|How I took the Ryan Express to Brown|
I am writing this on the day when major-league pitchers and catchers traditionally report to spring training. With baseball's resurgence in 1998, thanks largely to the home-run duel between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, this year's baseball season is likely to arouse more interest than any since the disastrous strike season of several years ago. What will McGwire and Sosa do for an encore? How will the pitchers try to regain the ground they lost to the hitters, allegedly because of a lively baseball, the effects of legal and illegal muscle-building drugs and supplements, or the dilution of pitching talent thanks to league expansion? The arrival of the pitchers and catchers is the first stirring, for hard-core baseball fans, of the summer to come, when wrongs will be righted and the horsehide gods will finally let the local team win it all.
To most of the athletes at spring training camp, however, these are largely irrelevant questions and issues. At any given spring training operation, the roster of the Big Club contains no more than forty players and will be reduced to twenty-five before the team "heads north." In contrast, there are usually something like 250 minor-league prospects in camp, many of whom have never been to spring training before, and all of whom want to be stars. A couple of months ago, many were probably practicing autograph-signing with their cousins at Christmas dinner. In their elation at being in pro ball, they have either never heard or have suppressed the memory of a certain dismal baseball statistic: for every 100 high school and college hot shots who sign a professional baseball contract, exactly one player will play at least one inning in the major leagues.
I know. On February 15, 1966, I reported to my first spring training. I had just signed a bonus contract with the Detroit Tigers and, after spending most of the bonus on a new blue Ford Mustang, had headed to "Tigertown," the Lakeland, Florida, spring-training home of one of baseball's oldest and noblest franchises. I was a "prospect," as we were called in those days: a nineteen-year-old, six-foot-three-inch 180-pound pitcher whose scouting report read, in part, "decent heat [fastball] but not much movement on it, real good overhand curveball, good control."
That was the good news about the recruit. But the report went on: "squints at the catcher like he can't see the signs [I couldn't] even though he wears thick glasses, stumbles a lot when fielding, awful skinny-looking, and stands in [the batter's box when hitting] like he's afraid of being killed." Mind you, I did not see that report until years later, but it now strikes me as insightful and prescient. Back then I focused on my control and my curveball, and I chose not to dwell on my inability to see the catcher's signs or my difficulty in picking up the ball as it came at me, whether I was hitting or pitching. (These were the days when everybody hit, even pitchers like me, whose career batting average ended up at .093.)
Upon arriving at Tigertown, I was issued a heavy wool uniform and assigned to one of the "A-ball" teams, which generally consisted entirely of rookies, with two exceptions: the manager - frequently a player-manager - and often, for some mysterious reason, the catcher. I found the first couple of weeks of A-ball boring. Mostly I worked on learning how to chew tobacco for more than five minutes without vomiting - an important rite of passage into baseball manhood in those tobacco-saturated days. I also recall noticing that by the end of the first week, as pitchers struggled with their control, virtually every catcher had undergone a number of what were euphemistically called "cup checks" - blocking baseballs that bounced off home plate and into the groin area, producing an odd clacking sound as they hit the fiberglass "cup" in the catcher's jockstrap. But for the most part we pitchers ran wind sprints in the morning, played golf in the afternoon, and drank beer at night.
Then the hitters arrived and everything changed. The first day the hitters were in camp, I was called over to pitch batting practice to the Big Club. I was thrilled and, of course, nervous. But not for the right reasons, as it turned out. What nobody had told us minor leaguers was that for the first week of spring training the Detroit hitters tried to hit every ball up the middle, right at the pitcher; this was supposed to improve the hitters' timing, I believe. A short mesh fence in front of the pitcher's mound was supposed to protect the batting-practice pitchers from being hit. So it was pitch and duck, pitch and duck.
One day, the guy pitching batting practice - which always referred to as B.P. - had to face Willie Horton. Willie was in his prime then, at five-foot-ten and roughly 220 pounds. He was, as they say, a presence in the batter's box, a man with virtually no body fat and the loudest grunt you ever heard when he swung the bat. As I warmed up in the bull pen, Willie smashed a line drive that hit the pitchers' fence so hard that the two-inch pipe holding it up over my friend's poor A-ball head broke and nearly knocked him out. As he was helped off the field, some of Horton's teammates who were hanging around the batting cage gave Willie slaps and other forms of manly acclaim for "scoring that rubber arm" - whose owner was just then limping off the field, eyes glazed, cap askew. "Next," I heard from Mayo Smith, the Tigers' manager. It was my turn.
