I saw this item in the San Francisco Chronicle; my old minor league teammate Danny Cox.
T.S. Elliot’s famous quote from “The Hollow Men” that death comes, “Not with a bang but with a whimper” seemed to apply to the end of my college baseball career. I made a winding journey. Twice I had contemplated walking on at USC. Twice I decided to go to a different school where I felt my chance to pitch was greater. Had I walked on at USC after graduating from Redwood in 1977, I would have been part of the 1978 national champions. I believe by 1981 I would have been considered an effective pitcher on their staff, perhaps earning a scholarship by then. Had I entered as a junior in 1979, I might have been “lost in the shuffle” with too little time to prove myself.
But I did not do these things. I did not regret it then or now. In assessing what I had and had not accomplished, I needed to be realistic. After four years of college, my academic record was average. I made decent enough grades. Technically I majored in communications. In reality I majored in “eligibility.” No counselor ever sat me down, giving me a “road map” on what classes I needed in order to graduate in four or even five years. My transcripts were a hodge-podge of electives from different colleges. I still needed two more years in order to earn a bachelor’s degree. In June of 1981 that was not my concern. I was 22 years old.
All of my efforts were focused on continuing to play the game of baseball, and to finally be paid for it. I started playing little league at the age of eight in 1967, 14 years earlier. I expended much blood, sweat and tears at the altar of this game. I traveled to most of America’s Western states, played on countless high school, J.C. and college fields. I played for winners and losers. I played for great coaches, mediocre coaches and some strange birds.
I experienced highs and lows, but I never averted my eyes from the prize. Mid-way through my senior year, I was pitching in dominant manner, assured by the Boston Red Sox I would be drafted by them. I was told other teams wanted me, too. Then, I hit a slump. The harder I tried, the worse I pitched. I finished the college season barely able to cross the finish line. However, I also compiled a strong body of work. I pitched against some of the best competition available since high school and Joe DiMaggio League ball. I was well known among the scouting community. I told myself four or five mediocre games at the end did not necessarily overshadow my good work at Redwood, Italian Club, Santa Monica College, Kamloops, and two years in Reno.
But on May 28, 1981 fate slapped me upside my face. The Major League baseball players voted to go on strike after June 10. I immediately deduced this would have a profoundly negative consequence on me. That was quickly confirmed. Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn announced the upcoming June draft, which over the years lasted 60 rounds or more, with players like Mike Piazza picked in some of the lowest rounds, would go only about 30 or 33 rounds.
Quickly, many clubs announced due to the draft, they would not use all the picks allotted them. Most teams planned to be done by round 30 or thereabouts. This meant some 30 rounds of 24 picks each would not be held. That added up to roughly 720 amateur baseball players who in most years could expect to be drafted. Now they would not. Would I be on of those 720 baseball players?
I heard Boston would pick me in the 12th or 13th round. That was way back in March or early April when I gunned opponents down. It is amazing what some well-hit line drives openly struck for all the world to see can do to change a scouting report. I knew I was not a 12th or 13th round pick anymore. I figured I dropped. Had I dropped to the 30th round? Or Worse?
I cannot adequately describe how utterly incensed I was. I strove for this opportunity all my life. Now, at the worst possible time for me, a bunch of greedy, overpaid baseball players, controlled by a lousy, rotten, corrupt union, made a decision threatening to screw me up one side and down the other. Lousy, stinkin’ money-obsessed baseball players. My God, the timing of it. This was God laughing at me. They could have struck in 1974, or 1979, even in 1980; none of those years would have mattered. They could have struck in August, after the draft was complete and I was safely signed, sealed and delivered. But no, they waited until about a week to 10 days before the biggest event in my life, in the lives of every amateur baseball prospect of 1981. They dropped a bomb on all of us. The ingrates. Each of them once sweated out their draft. Now they had theirs. Now they were puttin’ the screws to us. They did not seem to care. I do not recall hearing any of those guys talk about what a royal screw job they were giving the draftees. No, it was all about free agency; me, mine and my own, filled with stupid homilies about “making sure my family is secure” and general hogwash of that order. Pizz-ants. Honestly, I never collectively forgave them.
I told myself right then and there if I ever got to the Major Leagues, I would never vote for a strike. I would be a “scab,” or whatever they would call me. To me, unions and strikes were the stuff of low-rent Democrats. My philosophy then and now was to be the best you can be, make yourself so successful, so in demand, you could call your own shots; not extort money from owners or bosses or factory managers via immoral threats. I never found strikes in any form of endeavor to be anything less than an immorality. For high-priced ball players, living a life of luxury, to crap all over the fans – remember them? - by holding out from playing a fun game, was the height of arrogant greed. Now that greed was affecting me personally. I was pissed.
I came to Marin, waiting out the draft. I stayed in shape, lifting weights, running and working out with some local Marin guys down at Albert Park. I remember Bill Parmenter of San Marin. He was looking to hook on with somebody, too.
The draft was held the first week of June. My phone never rang. Some 30 rounds came. 30 rounds went. Many teams stopped drafting by then. A couple teams drafted some stragglers in the 31st, or 32nd round. It was over. My mind raced. Did they have my phone number? Were they calling the house in Reno? There was no Internet and instant access to the draft, minute-by-minute. Then they called it over. I was undrafted. It was a low, low moment. I burned with anger, resentment and personal recriminations.
Then I did something I wish I had not done. I got on my knees. I prayed to God that He grant me a chance to play professional baseball. I do not know what I promised Him. I think I just said, “Grant me this one prayer and I will never ask another thing.” I believe there are many legitimate, worthy prayers. To pray for a daughter’s health, the mortal soul of a mother, the re-union of a family; those are worthy prayers. To pray for your team to win a game, or to play in the minor leagues, is a selfish act. Since then I have of course prayed and asked Him for countless things; salvation, forgiveness of sins, strength to do His will, and so many other moralities. Could I have been so stupid as to “bargain” away “access” to these most valuable prayer requests for a lousy baseball contract? I only hope God forgave me my stupid, arrogant greed.
I thought about alternatives. Semi-pro ball, independent leagues. I called Rocky Shone, asking if he could arrange for me to play in the Italian pro league. He did not express much enthusiasm. I thought about going back to Kamloops, playing another year there. I was 22. My window was closing. Fast. This was it. I called Earl Johnson, the Boston scout who told me the club would draft me. He apologized, saying if it was up to him he would have picked me, but the strike changed everything. The club put a “moratorium” on signing free agents. A moratorium? What a word to use instead of just saying, “Screw you, kid.”
Then I called Roy Roth. “You weren’t drafted?” he asked, surprised.
“No,” I replied.
“Let me make a call and I’ll get back to you,” he said.
Honestly, I was not expecting anything. About 45 minutes later the phone rang.
“Pack your bags,” Roth said. “You’re flying to Tennessee tomorrow morning.”
Roth was as good as his word. He called the St. Louis Cardinals’ West Coast scouting director, Bill Sayles. He sold him on me. I was in. When the Marin Independent Journal ran their story on MCAL players signing contracts that year (Greg Zunino signed with the Yankees at the same time), Sayles was quoted saying he liked my size and potential.
The whole thing happened so fast, catching me by surprise. It was quite surreal. Out of nowhere I went from abject depression to a state of euphoria. That night, my parents took me to dinner at a favorite restaurant, The Dock in Tiburon. We invited my old high school catcher, Howard Gibian. I was struck by a wave of excitement. I actually had to go outside, gathering myself in the bay air in order to regulate my breathing. The Dock was located right on the water with a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay. I stared at the twinkling lights of the City skyline across the way. I could almost hear the strains of the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Howard joined me on the deck. We reflected on our shared experiences; Al Endriss terrorizing us, the game we both loved, now this opportunity. I thanked him for his support and all those bull pen sessions he caught for me.
I flew to Johnson City, Tennessee, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team in the Appalachian League. I had plenty of time to contemplate all I did, and all that was ahead of me, during the course of the three flights I had to connect in order to get there. I was about to become a member of a storied organization. The modern farm system began under the great Branch Rickey when he ran the Cardinals in the 1930s. To be a Cardinal was a special thing, over and above being a Twin, a Padre or a Brave, I felt. If I could make it all the way to the Major Leagues in St. Louis, I would play in what may be the greatest baseball town in America. Cardinals players are revered in St. Louis. Huge crowds come to their games. The press lavished great attention on their exploits.
On the other hand, I could have been a Boston Red Sox. They are every bit as revered by their fans. Furthermore, I could have been drafted by Boston and given a bonus. As best I figured it, while the draft was cut off short after about 30-plus rounds, I likely would have gone in one of the rounds that in 1981 were not held. I would have been given a bonus of about $5,000. This made a difference. A bonus player is an investment. He is given more chances to succeed before cast off.
Had I continued to pitch all season the way I did in the first half, I believe I would have been picked between the 12th and 15th rounds, given “substantial” money, around $20,000. But I had nobody to blame for not achieving this; not the player’s strike or anybody else. I failed to pitch up to my ability. What Steve Travers would show up in Tennessee? The “pitching machine” of February through early April, or the shell of my old self barely making it to the finish line in May? The Cardinals did not offer me a bonus. I was a free agent, the low man in the pecking order. I got the standard rookie salary and would have to like it.
Johnson City, Tennessee is at the crossroads of eastern Tennessee. For almost two centuries, it has been the center of tourism and business in this part of the country. Originally a train depot, it developed into a metropolitan melting pot. Home to East Tennessee State University, it is a rural Southern town of tradition, heritage and hospitality. It has natural beauty and fresh mountain air, albeit hot, and humid as all get out.
To walk about in Johnson City and the surrounding area, for a historian such as myself, was a treat. I envisioned Civil War battles, Confederate encampments, Union invasion, rebellious slaves escaping into the piney woods. The flora and fauna had a mysterious, lilting quality to it. The houses were well kept, built out of wood. They had a sturdy look to them, all with old-style porches where residents sat in the evening drinking beer or iced tea. It was a church-going town, a small town. Its downtown was typical; the hardware store, a “greasy spoon” and a coffee shop served good Southern food that just plain tasted good; grits, chicken, eggs, bacon, milk shakes, biscuits, gravy.
Johnson City was a terrific minor league town. I have seen a few minor league towns. Some, especially in the low minors, are really the pits. Not Johnson City. It was a beautiful little country town, settled into surrounding rolling hills with the Appalachian range off to the distance. A river ran through the town. There were many trees, mainly of the oak variety. A train whistled through. I suppose there was a “wrong side” of the tracks, but nothing too drastic. I have no doubt just a decade earlier it would have been a challenge for a black or Dominican player to be there, but I never saw any problems in 1981. The citizenry was very friendly, simple and Christian, but not backward.
Johnson City sat in the tri-state area, where Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia all meet each other. It is a mountainous, forested region, encompassing the Monongahela National Forest and Shenandoah Mountain, but covers an enormous swath of geography extending far beyond the Appalachian League. The Appalachians include plateaus and hills, rivers, lakes, and a relatively large population of mostly country folk. It is an area of folk songs, traditions and customs dating back centuries, carried out with great solemnity. To visit there is to feel welcome. Respect for these customs is vital to acceptance.. There was wisdom in their small town ways. For a “city slicker” from Cal-i-for-NI-A like myself, I was smart to pick up on my surroundings, incorporating it into my greater life understanding.
The league was around since 1937 with earlier incarnations going back to 1911. Like my experiences in the Jayhawk League and Canada, I found myself thrust into a part of America, or North America, described so eloquently in The Glory of Their Times. It was “town ball,” prairie baseball, part of the fabric of this country with roots as deep as Alexis de Tocqueville, or Jacques Barzun’s observation baseball is not merely a game played by kids, but instead part of our national soul. At the heart of this is not simply the playing of the games, but the travel, the character of the ballparks and the towns. To understand America, as Barzun said, is to understand baseball. Into this was I thrust. I was uniquely “qualified” to observe my surroundings. Perhaps God placed me there specifically to fulfill this purpose, and to “write about it,” as James Earl Jones tells Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.
