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Game Time: A Baseball Companionby Roger Angell and Steve Kettmann and Richard Ford
The Old Folks Behind Home
This winter, a local mortician named Willie Robarts sent Sarasota residents and visitors a mailing of cards printed with his name and with the schedule of baseball games to be played here by the Chicago White Sox, who conduct their spring training in Payne Park, right in the middle of town. This must be interpreted as a pure public service, rather than as an attempt to accelerate business by the exposure of senior citizens (or "senior Americans," as they are sometimes called here) to unbearable excitement; only last night I was informed that a Sarasota heart specialist has ordered one of his patients to attend every Sox game as a therapeutic measure. Big-league ball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly-a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans. Although Florida newspapers print the standings of the clubs in the Grapefruit League every day, none of the teams tries especially hard to win; managers are looking hopefully at their rookies and anxiously at their veteran stars, and by the seventh or eighth inning, no matter what the score, most of the regulars are back in the hotel or driving out to join their families on the beach, their places taken by youngsters up from the minors. The spectators accept this without complaint. Their loyalty to the home club is gentle and unquestioning, and their afternoon pleasure appears scarcely affected by victory or defeat. If this attachment were deeper or more emotional, there would have been widespread distress here three years ago when the Boston Red Sox, who had trained in Sarasota for many years, transferred their spring camp to Scottsdale, Arizona, and the White Sox moved down from Tampa, but the adjustment to the new stocking color, by all accounts, was without trauma. The Beach Club Bar, out on Siesta Key, still displays photographs of Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio and other members of the fine Red Sox teams of the forties, and at the ballpark I spotted a boy of ten or twelve wearing a faded junior-size Red Sox uniform (almost surely a hand-me-down from an older brother), but these are the only evidences of disaffection and memory, and the old gentlemen filing into the park before the game now wear baseball caps with the White Sox insigne above the bill.
Caps are the preferred millinery for both male and female fans in Payne Park-baseball caps, long-billed fishing caps, perforated summer-weights, yachting caps with crossed anchors, old-fashioned John D. Rockefeller linen jobs. Beneath them are country faces-of retired farmers and small-town storekeepers, perhaps, and dignified ladies now doing their cooking in trailers-wearing rimless spectacles and snap-on dark glasses. This afternoon, Payne Park's sixteen-row grandstand behind home plate had filled up well before game time (the Dodgers, always a good draw, were here today), and fans on their way in paused to visit with those already in their seats. The ushers greeted the regulars by name, and I saw one of them offering his arm to a very old lady in a blue hairnet and chatting with her as he escorted her slowly to her seat. Just after the national anthem, the loudspeaker announced that a lost wallet had been turned in, and invited the owner to come and claim it-an announcement that I very much doubt has ever been heard in a big-city ballpark.
There were elders on the field, too. Early Wynn, who has spent half of his forty-two years in the major leagues and has won two hundred and ninety-two games, started for the Sox. He pitched carefully, slowly wheeling his heavy body on the windup and glowering down on the batters between pitches, his big Indian-like face almost hidden under his cap. He has a successful construction business in Venice, Florida, south of here, but he wants that three-hundredth game this year; as for the Sox, if they are to be contenders they must have ten or fifteen wins from him. Duke Snider led off the Dodger second. He is as handsome and cheerful-looking as ever-he has the classic ballplayer's face-but he is a bit portly now, and beneath his helmet the sideburns were white. As he stepped up, a man somewhere behind me shouted, "C'mon, Duke! C'mon, Grandpa-belt one!" and a lady just in front of me murmured to her companion, "Now, really, I think that's very offensive." (Clapping and small, encouraging cries are heard in Florida parks, but boos and personal epithets are bad form.) Duke's feelings didn't seem hurt; he swung viciously and grounded out to second, running it out fast all the way.