I'm no longer embarrassed to say that I practically had to be rediapered then and there in the bull pen. As I stood on the mound behind the now jerry-rigged fence, I decided to forgo the pitch-and-duck strategy for something like throw-and-kiss-the-ground. I just wanted to stay alive. Don't get killed, I recall repeating to myself. The Tigers - the major-league Tigers, that is - were naturally laughing themselves silly. All I could think was: Jesus, what must it be like to face Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Norm Cash, and Gates Brown without the protective fence? Like in a real game? Thus was born my fear of being irreparably maimed by a batted baseball. Looking back, I now believe that was the moment, as I threw and dove to save my life, when I began to prepare for my life as a scholar.
All through March, which is the heart of the "Grapefruit League" season, I pitched B.P. to the Big Club. And as the hitters found their grooves, they stopped hitting everything up the middle and started doing what hitters prefer to do in B.P.: swing for the fences. Hit it out of the park. And whenever I threw B.P. they did. At the time, I was happy to get called so often from Tigertown, to put on a Detroit uniform (even if it had 114 or some other humiliating three-digit number on the back) and pitch to the Big Leaguers. What I did not at first understand was why I was being asked to pitch batting practice with such regularity Later I found out it was the "decent heat," the "good control," and the "not much movement" so wisely noted in my scouting report. In short, I was the perfect natural batting-practice pitcher: I threw seventy-mile-per-hour "fastballs" right down the middle and straight as an arrow. In the jargon of the pros, I threw watermelons. Coming from my hand, the ball looked big and easy to hit.
Had I quit right there, I could have saved myself considerable embarrassment over the next three years, as I threw my batting-practice pitches in game situations. As one of my catchers indelicately put it, I didn't just suck, I "swilled." And I knew it. But I couldn't accept it. I wanted to be a Big Leaguer - I'd never wanted to be anything else. But the trajectory of my entire career went like this: I began in the low minors, did poorly, and was released three years after signing a contract.
Even my brushes with baseball immortality were of the "swilling" sort. I am, in fact, represented in the baseball record book for one accomplishment. It happened in 1967, during a game in the Florida State League. I was the starting pitcher for the Lakeland Tigers against the Miami Marlins, which at the time was the Baltimore Orioles farm club. After the manager, "Stubby" Overmire (at five-foot-two, possibly the shortest pitcher in modern Big League history when he pitched for the Tigers in the 1940s), gave me the ball and I took the mound, he did what he always did: he walked down to the left-field foul pole, ducked into our makeshift clubhouse, and lit a cigarette, smoking being prohibited in the dugout. The details of what followed blur in memory, but this much is clear from the record book: the lead-off man for Miami, Moses Hill, hit a solo home run to start the game. The same man, Moses Hill, also hit a grand slam later that inning during his second at bat, bringing in runs seven, eight, nine, and ten. There was still nobody out. The usual crowd of several dozen drunks, whores, and pimps was, on this particular night, joined by a couple dozen prisoners from the local road gang. State troopers brought a group once a week, in chains, clanking into the stadium, and whenever our team fell behind, the prisoners clanked their chains rhythmically. After the grand slam, everyone was screaming, clanking, and getting generally unruly as they shouted for Stubby to come and get me the hell out of the game.
After Moses Hill took me deep for the second time, Stubby at last put out his cigarette and headed to the mound, accompanied by the boos and the clanking. I watched him all the way in, and thought, Jesus, at last he's coming to get me out of here. Stubby reached the mound and, as a former pitcher, he (as usual) picked up the resin bag with his left hand and tossed it down. But this time he just stood at the bottom of the mound and looked up at me with a big grin on his face, which reached roughly to the height of my belt buckle. When I bent down to hand him the ball, he handed it right back, and said, "If you think I'm going to waste another pitcher on this game, you're crazy. Man, you are in for nine. Good luck. I'll be down in the clubhouse suckin' weed." And so he left, to more booing and clanking.
I did eventually get someone out, then someone else, and someone after that. At the end of nine innings, I had given up twenty-two earned runs on thirty-one hits. As far as I know, no pitcher has before or since, in the recorded history of baseball, given up two home runs to the same player in the same inning. The reason is obvious: in every case but mine, the manager removed the incompetent pitcher before such a feat became possible. In their way, my teammates understood the significance of the evening. As they filed into the clubhouse after the game, each, in turn, looked me solemnly in the face and then began to laugh uncontrollably. So did I. So did Stubby. So, I imagine, did Mo Hill. Even the prisoners must have yucked it up as they clanked back to the state prison. I was beginning to see the implications of being a natural batting-practice pitcher. I didn't suck, my catcher said, and I didn't even swill. Tonight, he said, I "chugged." For the remainder of my brief career in the minors, Chug became one of my nicknames.