Minor league baseball players come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Education levels vary from college graduates to the totally illiterate. Even among the more intelligent, the ability to grasp immediate surroundings is too often lost. Because of the books and stories handed down to me by my grandfather and father, I was perfectly situated to understand every sight, sound and smell needed to be noted and experienced. I was lucky to be there. I wanted to be no place else. I was determined to drink it all in.
The Cardinals were totally inter-twined with Johnson City. Theoretically the Atlanta Braves might have been the big league team of favor in this “neck of the woods.” Back then the Braves were no great shakes. WTBS was probably just coming into national prominence via cable TV, but had not taken root yet. The Cardinals were America’s rural team, courtesy of Branch Rickey’s incorporation of farm clubs spread throughout the land, The Johnson City Cardinals belonged to that town. To be a Cardinal was like being a Volunteer over at UT, to be a freshman football recruit at ‘Bama. There was a tradition to uphold. It was greater than any single player.
The “nightlife” was purposely “placed” on the outskirts of Johnson City, the proverbial “road house.” The citizenry did not mind its “young-uns” raising a little heck, but wanted it separated from the neighborhoods, the schools, the churches and the very young. The girls were fabulous. It was a college town, although I was there in the summer and did not get that flavor. There was only one nightclub. It was a humdinger, a Southern Road House, but not as rowdy as the one Patrick Swayze presided over in the movie of the same name. Mainly it was a dance place, with beer and whisky flowing. There were pretty girls aplenty. It was the South, but I did not see signs of prejudice or segregation. Blacks mixed with whites at this nightspot as far as I could tell without incident. I do not recall any “warnings” or rules, any sage advice from the manager warning the young blacks and Dominicans of possible danger.
I dated one girl, Pam, who took me to a much rougher place out beyond the town limits. It had a far tougher edge to it. It was a Lynyrd Skynyrd type place with wild-eyed Southern boys wearing sleeveless shirts and vests; hard drinking, “rebel yells” and shouts. They expressed little friendliness. This was a place I felt might not be welcoming to blacks, but in fairness I was only there once or twice. They certainly did not seem friendly to me.
Johnson City had “blue laws.” We could not buy beer on Sundays. The team’s “equipment manager,” D.C. Snyder kept us fully stocked every day of the week. Most of the players lived in a seedy dive called the Mid-Town Motel, about a 10-minute walk from the stadium. For some reason Paul Coppersmith got a “wild hair” over the name Mid-Town. He said in his stentorian tone, “Mid-town . . . doooownn-town.” I really did not understand the meaning of it. Cop always said stuff like that. I called friends from Redwood, Reno, and other places, describing this new place and life. I was an inveterate letter writer in the days before blackberries and email. If they kept them, hundreds of people have a thousand letters I wrote from every corner of the American experience and even the world.
I wrote to Dan Farano a couple of times without reply, so I sent him a stamped, self-addressed envelope with a couple blank pages and the note, “Now all you need is a pen.” I think he was frustrated beyond belief that summer. He had a better year than I did at Nevada, but I was the one playing professionally. He was working security at a casino. He finally wrote back to get his feelings off his chest.
I again felt like I was privy to a secret organization, a tiny fraternity, a code of order available only to a privileged few. I wanted my friends to know I was living this life, having these experiences. Somehow this made me more of a man.
It was so hot and humid, the air conditioner simply blasted morning, noon and night. To open the door in the morning was to be hit by an air furnace. The walk to the coffee shop for breakfast meant a soaked shirt that had to be removed and could not be worn again.
After games nobody could unwind and sleep. We sat around drinking beer, chewing tobacco and playing grab-ass with a variety of attractive and ugly groupies coming around every single night at all hours. The atmosphere was straight out of Tennessee Williams; sweating in the heat of long, humid summer nights amid passion and lust. Just as in the apartment I lived in at Colorado Springs three summers earlier, a thriving hooker business operated across the courtyard at the Mid-Town. I do not recall anybody making use of it. I personally never had the money for that sort of thing. Frankly the town girls made themselves available for free.
This was also the very first time in my life I saw cable television. One of the stations showed non-stop 1970s porn classics, starring the likes of John Holmes and Seka. Every player on that team watched those cheesy porn flicks. We repeat lines from the movies to each other.
“That’s right, now liiiicck it off.” Stuff like that. But the TV also had ESPN. It was in its nascent stage, showing second-rate stuff like monster truck shows, bull riding, and minor league baseball games, usually triple-A. I remember seeing the Omaha Royals against the Denver Bears at Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the College World Series. I saw Buddy Biancalana play in a minor league game on ESPN.
We had a fair number of players from the Dominican Republic. Several of them were, and I do not mean to offend anybody by this, loco. A couple of them pretend they were homosexuals in the shower. They were quite proud of their . . . size, and would stroke each other. I do not think they were maricons, but rather they knew it freaked us Americans out. Crazy stuff like that was commonplace in minor league life. I am glad I saw it, though. I grew up sheltered. This opened my eyes. In all my life I only knew Dominicans through baseball. I suppose I could meet Dominican taxi drivers in New York or someplace, but where else would they be my equals, my friends, my teammates? They were colorful, music-loving guys who played baseball with élan.
One of the groupies was a black girl who, let’s just say, was built. She was also a psychotic. She came on to me like a vixen, whispering graphic descriptions of what she was going to do with me. When I made some . . . demands, she came after me with a bat. I had to run for my life. Sometimes our opponents also stayed at the Mid-Town. On that day the Paintsville Yankees were there. I ducked into the room of Greg Zunino, who was on their team. He and his roommate stared at me like I was nuts. I peeked out the window, “waiting her out” in Z’s room while she walked the halls amid a verbal tirade, all the while wielding that Louisville Slugger, daring me to show my face. I never did.
Later in the season the tables were turned. Paintsville came to town. I went over to Z’s room. I knocked on his door but it did not open. Then the curtains moved. The door was barely opened. Z ushered me in, quickly closing the door behind him.
“What gives, Z Man?”
His roommate laughed. “Tell him, Z.”
A fat girl took a liking to Greg and was stalking him. He wanted nothing to do with her. He kept peeking out the window. “There she is again.”
I stared out. I saw a poor, forlorn, overweight Johnson City girl in distress, looking around with a befuddled expression.
“I think you should own up to your manly responsibilities and show her some love, Z,” I said.
“Yeah, Z, big girls need love, too.”
“Think of it as Christian charity,” I said.
Z said something unprintable. We settled down to a Bruce Lee movie.
“Alright, Enter the Dragon.”
I thought about that girl, even philosophizing with Z Man. Not everybody could be a baseball star, or a pretty girl, or be attractive. We decided everybody could work hard and get an education. That was the only way to call ones’ own shots in life instead of hinging self-worth on the benevolence of others.
“It helps if you got a nice rack,” Z theorized in Socratic fashion.
“Having a 90-mile an hour heater helps, too,” his Aristotelian roomie offered.
It was not exactly the “School of Athens,” but that was about as heavy as it got in the J.C. I will say this for Zunino, the man was dedicated. After Enter the Dragon ended I told him I knew a roadhouse with a lot of nice, thin Southern bells happy to make the acquaintance of a Paintsville Yankee. He was planning to get in some extra hitting the next morning at 10 and needed his sleep. No matter how colorful my tempting description of those nice, thin Southern bells, Zunino could not be swayed. His eye was on the prize.
Greg did like his beer, though. Paintsville was a dry town. They could not buy beer. He asked me to bring a case when I came to town. He must have called four times to make sure I took care of it. The bench coach found out about the contraband brew and forbid it. Z was not happy.
The two “queens” of Johnson City were a couple of college vixens, a busty blond named Susan and her vivacious brunette friend, whose name I do not recall. I think the brunette was a student at the University of Tennessee. She intimated she dated Volunteers star left-hander pitcher Rick Honeycutt. I remember meeting them. It was in Danny Cox’s trailer park with Stan Haas. The wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana was on television. “Wow, royalty,” Stan said. I liked Stan but it sounded like something a rube from Nebraska might say. He was from Nebraska.
These two girls liked the boys but by night but passed themselves off as Southern belles by day. By night they liked to play. Susan was “friendly” with several players on the team. My “turn” occurred one night at the wild club we attended.
She seemingly picked me out as if I was on the schedule. She took me to her car. We started making out, but to my dismay, or luck maybe, she stopped me before we went all the way. She was a bit of a tease after all. I am not sure what her story was. She seemed to want people to think her loose when in fact she was not quite as easy as advertised. Some of my teammates saw me leave with her. They assumed we got it on. This kind of story spreads faster than a forest fire on baseball team. Forget any semblance of privacy. I came home. My roommate, Tim Hoag already heard about it. I made the mistake of not correcting him as I slumped, dumbed by drink, into bed.
The next day I entered the clubhouse. I was almost given a standing ovation for having “nailed” Susan, even though I did not. I tried to correct the error but the horse was way out of the barn. Sure as heck Susan heard about it. She thought I spread a false rumor. She was not pleased and never spoke to me again. Her friend the brunette was a tease. I think she slept with Stan Haas early in the season but that was her last ball player. Then Susan started “dating” Tim Hoag. Minor league ball is a veritable little Peyton Place.
Haas also went out with a blonde who was incredibly stunning; tall, thin, better looking than Gwyneth Paltrow for sure. I think she was a really nice girl, not willing to sleep with ball players, which I am sure made her parents sleep better at night. If I was the father of a cute 19-year old girl in Johnson City, Tennessee I would be unable to sleep during the baseball season. I would tie her up during home stands, letting her roam the countryside only when the Cardinals hit the road. Unfortunately there are three or four pro teams within half an hour of Johnson City.
Thus was another girl more “accommodating.” Karyn was a very attractive 19-year old brunette. Her nickname was “roster woman.” According to legend, she slept through the Bristol Tigers before moving on to us. However, I do not believe she was nearly as sexual as advertised. Rumors in this kind of setting were like spam email; they moved fast and loose. I never got anywhere with her. She told me the “roster woman” moniker was not based on reality. I suppose the moral of these stories is to keep your daughters away from the local pro team. Whether they maintain their virtue or not, people will say they have not.
Road trips were a blast. They were not nearly as long as I thought they would be. Johnson City, being in the tri-state area, was only 20 to 45 minutes from Bristol, Virginia (Tigers); Kingsport, Tennessee (Mets), and Elizabethton, Tennessee (Twins). (I named my daughter Elizabeth and still call her Elizabethton.) The long road trips were to Paintsville, Kentucky (Yankees) and Bluefield, West Virginia (Orioles). Paintsville, being entirely “blue” (no alcohol at all), was entirely lacking in fun. I am a good Christian, but all that town offered was churches, half probably handling snakes. I mean, this place was Pentecostal, brother. The waitresses spoke in tongues. A good place to be on Judgment Day. What a conundrum, since they were a Yankee farm club. New York, if any of them could ever get there, was “Fun City.” I suppose the theory was they needed to pay their dues. I joked with Zunino after games we had a big tub of Budweisers, courtesy of team owner Anheuser-Busch.
“Yeah,” he replied, “we get a boat,” a reference to George Steinbrenner’s shipbuilding business. In Paintsville they did not get a boat or a beer.
Bluefield was a little more gregarious, a mountain town located in a valley at the end of a long, winding highway. The “nightlife” included a pizza place next to the hotel. We were told George Brett, when he played in the Appalachian League, would sit and, homesick for L.A.’s mythical south bay, listened to Beach Boys (and Elton John) songs over and over. The only problem with that story is that Brett never played in the Appy League.
I reported to the team’s stadium, Howard Jones Field, the day after arriving in town. Johnson City’s coaching staff was another oddball tandem, like the Marty Berson-Jay Tatar combo (Santa Monica) or the Bill Johnson-Norm King team (Canada). The manager was Johnny Lewis, an enormous black man who must have weighed at least 230 or 240 pounds. He played for the New York Mets. I could never quite shake the impression he undoubtedly felt racial prejudice in his playing days, and as a result viewed white people with suspicion at best. His assistant, a quasi-pitching coach/bench coach, was Bob McBee, a quintessential good ol’ boy. He coached the baseball team at a place I never heard: Elon College in North Carolina, where they were known as the Fighting Christians.
