Seventh Inning Stretch

Memories of a Nostalgic Fan

Our health-minded author demonstrates the proper way to glove and snare a sizzling line drive and avoid injury to yourself and your bobbleheads while seated at a ball game.

Inning One: The Proper Way To Catch a Fly

In 1958, the New York Giants came west to adopt a new city and become the sporting pride of San Francisco. For ballplaying teens such as myself, it was an epic moment. The cross-country transfer of the ball club was New York’s way of saying our city was major league. It was as if the stars of Broadway had elected to exchange the Great White Way for Market Street. The Giants had vacated their historic playing field at the Polo Grounds and come west to open a new chapter of sports history for the team and The City By The Bay.
 
My high school baseball buddy and I made history of our own by visiting Seals Stadium—-a tidy, crowd-friendly gem of a minor league park that we knew as the home field of the San Francisco Seals, complete with the personable Lefty O’Doul coaching at third, the wonderful aromas of  a nearby bakery and brewery drifting into the stands, and the sense of community among fans. It would serve the Giants as home base until construction was completed for a new stadium called Candlestick Park.
 
Taking our seats, my friend and I felt as if we had been promoted to the big time. We were about to see our first major league game other than those we viewed on television’s game of the week. Back then, the best you could get of pro ball was one game a week on Saturday afternoon. Now we had unlimited access to the real thing.  
 
When the Giants took the field to the roar of the crowd, Willie Mays—the greatest player in the game (unless you preferred Mantle or Duke Snider)—ran past our two-buck bleacher seats on his way out to patrol center field. My friend and I were speechless, It was as if a god had suddenly materialized in human form.
 
Several plays later, a lazy high fly drifted out to center. Willie camped beneath it for the catch, which he executed by dropping his glove to the level of his waist. It was a basket catch all his own, one avoided by other pro outfielders given its awkward angle, the lack of a glove to shield eyes from the glare of the sun, and the high risk of misplay given the angle of the ball to the body.
 
“Hey, Howard, did you see that? The buddy asked, shocked by what appeared to be a lapse in judgment or professionalism. “You’re an outfielder. Would you ever catch a ball like that? Isn’t that the wrong way to catch it?”
 
“You tell him that,” I urged as Willie trotted back to the dugout, “but leave me out of it.”
 

Inning Two: No Such Thing as Perfection

October 8, 1956. I’m in the wrong place at the right time. Stuck without radio or television at James Russell Lowell High School during the momentous fifth game of the World Series between the Yanks and Dodgers, I’m being deprived of the most important event of the day.  
 
Fortunately, my friend Rick has smuggled in a small portable radio with ear plugs that enables him to follow the game and give me brief updates on the action. I learn from him that Don Larsen is pitching a perfect game in the early innings, but I assure Rick there’s no chance of a perfect game in the World Series. It’s never been done and therefore, I reason, it never will. But Rick isn’t discouraged by historical precedent. He asks if I’d like to make a small wager on the outcome. What is it they say about a fool and his money soon parting company?
 
I agree to the challenge and bet five dollars, which just happens to be the sum total I have handy in my cartoonish Dagwood Bumstead wallet.
 
I’m confident Rick will be out five because of his bind faith in Larsen, a hurler whom I regard as less than ideal to make history. After all, the man had a  20-game losing season just two years before when with Baltimore and he blew game two of the current series, lasting less than two innings as the Yanks fell to the Dodgers, surrendering 13 runs. Not at all the kind of pitcher in whose skills a gambler would be wise to trust.
 
But strange things are happening on the field of play. In inning two, Jackie Robinson rips a shot that bounces off third baseman Andy Carey and over to shortstop Gil McDougald who throws the speedy Jackie out. Okay, I said to myself, such things happen. But it’s just a question of time before another line drive finds its way past the infield and Larsen’s perfection starts to crumble.
 
In the fifth, it almost happens. Gil Hodges greets a Larsen offering with a swing of the bat that sends the ball soaring deep into the vast Yankee outfield,. Here it comes! A double for sure and maybe a triple. How about an inside-the-park homer? Thank you, Gil. I’m in the green now.  
 
Alas, Larsen gets lucky a second time. Mantle turns on the burner, races back and runs it down. Okay, I console myself again, I can live with that, This is the majors and you expect wonders from the Mick. But next time, I predict, the fly will  go elsewhere and there won’t be a Mantle to make the grab.  
 