Willie Horton had taught me the fear of getting seriously hurt by a batted ball. Moses Hill had now taught me that the humiliation of a "chugger" might be even worse than a broken leg or some other injury from being hit by a line drive. I was now sent to the bull pen, which in those days was not where "closers" waited to be called in to "close out" a game. No, it was where washed-up pitchers went to try to figure out how to pitch. But I almost never got the call. So I took up reading. One night, forgetting that Stubby was smoking in the clubhouse next to the bull pen, I was caught reading a novel during the game.
Life in the minors hasn't changed much since Jim Blight "chugged" his way through a three-year stint three decades ago. In Slouching Toward Fargo, published in April by Avon's new Spike Books imprint, Neal Karlen '81 recounts the exploits of the St. Paul Saints, a team, he writes, of "the castoffs, rejects, and never-weres of organized baseball." After two years on the road with the Saints, Karlen chronicles life in the minors in hilarious detail: we meet the team's co-owner, movie actor Bill Murray, who isn't such an insufferable pain after all; we hear a surprising ring of truth in the recovery talk of Darryl Strawberry; and we sense the healing touch of Sister Roz Gefre, a Benedictine nun who gives massages to fans along the third-base line. - Chad Galts
"Chug, you ain't got yer head in the game," he said. "That'll be a twenty-five-dollar fine."
"But Stubby . . . " I began.
"No, let's make that a fifty-dollar fine."
I was making $400 a month at the time. This would be like levying a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars against Mark McGwire today. But Stubby was right. I didn't have my head in the game.
I had one final lesson to learn, and it was the one that finally convinced me to pack it in. In the late 1960s, top baseball prospects managed to avoid the Vietnam-era military draft by serving in the National Guard of their home states for six months. A celebrated case was Texan Nolan Ryan, who had recently signed with the New York Mets, and who later became the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history. When Ryan returned from his National Guard stint in Texas, the Mets placed him temporarily in the Florida State League; the warm, muggy weather was thought to prevent sore arms and other early-season injuries. As it happened at this particular game, Ryan was brought in to pitch the top half of the ninth inning, and by coincidence I was in pitching for the other side, primarily because we were too far behind for it to matter. So the manager sent me up to hit.
I remember the next few moments as if they happened yesterday. Nolan Ryan was reputed to be a young Big League pitcher of some potential, but little else was known about him down in A-ball. Without giving him much, if any, thought, I stepped in and waited for the first pitch.
I never saw it. I repeat: I saw absolutely nothing, other than Ryan's arm coming toward me. I heard a faint whoosh, then a pop behind me that sounded like gunfire, followed by "Steeee-rike one!" from the umpire. My knees started shaking. My palms began to sweat profusely. I will never forgive Nolan for the next pitch. It was a slider or curve or something like that. It started out behind me, or so it seemed, and then broke hard over home plate for strike two. As the ball crossed the plate, I was flat on my back on a pile of dirt, in a needless effort to avoid being hit. I stepped out. It was then that I had what later became known as a near-death experience. I realized that on the next pitch, I could get killed. Dead.
I could not make my feet get back into the batter's box. I tried once, twice. But no. The feet would not move in that direction. I called time out and said a little prayer: "Dear Lord, if You will not let Nolan Ryan kill me on the next pitch, I will look as hard as I can for a line of work in which I will not humiliate myself, will not live in constant fear of being maimed or killed, a job in which I will not be fined 20 percent of my income for reading books." I stepped in and swung almost before Ryan delivered the ball. It came in low, in the dirt, but I was out and I was free and I was alive and I was happy.
Since coming to Brown in 1990, my colleagues and I have organized conferences - face to face encounters, really - between formerly intractable enemies: between Fidel Castro, for example, and Kennedy administration officials; between former North Vietnamese leaders and Johnson administration architects of the war in Vietnam. I and my fellow conference participants have endured bomb threats, bureaucratic harassment from many governments, and ostracism by foundations afraid to fund our research because it was too controversial for their boards. I have been asked, from time to time, how I can put up with this, or why I seem not to mind taking these risks, which seem at odds with the common conception of the academic life.
The answer is, to me, perfectly obvious, though this is the first time I have owned up to it in print. Neither Fidel Castro nor Vietnamese communists are as scary as Nolan Ryan. Once I understood that nothing is that scary, my career path to Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies became a straight line. And my director has yet to throw a resin bag at me or fine me for reading books.
Professor James G. Blight now squints at golf balls when he is not working at the Watson Institute. A profile of his academic work can be found in the November/December 1997 BAM. Argument Without End, his book on the Vietnam War, coauthored with Robert McNamara, Robert K. Brigham, Watson Institute Director Thomas J. Biersteker, and retired Army Colonel Herbert Y. Schandler, will be published in April.