Eternal Moments

January 11, 2013

What do I do in the winter?  Too much of it I spend browsing old ballpark photos, trying to imagine what it was like to worship at one of the great lost cathedrals.  I found these two color shots of Ebbets Field (on ballparksofbaseball.com) particularly striking.

This appears to be a generic, idyllic, almost mythic scene from long ago, back when trees grew in Brooklyn.  But a number of details should scream out to the observant fan.  Most useful are the numbers – on the uniforms and on that lovely vintage scoreboard – which tell us that Johnny Logan (23) of the Braves is kneeling in the on deck circle, while Johnny Podres (45) is about to fire a 1-0 pitch in the top of the eighth inning of a 1-1 nailbiter.

This is Sunday, July 14, 1957.  It’s the Dodgers’ final summer in New York, and they’re stubbornly staying on the periphery of the pennant race.  Podres has just come on in relief of “The Barber,” Sal Maglie, and he is about to land in good fielding position, for this very pitch will be grounded back to him by Milwaukee second baseman Red Schoendienst.  The 24-year old southpaw will retire the side in order here, but surrender the lead soon enough, in the ninth.  Gil Hodges, though, will send the fans home happy by hitting a 2-run homer in the bottom half to win the game 3-2.

Alas, the National League pennant flying just below the stars and stripes in this second photo will be the last to ever fly in Flatbush.  The announcement of Hodges as a Schaefer Beer award-winner makes sense, but Ed Roebuck didn’t pitch that day.  Upon closer examination, the matchups of the six other NL clubs are all the same, but the scores themselves have disappeared.  The next home game is apparently not ’til some time in August.  This photo must have been taken on a different date…  A cursory rundown of the Dodgers’ schedule indicates that we have jumped ahead six weeks, to the Braves’ next (and final) trip to Brooklyn.  The center field bleachers are full, but the sacred grass and bullpen remain empty before this August 24 matinee.  If you turn your head to the left, you can almost see some ghostly grounds crew men hosing down the baked and beaten dirt… then close your eyes and taste the cloud of a thousand unfiltered Lucky Strikes wafting thru the grandstand… and if you really listen, you’ll hear the beastly Fairlanes and Bel-Airs honking out on Bedford Avenue.

Milwaukee has been red hot (27-10 since the Hodges walk-off homer), and has built a commanding six-game lead in the standings, en route to its first World Series.  Hank Aaron and his mates will hammer Podres this afternoon, sending him to the showers in the fourth.  The loss effectively eliminates the Bums; never again will this large a crowd pack itself into this little old ballpark.  There are glimpses of a new and glorious future.  Just last night a pair of youngsters named Koufax and Drysdale held the booming Brave bats to just two runs.  A book called On the Road is about to be let loose on America.  In 1957, the future is still in the West, and it has no use for Ebbets Field.

Dark Side of the Moonlight

June 21, 2010

“It was like coming this close to your dreams, then watching them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd.”

I think this line from Field of Dreams was intended to stir some sense of sympathy for Moonlight Graham, who famously played one inning in right field for the New York Giants but never came to bat.  For me, though, his character is not a very strong embodiment of that sentiment.  After all, the name of Moonlight Graham is etched forever in The Baseball Encyclopedia.  For the rest of his life, presumably, he could tell strangers like Ray Kinsella about the day “old John McGraw pointed a bony finger in [his] direction.”  He was one of the fortunate few granted entrance into the beautiful promised land, and we’re supposed to feel for him because he never got to taste the food or spend the night?

All this occurred to me last Thursday while watching Brian Mazone toss six shutout innings for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.  He looked too wrinkled and weathered to still be a prospect, yet he did not appear in my mind’s extensive baseball rolodex.  I simply had to discover his story.  Mazone is a guy who spent five years in the independent leagues… then went 0-7 with a 9.31 ERA when he finally got his chance as a 26-year old in A-ball.  A guy who stuck with it and battled back and became the “Most Spectacular Pitcher in AAA” in 2006… and here’s where it gets interesting.  On September 5 of that year, the Phillies needed a spot starter.  Mazone got the call, but the game against the Astros was rained out.  Even though they could have kept him (rosters had expanded to 40), the Phillies sent him back down.  He has yet to throw a single major league pitch.  Brian Mazone came this close to his dreams, only to see them brush past like a stranger in a crowd.

Bruce Dostal was a speedy center fielder in the Phillies organization in the early ’90’s, when I first fell under the spell of the game.  By June of 1994 he was hanging on with the Rochester Red Wings, when he finally got the call that validated eight years’ worth of bus rides and fast food, bad lights and small crowds.  Dostal found an Orioles jersey with his name on it in the ancient clubhouse at Fenway Park.  He ran some sprints and played some catch in the shadow of the big Green Monster.  It was a gray, gloomy, glorious afternoon.  On two separate occasions over the next four days, manager Johnny Oates told Bruce to get ready to pinch run for Harold Baines should the venerable DH get on.  Baines made out both times, Dostal was sent back to Rochester, and soon started a title company in his native New Jersey.  You won’t find his name in The Baseball Encyclopedia.*

*(I don’t think they even print that anymore, but saying “you’ll only find him on the minors page of B-R” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

I’m sure history is littered with ashes of the stillborn dreams of men who know they were good enough yet through some cruel twist of fate never had a chance to make the slightest mark.  To posterity it’s as if they were never there at all.  These are the guys who truly elicit the emotion that Dr. Archibald Graham does not.  Moonlight, quit your bitching.

