and I was just beginning to realize I was crazy in love with the game.
But, on the other hand, last impressions are often the ones that linger, and at the end of the year, Stone called out manager Dusty Baker for poor decision-making in a live post-game interview. I saw that interview, and it was a highly unprofessional move on Stone's part, whether it was an honest one or not.
The fact is, we don't get to choose what we remember. Memories aren't made; they're what is left over after everything else about a person has been stripped away by time. But if I could choose, it would be something that shows everything that Stone was as an analyst over the course of his entire twenty-year career. Something like this:
Two-thirds of the way through the 2004 season, the Cubs were playing their division rivals, the Astros, at Wrigley Field. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth, when Cub center fielder Corey Patterson came to the plate. The Astro pitcher kept working Patterson with sliders under his hands, and after about the third one in a row, Stone said, "One more of those sliders inside, and we're all going home happy." He didn't say it might happen. He didn't say it could happen. He said it would happen. Next pitchanother slider insidePatterson launched a walk-off homerun into the right field bleachers.
I turned to a friend and said, "He's just unbelievable."
"Corey's gonna be a star," the friend agreed.
But I wasn't talking about Patterson; I was talking about Steve Stone.
MR. CANSECO, YOU'RE NO JIM BOUTON
Whatever else you do or dont do about Mr. Cansecos still-festering tome, please dont even think about comparing itas only too many have, thus farto Ball Four. This, said the Esteemed Supreme Commander of the portal which hosts my regular baseball blog, about Juiced (Regan Books, $25.95) is like Ball Four. Ridiculed at the time, hailed in the future. It is like nothing of the sort.
I was there when Ball Four was first published, having read the book as a high school student in 1970. I read all the ridicule, the ridiculous, and the repugnant about that book. And I read the passages within the book that spoke of the legendary greenies"the amphetamines which some baseball players and other team sport athletes were gulping as often as they could get their hands upon them.
And would you like to know where the most uproar-cum-ridicule aimed when it came to Mr. Boutons opus?
It went to the passages that bespoke the frat-boy pranks and blunders. (My personal favourite: the goldfish slipped into the Seattle Pilots bullpens water cooler, said to have been slipped there by Baltimore Orioles relief pitchers Pete Richert and Eddie Watt.)
It went to those passages which revealed Mickey Mantle had what proved to be a fatal attraction to booze, when he wasnt leading beaver shooting (read: peeping Tom) expeditions up on the roof of the old Shoreham Hotel in Washington. ("I once told (my wife) that you could win a pennant with the guys whove been up on that roof, wrote Bouton.)
It went to those passages describing dumb jocko sex games on the team bus, including a player swooping unexpectedly on another particularly macho player and planting a wet one right smack on the kisser.
It went to those passages describing Joe Pepitone slinking into the trainers room with a piece of popcorn under his foreskin, complaining about a new venereal disease with a straight face, holding his laughter until after the trainer popped out the popcorn with a pair of tweezers.
It went to those passages describing the paternity suit prank Seattle Pilots reserve catcher Merritt Ranew played on his roommate, pitcher Fred Talbot, who practically had coronary failure over it at first.
It went to those passages describing Dick Stuarts flagrant flouting of team rules when he was the prime time power swinger on the 1962-64 Boston Red Sox, and when he wasnt making pitcher Earl Wilson want to kill him over a couple of key errorsincluding spiking Wilsons foot on a play at first.
It went to those passages describing Roger Maris as a loafer. (Which should tell you exactly how well the Yankees did their self-appointed job of keeping secret the truth about Mariss mid-1960s injuriesthe ones robbing him of much of his long-ball power, the ones the Yankees didnt want even him knowing because they needed him on field for marquee value as the team collapsed. Even his teammates, apparently, knew not the severity of those injuries.)
Among the more serious passages, said ridicule tended as a rule to go toward such passages as described the kind of underhanded contract negotiation tactics major leaguers endured in the pre-free agency daystactics which helped provoke the forming of the Major League Baseball Players Association in the first place, including (when he was the Yankees general manager) Ralph Houks flagrant (and, as it happened, illegal) attempt to fine Bouton $100 a day for every day he held out for a raise before 1964.
