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A long-time favorite gets ready for his final season

For more than 50 years, I have had a favorite baseball player. I’m not sure I was that adamant about it when I first became a fan in the late ’50s — maybe Mickey Mantle — but by the mid ’60s, I really admired the way Pete Rose played the game. He was my favorite player for more than 20 years, and even though I came to realize he wasn’t as good a human being as he was a ballplayer, I still have an autographed bat of his among my memorabilia.

From the time Rose stopped playing until about 1993, I’m not sure I let myself have a favorite player. For one thing, I was covering baseball — the Dodgers — for a good chunk of that time, and I took the old rule about No Cheering in the Press Box seriously.

Chipper Jones nears the end of a great career.

By the mid ’90s. though, I had another favorite, one I followed from the very beginning of his career up to the present. And this year, I’ll make several trips to Turner Field in Atlanta to watch that favorite play out his last season with the Braves.

Chipper Jones has had the sort of career that very few athletes have anymore. He spent his entire time in the game as a member of one organization. He was drafted by Atlanta, came up through the Braves’ farm system and reached the majors for good — after losing a season to a knee in injury — in 1995.

The Braves won the World Series in his rookie year, and four seasons later, Jones won the National League Most Valuable Player award.

He was a switch-hitter, and he established himself as one of the four or five best ever to play the game. As he enters his final season, his .304 batting average is the second-highest ever for someone who hits from both sides of the plate. His 453 home runs are third among switch hitters, and he’s certainly worthy of being included in the debate with Mantle, Eddie Murray, Rose and Frankie Frisch.

In recent years, he has been hampered by injuries. He hasn’t hit 30 home runs since 2004, and his last really great seasons were 2007 and 2008, when he scored more than a hundred runs, drove in more than a hundred runs at age 35 and then won the batting title with a .364 average at age 36.

When he announced earlier this week that 2012 would be his last season, he spoke of how much he had enjoyed playing his entire career in one spot. He said he was a Southern kid who had been happy to play for a Southern team. He spoke of how difficult a public relations problem it had been for the Braves when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had overstayed their welcome, and he said he didn’t want to do that.

One last time around the sun. One last season of cheering and possibly a spot in the playoffs.

Then the five-year wait for the Hall of Fame begins.

As for me, I also like this kid Ryan Zimmerman who plays for Washington. I think he’s a worthy successor.

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in baseball,Georgia,Happiness,memories and have No Comments

Killebrew looked ordinary, but he was anything but

It was D-Day 1988, the 44th anniversary of the Normandy landing, when I met Harmon Killebrew for the one and only time in my life.

I drove down from Greeley for an exhibition at Mile High Stadium, one of my favorite sports palaces ever. Denver didn’t have major league baseball yet, but we had a touring group of Old Timers — including several Hall of Famers — for something called the Cracker Jack Old Timers Game. I wasn’t covering the game. I was there to write a column, and the subject I chose was former Baltimore great Boog Powell.

Powell had done a great Miller Lite commercial, the one in which the umpire put on his glasses, focused his eyes, and delivered the punchline:

“Hey, you’re Boog Powell.”

If you’re old enough to remember that commercial, you’ve got a fighting chance of being old enough to remember Killebrew, who retired from baseball after the 1975 season as the fifth-leading home run hitter of all time. He hit 573, and at the time he retired, that was more home runs than anyone in the American League other than Babe Ruth ever hit.

Hammerin' Harmon

Killebrew was there that day in Denver, and all I remembered was how small he seemed next to Powell. The record books say that he played at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, but that summer he was three weeks shy of his 52nd birthday and he was smaller than I was. I was 5-11 and weighed about 210 that summer, and if he was 5-8, I’d be surprised.

He had Popeye-type forearms when he played, and while he was never much of a hitter for average (.256 for his career), no one else in baseball hit as many home runs as he did in the ’60s.

He was beloved in Washington as a star for the original Washington Senators, and he was beloved in Minnesota when the Senators moved north in 1961 and became the Twins.

But he retired and then was voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he became pretty much a local celebrity in Minneapolis. He wasn’t flashy. If you want to compare him to current athletes, you’ll love the quote he gave when someone asked him what he did for fun.

“I like to wash dishes,” he said.

There’s a statue of him in Minnesota, just outside Target Field, where the Twins play now. He played his games and hit his home runs in a park that no longer exists except as the Mall of America.

Maybe the best quote about Killebrew ever came from Baltimore manager Paul Richards, who praised his power. “Killebrew can hit the ball out of any park,” he said. “Including Yellowstone.”