McBee was probably in his mid-30s, give or take. His Southern accent was beyond thick, it was a whine. It was 1981. He was old enough to have grown up in the segregated South. It was only 11 year earlier when, in 1970, the USC Trojans traveled to Alabama, beating the Alabama Crimson Tide. That game was the seminal moment opening all of Southern sports to minorities. Prior to that, the Braves, Astros and Falcons were integrated; minor baseball was integrated; and the Federal government officially made it illegal to segregate schools. But it was only the 1970 USC-Alabama game, combined with Christianity, American Democracy and capitalism – all working in harmony – that fulfilled the generosity of spirit that had to reach the hearts and minds of Southern whites . . . like Bob McBee, thus engendering real, actual, radical change.
But generosity of spirit aside, McBee had his ways and Lewis had his. I think Lewis looked at guys like McBee, not with a jaundiced eye, but with memory of a different time when it was not so “Kumbaya.” Then there were white men like me, the California kids. Californians were a dominant force in pro baseball. We were everywhere. The state was a gold mine of talent. The leagues were stocked with all those guys from USC, Cal, Fullerton, Fresno City College, Lakewood High, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Ana, and a thousand other towns and “baseball schools” spread up and down the state. We were a little fraternity. The California athletes were traditionally the race-neutral ones, from Ted Williams and Frank Gifford to Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell to Tom Seaver and O.J. Simpson. In theory at least, we “got it right.” If my instincts were correct, guys like Johnny Lewis looked at me like Lew Alcindor looked at his UCLA classmates in the 1960s.
Alcindor, before becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wrote an essay in Sports Illustrated. He said he met blond surfer boys at Westwood who flashed him the “Pepsodent beach boy smile” to his face but called him by the N-word behind his back. This was a notion mixing with the idea we were naïve liberals who thought we could all just get along. I am merely surmising because I never got into a discussion on this or any other subject, really, with Johnny Lewis. I felt he saw too much to buy this form of Pollyanna. Then again, maybe he was just a grouch by nature.
All of this is in retrospect. The first order of business was to sign my contract. A standard rookie contract was presented to me along with a pen. I signed it in Lewis’s office. As I did I remarked, “This is what I’ve worked for all my life, a dream come true.” Lewis barely even grunted. Who cares? But I had, if the statistics I read were correct, just broken one-in-30,000 odds, at the least. For every young man who sets forth as his goal to play pro baseball, only one of 30,000 makes it all the way to Johnny Lewis’s office. He saw it all before and gave it no never-minds.
The next week or so was nerve-wracking. Every season, after the draft, the newly signed players are sent to their team, usually in the Appalachian League, Pioneer League or Gulf Coast Rookie League. There is generally a week to 10 days between the draft and the start of the Summer Class A (short) season. Depending on how many players sign (or choose not to sign, returning to or entering college); also depending upon how many free agents (including players from the Dominican Republic) are signed; and also depending upon how many players come up from a little-known entity known as “extended Spring Training”: there are more often than not more players than roster spots.
I figured there would be 25 roster spots on the 1981 Johnson City Cardinals. On my first day I looked around, counting heads. There were more than 25 players in uniform. I was not a math major but I could count. There were more pitchers than we needed. In addition, local undrafted college players and guys who released by other organizations came by the field every day asking for try-outs. It quickly became apparent I had not made any team yet. Not by a long shot.
I knew of at least two or three former teammates who been signed with Major League teams, only to be released during Spring Training, or during that interim period between the draft and the start of the Summer Class A season, never having played an official professional baseball game. There would be no record of them in the pantheon of baseball records, whether that is The Sporting News or modern web sites like Baseball-Reference.com or TheBaseballCube.com. Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up,” but if you tried to find some of these lost players they would not be found. They are like ghosts, shadows. They would sit around bars and taverns telling people how they had played for “for the Cardinals . . . in the Twins’ chain . . . in the Gulf Coast League.” I could just picture the savvy stool mate checking their story in real time on a hand-held phone-computer.
“I don’t see a Danny Camacho on TheBaseballCube, man.”
The explanation would not wash.
“Oh, I signed with George Genovese and was at Spring Training in ’81.”
“Yeah, sure you were. Have another big beer.”
At the very least, I wanted a record of having done this, of signing with a team and playing in a game. Some tangible proof I existed and was not a shadow. I sized up the other pitchers. I saw several guys who were not as good as me and did not have my record as a Division I collegiate pitcher, but professional baseball people are funny. They see things differently. They are notoriously dismissive of amateur statistics or honors. They paid attention to what they saw on radar guns and stopwatches; what they could project a player to be in two or three years. I was an “old man,” 22 going on 30. A 17- or 18-year old kid from the hayseeds was a much more tangible asset to them. He had four or five years to build a record. I did not.
We worked out for a week. I remember looking for my pants in the laundry basket. The equipment manager wrote our names on the inside. The pants were holdovers from the previous year or two with the names of past owners also written inside them. Sometimes we saw the name of a guy now in the Show, always a good sign. One day I saw the pants Gary Zunino, Greg’s brother, wore when he played at Johnson City. I reminded Gary about that for years.
One day a kid from East Tennessee State University came to the field, throwing on the sidelines. Bob McBee worked him out. He looked good. He threw what looked – and sounded - like unbelievable heat. I ran wind sprints in the outfield nearby while he threw. I was convinced as I heard his 90-mile an hour fastball exploding into the catcher’s glove, he would be signed in my place. Then I heard McBee tell him, “Well, I’m sorry, our roster is set.”
That made me heave a sigh of relief. It was nothing compared to something Lewis said the day before the season opener against the Kingsport (Tennessee) Mets. With the team gathered around, he told us our starting line-up for the first game,. He gave us the starting rotation.
“Cherry’ll pitch the opener,” he said. “Then Brian Brown. Bill Mitchell’ll get the third game, Danny Cox the fourth, and Travers is our fifth starter.
“Travers is our fifth starter!”
I stood there chewing my Levi Garrett, pretending I was a veteran of many a sage season; a star who had been there and done it before. It was an act. Inside I was celebrating Mardi Gras. I had not just made the team, I was in the starting rotation.
My first professional game was played on a Sunday afternoon, a relatively rare day game. It was in Johnson City, very hot and sticky in mid-June or so. My opponents were the Kingsport Mets. This team contained a significant number of players who played in the Major Leagues, including the 1986 Mets World Champions. The record says Al Jackson, a former big league pitcher of some quality, managed them. I never remember Jackson. Perhaps he was sick or something. All I remember was Ed Olsen, a legendary high school coach from San Diego who was on Jim Dietz’s staff with the Alaska Goldpanners.
The Mets included Herm Willingham and Mark Carreon. All things considered they might have been the Appalachian League favorites. In fact they finished 21-49. The one name we kept hearing was Kevin Mitchell. He was a burly kid barely out of a tough neighborhood in San Diego. The word around the campfire was he “escaped” San Diego one step ahead of the law.
The night before the game I was tasked with scouting the Mets from the stands. Instead of dressing and sitting in the dugout or bullpen, I did my pre-game work, showered, and sat behind home plate with a radar gun, charting pitches. I operated the radar gun the night before all my starts. It was quite an eye-opener. Once a guy named Bob Hayes was pitching. Hayes was a “junk baller” who threw a knuckle-curve. It consistently clocked in around the high 70s. Then all of a sudden one of his flutter balls recorded 105 miles per hour. It was obviously an error. A nearby scout explained the aberration, saying sometimes the gun picked up a car on the nearby highway, or some other unidentified flying object.
Over the years I have this story to at least three law enforcement officers stopping me claims they caught me speeding on their radar guns. I always confidently told them I knew from personal experience of their unreliability, citing the incongruity of Bob Hayes’s knuckle-curve clocking in at 105. Each could see the future: the tall, well-dressed lawyer-type breezily explaining to the judge the lack of reliability in their radar guns, thus reversing their tickets.
Danny Cox, an All-American out of Troy State University in Alabama, pitched a brilliant game, shutting out Kingsport 10-0. The radar showed him in the high 80s and low 90s. It was pretty accurate that evening.
It was a Saturday night. As Elton John liked to sing, “it’s alright for fightin’.” Knowing I was scheduled to start the next day, I was determined to get a good night’s sleep/ It was hard. My teammates were running around the hotel with wild groupies making noise. Cox and Willie Finnegan, an utterly crazy right-hander from UNLV, came to my room bearing booze and broads. Cox won his game. He let his hair down. It took all I had to talk them down, convincing them I needed to get some sleep in order to be effective the next day.
Perhaps I would not have slept much that night, anyway, so amped up I was. I probably only got three hours of fitful sleep. No worries. I awoke the next day focused. Luckily, heat and humidity never bothered me, because it was sweltering. Stan Haas out of the University of Nebraska was behind the plate. He was a very talented receiver.
I felt great warming up. I was a bundle of nervous energy. I was in professional ball now. There were no guarantees. I needed to perform. The Cardinals invested no bonus money in me. If it looked for a second like I was not up to snuff, I would be on a plane back to California so fast I’d be able to smell the fumes from the one that got me there in the first place.
In the first inning I felt like Don Drysdale. My fastball was moving, snaking and sinking all over the place. I proceeded through the early innings without the slightest trouble. About the fifth or sixth inning, I started to wonder if I was going to come down from the high I was on. Would the Mets figure me out as they saw my stuff in their second and third at-bats? They never did. Furthermore, I never had to divert from my fastball. My pitch count was low. I never faltered.
Finally, in the ninth inning I put a man on and was relieved. The bullpen held and I had a four-hit, 3-1 victory. It was as sweet a moment as I ever had in baseball. Gone was any self-doubt imposed by my poor second half during the college season. Congratulations were handed about. A reporter from the Johnson City Press
came around to get some quotes. I knocked back a couple of Budweisers. Then something happened I will never forget. Having pitched almost a complete game, I needed to ice my arm in the clubhouse. I iced for about 10 minutes.
Finally, I showered and dressed. By that time, my teammates all left. It was still light out. Shadows were beginning to extend. The oppressive mid-day heat dissipated some. It was what Jim Bouton called in Ball Four the “cool of the evening.” I made the 10-minute walk from Howard Johnson Field to the Mid-Town Motel. I walked it alone with my thoughts.
Now, I cannot truly explain what happened during that walk. Unquestionably, O faced great pressure. Pitching nine innings of baseball is one of the most physically and, maybe more important, mentally taxing acts in sports. I accomplished this task beautifully. All the pressure seemed to have been released from within, me as if somebody opened a valve. I started thinking about everything I did in my life; how I started playing little league ball in San Anselmo, California at the age of eight; chose to play for Al Endriss and endured four years of fear and mind games at Redwood; my success and indeed failures in college ball; and how I prayed to God to give me just this one chance to fulfill a lifetime dream, to overcome the reported one-in-30,000 odds kids who wish to play pro baseball face. I thought about my parents, all their love, anticipating the triumphant phone call home to tell them of my victorious debut.
So, in truth, what happened next may just have been my own emotions. I prefer to think otherwise. I had an epiphany, the second one in my life. The first occurred in the stands watching the Athletes in Action basketball team witness Christ in San Diego. Now, as I walked the empty streets of this small Southern town, Jesus Christ spoke to me. He told me He was watching over me, and that my faith in Him was justified. I had this incredible realization all I strove for was not in vain.
I was not assured I was on a path toward riches and fame, but I had the profound sense I was rewarded, that I served some purpose for God. I felt I could indeed be saved. I felt despite all my faults, I was loved. It was an incredible moment.
My belief, my faith in God, was quite sure. It is very important to note while I believed in Heaven, I had little fear of Satan. I stopped having “night terrors,” in which I was struck by the awful concept, upon my death I would not exist for all eternity. Now eternity had a Godly face. But my lack of genuine fear of the devil, looking back, tells me I still had a long path to walk. I did not fear God. My subsequent studies of The Holy Bible inform me I should have.