Bowie Kuhn, then baseball commissioner, hauled Bouton into his office and all but demanded Bouton sign a formal statement disavowing Ball Four and blaming the whole megillah on his editor, former New York Post sportswriter and then-current Look sports editor, Leonard Shecter. Bouton didnt exactly demand but more or less suggested, implicitly, the orifice up which the commissioner could shove it.
Youve done the game a grave disservice. Saying Seattle players kissed on the team bus. Or that some of our greatest stars were drunk on the field. What could you have been thinking? ("
drunk on the field alludes, of course, to the long-famous anecdote of Mickey Mantle hauling his bat to the plate with a ferocious hangover, blasting one into the seats, and saying as he returned to the dugout, pointing to the cheering crowd, Those people dont know how tough that really was.") That was the blurb from Bowie Kuhn that helped sell the first paperback edition of Ball Four.
Dick Young of the New York Daily News was polite and objective enough to call Bouton a social leper for having written and published Ball Four. (It was a subsequent amiable exchange between the two which provoked the title of Boutons next book, in which he wrote of Ball Four's reception and consequences. Young acknowledged Boutons civility by saying, Im glad you didnt take it personally"and hence was the title. In some ways, Im Glad You Didnt Take It Personally is even funnier than Ball Four. But only some.)
There are those who allege amphetamines to have performance enhancing capabilities, too, although not quite the sort steroids are alleged to have. (The operative word, then and now: alleged capabilities. Proof, please. Thank you.) Not one syllable of the ridicule thrown upon Ball Four went even a thirty-second as much toward the stories of the greenies as went toward all the titillation.
Jim Bouton had just revealed a widespread-enough amphetamine presence in baseballyears before the infamous cocaine scandal of the early 1980s; decades before the incumbent steroids scandaland most of the world was more outraged that he had exposed the lustful urges and lopsided economics enunciated behind 1960s clubhouse walls or aboard team buses than that he had exposed a presence of speed freaking behind those walls or aboard those buses.
Perhaps, too, it may have had something to do with the suggested salient reason for the greenies: keeping up the ol energy over the long, long season. That didnt seem to offend 1970 readers the way the idea of cheating does 2005 readers. Readers who think there is something sinful about replenishing depleted muscle or body substance, which is precisely the reason Mark McGwire used something that was not a steroid.
Readers who still do not get the idea that cheating in baseball, actual or alleged, did not begin
when Jose Canseco first turned up in a major league clubhouse with a shot of Kickapoo Joy Juice loaded up his wazoo. (It didnt even begin when Babe Ruth hauled up to the plate with a bat made of four individual pieces of wood, a haul which helped provoke the American Leagues original rule against altered or doctored bats.)
You spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and then it turns out that it was the other way around, Bouton wrote poetically enough to finish Ball Four. Based upon the excerpts I have seenand the none-too-subtle backpedaling and flippy-floppy in Cansecos public comments since the pre-publication excerpts and post-"/60 Minutes"it would surprise me not to see for myself that Juiced ends with words to the effect of, You spend a good part of your life whipping the living you-know-what out of a baseball, and then it turns out that you dont get no respect.
CONVERSATIONS REAL & IMAGINED
"Jose Canseco? I thought he was dead
"You know, there's absolutely nothing worse than steroids. It's ruining the business. And I mean all sports, sports in general. Bikes. You know, the Tour de France. Basketball. Football
what was his name, Lyle the Bruiser? Dead. Cancer. Extra nipples. It starts to get gross.
"I mean it's everywhere. I'd be a fool to say 'now it's baseball', because it was always baseball. Steroids. Coke. Pot. Booze. But mostly steroids. I guess I don't get it, but then again, I'm making barely ten bucks an hour. Wouldn't do me any good to shoot up. Unless I wanted to forget
"I really do believe that Barry Bonds will make more home runs than Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. However, I think they should put an asterix next to his name just like they did with Roger Maris. What? They didn't? Well, they ought to put one next to Maris, just to establish precedent."