In recent years he hadn’t been in the spotlight much, although Twins fans were well aware that he had been battling esophageal cancer.

Killebrew in his final days

He made the news just a couple of days ago when he announced he would no longer undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment and instead would avail himself of hospice care for what time he had left. He may have known at the time that he wasn’t going to last long or it may have come as a surprise, but he died today at age 74.

I don’t remember what he did in that game I saw in Denver in 1988, but that didn’t really matter. I’m pretty sure I only saw him play once in person during his illustrious career. It was the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., and he flied out as a pinch-hitter in the third inning.

It’s funny.

I could have talked to him in 1988, and I wish I had, but when you’re writing a column, you look for one good subject and then focus on it. I looked back and read the Boog Powell column again and it holds up well, so I can’t complain.

Anyway, if I want to end on a maudlin note, I’ll just say I figure they’re writing Hammerin’ Harmon into the American League lineup up there, probably playing third base and hitting sixth behind Lou Gehrig.

If I get up to Cooperstown this summer, as I’m hoping, I’ll definitely check out his plaque.

posted by Mike in baseball,Colorado,memories and have No Comments

Mantle book brings back memories of another friend

I didn’t expect the Mickey Mantle biography to bring back such a strong memory of a now-departed friend.

But these days, I never know what will spur memories. I was reading Jane Leavy’s “The Last Boy” when I came across an exchange between Mantle and the author in which a fan said that he had been there in 1950 when Wes Ferrell struck Mantle out five times in one game. Mantle didn’t contradict the fan, but after he left, told Leavy that it hadn’t been 1950, it was 1951, and it hadn’t been Ferrell, it had been Walt Masterson.

Hello, old friend.

Walt Masterson

Walt Masterson was one of the most interesting people I ever met. We were collaborating on a book when he died of a stroke three years ago, and unfortunately, it’s a book I really can’t finish. He pitched 14 seasons in the American League, mostly for losing teams, and he won 78 games and lost 100. That may not sound all that impressive on the face of it, but he was an American League all-star twice, and in fact was the starting pitcher in the 1948 All-Star Game.

Probably his most memorable game came in June 1947 in Chicago, when he pitched 16 scoreless innings against the White Sox in a game that wasn’t decided till the 18th inning.

Like many men of his era, he lost three seasons to World War II, but when he returned in September 1945, he outdueled Hall of Famer Bob Feller in a 1-0 shutout.

I met Walt in 1980, when I was editor of the George Mason University student newspaper and he was the school’s baseball coach. We had some wonderful, long conversations after games that ranged far beyond baseball. In 1983, when I was trying to get a really good job in Oklahoma City, he called the sports editor of the paper for me and gave me a stellar recommendation.

I didn’t get the job, but only because there was a hiring freeze. After that Walt and I lost touch with each other for more than 20 years. I’m not sure what made me think about him, but I was going through a period when I was looking up a lot of old friends through a service we had at work. I found him in North Carolina and I wrote to him. I’m so glad I did.

We re-established contact, and as I said, we actually worked on a book together. I wish I had been better about finishing it more quickly, but I did visit him twice in North Carolina and somewhere I’ve got a video tape of about an hour’s worth of conversation we had one one of those visits.

When we met, he was 60 and I was 30.

When we got together again a few years ago, I was nearly 60 myself. He was 87 when he died, and I still miss him. But I’m glad for the time we spent together near the end of his life.

He was a heck of a guy, a really fine man.

And hey, I’m pretty sure he was the only pitcher ever to strike out Mickey Mantle five times in one game.

posted by Mike in baseball,Friends,Happiness,memories and have No Comments

Balls on the wall a reminder of one of life’s joys

My little box

It’s a little box, hanging on my wall, with 12 nearly pristine looking baseballs.

There are 13 signatures on the balls, and 10 of them are in the baseball Hall of Fame. One other one probably will be someday, and the remaining two — the ones who share a ball — also shared one of the most important moments in baseball history.

The three across the top row are the true gems — Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle.

The next three aren’t much lesser lights — Johnny Bench, Warren Spahn and Duke Snider.

Bob Feller, Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson occupy the third row, which is 9-for-9 Hall of Famers.

Chipper Jones and Ralph Kiner have the outside spots on the bottom row. Kiner is in the Hall already, and my guess is Chipper will be in about six or seven years.

It’s the 12th ball that is the most fascinating to me. It contains the signatures of Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, the man who threw the pitch and the man who hit it in 1951 for the Shot Heard Round the World. Despite Bill Mazeroski and  Kirk Gibson’s later efforts, I still think it was the biggest home run in baseball history.

My interest in memorabilia has come relatively late in life. I never asked for autographs when I was a sportswriter. It would have been unprofessional, and because of that, I missed out on the chance to get signatures from former players I met for one-on-one interviews, among them Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter and Hank Aaron.

I do have one autographed picture on my wall, of my old friend Walter Masterson as the starting pitcher for the American League in the 1948 All-Star Game.

I miss Walter a lot. We were working on a book together, but didn’t get a chance to finish it before he died in April 2008. The picture is a nice memento.

It’s just like on my Facebook page, before they revised the profiles. I used to say that I loved my wife, my children, my granddaughter, my family, my friends … and baseball.

posted by Mike in Americana,baseball,Happiness and have No Comments

Is another ‘hero’ nearing the end of the line?

Heroes come and heroes go, and at some point in your life you realize a hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich.

I’m not sure when it was I realized that being a good player in a professional sport didn’t necessarily make someone a person worthy of admiring. Maybe it dates back to the early ’70s when basketball player Spencer Haywood made a great statement about heroism.

He said that athletes weren’t heroes. He said parents raising four kids and giving them good values on poverty-level incomes were the real heroes.

I think it was after that that I stopped calling Pete Rose — yes, Pete Rose — my hero and just started referring to him as my favorite player. I admire the way he played the game, the effort he always gave. I certainly didn’t admire the fact that he said the only book he ever read was “The Pete Rose Story.”

By the early ’90s, when Rose was long gone from baseball and had exposed himself as somewhat of a scumbag anyway, I was in the market for a new favorite player. For some reason, I settled on Atlanta’s Chipper Jones. For most of the last 15 years, Jones has been my favorite player, to the point where I always look at the box scores to see what he did the night before, and I usually try to have him on my fantasy baseball teams.

I admired the way he played the game, and I particularly liked the fact that he stayed with one team throughout his entire career. When he won the batting title in 2008, at the pretty advanced age of 36, I was happy for him. He had a mediocre season last year and wasn’t doing much better this year, and I admired the fact that he said if he couldn’t play at a level that made him proud, he would retire and walk away from the rest of his big contract.

Chipper Jones' injury

The other night he got hurt, and even though he expressed optimism about the injury, it turned out he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. It’s ironic that the injury, which might end his career, was the same one he had at age 22 that caused him to delay his rookie season by a year.

Is Chipper Jones finished at age 38?

I hope not, but I know he’s probably very near the end of his career. Maybe he can rehab his knee enough to play one more season and go out on his terms. That would be nice, especially since I’ll be living in Georgia next year and hope to make it to Atlanta for a few games.

At any rate, I’m going to need a new favorite player soon. I’m thinking maybe Jason Heyward or Brian McCann.

posted by Mike in baseball,Georgia,Happiness,retirement and have No Comments

Was it my final visit to Dodger Stadium?

Blue Heaven

Over the course of the last 21 years, I have probably seen nearly 200 baseball games at Dodger Stadium.

It has always been one of the loveliest ballparks in the country, both for its classical look and for the setting it occupies, with the mountains in the background and the landscape all around it, just two or three miles from downtown Los Angeles.

I have watched games from pretty much everywhere in the park, from the upper deck nosebleed seats to the front row of box seats on the third base side to the press box.

Tonight I think the odds are pretty good that I might have seen my last game in Blue Heaven.

I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and I saw tonight’s game between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres courtesy of my good friend Wayne Shinsato, who has partial season tickets. I don’t know if I’ll get back before the end of the season, and we are planning to move to Georgia before the 2011 season starts.

I remember my first visit. It was Fourth of July weekend in 1978, and my first wife and I were visiting my friend Mick, who was out here for graduate school. We got tickets in the very last row of seats at the end of the grandstand in left field and saw the game between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. I was a fairly rabid Cincinnati fan at that time, so I didn’t like the Dodgers much at all.

Twenty-one years living here changed that, of course.

I’m a Dodger fan and probably will be for the rest of my life.

It was wonderful to see the game, which the Dodgers won, 9-0, behind a two-hit shutout by Vincente Padilla. If it was my last game here, it was a good one to end on.

It’s probably what I’ll miss most when we leave L.A.

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posted by Mike in baseball,California,Friends,Happiness and have No Comments

The beauty of Texas is just so large

The beauty of Texas

South Texas is just so beautiful.