Inning after inning, Larsen keeps extending the scoreboard row of zeroes, He even tempts fate by telling his teammates what he’s doing—as if they didn’t already know. They aren’t speaking to him in the dugout rather than jinx the no-hitter. But that doesn’t impress Larsen. He nudges Mantle and says, “Hey, Mickey, look at the scoreboard. Wouldn’t it be something? Only two innings to go!”
 
When Mantle and the rest of the boys hear that remark, the bench clears in a flash, leaving chatty Don talking to himself. He’s just made the supreme error, putting a hex on a perfect game. He’s broken he sacred rule of silence during a no-hitter. Mantle and the rest of the boys are sure he’ll pay the price for that lapse. 
 
“The bench got like a morgue,” Larsen recalled, “Nobody talked to me. Nobody would sit by me.”     
 
Seven perfect innings and now he was a pariah. But the eighth passed without incident. And then came the ninth. The time of reckoning had arrived.
 
Although I had no way of knowing that Larsen had violated the baseball superstition of silence, I felt sure he’d be humbled in the ninth. Look who was coming to bat. You couldn’t ask for better clutch hitters than Carl Furillo or Roy Campanella. I was a little less confident when Furillo flied out and Campy grounded out,  It was all up to pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell, one of the best PHs in the game. He started to swing on a one ball, two-strike count and then checked his swing because the pitch (he later said) was low and outside the strike zone. Not so, said umpire Babe Pinelli, who raised his right arm to signal a strike and put the perfect game in the record book.
 
And now everybody wanted to talk to the careless pitcher and hug him and slap him on the back. Against all odds, against the jinx, against the law of mathematical probability, Larsen had done the impossible, pitching the only perfect game in World Series history, No runs, no hits, no errors, no nothing. The Dodgers were out of luck.   
 
And I was out my five.
 
“Sorry about that,” Rick grinned as he pocketed it. But I wasn’t finished.
 
“I’ll bet you anther five that last pitch was a ball, and Pinelli called it wrong because he wanted to keep the game perfect so he could retire with distinction and go down in history as the ump who called it.”
 
“Interesting theory,” said this future attorney, “but even it it were true, you’d never be able to prove your contention against the combined eyewitness testimony of the pitcher, catcher and umpire, all of whom saw the ball that you didn’t. Case dismissed!”
 

Inning Three: There’s No Crying In Baseball

The small feminist forum around me at the party had taken up the question of why there was still no woman playing major league baseball. 
 
A forum member turned to me for an answer as if I had one. “Now suppose you tell us why that is. You’re a male and you know something about baseball and discrimination, don’t you? So tell us why.” 
 
“I dunno,” I said intelligently, hoping to avoid the issue.
 
“Oh, come on, you must have some idea. Or do you want to pretend that a smart fellow like yourself knows nothing or cares nothing about sexism in the sport of baseball?”
 
“Well, since you put it that way, I think there are things about the game a woman wouldn’t tolerate, let alone enjoy. She wouldn’t like the look or the smell or the no-holds-barred bench-jockeying of the dugout. Not to mention the sunflower seeds, chocolates, chewing gum, tobacco chaws and God knows what else players like to chew and spit. Oh yes, and some players are superstitious enough not to change their garments if they’ve played well in them. They don’t want to change their luck by changing their uni. I’m not even mentioning the locker room. No woman in her right mind would want to be there when the players get frisky and rowdy, but a separate facility might invite charges of not being a team player.” 
 
“You chew and drool, use bad language, engage in inappropriate conduct and wear soiled uniforms?” another woman asked, making a face at such unspeakable practices.
 
“On the other hand, we’re all pretty good sports, except for the knock-down relievers, and we love the fans and little kids who idolize us. And whatever you may think, ladies, there’s no harm in a bit of sweat, a blot of infield dirt or a stain of outfield grass.”
 
“It sounds like the kind of things a woman has to put up with from a man,” the woman nodded. “Well, a woman can correct all that. The sooner you get women into the game, the cleaner and better the game will be.”
 
 A cheer greeted her analysis and allowed me to escape further inquisition. It also spared me from having to admit wearing my lucky socks more than once, playing outfield with a 1940s infielder’s glove, and enjoying a power snack while on duty by concealing a Snickers bar chunk between my cheek and gum. Such are the secrets of baseball.
 