I was not suddenly “reformed.” I did attend some of the “baseball chapel” services held on Sundays throughout organized baseball, but I was far from pious. My pursuit of women and alcohol did not stop. I swore a blue streak. I took the Lord’s name in vain. I was greedy for fame and fortune. I was selfish. But it was a step, and an important one.
The sex act was always a goal of mine. I was finally able find women were available to me. I was by no means a big ladies man. I was turned down often, but not always. I had a foul thought process. I told dirty jokes. Women were not people so much as objects of lust. One on one, however, I could see girls as people, as sisters in Christ. I got to know Karyn, the so-called “roster woman,” quite well. She was really good-looking. At first all I knew was she was supposedly fast and loose. She slept with one of our pitchers. She was no angel, but she never engaged in any orgies or wild parties.
I wanted to sleep with her badly. She was a fantasy girl, what guys used to call “nasty.” The fact is she was just a lonely girl from a bad family situation looking to make her way in a tough world. Being Southern, she was a believer. She came over to my hotel room, asking if she could talk. The pitcher she was sleeping with was next door. She did not want that. All he did was use her for the sex act, then ignored her in favor of Budweiser and Copenhagen until biology did its work, replenishing his sex dive. Finally I realized I was not going to sleep with her. Unburdened of lust and the deviousness it unleashes, I was free to be a human being.
Karyn started asking me about “the Exodus.” “What is it, Steve?” she asked me. “I seen it in a dream.”
I told her it was the Jewish escape from Egyptian bondage. She said she had Apocalyptic visions and felt Christ’s presence. I think she related the Exodus to her desire to be free, from a life that until now was an unhappy one, a trap.
She knew I was college-educated. She tried to probe my mind, improving her own. She had almost no education. I told her some books to read, speaking of history and religion. I told her I thought Jim Morrison was “a poet.” She asked in wide-eyed wonder “What is California like?” literally thinking it a place of waves, surfers, dreams, and low-hanging fruit. I told her life there is the same as any place; we raised our families, we hoped the best for our kids, we had to make a living and fight to succeed in a tough world.
“Could I ever be smart like you?” she asked. What a question.
I told her books were just part of intelligence. Wisdom came through experience. Family was the best source of wisdom but not everybody – herself apparently – was that lucky. Faith was the key. I learned as much that night as she did.
The talk with the lovely Karyn was interesting, but I did not contemplate my sins. If I did something particularly egregious or hedonistic, I was struck by pangs of guilt, but not overwhelmed with understanding of the nature of sin. I still had a long, long way to go before I really came to grips with man’s Biblical relationship with the Good Lord.
As for baseball, I entered into the greatest period of my entire life. For about a month and a half, roughly from mid-June to August 1 of 1981, I was nothing less than spectacular. I have often thought back to this time, which covered about seven starts each spaced five days apart. I wondered how I could have been that good. I was good at the University of Nevada, but it all came crashing down my senior year. Now in professional baseball I was almost unhittable; a total reversal from the end of the collegiate season. It was quite incredible. I thought often about my “conversation” with Christ. Was it His work? Was I going to be a vessel of some kind?
I thought of great athletes I studied over the years. Tom Seaver, in particular, was an average pitcher at Fresno High. After doing a stretch in the Marines, he came back a new man. Could this be my destiny? I was around the same age Seaver was when he made this transition, starring in junior college, then at USC. He quickly ascended to the big leagues. I can honestly say during this time, the prospect I would be a Major Leaguer was extremely realistic. My performance spoke for itself. My teammates, Johnny Lewis, and the Cardinals’ traveling instructors visiting us that summer treated me like a bone fide big league prospect. I had no trouble envisioning an invite to the Florida Instructional League, or perhaps even the chance to hone my skills in the Dominican Republic during the off-season.
I felt I would move from Summer Class A to Double-A ball. Gary Zunino did that after signing as a free agent following his junior year at the University of California. I began looking at the Cardinal minor league rosters. The statistics of every club from the Major League team right down the line – triple-A Louisville, double-A Little Rock, and so on – was posted weekly in the club house.
But the whole thing was a little puzzling to me. The art of pitching was a very delicate balance between confidence, skill and perhaps luck. Pat Jordan captured this dynamic in his seminal writings, embodied by The Suitors of Spring and A False Spring. I read both in high school. I was occasionally brilliant in the past, but nothing even close to the way I threw in the Appalachian League. Why was this?
College baseball was more hitter-oriented, for sure. We used aluminum bats. Now, for the first time, I faced competition using wooden bats. On top of that most of them were doing this for the first time in their lives, or at least since Babe Ruth League. Facing the likes of California, Stanford, Brigham Young, Hawaii, UNLV, Fresno State, Santa Clara and the other college powerhouses, I was up against experienced 20-, 21- and 22-year old hitters. Frankly, the Northern California Baseball Association was likely - at least among starting line-ups and front-line pitching - better than the Appalachian League. It has been speculated the better conferences, such as the Pacific-10 and the SEC, are at least as good as Class A and perhaps even double-A. The only drop-off is in depth. A pro team plays seven games a week. They must be deeper all around than a college team focused on a three-game series each weekend along with a non-conference game during the week.
I certainly did not think I faced any Appalachian League team – with the exception of Paintsville - that was better than USC, or the powerhouse line-ups I faced at Cal and UNLV. Many players in the league were 17- or 18-year old recent high school seniors choosing to sign instead of going to college. Many would not have started at the better colleges. There were many Dominicans and other players from Latin America. Some were as young as 16. They were wildly undisciplined and, though talented, I knew how to get them out. I had the advantage of maturity and mound smarts, for sure. My catchers, Stan Hass and Alan Moore, lauded me for my moxie on the hill.
But how could I have gone from pitching so poorly at the end of the college season, to pitching so brilliantly at the beginning of the professional season? There were many highly touted pitchers in the league who were not throwing nearly as well as I was. I would dominate a team. Some other pitcher faced the same line-up the next night, only to get roughed up. My success could not in any way be attributed to lack of competition. My “screwball” and sinker were great out pitches. Try as I might, however, I could not master the “split-fingered fastball,” also known as the “forkball.” I also never got the hang of the “circle change-up.”
My second start came against the Elizabethton Twins. I was even better than was against Kingsport. It was a night game at home. My fast fall swerved and dived. My sinker met bats like shot puts. My “screwball” was unhittable against their left-hand-heavy line-up. I nursed a dominant 2-0 shutout into the ninth before Julio Tirado hit a home run to break up my shutout, but I won 2-1.
Then I faced the Bluefield Orioles. Darold Knowles, the Cardinals’ roaming minor league pitching instructor, was in town for a series or two. I will never forget it. He arrived, walked in the clubhouse, and immediately called out to anybody who might have the answer, “Where do you go to get laid in this town?” Somebody said, “Ask Travers.” I’m not sure why. I was by no means the most successful “operator” on the club. Perhaps the night before I was seen in the arms of a young lovely. This may have been the topic of conversation (baseball players talk about sex 90 percent of the time).
Knowles was directed to me. I laughed, telling him I was really not the best guy to talk to about this subject. Then I changed the subject. I told him I grew up in the Bay Area, attending 35 A’s games a year with my old man, plus all the post-season series between 1971 and 1975. He was a key member of the A’s bullpen, working in tandem with Rollie Fingers throughout this era. He enjoyed being reminded of his glory days.
Knowles knew all about me. My first couple games engendered flowing reports back to the brass in St. Louis. Plus, since the Major Leaguers were on strike, that meant many coaches and scouts who otherwise would not have made it all the way down to the Appalachian League found the time to grace us with their presence that summer. Knowles, Dave Ricketts (a big league coach) and several members of the development staff, also came. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog never arrived but he spoke to Lewis regularly.
I will never forget the first inning against Bluefield. With Knowles sitting in the dugout next to Johnny Lewis, I went out and struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches. They were all strikes, either called or swung at and missed. Nobody fouled or so much as topped the ball. It was as dominating as a pitcher can pitch. It was literal perfection.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal. It said in all of baseball history it has been accomplished only a handful of times. I was one of those who did it. In looking back at my record, and my overall body of work, it seems over-arching for me to say I ever had a really legitimate shot at greatness, at the Show. But for a period of time in the summer of 1981, I pitched so well, it was indeed a very realistic possibility. Anybody who was there that day would have to admit it. Darold Knowles and Johnny Lewis most assuredly considered it a valid prospect. I was at the height of my powers. As far as I was concerned, I was improving and would get better and better until . . . the sky was the limit. To be perfectly honest, only in writing this book and dissecting the season as I am doing have I really come to understand just where I was at that time. It was very gratifying. The fact I was an undrafted free agent without a bonus was rendered a non-issue by my performance, at least at that period of time.
I ran into the dugout. I swear my teammates were in awe. Lewis just smiled, shaking shook his head as if to say, “I don’t believe what I just saw.” Knowles put it in words. “That’s the best I’ve ever seen a pitcher look in all my years in baseball,” he exclaimed. He played with Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman on three World Champions.
I had moments like that, sometimes only for an inning or two. I was that dominant for a few innings against El Cerrito in the first game of the 1977 Redwood High season, then fell apart. Pete Tereschuk once compared me to Floyd Bannister in San Diego. But in recent years I put together longer streaks of excellence; in Canada, in Reno, and now in Tennessee.
From there I went out and continued to pitch at that level. I carried a 1-0 lead into the ninth. I allowed a man to reach third with two outs. <y only mistake of the game was a pitch thrown in the dirt that got to the backstop. The score was tied, 1-1. Lewis removed me. I had to settle for a no decision, but I probably threw the best game of my life. I was on top of the world.
I pitched a game at Kingsport I will never forget. It was always hot and humid; “Tennessee Williams time,” as Ray Manzarek described the surroundings in Miami the night Jim Morrison supposedly exposed himself to a concert audience. The Mets had a number of left-handed hitters. My “screwball” was absolutely wicked. I hung a fastball or two and got touched for a few runs, but all things considered I just stuck it to ‘em. Kevin Mitchell went down swinging three times that night. I struck out 14 batters in a complete game, 10-4 victory. I was told by somebody I just set an Appalachian League single-game record for strikeouts in a game. The league was around since 1937. A lot of Major Leaguer toiled on the red clay of the Apply League. The newspapers ran screaming headlines featuring photos of me in full throttle.
Every five days I called my folks. By now it was almost getting out of hand. My father could not believe the lines I was giving him: 14 strikeouts; nine pitches, three strikeouts in an inning; nine shutout innings vs. Bluefield; Knowles saying he never saw a better inning. Was this really happening? My dreams were coming true. I was going to pitch in the Major Leagues. Me, Steven Robert Travers.
Incredibly, in my next start at Bluefield, Orioles left-hander James Rooney tied my record with 14 strikeouts in out-dueling me. I trailed 2-1 when I left the game. I did not have my best stuff that day. My control was off. I allowed the leadoff man to reach base in a majority of the innings, but good defense and Alan Moore’s ability to throw out base runners attempting to steal benefited me. In many ways I consider it my best game, precisely because I needed to bare down so hard in order to keep Bluefield from scoring more runs.
My old Santa Monica College teammate, Lee Granger played for Bluefield. Lee was a real gentleman. He was exceptionally handsome, like a male model, bearing resemblance to Tyson Beckford. He was a really elegant, intelligent man, but boy was he fast. I saw him before the game. Frankly I was surprised. I liked him but did not think he was a really good player. He was not a great hitter but his kind of speed makes baseball scouts sit up and take notice.
It was cool seeing somebody from back home. Here we were, way out in Virginia, trying to make good. Twice Lee reached against me, probably beating out bunts or infield dribblers. Knowing his speed, I threw over, paying extra attention to my duties in holding him on. Twice Moore threw him out stealing. He never stopped being a gentleman, each time congratulating me on my fine pitching as he ran off the field after being thrown out. After the game there were nice moments of recognition. To me, this was what made baseball special; the friendships, the camaraderie.