The Painted Ponies Go Up and Down

May 11, 2010

Was I the only one shocked by this story?  While we all pretty much knew this would be Ken Griffey, Jr.’s last year as a player, I just assumed that it would entail a farewell tour around the league, culminating in a standing ovation from a sellout crowd at Safeco Field on October 3.  Now Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Mariners will ask Griffey to retire within the next few weeks; if he doesn’t, they will release him.  The whole article is anonymous hearsay, but it seems believable in the way of a doctor telling you that your wheelchair-bound 95-year old cancer-riddled grandmother might not see another Christmas.  Apparently Griffey “doesn’t sleep well at night, he’s away from his family,” and so he was napping in the clubhouse when Don Wakamatsu looked down the bench for a pinch-hitter.  Are you kidding me?  “The Kid” is now officially “The Geezer.”  Griffey’s skills have evaporated so quickly and so completely, those of us who grew up in the era of 39-year old MVP’s and 42-year old ERA leaders don’t quite know what to make of it.

I became a baseball fan in 1993, when Junior Griffey was at the height of his glory.  Though he was only 23, the fans voted him into the All-Star lineup for the fourth straight summer.  (I wanted to vote, but in those primitive days the only way to do so was to go to the ballpark and grab a paper ballot.)  He rewarded us with a show in the Homerun Derby, drilling one off the warehouse at Camden Yards.  On my elementary school playground 2,788 miles from the Kingdome, we all tried to imitate his awesome, deadly swing.  We’d take turns grabbing a whiffle bat, standing tall and straight in the lefty batter’s box, cockily wagging our shoulders along with the bat, then in one explosive second stride and whip it like a pit bull unleashed, drop it behind the back foot and jubilantly jog toward first while staring up into the sky above right-center.  Our dads cheered for Dykstra or Ripken or Van Slyke, but Griffey was a Kid like us, baseball’s version of Michael Jordan, with his backwards hat that I took to be an act of cool youthful nonchalance.  With (insincere) apologies to Bonds, Griffey was the Willie Mays for the ESPN generation – flashy, always bubbling with joy; it was easy to imagine him joining in our recess whiffle ball games.

My first little league team was called the Mariners, which I think was the reason my mom bought me a teal-green #24 jersey T-shirt.  She could not have known the scars that Junior inflicted on my psyche as a young Yankee fan in 1995, his Jacksonian performance leading Seattle to victory in the ALDS.  The series ended as he slid across the plate in the 11th inning of Game 5 while Jim Leyritz and me and the rest of Yankee Universe could only watch helplessly.

Even then, I continued to admire Griffey and the way he played the game.  But it was always from afar; I didn’t see him play in person until his Reds came to Philly late in the ’01 season.  The Phillies were in a tight race for the first time in eight years, so I bought two tickets at a local Ticketmaster outlet, then told my dad I’d won them in an online trivia contest and begged him to take me even though it was a school night.  The desperate ploy worked, and we got there right as Randy Wolf struck out Junior in the top of the first.  You could pretty much sit anywhere you wanted to at the old Vet, so we sat out in centerfield to get a good look at Griffey.  When I saw him play for the second time, in the ’08 playoffs against the Rays, he was already looking old and very out of place in a White Sox uniform.  I hope to see him for a third and final time this weekend at the Trop, even if it’s just for a few swings in batting practice.

It’s been suggested that the adulation lavished upon McGwire and Sosa in ’98 was what compelled Bonds to start juicing.  He was a better hitter, certainly a better all-around player, than Mac or Sammy, so why should they get all the love?  Of course, Griffey had all the same reasons to feel jilted.  He’d hit 56 homers in ’97 and again in ’98, yet was overshadowed both years.  He was on pace for 58 when the strike began on August 12, 1994 (a date which will live in infamy).  Griffey had 37 more homers on his 37th birthday than Bonds did on his, and just 29 fewer than Aaron.  Both the season and career records could have easily been his.  I don’t know if it’s moral superiority or some other reason that Griffey stayed clean and battled through some mediocre, injury-plagued years while Bonds was rewriting history.  What I do know is that Griffey’s career seems like a disappointment simply because it followed a natural arc.  If you can justify the backlash against the juicers and accept their glaring absence from the hallowed hall in Cooperstown, then you’ve got to give some extra recognition to the clean guys from the era.

So although I didn’t fully appreciate him at the time, I’ll remember Griffey as the greatest player of my long-gone childhood.  I’ll remember how he broke his hand in ’95 flying into the wall to rob Kevin Bass, then returned three months later to hit a walk-off homer off John Wetteland which began the incredible playoff run that saved baseball in Seattle.  I’ll remember all the bombs into the tier deck of the old Yankee Stadium, and the circus catch at Tiger Stadium.  I’ll remember the classic Nike commercials, their juvenileness so apropos of that time in my life.  Please, Griffey, quit ruining these memories with your lazy groundouts.  If your heart’s not in it anymore, it’s time to hang ‘em up.


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