Wynn pitched three innings, shutting out the Dodgers and giving up only two hits, and was succeeded by Herb Score. The crowd was pulling for Score with every pitch; they knew his story, which is the saddest in modern baseball. Although he has entirely recovered from the terrible injury he suffered when he was struck in the face by a line drive hit by Gil MacDougald in 1957, Score's confidence, his control, and, finally, his form have vanished, and he has never again approached the brilliance of 1956, when he won twenty games for the Indians, struck out two hundred and sixty-three batters, and finished with an earned-run average of 2.53. Now he is up from the minor leagues, battling for a job. Today, at least, he was getting batters out, but watching him work was a nervous, unhappy business. Most of his pitches were high, and it was difficult to see why the Dodgers weren't hitting him harder. He kept running into bouts of wildness, and his delivery was a painful parody of what it used to be, for his arm would come to a full, hitching halt at the end of his windup, and he appeared to be pushing the ball. He escaped his four innings with only a lone, unearned run scored against him. Meantime, the White Sox were bleeding for runs, too, as they will be all season. They have traded away their power, Minoso and Sievers, for pitching and defense, hoping for a repetition of their 1959 surprise, and the run they scored in the seventh came on two singles and a stolen base-the kind of rally their supporters will have to expect this year.
The tension of a tied, low-scoring game appeared to distract rather than engross the crowd. The sun slid behind the grandstand roof, and there was a great stirring and rustling around me as sweaters were produced and windbreakers zipped up; seats began to be vacated by deserters, and the fans in the upper rows, who had been in the shade all afternoon, came down looking for a warmer perch. Brief bursts of clapping died away, and the only sound was the shrill two-note whistle of infielders encouraging their pitcher. The old people all around me hunched forward, their necks bent, peering out at the field from under their cap bills, and I had the curious impression that I was in a giant aviary. Out in right-field foul ground, members of the Sox' big pitching squad began wind sprints. They stood together in clusters, their uniforms a vivid white in the blaze of late sun, and four or five at a time would break away from the group and make a sudden sandpiper dash along the foot of the distant sea-green wall, all the way into deep center field, where they stopped just as quickly and stood and stared at the game. At last, in the bottom of the twelfth, the White Sox loaded the bases on some sloppy Dodger fielding, and Nellie Fox, his wad of tobacco bulging, delivered the single that broke the bird spell and sent everyone home to supper. "There, now," said the woman in front of me, standing up and brushing her skirt. "Wasn't that nice?"
Sarasota, March 21
Watching the White Sox work out this morning at Payne Park reassured me that baseball is, after all, still a young man's sport and a cheerful one. Coach Don Gutteridge broke up the early pepper games with a cry of "Ever'body 'round!" and after the squad had circled the field once, the ritual-the same one that is practiced on every high-school, college, and professional ballfield in the country-began. Batters in the cage bunted one, hit five or six, and made room for the next man. Pitchers hit fungoes to the outfielders, coaches on the first and third baselines knocked out grounders to the infield, pepper games went on behind the cage, and the bright air was full of baseballs, shouts, whistles, and easy laughter. There was a raucous hoot from the players around second when a grounder hopped over Esposito's glove and hit him in the belly. Two young boys with fielders' gloves had joined the squad in the outfield, and I saw Floyd Robinson gravely shake hands with them both. Anyone can come to watch practice here, and fans from nearby hotels and cottages wandered in after their breakfasts, in twos and threes, and slowly clambered up into the empty bleachers, where they assumed the easy, ceremonial attitude-feet up on the row in front, elbows on knees, chin in hands. There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious-the knowledge that we had never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
The Cardinals, who have been having a fine spring, were the visitors this afternoon, and their high spirits infected everyone. Minnie Minoso, grinning extravagantly, exchanged insults with his former White Sox teammates, and Larry Jackson, the big Cardinal right-hander, laughed out loud on the mound when he got Joe Cunningham, who was his teammate last year, to miss badly on a big curve in the first inning. Stan Musial had the day off, and Al Lopez, the Sox' manager, had filled his lineup with rookies. My eye was caught by the Chicago shortstop, a kid named Al Weis, who is not on the team's regular roster but who was having a nifty day in the field. He started double plays in the first and second innings, and in the third he made a good throw from deep short to get Jackson, and then robbed Gotay with a diving spear of a low liner. At the plate, though, he was nervous and uncertain, anxious to succeed in this one short-and, to him, terribly important-afternoon. He struck out in the first inning and again in the second, stranding two base-runners.
At about this time, I began to pick up a dialogue from the seats directly behind me-a flat, murmurous, continuous exchange in Middle Western accents between two elderly men.
"Look at the skin on my hands, how dry it is," said one.