The next night I sat in the bullpen down the right field line. One of our left-handed hitters hit a ball landing a few inches fair, right in front of us where we could all see it. The umpire, however, called it foul. We all howled. Then I said a most un-Christian thing.
“Make the right call you gutless son of a bitch,” I yelled.
The umpire ran half way to the bullpen, pointed at me, and yelled, “Yer out of here, Travers.”
I was kicked out of the game. I had to shower, dress and watch the rest of the game from the stands. It was a first, and in an odd way a badge of honor. I was a starter, not a reliever. There was no chance I would pitch that evening. I incurred a fine. I felt badly about calling the umpire a “gutless son of a bitch,” but I felt like I did something all players should experience at least once in their career; to be tossed. How many people have been tossed from a professional baseball game? Plenty, sure, but in life this was an experience with unique value to it. It was something to laugh about over beers years later. On top of that, I was strangely proud the umpire knew it was me who yelled it. He called be my name. I was not some anonymous bullpen schlep. I was “Travers.” I had arrived.
Later I received a letter from the league offices. I was fined about $15, I think. I wrote a check and a letter of apology. Later I received a letter in response applauding me for owning up to my responsibility and the “integrity of the game.” I loved stuff like that.
At that point in the year, I either led or was among the Appalachian League leaders in earned run average and strikeouts. My records were dutifully recorded for all the world to see each week in The Sporting News. All minor league statistics were also published in each year’s edition of The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide. You really could “look it up,” as Casey Stengel said.
Having subscribed to The Sporting News since I was10 years old, I knew I was in The Sporting News. This fact in many ways thrilled me above all other consideration. They called The Sporting News the “baseball Bible.” It was mandatory reading among minor league players. There were always a couple of dog-eared copies making their way up and down the aisle of the team bus during road trips. Players did not necessarily read the local papers. Of course there was no Internet then, but our statistics were taken notice of in The Sporting News for sure. The fact my name was prominently displayed among the league’s key pitching categories was something well known by my teammates, opponents and, most important, the top brass of the Cardinals organization.
I knew former teammates, friends, all sorts of people who passed through my life, might be seeing my name in The Sporting News. My statistics and progress were dutifully recorded by the Marin I.J. and the Nevada State Journal, too. I was making a name for myself.
I did the same thing in Tennessee I did at the University of Nevada and in Canada. After pitching and winning a game, I partied hard well into the night. The next day, I woke up and, while sipping a couple cups of coffee, read about my exploits in the newspaper. I was always an avid newspaper reader, ever since I was about eight or nine years old. I was actually quite amazed how many of my teammates eschewed the paper. They watched comics. I watched the news. I stayed on top of events. Many – not all, but many – were quite ignorant of events. Not ignorant as in lacking intelligence, but I found athletes to be people focused on their sports all their lives, often to the detriment of academics or general knowledge.
But boy did I love to nurse a hangover with a “cup a Joe,” reading what the local sports scribe had to say. “Travers was masterful in spreading four hits and only one walk over his eight innings of work . . .” I of course read the Marin Independent Journal and the San Francisco Examiner (which my father usually brought home with him from work in the evenings) the day after winning games. That was great, but I rarely partied in high school. In college and in the pros I partied. I really learned how to celebrate.
Sure, reading about myself was vain. I was a selfish narcissist, concerned first and foremost with my own affairs. I always did a good job cutting out clippings everywhere I played. I still have everything in a scrapbook; articles, media guides, game programs. I sensed I was living something worth capturing. I wanted a record of it instead of letting everything fade into memory.
I pitched well in another effort at Kingsport, although it was obvious the Mets, who faced me three times by then, began to pick up my delivery better than before. Nevertheless, I left leading 5-3 when Lewis took me out with a couple men on in the seventh. The bullpen collapsed. I did not get the win.
I lost another well-pitched game at Bluefield. Dave Falcone, a college star from the University of Florida, homered off me. It was the only run in a 1-0 loss. My first poor outing came at Paintsville. The Yankees were really good. I looked forward to facing Greg Zunino. I respected Z and wanted him to respect me. He was not pleased when I showed up without beer in “dry” Paintsville. He and his University of California teammates hammered me at Berkeley in February. Z knew me inside and out. He gave his teammates a thorough scouting report. He told them to wait me out, not to chase my “screwball” because it could break outside the strike zone.
It was a real “mind game.” A pitcher needs to take control of the situation, dictating the flow. Zunino and his Yankees teammates managed to take that edge away from me. I started falling behind in the counts. When I came into them they jumped on me. My stuff was not sharp. Zunino hit me hard, two doubles just like the ones he nailed off me at Berkeley; line drives to right-center. It was my first bad performance of the season. I did not worry about it too much. I was certainly unhappy facing my good friend and ex-teammate I performed poorly. I wanted to show Greg and his Yankee teammates how good I was. Alas I did not. I consoled myself with knowledge the Yankees were the best team in the Appalachian League that year. However, I never could get Zunino out. I always busted him inside with hard stuff, then tried to get him to swing off-stride at something outside, usually a slider. He seemed to time me perfectly. The guy knew me so well I could never fool him. He was taught by masters of hitting, Al Endriss and Bob Milano. Milano in particular emphasized the mental approach. He taught batters to look for their pitch, going with what the pitcher gave them. Z was willing to go to the opposite field instead of trying to pull everything. That was the best way to hit off me. He was smart, quick and ultra-talented. His brother, Gary seemed to have my number, too. My God, years later in the over-30 leagues I could not Gary out. Those darn Zuninos.
The Appalachian League consisted of only six teams. By rotation of the schedule, I faced Kingsport more than any other team. It was again at Kingsport; a day that changed my life forever. Everything that happened in my life later flowed from the events of that hot summer night in eastern Tennessee.
At some point, Johnny Lewis began a peculiar pre-game ritual. Elizabethton and Kingsport were only about 20 or 30 minutes by bus from Johnson City. Rather than bus there, dress, take batting practice, then after the game shower and take the bus back to Johnson City, Lewis decided we would go through all our pre-game preparation on our home field, then bus to the game. Consequently, we dressed, took batting practice; pitchers did their bullpen work and wind sprints; and then we boarded the bus in uniform for Kingsport.
My start at Kingsport was scheduled for 7:30. We arrived at seven. We had enough time to do a little stretching, play catch, then play. I had enough time to stretch, then take about a 10-to-15-minute warm-up in the bullpen. Of course, since we were the visitors, I had a little extra time. However, Lewis screwed up. The game was not scheduled for 7:30. It started at seven.
Kingsport was ready to take the field. We were just getting off the bus. Harried, discombobulated and out of sorts, I had little time to prepare. I had not yet put my protective cup in. I had not put my baseball shoes on. I had to do that on the run. I had to do a mental and actual “inventory” of my equipment; my glove, my jacket, my hat.
I ran out to the bullpen. The game was starting. I could only hope we would extend Kingsport in the first inning, giving me enough time to get lose. It was hot and sticky. I hoped that would allow me to loosen up, but my body was tense. I was on the ground, quickly trying to do some leg stretching, when I saw the strangest face I have ever observed.
Max Patkin was the “Clown Prince of Baseball”; literally an actual clown. He is said to “made more consecutive appearances on the diamond than Cal Ripken and was thrown out of more games than Earl Weaver” in half a century, according to his 1999 obituary in the New York Times. Patkin was featured in the 1988 film Bull Durham. He was in two scenes. In one he shares beers with Kevin Costner (Crash Davis) and Susan Sarandon (Annie, as in “Baseball Annie”). Later he is shown doing his act during a Durham Bulls game.
Cavorting in a baggy uniform, a question mark sewn on the back of his jersey, his cap tilted sideways, his toothless face capable of contortions rivaling a knuckleball's, Patkin was a major attraction at minor league ball parks on countless summer afternoons.
Patkin made more than 4,000 appearances, by his estimate, without missing a single scheduled pratfall. He crawled through Yogi Berra's legs, kissed Frank Howard to inspire a home run, and was a goofy baseball fixture long before the Phillie Phanatic and the Chicken.
His routine included an adventure starting out in the batter's box. First, he dodged a brush back pitch. Then he took a fastball over the heart of the plate, pushing the catcher over. Finally, he connected on a lob, ran to third base, was tagged out and engaged in an epic argument ending with him getting tossed out of the park, sent off to his next stop on America's baseball map.
He was around for decades. He probably had an inner tube or something inside his baggy “uniform.” I read about him in The Sporting News and knew who he was. Few if any of my teammates did. I was trying to get loose as soon as possible. After a few cursory stretches I needed to get some throws in before I ran out to the mound. Now I had this man with a sunburned rubbery face looking to be made of wrinkles, staring at me as I lay on the ground.
“Hi, I’m Max Patkin,” he said in a thick East Coast accent. “I do a ‘clown act’ at minor league games.”
I shook his hand.
“Yeah, I know who you are,” I said.
“Listen, I’ll be out on the field in the first inning when you’re pitching,” he said. “It’s arranged, I’ve been doin’ this act for years, but I wanted you to know ahead a time so’s you wouldn’t a get the, you know, the ‘red ass.’ ”
“I understand,” I said. “I gotta get warmed up.”
He departed. I quickly got to my feet and started throwing. The game started. Naturally, Kingsport retired the first couple of our batters with just a few pitches. I hurried things up, starting too throwing hard too soon. Then I felt a distinct pop in my right shoulder. I almost could hear it.
I had felt shoulder pain only once before. For a few weeks between Thanksgiving, 1978 and New Years, 1979, when I was at Santa Monica, I had some pain. I “pitched it out” throwing a rubber ball against the side of a wall during Christmas vacation at Sir Francis Drake High School. I never experienced any other kind of pain, such as an elbow injury.
Now I immediately knew I sustained a serious injury.
What went through my mind? A myriad set of emotions. I was mad; at Johnny Lewis, mainly, for being so stupid he did not know the time of the game. Less so at Max Patkin. He had not disrupted me for very long, but on the other hand he disrupted my mental preparation. An athlete is a creature of habit, a very finely tuned instrument of preparation, discipline and concentration. My preparation was totally broken up at just the wrong time.
Considering the warmth of the day, I really do not think my injury was caused solely by throwing too hard too soon. Rather, I attribute it to a tenseness of my body. Similarly, I hurt my back coming off a frozen bench at San Luis Obispo in my junior year of high school, when I hurt my back. I recovered but dealt with occasional back trouble throughout my life, which I attribute to that.
I cannot say for sure because I never had a proper diagnosis, but I think I sustained a partial torn rotator cuff that moment in Kingsport. Now came the next moment of decision. What to do?
Had I stopped throwing, told Lewis I was hurt, gotten ice treatments and let it rest, perhaps I might not have hurt it worse. I might have recovered. Instead, I tried to make more warm-up tosses. The pain was immediate. It was quite obvious I could not pitch, but again I tried. I should have stopped at this point, for sure. The injury may well have occurred after the initial pain.
But I ran to the mound. I winced through eight arm-up pitches. My shoulder was in great misery. I could not air out a fastball. Any kind of twisting, as in sliders, curves and especially “screwballs,” was impossible. Then Patkin came out. Talk about bad timing. I was in a state of absolute panic. I knew all my success meant nothing. I faced the end of my career, a terrible prospect coming without warning, like a sneak attack. I knew I was no good to the Cardinals hurt. Since they had nothing invested in me, I could and would be discarded without a second thought.
Patkin went through his antics. He had a water gun or something tucked inside his shirt. He would turn his head to the sky and appear to spew water 10 feet into the air, some of which fell back on me, standing with my hands on my hips. I was totally unamused, standing just a few feet away. It was like a metaphor, being spit upon by the baseball gods; or better yet, being “clowned on” at the moment of my greatest weakness.