Inning Four: Slang Bang

I once attended a ball game with an otherwise intelligent lady who knew nothing whatever about the rules and slang of the sport. I tried to bring her into the game with what she needed to know, but in the fourth inning, Will “The Thrill” Clark hit a shot out of the park and into the bay, and I reacted with unrestrained fan ardor.
 
“Wowie! Zowie! He really tattooed that one!”
 
Whereupon the lady, trying to make sense of my outburst, asked, “Do they tattoo baseballs so they can retrieve them later?'”
 
I didn’t have an answer to that.
 
I still don’t.
 

Inning Five: Ever hear of “Nuke” LaLoosh?

If not, you should definitely look this guy up, He requires your close consideration if only because his mentor summed him up as “A million dollar fast ball and a five cent brain.”
 
Nuke was the brash, rash rook with a tremendous heater that seldom found the plate. His control was so awful he once beaned his team’s mascot and scattered batters like a hurricane.   
 
You’ll find this remarkable character in the film “Bull Durham,” which has my vote for the best baseball movie of them all.
 
Nuke is my favorite character in baseball because he has a lesson to learn about the ability, humility, gratitude and sportsmanship required of a player if he hopes to acquire the skills needed to make it as a pro. Will he learn all he needs to  know from catcher “Crash” Davis, a vet who’s seen it all? Or can he take lessons from Annie Savoy, a gal devoted to the game and its players? Annie is the ultimate fan, a heart-and-soul groupie who knows how to nurture the player she adopts each season. Between the catcher and the lover, even a rookie like this rookie may learn what it means to play the game.
 
Screenwriter Ron Shelton, a former minor league player, based the character on a player whom he saw in action during his playing time, not with the Durham Bulls of North Carolina, but the Stockton Ports. It remains Stockton’s greatest gift to the national pastime.   
 

Inning Six: The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra

Don’t get me started.
 
I collect Yogi’s wit and wisdom (popularly known as “Yogi-isms”) the way others folks collect stamps or coins. Some of Mr. Berra’s thoughts don’t make sense on first hearing. Some don’t make sense after repeated hearing. But all pay tribute to the memory of the squat little immortal behind the plate who wore “the tools of ignorance” with distinction.
 
The greatest short film in baseball is a television commercial with Yogi sitting in a barbershop chair expounding on the laws of finance when the AFLAC duck wanders in, hears the words of the Yankee great and gives us the most astonished look you’ll ever see on a duck. Talk about a classic.   
 
And in conclusion, let us remember the words of Yogi the economist who ventured the opinion that “Cash is just as good as money.” 
 
Well, isn’t it?
 

Inning Seven: Time to Stretch and Quench

The fans have come to their feet to sing to the organist’s spirited rendition of our second national anthem—“Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” 
 
Excuse me, I’d like nothing better than to stay and join the crowd in singing my favorite song of them all, but it’s been a long afternoon at the ball park. I need the restorative power of a hot dog and a cold brew.  
 
Actually, the stadium has a high class side if you wish to go beyond the ordinary and buy into gourmet. Therefore, instead of the usual dog and the ordinary beer, I’m going upscale, Yes, it’s expensive, but you only live once, I’ll have the dog that won a  Michelin star and a Mexican margarita crafted with Jose Cuervo Especial Silver Tequila.
 
“Sorry, pal, but you’ve been misinformed,” the wiener server informs me. “The French don’t award stars to hot dogs.”
 
“Why not?”‘ I ask. “Stars eat them, don’t they? All right, give me one that proves a hot dog at the ball park tastes better than a steak at the Ritz or a chicken pot pie at Musso and Frank.”
 
“Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t have a dog that proves anything beyond the fact that you’re holding up the line that wants what we have.”
 
“No, we don’t serve stuff like that,” the beer server informs me, shaking his head. “Wait a minute. Cuervo, did you say? Didn’t he pitch for the Pirates? The guy with a great curve?. The guy they called Jose Cuerv-ball?”
 
Uh, oh, the eighth inning is starting, Never mind the Michelin star. Never mind the Cuerv-ball. There’s more important things in life, like can we beat the Dodgers when Kershaw is cooking and Brandon Belt is determined to make contact? Give me what you’ve got and make it snappy. I’ve got to get back to my seat. 
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One Comment

  • I am sorry I am just reading this story. I really enjoyed ready your strong connection to baseball during your youth and the lessons one can learn from this activity. I like how you divided your story into different innings, creating unique storylines in each one. I enjoy reading your creative writing because it is always humourous and there is always something to be learned.

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