I have been doing a lot of driving around during my free time here just south of Bandera, and the one thing that just keeps impressing me is the beauty of all the open countryside around here.

There are all sorts of different types of road, ranging from Interstate highways and state routes to ranch roads and farm roads. When I drive back and forth to Bandera most days so that I can get cell phone reception to talk to Nicole, I’m traveling on a two-lane road called Ranch Road 1077.

I see the prettiest sights in the distance, and I keep stopping my car to take pictures. By the time I leave here at the beginning of July, I fully expect to have hundreds of shots with no people in them on my memory card.

Texas may not be quite as diverse as California in its landscapes — they’ve got nothing like the Sierras here — but there is a lot more of those landscapes in the largest state in the Lower 48. I haven’t seen the beaches yet, but I’ve pretty well decided that sometime this month, I’ll drive down to Corpus Christi and check out the Gulf of Mexico.

***

Actually, I’ve been planning my trip home around one of my lifelong dreams.

I’ve written before that I want to see a baseball game in every major league city before I die, and I thought I might have a chance to add six more cities on the way home (looking at “the way home” loosely). I thought I could go through Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Denver, Phoenix and San Diego, but the Astros, the Royals and the Padres won’t be at home at the right time.

And actually, I’ve sort of done San Diego already. I saw a number of games at the old Jack Murphy Stadium, although I would like to see the lovely Petco Park before we move east.

For now, the plan is to see the Texas Rangers play the Chicago White Sox on July 2, the Colorado Rockies play the San Francisco Giants on July 4 and the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Chicago Cubs on July 6.

Coors Field in Denver

I’m really looking forward to seeing Coors Field in Denver.

I have seen baseball in Denver, at Mile High Stadium, but it was Triple-A ball in 1988 when the Denver Bears played in the International League. Major league ball came to Colorado after I left; if Denver had enjoyed National League ball when I was still there, there’s a really good chance I might never have moved away.

Getting to these three ballparks means that the old cities west of the Mississippi that I haven’t covered will be Houston and Kansas City. I also still need to get to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Tampa and Miami to finish the deal.

Then, of course, I still need to get to Cooperstown too. The Baseball Hall of Fame is pretty close to the top of my list of places I still want to see in the world.

Not this trip, though.

Someday soon maybe.

posted by Mike in baseball,Texas,Travel and have No Comments

Baseball is back and the world is good

Opening Day.

It can mean a lot of things, but to most people, the words mean the first day of the baseball season, the day on which all 30 teams still have hope that they’ll put it all together and make it to the playoffs, if not all the way to the World Series.

I love baseball, probably more than anything in my life that isn’t a person, and I’ve been thinking all day about what I would say to convey that. But so many people write so many things that sound so damned pompous about baseball. I think the single coolest quote I ever read about the game was from former Commissioner Bart Giamatti.

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

That was a cool quote, better than anything I could ever imagine saying myself.

I have followed baseball since 1957, the last year three teams played in New York City. The first game I ever saw pitted the New York Giants against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field, a ballpark that was torn down more than 40 years ago. It didn’t have a warning track. When outfielders got near the wall, they found themselves on an upward incline. Since it’s harder to run uphill, I imagine they must have hated it.

1969 Opener in D.C.

I remember two opening days, in back-to-back seasons.

In 1984, when I was working in South Carolina, I attended a rainy opener at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton shut out the Braves and then didn’t talk to the media, as was his wont. Four summers later, I saw Carlton at an exhibition game in Denver when he was trying to hang on. He talked plenty then.

In 1983, the year before, I was covering the Gastonia Expos of the South Atlantic League. Roger Kahn of “Boys of Summer” fame was a part-owner of the visiting Columbia Mets. I was interviewing him, but it was too cold for him at Sims Legion Park, so we went to my house five minutes away and he drank most of a fifth of my vodka while I interviewed him.

Those are my memories, memories I treasure.

I’m pretty sure I’ll love baseball long after I’ve forgotten about almost everything else I’ve ever known.

It’s like Jim Bouton wrote in the final paragraph of “Ball Four,” quoting former pitcher Jim O’Toole:

“You spend all those years gripping a baseball and then you find out it was the other way around.”

posted by Mike in baby boom,baseball and have No Comments

Tough to realize that old-timer quality

About 10 years ago, I was in a sports memorabilia store looking at autographed baseballs.

I was more of a collector then than I am now — my remaining collection is in a case that holds 12 balls — and I was considering purchasing balls signed by Frank Robinson and Johnny Bench.

“Oh, you like the old timers,” the attractive young sales clerk said to me.

Old timers? I almost screamed. Bench didn’t reach the majors until after I graduated from high school. Had I really lived that long as an adult, that a great player reached the big leagues, had his entire career and been retired long enough to be an “old timer?”

It’s the same thing with movies, television and music. “Star Wars” and “Jaws” aren’t old-time classics to me, and neither are “Happy Days” and “Welcome Back Kotter.” Bob Seger and Journey aren’t old-time rockers.

Are they?

If those are the old timers now, then where does that leave Joe Dimaggio (whose autograph I do have), “Casablanca,” “I Love Lucy” and Elvis Presley? Prehistoric? From a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth?

In recent years I’ve been collecting DVDs of some of the classic sci-fi films of the ’50s — movies like “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and numerous others. I’m sure kids look at those movies now and laugh because the special effects are so cheesy, but I wonder if they’re looking at movies like the newest “Star Trek” — which I enjoyed — and laughing because they know the special effects are all done by computers and blue screens.

My good friend Mike Haskins wishes we could return to a day when baseball players had to get jobs in the off-season. I’m not sure we were better off then, but at least when ballplayers made $8,000 a year, they seemed more human to us.

There’s a certain unreality to life as we head into the second decade of the 21st century. It used to be that we could look at a family on television — be they Bradys, Cleavers or Cunninghams — and recognize only a slightly idealized version of families we actually knew. But now everything is so exaggerated that we can’t see ourselves in the picture at all.

Probably the last real family on television was the Conner family — Dan, Roseanne and their kids, who lived real lives, who fought with each other and ragged each other and still managed to love each other.

How did we go from Laverne & Shirley, working-class girls who lived in a crummy basement apartment in Milwaukee, to the six “Friends” with New York apartments anyone not named Trump would have had trouble affording.

Maybe it’s that movies and television used to turn a mirror on our lives and now they try and help us escape our lives.

Yeah, I guess I am an old timer.

posted by Mike in Americana,baby boom,baseball,Movies,Music,Ranting and have No Comments

Dodger Stadium is a truly special place

I was watching “The Wizard of Oz” the other night when it came to the part where Dorothy told the Scarecrow, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” and it got me to thinking.

When we move away from California, probably sometime next year, what will I miss the most?

It’s actually an easy call. Only one thing even comes to mind when I think of all the people and places, all the sights seen and unseen in the state where I was born.

I’ll miss Dodger Stadium.

Heaven in Chavez Ravine

Heaven in Chavez Ravine

I thought about it the other day, and I realized I have probably gone to baseball games at Dodger Stadium more than 200 times in the 20 years I have been here.

Other than home or work or church, I don’t know that there’s anywhere else I have gone more than 200 times. There certainly isn’t anyplace else I would rather have gone. I’ve seen exhibition games, regular season games and playoff games there, and I have seen the best baseball has to offer.

I saw Fernando Valenzuela pitch a no-hitter in 1990, although I missed Kevin Gross’s no-hitter that same summer because I had a night off for a date. I actually missed Dennis Martinez pitching a perfect game — aargh! — against the Dodgers the next summer because I had a weekend off.

I got the chance to do something wonderful for myself and my children in 2001 and 2002. I purchased four single-game tickets in a silent auction to benefit the La Canada High School Band. The tickets were box seats in the very first row just beyond the dugout on the third-base side. The first year I took Virgile and two of his friends, and the next year I took Pauline, her future husband Ryan and my friend Mick Curran.

The most humorous part of all of it was that I have been going to baseball games for more than 50 years and have never had a foul ball hit to me. Virgile got two in the first five innings in our front-row seat.

Maybe you have to live in Southern California and be a Dodger fan to appreciate how wonderful the stadium is. There aren’t a ton of luxury boxes, and the stadium is nearly 50 years old so it lacks the gimmicks a lot of newer ones have. But between the balmy weather, the great view out past the fence and the voice of Vin Scully, there really is no place in the world like it.

Ry Cooder’s wonderful album, “Chavez Ravine,” tells the story of Mexicans in Los Angeles and of the thriving neighborhood that was destroyed to make room for the stadium. In the climactic song, his Latino character sings of heaven:

“… and if you wanna know where I’m gonna go when I hit my last home run … third base, Dodger Stadium.”

Me too.

posted by Mike in baseball,California,Happiness and have No Comments
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