Then the game started. If my pain was not enough, Ed Olson stacked his line-up with right-handed hitters. The Mets featured a number of free-swinging left-handed bats who swung wildly, missing my “screwball.” It broke away from them. But the “screwball” can be less effective against right-handers, particularly if they crowd the plate. With discipline they are less likely to swing and miss pitches that look hittable in the middle of the strike zone, then “fade away” (to use the word attached to Christy Mathewson’s “screwball” of the 1900s).
The first inning was a blur, a nightmare. For an athlete, it does not get worse. So fragile we are, so quickly can it unravel. My arm aching, I tossed up some horrible, wild pitches. The details I do not remember precisely. A walk or two, a single. I recall Kevin Mitchell hitting a rocket off the right-center field fence, backing up third while my heart sank. A another shot, a wild pitch; an effort too desultory to recount further. Then Lewis striding to the mounding, my handing him the ball. Then in the dugout I told him I injured my shoulder. His reaction was approximately the same as if I just said, “By the way, Johnny, I recently joined the Ku Klux Klan.” There was no sympathy, just anger that I should cause him any darn trouble.
McBee gave me no love. My teammates gave me no love. I was suddenly nobody. The trainer packed my arm in ice. I sat in the dugout watching the rest of the game in muted silence. Within a matter of mere minutes I went from celebrity status, my name adorning the top of the Appalachian League ERA and strikeout records, as if to pronounce “he is a Major League prospect,” to a major suspect.
It may truly sound like I am puffing myself up in describing my performance in the games I started prior to this one, but I exaggerate not. I vaulted to big league prospect. Anybody who saw me during this period – Johnny Lewis, Bob McBee, Darold Knowles, Dave Ricketts, teammates, opponents, fans, writers – would verify this. At least they would if they really remember that far back. But my “Glory Days” were over
There was still a month’s worth of baseball to be played. I would be on the team and continue to pursue a baseball career beyond the 1981 season. I would pitch again, and pitch well, but after this game, it was all in vain. All an exercise in futility. I sustained an injury impairing my ability and, more important, causing me so much pain I needed far too much time to recover in between appearances. I sustained an injury I still feel to this day. Pitching in semi-pro games for fun, even doing certain shoulder exercises in the gym, I am reminded of this game. The date? I am not sure precisely. I think it was about August 10, 1981.
It was Ronald Reagan’s first year in the White House. He recovered from a shooting in March. The Israelis bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant. The big leaguers just ended their baseball strike, playing the All-Star game before resuming the season. For me, it was Waterloo.
All the joy of the game was gone. I iced and rested my arm. When I tried to play catch I felt pain. I hoped against hope it would go away, that I could pitch again. I felt I needed to prove to the club I could pitch again before the season ended. I knew I was not ready, but I told Lewis and McBee I could pitch. They put me into a game in long relief at Bristol. I was in agony, hit hard and removed. That was the end of me.
From that point on, I was a nobody. Danny Cox, a tremendous pitcher, treated me as an equal. Now that I was hurt it was as if I no longer was a person of any value. Other teammates disdained me in one way or another. Lewis barely acknowledged me. McBee, a major wise-ass, annoyed me with jokes and disparaging remarks. I lost much of my motivation, running my outfield wind sprints without enthusiasm. Baseball, the love of my life, was not fun any more. I did not want to go to the park. I lived only to drink after the games. The girls making themselves available earlier in the summer seemed to sense I was damaged goods. They gave me no love whatsoever. It was baseball purgatory.
I remember calling my father after my injury. It was awful. After each of my sterling performances, I could not wait to call him to tell him the glorious details – “four hits, one run, unearned, in 8 1/3 innings” – of my latest achievement. All my life he watched me pitch in person. But on those occasions in he was not there, if I performed poorly and called him, he acted as if I just told him I was a child molester. He would moan softly, grow silent, morose really. He would inquire like an inquisitor of each gory detail, forcing me to tell him, “I pitched 2 1/3 innings, gave up seven hits, six runs, all earned -”
“Any home runs?”
“Destrade and O’Shea.”
“What about Zunino?”
Silence, as if my answer was, “I have been arrested for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union.”
More awful statistics, all dragged out, as he made notes on a piece of paper on the other end of the line. At some point I told him, “I’ll make you a deal, Dad. If I pitch well, I’ll call. If not, I’ll write with details and the game story from the paper. I’m not gonna re-live a loss over the phone.”
After the Bristol game, I did not have the heart to call my old man. We returned to the Mid-Town Motel. I sank into the false sanctuary of 12 cold beers. There were three or four teammates in my room, which was full of bawdy jokes and laughter. The phone rang around 12:30. It was my father in full guilt-mode. It was 9:30 P.M. where he was in California.
“Why didn’t you call?” he asked, as if my failure to do so was the worst possible betrayal.
Quite drunk by then, not really giving a crap anymore, surrounded by laughing teammates who did not even notice I was on the phone, I said something flippant. Father recoiled at my lack of appreciation for all he did for me, this fact seeping through each word in his wounded voice. “Man, I do not need this,” I shouted, which certainly did me no good. I told him of our “deal.” I said he would get the game article from the paper in a few days so “just leave me alone.”
It sucked. The rest of the season carried no luster or shine. My three poor performances against Paintsville, Kingsport and Bristol, combined with my injury, dropped me from among The Sporting News ERA and strikeouts leaders. After the Major Leaguers ended their stupid strike, attention again focused on the Show. We all watched the All-Star Game while drinking beer. Every person in that room dreamed of maybe being there. A few, like Danny Cox and Paul Cherry, truly felt at that moment they could get there. I felt like that only days earlier. Now it felt like a past life.
There were no more roving minor league instructors or big league coaches visiting us. I yearned for home. It pointed out a real truism not just about baseball but all sports. I knew this since little league. The fun is not just playing; the fun is in winning, in succeeding. The pursuit and attainment of excellence meant everything. It was a lesson for life.
This is not to say trying and failing is not without its educational benefits. Hard work, adjusting, the positive values of team work, healthy physical activity and so forth, are unquestionably of great value, but far more so in the long run. In the short run, pick your phrase – “Just win, baby,” or “Winning’s not everything, it’s the only thing” – it is a truism.
I noticed something else in August of 1981. Throughout the season, we sold out most of our games. Attendance throughout the league was excellent. Then, after around August 10 or so, our stadium was half-full. I finally remarked to the equipment manager about it. He pointed to some lights beyond the right field fence.
“You seem them lights?” he asked.
“That there’s high school football practice.”
It was so hot the local high school team, engaged in its summer pre-season workouts (at least the second practice of two-a-days), held them at night. These practices out-drew our actual games. I already knew football was a form of religion in the South, but this was surely proof of it.
I limped through the final month of the season. I held out hope I could get healthy. Honestly, I refused to dwell on any worst-case scenarios. Our team, which started out the season easily the hottest in the league, tailed off down the stretch. The entire attitude became very downbeat.
It was disappointing and, who knows, may have contributed to Johnny Lewis never managing again, although I heard he had health problems or something. We had as much talent as any team in the league but limped home with a 36-34 record. Paintsville won it at 46-24. Kingsport, despite all their talent, finished dead last.
The Paintsville club may well have benefited from playing in a “dry” Kentucky town. That place was something from the middle ages. Poor Zunino, a guy who liked his beer (and could hold large quantities, as could his brother, Gary), was stuck there. I understood and respected the Christian principles behind keeping the place dry, but man, what else is there to do in a place like that? For young Californians raised and nurtured in the fleshpots of Marin and Los Angeles, it was an eye-opener. But without anything to occupy their attention, the Yankees won the league title by four games over Elizabethton (42-28).
Three Paintsville players went to the Major Leagues: Orestes Destrade, Bill Lindsey and Logan Easley. Z Man hit .319 with four home runs. Steve Lombardozzi and Mark Portugal later made it to the Major Leagues from the Elizabethton team. Jeff Schaefer, Tony Arnold and Ken Dixon got to the Show from Bluefield. My friend Lee Granger played until 1987 with the Baltimore organization (getting as high as triple-A) and a year in the Tigers farm system. He stole 229 bases and batted .271. He must have really improved a lot since 1979.
Bristol’s roster included Scott Earl and Nelson Simmons, both of whom reached the bigs. Kingsport featured future Major Leaguers Mark Carreon, Kevin Mitchell, Lou Thornton, Herm Willingham and Jose Bautista. Future general manager and ESPN analyst Steve Phillips played on that team, too.
Mitchell reached the Major Leagues in 1984, played a key role in the Mets’ 1986 World Series title, and later was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1989. In 2002, when I wrote Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman, he was managing an independent team in Rohnert Park, California. At some point I did an interview, revealing the fact I struck out Mitchell three teams in one game. The interviewer later spoke with Mitchell, bringing it up with him. Mitchell denied it ever happened.
A few years later I did an interview on the Fitz and Brooks Show on San Francisco’s KNBR radio station. I brought a copy of the Johnson City Press complete with the game story of my 10-4, 14-strikeout victory, complete with the box score showing I K’d Mitchell three times.
“As Casey Stengel once said,” I told Bob Fitzgerald and Rod Brooks, “you can look it up.”
The 1981 Johnson City Cardinals were a very talented club that should have finished better than 36-34.. Second baseman Curtis Ford reached the big leagues with the Cardinals. Ford was a wiry, fast little guy. He was from Jackson, Mississippi. He played at a black college, Jackson State University. When I met him and shook his hand, he looked at me as if I was from outer space. I do not think Ford ever had a “normal” conversation with a white man in his life. He was from a completely cloistered, segregated world. He had no desire to associate with white people. Now he was meeting people like me; mature, friendly, educated, totally race-neutral whites who saw him as an equal. I think it took a lot of doing for this to sink in with him. Ford seemed to expect the worst. As the season played out and neither he nor any of the minorities – blacks, Latinos – were hassled, he relaxed.
In 1985 I was working for a large company in the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Los Angeles. The Cardinals played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. I called the Cardinals’ hotel, managing to get hold of Ford. I asked if he could set me up with tickets. I was hoping Curtis would offer them to me for free. I did not realize he needed to pay for his tickets. I thought he could put me on a pass, as players do during the regular season. But then Ford asked me how much I was willing to pay for the tickets. He was scalping them!
“Hey, I’m not gonna pay scalper prices, Curtis,” I replied. “I thought you might give ’em to me for free or at least offer ‘em at face value.”
“Dat ain’t good bidness,” he replied.
I told him thanks, but no thanks. I managed to get tickets for free via another source. I immediately regaled my office mates with Curtis’s admonition: “Dat ain’t good bidness.” This became a touch phrase for almost anything suspect or second rate. For years the phrase was repeated ad hominine.
“Dat ain’t good bidness.”
Stanley Javier was born in 1964 in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic (he was not one of the so-called maricon Dominicans pretending to grab each other in the shower), which meant he was all of 17 years old in 1981. Despite his youth, he was built like a young bull. He had a totally different body type from his father, who had a slight frame. Stanley was the son of Julian Javier, the starting second baseman for the Cardinals’ National League championship teams of the 1960s. He made it to the Major Leagues with the Yankees in 1984, but by 1988 established himself as a bona fide big leaguer with the American League champion Oakland Athletics. I managed to secure a press credential and was on the field prior to game three against Los Angeles at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
A remarkable number of players I played with or knew were members of that Oakland team, including Javier, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Curt Young, Rich Bordi, and several others I brushed up against at one point or another. Javier saw me wearing a suit. He gave me a warm greeting. I stayed in touch with him for a number of years. He played for a variety of big league clubs until 2001.
The third Major Leaguer from this club was Danny Cox. He was the best pitcher in the Appalachian League with a 9-4 record and 2.06 earned run average. Cox’s father was a pilot. He was born in the U.K., where his dad was stationed in 1959. He grew up in Warner Robins, Georgia, an affluent, sports-crazy suburb of Atlanta producing a number of little league and American Legion champions over the years. He was the proto-type pitcher at 6-4, 235 pounds, a dominant right-hander who threw heat. Cox had a fully developed repertoire already by 1981. He was an All-America at Troy State, a program in Alabama that won a couple of Division II national championship. I was quite amazed he was not drafted until the 13th round that June.