"I don't get what the big deal is. So Barry Bonds shoots himself in the arm so that he can hit the ball farther. Steroids don't make him see better, don't make his swing shorter, don't make him have the patience to let a few go by and only hit the good ones. Besides, they moved the guy into a park that was tailor made, tailor made! He woulda hit 73 with or without the drugs. I mean, so what? Drugs? You take those drugs and hit that ball! Someone once told me you shoot up stuff like that it makes you puke. So it's even something to be able to take those. I mean, geez. We got a season comin' up. Aren't you got better things to worry about in the world but steroids?"
"Let me tell you, the worst thing that's been altered by steroids is the written word. Jose Canseco gets to write a book? Ouch. Read Sports Illustrated, read ESPN, read your local sports pages, and those guys' prose is sure are beefed up on steroids. Makes me wonder what they'd write about if they hadn't a scandal every now and then. Hypocritical jerks."
"Well, I guess I would just say I wish that they would give up pointing to Jesus more than anything else. You know, after each home run, or run, or whatever. Be a bit humble. It's like the old lady everyone used to hate in church, the one who was always going on about how close to Jesus she was. It gets old. Keep your prayers by the bedside, I always say. Drugs, too."
For some, the thrill of spring training is what helps baseball fans endure the harsh winters. You'll see countdowns to pitchers and catchers, countdowns to the first game in the Grapefruit League, advertisements for package deals to fly down to sunny Florida to watch the Twins take on some University of Florida club. I've never been to Spring Training, and it's unlikely that I ever will. The closest I came was when the good wife and I ventured to Naples to visit her folks, and I ended up sitting next to Joe Mauer's jeweler. You read right. He was a sportin' fellow, in his forties, dressed in Abercrombie and Fitch clothes that could have used the help of a corset. His gold and jewels were amongst the gaudiest things I have ever seen in my life: the thought of our future Hall of Fame Catcher and Next President of the United States, not to mention Oscar/ Tony/ Grammy/ Razzie/ SAG Award Winner Joe Mauer trying to walk with a six inch gold and diamond cross around his neck leaves me all the more impressed.
But I digress: Spring training might cut it for you, but I'll take my pleasures elsewhere. For me, the world begins to thaw when I crack open books and magazines that pop out on the newsstands like dandilions each February and March. For spring, to me, is when the green, green grass of the diamond finds its way onto the magazine shelf, and some of the best blogs stretch, yawn, and uncurl themselves from their long slumber.
Now, I've made the mistake of purchasing one of the crappy annualsin my case, Street & Smith's Woeful Baseball Inadequacyand while I wouldn't recommend it, or the Sporting News version, or the Athlon version, or any issue of ESPN the Magazine, I have to say that it's nice to see the word BASEBALL elbowing out Basketball and Football and, usually, Hockey.
But the good stuff is also out there: I won't bother to tell you about the Baseball Prospectus 2005 because you should know that that's the one to buy each and every year. Even better, two of my favorite blogs are in high gear: Twins Geek, whose work is always good, gets even better when the season gets started. Case in point: his introduction of this reader to legendarily nicknamed Boof Bonser, on an article that I can't seem to link to at this time. Let me say that Mr. Bonnes is that rare writer who will argue a point eloquently, but who will also admit if he's made a mistake. This is a real rarity here in the Twin Cities, but in sports journalism as well.
Then there's my personal favorite, in the form of that great weirdo, Brad Zellar. Mr. Zellar used to write "Yard" and "Open All Night", the former his baseball blog, the latter his stream-of-consciousness meanderings that occur as he fails to fall asleep each and every night. Fortunately for all of us, Brad doesn't follow the Libertarian maniac at the City Pages blogosphere any more, now mercifully writing for Rake Magazine. His baseball blog Warning Track Power, includes the usual sharp analysis, bizarre wit, and great stories that I hunger for. Recent posts include an article on the maddening Luis Rivas and Brad's hunger to flee to the sunny glades of Florida to
what? Admire Torii's new gold pendants?