"You do anything for it?" asked the other.
"Yes, I got some stuff the doctor gave me-just a little tube of something. It don't help much."
I stole a look at them. They were both in their seventies, at least. Both were sitting back comfortably, their arms folded across their stomachs.
"Watch that ball," said the first. "Is that fair?"
"No, it's foul. You know, I haven't seen a homer this year."
"Maybe Musial will hit one here tomorrow."
The White Sox, down one run after the first inning, could do nothing with Jackson. Weis struck out again in the fifth, made a wild throw to first in the sixth, and then immediately redeemed himself with another fast double play. The voices went on.
"This wind melts your ice cream fast, don't it?"
"Yes, it does. It feels nice, though. Warm wind."
In the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, Weis grabbed another line drive and doubled up the runner at second base. There were chirps from the stands.
"It don't seem any time at all since spring training last year."
"That's because we're older now. You take my grandson, he's always looking forward to something. Christmas and his birthday and things like that. That makes the time go slow for him. You and me, we just watch each day by itself."
"Yes. You know, I didn't hardly think about life at all until I was sixty-five or seventy."
Weis led off the bottom of the eighth, and popped up to left. He started still another double play in the ninth, but his afternoon was ruined. The Cardinals won the game, 2-0.
That evening, I looked up Al Weis's record. He is twenty-two years old and was an All-Scholastic player at Farmingdale High, on Long Island. In his three years in organized baseball, he has played with Holdrege, in the Nebraska State League; with Lincoln, in the Three-I League; and with Charleston, in the Sally League. His batting averages in those years-.275, .231, .261-tell the story: good field, no hit. Time has run out for him this spring, and it must seem to him that it went too quickly. Next week, he will report to the White Sox farm camp in Hollywood, Florida, for another year in the minors.
St. Petersburg, March 22
This is Gerontium, the elders' capital-city of shuffleboard courts, city of sidewalk benches, city of curious signs reading "Youtharama," "Smorgarama," and "Biblegraph." Today it was also the baseball capital of the world, for the game at Al Lang Field was the first encounter between the Yankees and the New York Mets, the new National League team that sprang-not simply full-grown but middle-aged-out of the forehead of George Weiss last winter. Some of the spectators' curiosity and expectancy about this game resembled the unbecoming relish with which party guests watch a newly divorced couple encountering each other in public for the first time, for they could watch General Manager Weiss, in his box behind the home dugout, and Casey Stengel, in the dugout, staring over at the team that had evicted them so scandalously two years ago. But there was another, more valid tension to be tasted; one sensed that this game was a crisis for the Mets-their first chance to discover, against the all-conquerors, whether they were truly a ball team. A rout, a laugher, a comedy of ineptitude might destroy them before the season ever began.
St. Petersburg fans are elderly, all right, but they are noisier, keener, and more appreciative than their counterparts to the south. For one thing, they know more baseball. Al Lang Field has for years been the late-winter home of two good teams, the Yankees and Cardinals; when the Yankees moved to new quarters at Fort Lauderdale this year, the Mets moved in to take their place. I had guessed that this switch of home teams might cause some confusion of loyalties, but I was wrong. There was a respectable burst of applause when Mickey Mantle stepped up to the plate in the second inning, but this was almost immediately smothered by a full roar of pleasure when Charlie Neal collared Mantle's streaking grounder in short right and threw him out. Groans and headshakings followed when the Yanks collected three singles and a run off Roger Craig's pitching, but the Mets failed to collapse. Frank Thomas hit a double in the Mets' half of the inning-the first hit given up by Bill Stafford, the Yankees' starting pitcher, all spring-and there was another startled shout a few minutes later when Hodges and Chacon pulled off a 3-6-3 double play on Maris's bouncer. The Mets not only belonged, they were winning converts every minute.
The Mets are an attractive team, full of echoes and overtones, and one must believe that George Weiss has designed their clean, honest, but considerably frayed appearance with great care. Gus Bell, Frank Thomas, Eddie Bouchee, and Richie Ashburn are former headliners whose mistakes will be forgiven and whose accomplishments will win sentimental affection. Coach Cookie Lavagetto and pitchers Roger Craig and Clem Labine will bring the older Dodger fans up to the Polo Grounds this summer. Neal and Don Zimmer looked unchanged-Neal intense, withdrawn, talented, too tightly wound for an ideal infielder, and Zimmer eager and competitive, angrily trying to make pugnacity compensate for what he lacks in size, skill, and luck. Gil Hodges still cannot hit pitches over the outside corners, but his stance and his mannerisms at the plate are a cup of limeflower tea to those with memories: the bat is held in the left hand while he fiddles with his eyelashes with his right hand, then settles his helmet, then tucks up his right pants leg, then sweeps the hand the full length of the bat, like a duelist wiping blood off a sword, and then at last he faces the pitcher. Finally, there is Casey himself, a walking pantheon of evocations. His pinstripes are light blue now, and so is the turtleneck sweatshirt protruding above his shirt, but the short pants, the hobble, the muttering lips, and the comic, jerky gestures are unaltered, and today he proved himself still capable of the winning move.
The Mets went ahead, 3-2, in the sixth inning, on two Yankee errors, two walks, and Zimmer's single. After that, the St. Petersburg fans began a nervous, fingers-crossed cry of "Keep it up, Mets!" and welcomed each put-out with shouts of incredulity and relief. In the ninth, though, the Mets' second pitcher, a thin young left-hander named Al Jackson, up this year from Columbus, gave up four singles and the tying run after Neal messed up a double play. With the winning runs on base, Stengel showed how much he wanted this game for his team, for he came out to the mound and relieved Jackson. (Pitchers are almost never yanked in mid-inning in spring training.) The relief man, Howie Nunn, retired Blanchard on a pop behind second for the last out. More wonders followed. Joe Christopher, another unknown, led off the Mets' ninth with a triple, and after Zimmer had fouled out, Stengel looked into his closet of spare parts, which is far less well stocked than his old Yankee cornucopia, and found Ashburn there. Richie hit the first pitch into right field for the ball game, and George Weiss nodded his head, stood up in his box, and smiled for the first time today.
I doubt whether any of the happy six thousand-odd filing out of Al Lang Field after the game were deluding themselves with dreams of a first-division finish for the Mets this year. The team is both too old and too young for sensible hopes. Its pitchers will absorb some fearful punishment this summer, and Elio Chacon and Neal have yet to prove that they can manage the double play with any consistency. Still, the Mets will be playing in the same league with the Houston Colt .45s, another newborn team of castoffs, and with the Phillies, who managed to finish forty-six games out of first place last year and will have eight more games this year in which to disimprove that record. The fight for the National League cellar this summer may be as lively as the fight for the pennant. What cheered me as I tramped through the peanut shells and discarded programs and out into the hot late sunlight was not just the score and not just Casey's triumph but a freshly renewed appreciation of the complexity and balance of baseball. Offhand, I can think of no other sport in which the world's champions, one of the great teams of its era, would not instantly demolish inferior opposition and reduce a game such as the one we had just seen to cruel ludicrousness. Baseball is harder than that; it requires a full season, hundreds and hundreds of separate games, before quality can emerge, and in that summer span every home-town fan, every doomed admirer of underdogs, will have his afternoons of revenge and joy.
Tampa, March 24th
The population of Tampa is two hundred and seventy-five thousand. I looked it up this morning, but I could have saved myself the trouble. Anyone attending a game in the big, modern reinforced-concrete-shell grandstand of Al Lopez Field (named for the White Sox manager, who is a Tampa native) could figure out that this is the big town in these parts; he could tell it, by the sound of the crowd alone-a steady, complex, cosmopolitan clamor made up of exhortation, laughter, outright booing, the cries of vendors, and the hum of garrulous city talkers. Today the old people in the stands were outnumbered. There were young women in low-cut sundresses, children of all ages (two boys near me were wearing Little League uniforms with "Western Fertilizer" emblazoned on the back), and blacks and Cubans in the grandstand. The sun was hot and summery, and I felt at home: this was July in Yankee Stadium. Nevertheless, I had trouble concentrating on the first few innings of the game, which was between the Cincinnati Reds, who train here, and the visiting Dodgers. My mind kept returning to an incident-a sudden visual snapshot of a scene-in the game I saw yesterday in Bradenton, where Milwaukee had beaten the Yankees.
Bradenton yesterday was nothing like Tampa today. The weather was cold early spring, with low clouds and a nipping wind blowing in from left field. The stadium might have been a country fairgrounds, and the elders who had come early and filled up the park to see the mighty Yankees had the gravity, the shy politeness, and the silence of a rural crowd at a tent show. A rain the night before had turned the infield into a mudpie, and while we waited patiently for it to dry, three bearded men wearing plumed Spanish helmets, silvery chest plates, short striped pants, and high boots trooped out in front of the dugout, carrying swords, to have their picture taken with Mickey Mantle. They were local citizens participating in Bradenton's annual de Soto celebration. Mickey grinned and brandished one of the swords for the photographer, and the conquistadors looked awed. At last, the game began, in tomblike silence. No one complained when Mantle, Howard, Boyer, and Berra failed to appear in the opening lineup. Hardly anyone cheered when the Braves got to Jim Coates for a run in the third. A man standing in front of the scoreboard in deep center field hung up a numbered placard for each ball, strike, and out. When the sun began to break through, another employee came out of the Braves' clubhouse beside left field and hung a dozen sweatshirts-white, with black sleeves-out to dry on a clothesline strung between two palm trees. The game turned out to be a good one; there was some small shouting when the Braves came from behind to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth on a home run by Tommie Aaron, Hank Aaron's kid brother, and some guffaws when the Yanks lost it on an error in the tenth. In spite of the score, and perhaps only because of the peacefulness and stolidity of the fans, I came away with the impression that the Braves have become a middle-aged team, now somehow past the point of eagerness and energy that has made them champions or fearsome contenders for the last nine years.
The incident that startled me at Bradenton was one of those juxtapositions that are possible only in spring training. In the seventh inning, with the sun now fully out and the grass turning soft and emerald as it dried, Whitey Ford came in to pitch for the Yankees. At the same moment, in the Braves' bullpen in deep left field, Warren Spahn began throwing-not warming up but simply loosening his arm. Suddenly I saw that from my seat behind first base the two pitchers-the two best left-handers in baseball, the two best left- or right-handers in baseball-were in a direct line with each other, Ford exactly superimposed on Spahn. It was a trick photograph, a trompe-l'oeil: a hundred-and-fifty-eight-game winner and a three-hundred-and-nine-game winner throwing baseballs in the same fragment of space. Ford, with his short, businesslike windup, was all shoulders and quickness, while, behind him, Spahn would slowly kick his right leg up high and to the left, peering over his shoulder as he leaned back, and then deliver the ball with an easy, explosive sweep. It excited me to a ridiculous extent. I couldn't get over it. I looked about me for someone to point it out to, but I couldn't find a recognizable fan-face near me.
The Tampa crowd this afternoon would have spotted it. They knew their baseball, and they were tough and hard to please. Joey Jay, the Reds' top starter, was having all kinds of trouble on the mound. His control was off, he had to throw too many pitches, and he kept shaking his head disgustedly. After the first two innings, the Dodgers were waiting for him to get behind and come in with a fat pitch. They batted around against him in the third inning, scoring five runs; two of them came on a home run by Daryl Spencer, and then in the fifth Spencer knocked another pitch over the fence. Manager Hutchinson left Jay in, letting him take his punishment while he got the work he needed. The fans, though the Reds are their team, seemed to enjoy it all. They booed Jay lightly; they didn't mind seeing him suffer a little-not with that $27,500 salary he won after a holdout this spring. They applauded Koufax, the Dodger pitcher, who was working easily and impressively, mixing fast balls and curves and an occasional changeup, pitching in and out to the batters, and hitting the corners. Koufax looked almost ready for Opening Day.
There were fewer rookies and scrubs in the lineups today; the season begins in just over two weeks. These two teams will almost certainly fight it out with the Giants for the pennant, and I was tempted to make comparisons and private predictions. But then I reminded myself that baseball would be competitive and overserious soon enough. The city crowd around me here, the big park, and the approaching time for headlines, standings, and partisanship have almost made me knowing and Northern again. Already I had begun to forget the flavor of Florida baseball-the older, easier pleasures of baseball in the spring in the country.
Copyright © 2003 by Steve Kettmann and Roger Angell
Compilation copyright © 2003 by Roger Angell
Introduction copyright © 2003 by Richard Ford
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