Coxie was the undisputed top dog on that team. He was ruggedly handsome and lived with catcher Stan Haas in a trailer on the edge of town. He was immediately identified as the team stud when he had sex with the “queen,” Susan. Cox was a major ladies man. He was utterly macho; a beer drinker, dipper and leaf tobacco chewer, completely confident of his power with women. He was the most admired man on the team. Despite being from the Deep South, he had no accent (probably because he moved around in the Air Force).
Cox loved practical jokes. He and I would spit chewing tobacco on each other’s spikes in the bullpen, a filthy event that nauseates me to recall it. He gave “hot foots,” lighting a teammate’s shoelaces on fire until the flame starts licking his ankles. A very dangerous practice. He did great imitations, mimicking the male and female porn stars from the adult films played day and night on the cable station at the Mid-Town Motel.
“Umm, let me taste it, baby,” he would say, managing to sound like Annette Haven, or he would imitate John Holmes: “I’ve got something for that oral fixation you’ve been complaining about” or “Tell ‘em Johnny Wadd is here.” That was always a good one when he arrived in the bar, approaching a table of girls.
One day the clubhouse was robbed. We were told to leave the “crime scene” until the Johnson City Police detectives came to check it out. As we sat outside, a bunch of arrogant bucks, two detectives in suits arrived. They were about 30 or 35, wearing cheesy suits and sunglasses shielding their eyes in the summer heat.
“Ah,” said Cox, loudly, “it’s ‘Dan Schmegma,’ private dick!” The cops gave him the dirtiest of looks seeming to say, “Smart-ass bastard ball player.” “Schmegma” became a code word for almost anything with Cox; a “load” shot in the act of sex, chewing tobacco spittle, anything suspect or questionable. “Dan Schegma” became his alter ego.
He told one of the funnier jokes I ever heard. It was about a kid with “mental problems,” whose parents take him to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist recommends he be institutionalized. They take the kid to a mental hospitality, where the administrator welcomes him, telling the family to “take a look around and see if you feel comfortable.”
They come to a room and see a man taking an “imaginary baseball swing.” Questioned, the man says, “I’m Henry Aaron, and as soon as I hit a grand slam, I’m outta here.”
Next they come to a door, look inside, and observe a man taking an “imaginary golf swing.” Questioned, the man says, “I’m Arnold Palmer, and as soon as I hit a hole-in-one, I’m outta here.”
The third door revealed a “very bizarre sight,” a naked man with an erection, “balancing a peanut,” said Cox, on the end of his . . . manhood. Questioned, this man replied, “Me? I’m (deleted) nuts, and I’m gonna be in this place forever.”
There was no doubt as long as he remained healthy, Cox would get to the Major Leagues. A mere two years later, he moved all the way from Summer A to the Show. In 1983 he started the year at St. Petersburg of the Class A Florida State League, then moved to double-A Arkansas and then triple-A Louisville. Finally the Cardinals could deny him no longer.
Cox pitched in the Hall of Fame game, an exhibition in Cooperstown, New York. After dominating there he was given a start to make his Major League debut. He won, then pitched an incredible 10 shutouts innings in a head-to-head start against Philadelphia Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. Sports Illustrated did a story on the Cardinals. I made note a of a quote. Cox talked about “running by day” and also “by night,” a non-veiled reference to his love of women and the nightlife. Considering the path he forged through the girls of the Appalachian League, I could only imagine his success in the Major Leagues, touring the night haunts of L.A., New York and all other points.
In 1985 Cox was 18-9 with a 2.88 earned run average. He beat Los Angeles in the Championship Series, and started two games against the Kansas City Royals in the Fall Classic. That was another Series where there was little separation between its participants and me. The Cardinals featured Cox, Ford and batting coach Johnny Lewis. The Royals had Bud Black, who I was with in San Diego and played against in the Jayhawk League. Their shortstop was my Redwood pal Buddy Biancalana. A lot of buddies.
In 14 innings Cox gave up only two runs. Cox led 1-0 when he left game six. Victory would give the Cardinals the World Championship. In that inning, umpire Don Denkinger blatantly missed a call at first base, giving the Royals a chance to tie and then win the game, 2-1. They won the next night to capture the title.
Cox was 11-9 for the 1987 Cardinals. He split two starts against San Francisco with a 2.12 ERA in the play-offs. Cox was 1-2 in the World Series, a seven-game hum-dinger won by Minnesota. Cox hurt his arm, never regaining his form or attaining his full potential. He managed to play until 1995, pitching in the post-season for Pittsburgh (1992) and for the 1993 World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. He was 3-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 15 post-season appearances (1-2 in eight World Series games). In 11 years between 1983 and 1995, Cox was 74-75 with a 3.64 earned run average. I have no doubt had he been healthy over 15 years he would be in the Hall of Fame.
Other 1981 Johnson City Cardinals included catcher Stan Haas (University of Nebraska), Alan Moore (a native or Oregon), and John DiGioia (from Southern California). Second baseman Galen “Chip” Cisco was the son of New York Mets pitcher Galen Cisco. I understood he was an Ohio State product. I enjoyed discussing past USC-Buckeye Rose Bowl games with him. He said his goal in life was to some day be given the honor of dotting the “I,” a tradition of the Buckeye marching band. Third baseman Al Hunsinger from Oregon State hit 11 home runs. Shortstop Brad Luther was from Porterville, California. He was an excellent defensive player. Outfielder Billy Fink was a native of South Bend, Indiana. He turned down a football scholarship to play for Notre Dame (he was a star quarterback in high school). Fink went into an awful slump, going something like 0-for-34. He was convinced he blew it not going to Notre Dame. Jeff Lauck was the adopted son of Bill Thompson, a longtime San Francisco Giants broadcaster. Despite being a promising prospect with a strong family baseball background, he was out if his depth.
Rick Stuart was the son of big leaguer Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart. He and I developed a friendship because I asked all about his dad. He grew up in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut and always said, “Fellas,” when he entered the room. He lived down the street from the 100-year old farmhouse where Tom Seaver lived in Greenwich.
Tim Hoag was my roommate, a good guy who played for McBee at Elon College. He had some kind of unbelievable “song” or “poem” he would re-cite. It was the most foul-worded thing I have ever heard, literally one vile utterance after another.
I took the Houston Astros’ “drinking song” from Ball Four and changed the words to fit the 1981 Johnson City Cardinals:
“Now the Cardinals are a team that likes to go out on the town
They like to drink and fight and (delete) ‘til curfew comes around
But when it’s time to make the trek
They better be back to McBee’s check
It makes a fellow proud to be a Cardinal.
“Now Stan Haas is our catcher and he’s really number one
Danny Cox says he drinks too much and calls some long home runs
But we think Stan will be all right
If we keep him in his room at night
It makes a fellow proud to be a Cardinal.
“Now Johnny Lewis is the one who manages this crew
He doesn’t like it when we drink and fight and screw
But when we win our game each day
Then what the (delete) can Johnny say?
It makes a fellow proud to be a Cardinal.”
McBee thought it was great. Lewis looked at me with a jaundiced eye.
John Frey was a semi-juvenile delinquent from Michigan. He seemed bent on giving me a hard time until we somehow became friends. He reminded me of John Gaston until I got in his face one day.
“You’re bold,” he said.
He liked The Who and The Doors. He loved the lines, “The negroes in the forest, brightly feathered; out here on the perimeter there are no stars. Out here we is stoned, immaculate.” He always asked me to repeat lines from Apocalypse Now: “Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to . . . be god. Because there's a conflict in every human heart . . . between the rational and the irrational . . . He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.”
He loved the term “human conduct.” These were the little things fueled a minor league baseball team. Frey and his roommate had two girls come over on many nights. They would each have sex in separate beds in the same room. His rookie’s girl was nice looking. Frey’s gal was a “dog.”
Paul Cherry was a hard-throwing left-hander from Florida. He had incredible talent and should have made it to the Major Leagues. His statistics were even better than Cox: 10-2, 2.50 earned run average. But Cherry had a taste for drugs, alcohol and women. I pulled one of my all-time greatest practical jokes on him.
Cherry was only 19 years old, a good-looking blond kid. He came to Johnson City from extended Spring Training in St. Petersburg. There were a number of guys from the extended spring program. They all had a fair amount of time on their hands, young guys living near the beach in the Tampa-St. Pete area, known for its bars and strip clubs. The Cardinals players had a collective field day with the young lovelies of south Florida.
Cherry apparently ran a wide swath through St. Pete’s female population. I kept hearing the name of a particular girl who possessed above average . . . skills. One day I day I got some inside details on this girl from some of Cherry’s extended spring teammates. I then sat down and wrote a “Dear Paul” letter, using big cursive letters to make it look like a girl’s writing. I added a few spelling and grammatical errors for authenticity. The letter basically was to inform Paul that “I’m pregnant and know you are the father. I know you are with the Cardinals and make good money, and can handle child support payments at a minimum of $20,000 per year.” I added a few other details, intimated the letter had a slight blackmail quality, and placed it into an envelope addressed to Paul Cherry, care of the Johnson City Cardinals’ mailing address. I put the girl’s name and an address given me by those who knew St. Pete streets and zip codes on the return address, stuck a stamp on it, and mailed it.
The key was for Cherry not to notice the Johnson City postmark. I counted on his being less than the sharpest tool in the shed. The rest of the team knew about the prank but were sworn to secrecy. We came to the park, where our mail was always placed in our individual locker cubicles. We saw the letter addressed to Cherry. All eyes were on him when he saw it.
Cherry puzzled over it. We heard him ask aloud why this particular chick was writing him, not to mention how she knew where to find him. We watched him read it. His eyes grew large. About 10 or 15 seconds into it he freaked out, running into Johnny Lewis’s office.
Oh, crap. Now the prank went a little beyond the innocent stage. Lewis and McBee read the letter. They immediately concluded it was a matter of grave importance. One of their best prospects was facing a paternity suit or some other grievous situation. Then Lewis picked up the phone. I could hear him asking for Lee Thomas, the director of player development. At that point I knew things were out of hand. I stepped in, knocking on the door.
“Not now, Travers,” said McBee. “We got a serious issue here.”
“I know,” I said. “I need to talk to you about it right now before it goes any further.”
McBee stepped out of the office.
“It’s a prank,” I told him. I confessed I wrote the letter. At first I thought I was toast, that I would be fired on the spot. Then McBee started laughing, bent over, and looking up. “Travers, that’s the most ingenious practical joke I ever seen in baseball.” I was ready to tell him about the time I “traded” Jack Clark for Tom Seaver from the Redwood High pay phone in 1976, but figured not to push the subject.
McBee then went in to inform Cherry and Lewis it was all a joke. Lewis did not seem amused. Cherry was too shook up to smile about anything. Cherry was incredibly relieved, but the incident rattled him to the core, because it rang true. He had sex with this girl and others, probably without rubbers. He realized how vulnerable he was. We all laughed and prodded him. I even apologized, but he was beyond words. I think he recognized it was a good joke, but it was too strenuous for him to laugh about. He never smiled about it; not for days or weeks after that.
Cherry had all the tools but never got to the Show. Cox was more mature. He liked to drink but did not do drugs. Cherry was too scattered, prone to bad choices. According to Baseball-Reference.com he died in Hong Kong in 2007. I can only imagine what he was doing in Hong Kong. If he met a bad end due to poor lifestyle decisions it would not surprise me.
Willie Finnegan was one of the all-time classics. Finnegan was a 6-2, 185-pound right-handed pitcher from West Islip, out on New York’s Long Island. Finnegan was a child model, appearing on Fab washing detergent commercials. He had two identical brothers. The three of them wore shining white clothes, dancing about to the commercial’s song, “Oh Fab, I'm glad . . . they put real Borax in you . . .”
Finnegan’s brother was so into Jim Morrison of The Doors the once got drunk, stripped nude and ran onto the George Washington Bridge screaming something crazy like, “Jim Morrison is alive! Jim Morrison is alive!”
Finnegan came from a middle class Long Island family, but his accent and persona were straight out of Hell’s Kitchen. He played some baseball as a youth, but apparently did not play in high school. If he did it was without success. He wanted to work in the hotel industry. Willie decided to pursue a degree in restaurant and hotel management at the University of Nevada, Long Vegas, which quite naturally offered one of the best majors in the U.S.
Apparently “Finlie,” as we called him, felt the call to attend one of those huge Christian “tent revival” meetings that come to Las Vegas. It might have been a Billy Graham Crusade. He “accepted Jesus Christ along with 10,000 people,” but like me, Christianity was a rocky path he walked, filled with constant strayings into alcohol, women and ribald behavior.
One day Finnegan saw a notice for “walk-on” baseball try-outs at UNLV. He decided for fun to do it. Coach Fred Dallimore ran the prospects through some workouts. Then it was Finnegan’s turn in the bullpen. He was spindly and unimpressive in appearance, but God touched him, giving him the incredibly rare gift of an overpowering, 97-mile per hour fastball. Until that moment, he himself had no idea he possessed this gift! Finnegan began airing it out. He was as stunned at what he could do. Coaches and players all gather around to see this speed phenom.
UNLV had one of the best programs in the nation. Very few pure “walk-ons” made the roster. Finnegan was one of them. He was on the Hustlin’ Rebels teams I played against as a member of the Nevada Wolfpack in 1980-81. He was a good friend with Don “Suds” Sutherland, the pitcher from Hug High in Reno I also knew quite well. Finnegan did a great imitation of Dallimore. When urging a rally he told his team to “Jet it up a half a notch.”
As hard as Finnegan threw, he was wildly out of control on the mound and relatively out of control off it. His occasional batting practice, intra-squad and non-conference appearances were legendary in Vegas, rife with stories of scared-to-death hitters refusing to step in against him. He was a truly dangerous man to bat against.
On a team filled with All-Americans and stars, including pitcher Ken Elsee, who was an incredible 17-2 in 1980, Finnegan was drafted by the Cardinals ahead of all his heralded teammates. When I met him I found him to be more apparition than flesh and blood. He was one of the most caricatured people I ever met; loud, filled with New York City bravado, a map of Ireland for a face, a personality that seems only to emerge from that city.
He loved to drink beer, chase women and tell jokes. He once woke me up in the morning to inform me, “Travers, I spent $40 in the bar last night!” That was a lot of money in 1981. On Sundays, with the liquor stores and bars closed, we once arrived back at the Mid-Town Motel only to discover the crusty old “equipment manager” (or whatever he was), D.C. Snyder stocked our refrigerator with cold beers. We just looked at each other making a sound like, “Ooooooh, ooooooh” for about two minutes. We repeated “ooooooh” to identify anything pleasing after that, mainly in reference to young girls with big breasts in tight shirts.
Finnegan was a legend. Stories, often told by him, of his radar gun numbers spread like urban myth, but he was too wild to pitch in a game. Finally, he was given a start. His father, a quiet man, flew in from Long Island to see his son get a Saturday night start. At first, Willie’s bravado was extraordinary. He loudly proclaimed how he was going to “blow these guys away,” how the opposition “ain’t gonna even see my heat,” and on and on like that. But as the game approached Willie’s bravado completely deserted him. I saw his wild confidence was a pure act. Faced with an actual game, he broke into a cold sweat in the dugout.
He went to the mound, immediately displaying wildness unlike any I have ever seen. I never saw the legendary Steve Dalkowski, the “world’s fastest” – and wildest – pitcher, but I imagine he was like Finlie. He walked two or three men on four pitches each. He hit a batter or two, dangerously plunking them in the ribs with great heat. He gave up a homer, maybe a grand slam. He lasted about a third of an inning, I cannot recall for sure, but was pulled trailing 6-0 or 7-0, some awful score like that.
Willie was inconsolable after the game. He was like a guy who just heard his father engaging in gay phone sex or something. As for his dad – who did not engage in gay phone sex - he tried to cheer his son up. Willie just cried in his beer. A day or so later he was back to his usual loud self, but he barely pitched again.
Willie was no dummy. He got his college degree, but did not go to work in the hotel business. One of his pals from Long Island went to work as a stockbroker for Dean Witter at the World Trade Center in New York City. He rose through the ladder, achieving a position whereby he could hire Willie. Finnegan would not give up on baseball, however. He made it through Dean Witter’s training program, but arranged to go play baseball from February to September. His great fastball kept him in the game a couple of years. His wildness never decreased. He never advanced.
The Cardinals let him go. He signed on with an independent team in Utica of the New York-Penn League. This led to small immortality for him. I stayed in touch with him. In 1984 he called me up. He was screaming into the phone, “Travs, you gotta go to a bookstore now,” he exclaimed. “Get Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn. It’s all about me.”
I made my way to the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. I indeed found Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn, the celebrated author of The Boys of Summer. Kahn bought the independent Utica Blue Sox. In 1983 Willie Finnegan pitched for his team. Kahn wrote a book about the cast-offs and mis-fits making up this independent team. Independent professional teams are the last vestige of hope. Very few young players ever emerge from these teams to play in the big leagues. Occasionally, a 40-something star like Rickey Henderson or Jose Canseco may play out the string on a team such as this.
Kahn’s descriptions of Finnegan were exactly as I saw him. He described him as being the vocal star of the “free beer bar,” exclaiming how he would blow his opponents way, saw off bats with his great fast ball, and the like. Then, as in Johnson City, Finnegan was put in a game, whereby he walked everybody, hit batters, and eventually gave up a long homer as the coup de gras of an ugly defeat. Apparently Good Enough to Dream was re-printed some years later. Under “key phrases” on Amazon.com one can click on “free beer bar” and read Kahn’s colorful descriptions of Willie Finnegan.
Finnegan continued to pursue baseball for years. He worked on Wall Street until Spring Training started, then head down to Florida to try out with the Kansas City Royals or whoever would let him on a field. He played for years in the semi-pro leagues, as if he had any chance at reaching his dreams. He was, apparently, just Good Enough to Dream. I met up with Finnegan with fairly profound consequences in New York City, 1984.
The 1981 season finally limped to its conclusion after Labor Day weekend. My final statistics belie my claim I indeed was not simply Good Enough to Dream, but was classified – briefly as it may have been – a bona fide Major League prospect. I finished 3-4 with a 3.90 earned run average. I pitched 13 games, 11 as a starter, with one complete game. In 67 innings I gave up 71 hits, sevens homers, with 17 walks against 52 strikeouts.
My 3-4 record included two losses by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 at the hands of Bluefield. I had two no decisions, one in which I left with the score 1-1 in the ninth
against Bluefield, the other when I departed leading 5-3 in the seventh at Kingsport. Had I gotten credit for all those wins I deserved, my record would have been 7-1. Almost all the homers I gave up and the reason for my 3.90 ERA were courtesy of two games in which I pitched in shoulder agony, at Kingsport and at Bristol. I had one mediocre game while healthy, against Elizabethton. My earned run average outside of the two post-injury games would have been more like 2.50, and absent the Elizabethton game more like 2.00. I agree to have reached the big leagues, I would have needed to stay healthy and pitch the way I did from mid-June to early August for a sustained period of time; two or three years. I cannot simply declare myself a “bona fide big league prospect” based on about six or seven Summer Class A starts, but I know how I pitched during that run.
Perhaps I would not have maintained that level of performance even if healthy. Maybe I just “got hot.” Maybe the hitters would have caught up to me over time. Maybe as I moved up to double-A and triple-A my negatives would have been exposed. I pitched brilliantly in Canada and Reno, then slumped. Danny Cox was a 13th round draftee, but his performance – which he sustained all season – in that same league propelled him on the fast track to Major League stardom. Would I have continued to pitch well as I moved up the ladder, as he did? Ultimately, the shoulder injury I sustained in the infamous “Max Patkin game” at Kingsport rendered the argument moot.
We all exchanged phone numbers and addresses. I confidently departed with the words, “I’ll see ya at St. Pete,” home of the Cardinals’ Florida Spring Training camp, in February of 1982. In the back of my mind, I was concerned my injury made me expendable. I believed Darold Knowles, Dave Ricketts, Johnny Lewis and Bob McBee would tell Lee Thomas how well I pitched in my seven good starts before sustaining the injury. But if I was hurt, and they thought I would not get healthy, then none of my success would amount to a hill of beans.
I went to New York for a few days after the season, taking in a game at Yankee Stadium. Then I flew to Chicago, meeting up with Greg Zunino and a coterie of his Paintsville Yankee teammates at O’Hare Airport. We drank and partied in the lounge and on the plane. Zunino, a pitcher from Monterey, and I, flew to San Francisco, where his parents and mine met us at the airport.
This was a surreal time for me. I was a professional baseball player. I felt like I returned home a conquering hero of sorts. A couple of days later, the St. Louis Cardinals visited Candlestick Park to play the Giants. I called Ricketts, arranging for some passes. I attended an afternoon game with my father. I briefly said hello to Ricketts before the game. I got one of the relief pitchers in the bullpen to give me a dip of Copenhagen. Hey, I’m “one of these guys,” I tried to convince myself.
In the fall of 1981, all of my focus was on my baseball career. I did not enroll at the University of Nevada to finish my college studies. I still needed a good two years in order to get a degree. I had no plan on how to do that. I had for all practical purposes accepted the fact I was not destined to be a college graduate, which in my family made me a tremendous exception to the rule. But I was a ball player. It was the age of free agency. Some day I would be a millionaire, a star in the Major Leagues. Maybe I would go to college down the road. I made no provisions for this in September of 1981. I tried to tell myself my injury was only temporary.
Then my world came crashing down. I was watching game three of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees on television. Fernando Valenzuela was beating the Yankees at Dodger Stadium. I was sitting in the living room with my father. There was a knock at the door. I answered it. A messenger handed me a telegram. It was addressed to me from the St. Louis Cardinals National League Baseball Club, Busch Stadium, St. Louis.
I thought it was my contract for 1982. I opened it. It read, “The St. Louis Cardinals have . . .” followed by about 20 transactions, each with an unchecked box in front of it. The boxes preceded various options regarding my contract status, among them “traded to (blank) club,” and “been assigned to (blank) club,” and so forth. There was a standard notice telling a player he was now on the 40-man roster, or traded to the Chicago White Sox, or been placed on injured reserve, or any of many other possibilities. I followed the unchecked boxes down the page. There, towards the bottom, was a checked box.
I thought it would say that I was assigned a contract to play at single-A Springfield of the Midwest League in 1982. That was not what it said after the check. Instead it read, “unconditionally released.” I actually needed to read the document a couple of times, looking over everything before it really sunk in. Finally reality reared its ugly head. I was released. Fired. Out of work.
I handed the document to my dad, telling him, “The Cardinals released me.” I went outside to cry. It was a scene repeated by thousands and thousands of young baseball hopefuls for over 100 years all over the free world. My moment was 5:30 PST, October 23, 1981.
Now, I was out of baseball and out of school. I was a worthless human being. I had no future. I wallowed about for a few days, probably drinking too much. I could no longer party with my old high school friends, celebrated as a “professional baseball player for the Cardinals,” which I hoped would be my ticket to getting young ladies to go to bed with me. My injury had not been diagnosed. I wonder if anybody, like Darold Knowles, went to bat for me, arguing if healthy I could really pitch. Apparently a calculation was made. It was determined my injury would prevent me from reaching the level of success I achieved from mid-June to early August. Did the Cardinals want to release me in order to avoid paying for any medical bills, possibly even surgery? My ticket to “the life” was revoked. Now I was again an ordinary pedestrian like everybody else. Would I accept this predicament or would I keep fighting?
I quickly made a resolve. I would not quit. I would try to get signed by another organization. A plan was hatched. I would spend the off-season working out, trying to rehabilitate my arm. I would drive to Phoenix, Arizona when Spring Training started in February of 1982. I would stay in a cheap Motel 6, driving from one training camp to another, asking for try-outs and a chance to play again.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism