Thursday, June 30, 2005

Let Me Tell You About Michael

I’m blessed to have two cousins named Michael. I’m very proud of both of them.

One is a couple years younger than me and is one of New York’s Finest. The other was an OB-GYN practicing in California near Sacramento. We lost him in May in an accidental drowning while he was training for a triathlon. He was 42, married with a 10-year-old son.

Michael, and his twin brother, Tim, are a year older than me. Tom was born a year before his brothers. Together we were the oldest kids of the next generation. As a kid I looked up to the three of them more than anyone — at least anyone not wearing a 41 on a Mets uniform.

Mike — like his brothers — was smart, funny, athletic and did all the coolest things. The highlight of the family holiday gatherings was when Timmy, Tommy and Michael arrived.

But our extended family spread out around the country through the years, as families do. I probably haven’t seen him in 15 years. We exchanged cards and photos at Christmas, and I’d hear about him through my mom and my aunt. It was no surprise that he went on to become a doctor, like his twin. Tom is a computer expert and also is very successful.

I don’t know how many times I thought I should get their e-mail addresses and see how they were doing. I never got to it, always thought there would be time.

So it hit hard when my wife called on my cell phone as I drove back from a Board of Education meeting to break the news. And I was struck that it was hard for me to draw upon a first-hand memory from recent years. I have tons of memories from when we were kids. But I let time pass and the distance grow. I didn’t know if he was like the person I remembered.

The Sacramento Bee has an online guest book linked to obituaries, and I read some of the thoughts expressed by Michael’s patients.

A patient from El Dorado Hills, Calif.: "I was 24 weeks pregnant with twins and having contractions. He put me on bed rest and said he was going to New York but would be back in a few days and then he would see me. I loved him, and knew that he had to be my doctor. Two days later, at 25 weeks, I delivered my boys, Henry, who lived 6 hours, and Zachary who is now 3 years old. When he came back and found out, he immediately came to the hospital and sat with my husband and I while our 1-pound, 8-ounce little boy underwent heart surgery. He cried with us over our loss and was a rock for us. He would come in every couple of weeks to hold our son. He helped us come to the decision to try again and it is because of his compassion, patience and support that we have our daughter, Phoebe, who he delivered after a long day in surgery so that he could be there for the birth and to reassure me. He was an amazing man, father, husband and doctor."

A patient from Rocklin, Calif.: "Dr. Wild was my OB through 2 difficult pregnancies. The first ended at 20 weeks when we discovered there was no heartbeat. I am so grateful that Dr. Wild was my doctor during this time. He was kind and compassionate and helped both my husband and I through one of the roughest times of our lives. Dr. Wild was also there for my next pregnancy which was hard, having had a previous loss. He never made me feel bad for being nervous, in fact he made sure he did everything he could for me. With his help, I was lucky enough to give birth to a beautiful baby boy in January 2004."

A patient from Sacramento: "I made the appointment and got to meet a doctor I will never forget. During my first few weeks of being pregnant, we had a bit of a scare and I needed to be seen right away, Dr. Wild was there to comfort me and put my mind at ease. He was always so kind and caring, his bedside manner was the best. We always had questions and he always had answers for us, he took extra time to sit with us and make sure we felt assured before we left our appointments. He always remembered his patients and always made you feel welcome when you came to see him. He was such a great doctor, a great man and a true friend."

Another patient from Sacramento: "I'll never forget when he walked into the room to be examined or the first time. The look on my face. I jokingly said to him I always wanted my OB GYN doctors to be old, gray and wear glasses. He had a great laugh over that. I had a lot of complications and he would always call me back directly at home to let me know how all of my test results came out and what we were going to do next."

These are from people who knew about the online guest book and felt comfortable writing. I suspect there are many, many more with similar tales of Michael's warmth, care and skill.

None of these heart-felt stories surprised me. As I read them, I’d alternate between getting choked up and smiling.

That’s the Michael I remembered. That’s exactly the kind of person I expected him to be.

Monday, June 27, 2005

One Man's (Yankee-free) All-Star Ballot

I've read some of the All-Star Game ballot tallies that Major League Baseball updates once a week. Frankly, I'm horrified. Some people are even voting for Yankees.

I can no longer sit by and watch, lest we are all forced to endure the likes of Hideki Matsui patrolling left field in Detroit. It’s time for someone to step up and do the right thing in these waning weeks of voting. And since Bud Selig insists on making this game count, we have to make sure ballots are filled out properly. It's not going to be my fault if the Mets don't have the home-field advantage in the World Series.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any Yankees on the 30-man roster. MLB rules state that they get a team representative, just like the Devil Rays. I suggest reliever Tanyon Sturtze, since he’s played for both of them, and we can cover two bad teams in one shot. And he’s no worse than some of the Yankees who Joe Torre filled the roster with.

Feel free to print this for future reference when casting those 25-votes per e-mail address at


First Base: Doug Mientkiewicz, Mets

The debate over the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and Cubs’ Derek Lee is getting rough. National League fan is being pitted against National League fan, and it’s a sad thing to watch. Enough, I say. End all the fighting and pick a compromise candidate we can all embrace. That would be the person in third place in the balloting so far. Enter Doug Mientkiewicz. Sure, he's been in a bit of a slump this season. But Doug has served his country admirably by winning the Olympic gold medal. And he played a role in the biggest Yankee embarrassment ever -- and has the game ball to prove it. That alone earns him a trip to Detroit.
Second Base: Kaz Matsui, Mets

You weren't really going to vote for Jeff Kent, were you? C'mon, this guy thinks were stupid enough to believe he missed a quarter of a season healing from wounds suffered washing his truck. Oh, Kaz has a couple issues to resolve. But we can overlook those for now. Actually, this is for Kaz's own good. He's been booed at Shea, and it apparently has shaken him up a little. But what kind of reception do you think a Japanese import is going to get in Detroit? The booing he gets there will be so intense that he'll come back to Shea and think the fans are whispering sweet nothings!

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Mets

Jose gets some grief for having more triples than walks. A walk gets you to first base. A triple gets you to third. I guess the guy knows what he’s doing. And the vast green spaces of Comerica Park were designed for triples. Not that the Tigers have figured this out.
Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Scott Rolen's a great player. But I just can't defend voting for him while he's missed big chunks of the season due to injuries. Everybody says Wright is the next Scott Rolen. So if Rolen's hurt, you are morally bound to send the next best thing.
Catcher: Mike Piazza, Mets

Why? Because he's Mike Freaking Piazza, he and he goes straight from Shea to Cooperstown. When you show me a kid with a Paul LoDuca poster on his bedroom wall, then you can vote for someone other than Piazza. And we all want to listen to another round of Piazza-Clemens battery irony stories if LaRussa gets Clemens into the game. Of course, after Roger spotted the AL 6 runs in the first inning of last year's debacle, I hope Clemens doesn’t see any action. Clearly all his years in the AL and last year’s apparently throwing of the game revealed that he is still and American Leaguer at heart. Here’s a plan. Let Clemens come out for the foul line for his introduction, then have two security goons follow him back to the bullpen and duct-tape his butt to the bullpen bench for the duration of the evening.

Outfield: Carlos Beltran, Mets; Mike Cameron, Mets; Cliff Floyd, Mets

Carlos Beltran is the best player on the planet. Why else would we be paying him $119 million? And Mike Cameron is the best center-fielder ever. I know this because the Mets pretty much told us so when they signed him last year. And we already know what happens when Cliff Floyd gets left off the All-Star team. Remember that tiff with Bobby Valentine in 2001 that dominated game coverage in Seattle? And Cliff’s been using Yankees pitchers for batting practice lately.

Besides, an all-Mets outfield would drive Mets-haters like Bob Klapisch and Tom Verducci straight over the edge, sending both of them to curl up in the fetal position behind the Gehrig monument in Yankee Stadium. That will spare us another round of Yankee apologist columns about how the Orioles and Red Sox have unfair advantages or that the “dirt tenders” in the Boston bullpen are provoking poor Yankee pitchers to violence.

Pitcher: Pedro Martinez, Mets

I realize we can't vote for pitchers. But this just needs to be said. We already know Clemens is not allowed to start. And Dontrelle Willis is a kid, and Willie Randolph made it clear that kids have to pay their dues. D-Train can come in for the third inning. That leaves Pedro, who has been outstanding and gets bonus points for always wearing the pinstriped home uniform.


First Base: Mark Tiexeira, Rangers

If Tino Martinez starts this game, it will be a national embarrassment. Tiexeira's a stud, and his name is almost has hard to spell as Mientkiewicz.

Second Base: Brian Roberts, Orioles.

Tough call here. Alfonso Soriano won the MVP of last year's game. We want the NL to win, so let's not give "So" another shot. Plus, he's still got the stench of Yankee taint all over him. A couple more seasons and we might forgive him for that time in the Bronx.

Shortstop: Migel Tejada, Orioles

Well thre's no freaking way I can vote for that punk Derek Jeter. Tejada's got an MVP that he quasi-deserved and he's "The Man" on the team keeping the Yanks out of first place. Let's give him this little confidence boost so he keeps it up.

Third Base: Hank Blalock, Rangers

Some of you were actually voting for Alex Rodriguez. Do you really think it's safe to give him an opportunity to slap Doug Mienkiewicz around on the basepaths they way ARod slapped Bronson Arroyo in the playoffs last year? What was he doing, challenging him to a duel? It's just best if we avoid the whole situation and put that nice Hank Blalock there.

Catcher: Jason Varitek Red Sox

Wow, this is tough. Both Pudge and Varitek played big roles in embarrassing the Yankees. Pudge did it with the Marlins in 2003 and Varitek with the Red Sox last year. Pudge was in the World Series, and Varitek made them historically choke away a 3-0 series lead. Pudge has the famous gun for an arm, and I want Jose Reyes to run bases without fear of getting caught. Must vote defensively here and give Varitek the love.

DH: Frank Thomas, White Sox

Frank threw me a game ball once. That earns a lifetime vote. And the White Sox are in first place.

Outfield: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners; Manny Ramirez, Red Sox; Vlad Guerrero, Angels

After watching Bernie Williams in the Mets series this weekend, the temptation is to put him out there and tell the NL sluggers to hit cans o' corn to center all game. But there's no way I can vote for a Yankee, even the carcass of one, which is about what Bernie is these days. Ichiro's going to get elected anyway, so we might as well jump on the bandwagon. Same with Vlad. And Manny's just a freak, a hitting savant.

There you go! Get busy. And let’s wish Tanyon Sturtze well.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Rare Sight in the Bronx

Jim Abbott pitching for the Angels.

Only twice have I witnessed visiting players get a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium.

And one of those times shouldn’t count. It was August 4, 1985, the day Tom Seaver won his 300th game, and we Mets fans pretty much took over the Yankees’ home that day.

But the other time was May 24, 1989, coming when a rookie pitcher was doing something as ordinary as making warm-up tosses.

Jim Abbott was already pretty famous. He was on the mound when the United States won the Olympic gold medal in 1988, was drafted in the first round by the California Angels and went straight to the major leagues.

What amazed a lot of people was that Abbott was born without a right hand.

The handicap didn’t seem to hold him back at all. He pitched and was the quarterback at Flint Central High and played for the University of Michigan’s baseball team. There were stories about how an opposing college team tried to take advantage of him, sending the first four batters to the plate bunting. The team changed its strategy after Abbott fielded each attempt cleanly.

What amazed me was how gracefully Abbott would catch the ball and get ready to pitch.

He would wear a left-hander’s glove, catch the ball, tuck the glove under his arm, take the ball out and place the palm of his glove over the stump at the end of his right wrist. After throwing the ball he’d quickly slip his left hand back into the glove to be ready to catch the return throw.

Abbott could complete the cycle so smoothly and quickly that it looked like he wasn’t even thinking about it. It was completely natural to him.

So I was excited when the Angels rolled into town in 1989 – a month and a half into Abbott’s rookie season – and that he would pitch in the series. This was well before the Yankee dynasty. Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson were in the game, but they were surrounded by people like Ken Phelps, Bob Geren and Mike Pagliarulo.

I scammed seats in the lower level of the first base side so I could get a good view. There was polite applause for Abbott when the line-ups were introduced. But I was surprised by what happened when the Angels took the field in the bottom of the first.

There was quiet as he walked to the mound, at least as quiet as ballparks get. Then Abbott started taking warm-up pitches, making the complicated maneuvers with the glove.

It started with more polite applause, and it started to swell with each throw, building and building. Finally, everyone in the stadium was on their feet cheering. It was really emotional. And all he was doing was throwing warm-up pitches.

I think it was a sign of respect. This guy had a handicap, and there he is standing on the mound in what is perhaps the most famous ballpark in the world. It wasn’t an Eddie Gaedel-like stunt. Abbott earned his way.

But keep in mind, this was the Bronx. As the applause died down, I remember a guy a couple rows ahead of me saying, “All right, you got your applause. Now let’s kick his ass.”

If there was any butt-kicking that day, it was done by the Angels, who beat the Yanks 11-4, making it a good day all around. Abbott got the win, pitching 5 and a third innings allowing three runs on 10 hits.

Abbott, of course, got another ovation from Yankee fans when he pitched for them several years later and threw a fantastic no-hitter, the high point of his 10-year career in the majors.

Jim Abbott pitched for the Yankees, but we like him anyway.

A year after I saw Abbott pitch I moved to Michigan to work for the Flint Journal, and our coed softball used to practice at Central High, where Abbott once pitched. Occasionally I’d stand on the mound, look around and think of that day in Yankee Stadium.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Every Signature Tells a Story: Tom Seaver

One of my favorite possessions is a book, “The New York Mets — The First Quarter Century.”

It’s not particularly well-written, though the photos are nice. It was a Christmas gift from parents in 1986, which makes it special in and of itself.

But the book as been my companion to dozens of ballgames and card shows. Every time I meet anyone connected with the Mets — or might potentially meet anyone connected with the Mets — I ask them to sign the book.

There are easily more than 150 autographs in there by now, from owner Fred Wilpon to former back-up catcher Brent Mayne, Hall-of-Famers to guys up for a cup of coffee.

Don’t worry, I’m not one of those freaky autograph stalkers. I usually get signatures at card shows or spring training, were everyone is relaxed and doesn’t mind signing.

I like to shake hands with people after they sign, maybe ask a question or two. That way, the book is a collection of experiences, not just autographs.

And some of experiences are true adventures. Like the first one: Tom Seaver.

The Franchise was my baseball hero. Actually, it might not be accurate to put that in the past tense. Most of my basement baseball shrine is dedicated to chronicling his career. OK, so I wear No. 41 on my softball jersey. And my first cat’s middle name was Seaver. And the kids’ middle name...well, my wife drew the line somewhere.

But I’d never met the man in person until a baseball card show in Trumbull, Conn., in 1987.

I stood in line with three things I wanted Tom to sign: the book, a baseball and my ticket stub from win No. 300. My wife held our camera in case Tom wouldn’t mind posing for a snapshot.

And as I got closer, I realized was absolutely terrified.

I’d met ballplayers before. But this was Tom. Much of my childhood was spent trying to look like him and be like him. I’m still scarred from June 15, 1977, when he was traded to the Reds.

What if, when we got up to him, he was a jerk? A lifetime of hero worship wasted.

So I was probably shaking when it was my turn to approach the table.

“Hi, Tom,” I said, holding out the ball and laying the book in front of him. “Could you write: 'To Dave?'”

“Hello,” he said in a warm, friendly tone.

“I’ve been a fan since I was.....” and I just couldn’t get the words out, but motioned my hand about waist high.

Seaver smiled. “When was that, last week?”

I handed him the ticket stub.

“That was a good game. I brought my whole family.”

“It was a good game,” Seaver said, and wrote his name and “#300” on the stub.

Then I got really bold.

“Could you pose for a picture?”

“Sure! Come around here.”

Seaver motioned for the assistant to get out of his seat and let me sit next to him. He put his arm on my shoulder and leaned close.

“How’s this?”

“Awesome!” I said as my wife took the photo.

I probably thanked him a million times as I collected my stuff and walked off , very grateful -- and relieved -- that he was so nice.

We dropped the film off on the way home to be developed.

Remember the scene in the “Princess Bride,” when Prince Humperdink cranks up that life-sucking machine and Wesley makes that mournful wail that is heard throughout the kingdom?

“That is the sound of ultimate suffering,” Inigo tells Fezzig.

I’m pretty sure I made that sound when we picked up the photos. The camera malfunctioned.

I’m over it now.

I’ve since met Seaver two other times. Once at another card show in Connecticut, and another a couple years ago at the huge sports collectors’ convention in Chicago.

I didn’t get anything signed the last time — prices are way out of control now — but I had my son with me. The employees allowed me to walk up and shake Tom’s hand and introduce him to Andrew.

I didn’t ask to take a photo. Not going there again.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mayhem in Miami -- and the Marlins, too

If you think Michael Jackson got one over on the legal system, let me tell you about a trial I once covered.

This case involved exotic locales, courtroom chaos — and baseball, too. Pretty much a trifecta of glory for this reporter.

The Flint Community Schools thought they were getting rid of a problem when they allowed a music teacher to quietly resign after being accused of molesting students in 1987. This saved the district from getting involved in messy teacher tenure hearings and airing dirty laundry.

Unfortunately, the teacher — I’ll avoid using names here — moved to Miami, got a job in a school there and allegedly picked up right where he left off.

This time, the girls involved thought they would be better off going to the police instead of their school administrators.The teacher was charged with multiple felonies, with a 1997 trial in Dade County.

Normally the Flint Journal would not send a reporter on the road to cover such a thing. But there were a number of Flint school people on the witness list, and I could save the paper money by crashing with my folks, who live about two hours north.

It was pretty nasty stuff. The guy married one of his former students. And several young women took the stand, each with a similar story. They either didn’t have a father, or had one that was too busy to spend too much time home. The teacher would start to build up trust with the girl and her family, become sort of a surrogate father and before too long the molestation would start.

Seemed like a pretty iron-clad case to these untrained eyes. The teacher was allegedly having and affair with not only a student, but her mother, too. Prosecutors broke out a tape of a telephone conversation between the teacher and one of the girls, pledging his love and announcing his plans to marry her. One of the Flint witnesses grew up to become a prosecutor and sounded pretty credible to me.

The weekend break came as things were wrapping up. I always try to work a baseball adventure into every road trip — and the first week in February is one of the few times of the year where there is no baseball in Florida.

Luckily, the Florida Marlins came through in the clutch with their annual winter fanfest.The Fish are an enigma because they can be awesome to their fans and horrible, too. But this fanfest was pretty sweet.

The White Sox held these functions in hotel ballrooms, and the Tigers in the Joe Louis Arena. But cold weather isn’t an issue in Miami, so the Marlins were able to conduct the festivities at Joe Robbie Stadium.

There were booths lining the outside concourses with all sorts of freebies, activities and discounted goodies. I picked up a complete set of programs from the team’s first season and a bat autographed by former manager Rene Lachemann. The team offered tours of the clubhouse and dugouts and even let fans see Jeff Conine's All-Star Game trophy . Former player Warren Cromartie broadcasting a radio show and greeting fans.

The areapas alone made the trip worthwhile. Areapas are a Cuban treat made from two slices of sweet cornbread grilled with cheese. Apparently they’re considered borderline carnival food, like elephant ears, which is why they were sold from a cart at a fanfest. But I’m hooked.

It was cool to be in Miami, which seems like a different country because virtually everyone speaks Spanish. I thought this was a good time to try my limited abilities. The guy selling hot dogs from the cart in outside the courthouse did not seem impressed.

One of the Miami Herald reporters took me out to lunch in a real Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. After the incident with the hot dog vender, I let Herald reporter order for me.

Back to the trial.

The sides presented their closing arguments, with the prosecutors playing the tape again. The public defender representing the teacher noted that the victims had filed a civil suit. He repeated two phrases over and over: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and "Show me the money!"

Now, I haven’t covered a lot of trials. And I know these guys didn’t have a lot to work with. But I’m thinking there are few successful legal defenses built upon quotes from "Jerry Maguire" and pithy phrases.

At first I wondered if the jury would even have to leave the box to break out with the verdict. I studied the six people — apparently that’s the number for some Florida trials — during the proceedings. There was one stern-looking woman who barely moved as she watched intently. One guy seemed odd, wearing shorts and carrying his lunch in a metal lunch box that he kept in his lap the entire time. And there was one person who I’m pretty sure slept through the whole thing.

No one could figure out what was taking so long, but I used the down time to get to know some people in the court. I’d been speaking to the lawyers on both sides on the phone for a couple weeks, so it was nice to let them connect my voice and face. They were all from New York, so we had a lot to talk about. The judge even called me into her chambers to chat and asked me to send her some of the Michigan newspapers. "I can’t imagine what they’re talking about in there," she said of the jury. "There isn’t really a lot to decide."

Finally, late in the morning of the second day, the jury came back. The court was packed with family members of the victims and some of the teacher’s family and friends. It was very quiet, and very tense. Then the clerk read the verdict: "Not guilty."

First there was stunned silence, like people couldn’t believe what was happening. Then all heck broke out.

Shrieks, screams, sobs. One of the fathers yelled "Burn in hell!" A mother yelled to one of the public defenders — who was seven months pregnant — that she hoped the lawyer’s child gets a teacher like the accused. Several of the girls collapsed in tears. The judge was hammering her gavel like Marky Ramone beats his snare drum.

I knew it would be a while before the victims families could compose themselves enough to talk to me, so I walked up to the defense table for a quote."You have to give me a couple minutes, Dave," the lead defender said. "We have statement here for a guilty verdict. We didn’t even write one for not guilty."

Posted by Hello

Friday, June 10, 2005

Frank Thomas and the Magical, Misty Night at Tiger Stadium

Tim "Rock" Raines and Frank Posted by Hello

Will and I were huge Frank Thomas fans even before I came into possession of the glorious sphere now known as "The Frank Ball."

The slugger came onto the scene just around the time both of us had moved to Flint. And we believed the tall first-baseman with the mega-watt smile would be the person to finally lead the moribund White Sox to better things.

We both had the life-sized poster of Frank — his last name was unnecessary by now — gracing our homes and collected his cards.

But actual contact with our hero was elusive.

We were on the field before the final game at Comiskey Park, rubbing elbows with Sox catcher Ron Karkovice and reliever Scott Radinsky, but Frank was nowhere to be found.

A year later we waited on a long cattle-chute autograph line at the White Sox Winterfest, snaking back and forth while Frank signed, smiled and posed with other fans — only to have the slugger heart-breakingly replaced with other signers as we inched closer. Minnie Minoso and then-manager Gene LaMont are nice guys, but we wanted Frank.

And at one Tigers-Sox game, an early afternoon shower washed out batting practice, leaving players lots of time to sign autographs. Two-thirds of the Sox signed a ball for me — but Frank remained in the clubhouse.

So when the White Sox were in Detroit for a series with the Tigers in early 1992, we weren’t discouraged by the showers that fell throughout the day.

In fact, we liked going to Tiger Stadium in such conditions. The vast majority of the lower deck is covered, and the rain kept a lot of people home, especially early in the season. We’d buy the cheapest tickets and sit pretty much wherever we wanted.

My favorite spot was section 224, right behind the visitors’ dugout on the first-base side and with easy access to a concession stand. That night Will and I were joined by friends John and Emily — my wife wanted no part of damp, cold nights at the ballpark.

There was a miserable drizzle that fell through most of the night, light enough to keep playing and wet enough to either send people home early or keep under cover. We sat toward the back of the section, bundled up and well under the overhang.

I wore a 1980s-era Sox cap — with a purpose, of course.

The new, black cap with the Old English lettering was all the rage, even with people who didn’t follow baseball. I wanted to show I was an actual Sox fan — such things are important.

I’ve followed the team as a secondary favorite since Tom Seaver played for them from 1984 to 1986, and had to stand out from the bandwagon-jumping cap-buyers. The tri-color 1980s cap, with the futuristic S-O-X, is so brutally ugly that only a real fan would be caught with such a thing. Keep in mind, this was long before the retro craze that made all things ugly popular again.

By later in the game, the drizzle diminished into more of a mist and there was probably less than a thousand people in the stands. Emily and I decided to move down to the row of seats directly behind the Sox dugout during the eighth inning. The orange-capped Tiger Stadium ushers had long-since lost interest in chasing seat-hoppers.

Frank was playing first base, so we were able to get a close look. After the inning ended Frank walked back toward the dugout and glanced up. We weren’t hard to see since all the other seats were empty. That, and we were screaming his name.

I think Frank heard us.

I think people in the left field stands probably heard us.

He looked up, flashed the mega-watt grin.

We had made eye-contact with Frank. Yes!

We were not leaving those seats.

The Tigers went meekly in the bottom of the ninth. Out No. 3 was a routine grounder to short with an easy throw to our man Frank at first. Game over.

Walking back to the dugout, Frank looked up, making eye contact a second time. Yes!

Then the unthinkable happened.

As he got closer, Frank took the gameball from his glove. "HEY!" he said in my direction, then tossed the ball — a soft arc through the mist to my outstretched left hand.

It took a nano-second for the gloriousness of the moment to sink in. Frank Thomas, the elusive Frank Thomas, had just given me a ball that ended a Major League game.

I remember yelling "Thanks, Frank!" and some guy saying "Hey, can I have that?" As if.

I’d once snagged a foul ball at a New Britain Red Sox game, and had a batting practice ball from the Rochester Red Wings from when I was on the field for an interview. Valued treasures, to be sure. But this one was special.

Frank’s career with the Sox has had ups and downs. He was once a sure-thing for Cooperstown, now he’s more of a borderline candidate. I think he’ll get in, but I’m nothing if not loyal. The game ball is enshrined in plastic with a card from that year, an permanent exhibit in the baseball room of what has come to be known as the "magical, misty night at Tiger Stadium."

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Major-Leaguer, the Actor and the Truth

He was getting the knuckler!

Will and I were so into Wiffle Ball that we carried a ball and bat in our trunks at all times. You never know when you’ll come across a great place for a game.

We had one of those moments in Chicago in 1990. We were excited to be in town to cover the historic final game at Comiskey Park and arrived the day before because we snagged tickets for the final night game as well.

With some time on our hands before the game, we headed to Wrigley Field to check out the souvenir shops. To our great glee, we discovered a perfect strike zone painted on stadium wall along Waveland Avenue.
Will delivers to the alleged Major-Leaguer.

We were happily breaking off curves like Greg Maddux from the center of the street when two guys came up to us, amazed that we would be playing Wiffle Ball alongside Wrigley Field.

They wanted to play, and when we hesitated they tried to impress us. One was tall and stocky, and claimed to have a cup of coffee with the 1987 World Champion Minnesota Twins, even flashed what appeared to be a championship ring. The other was slender and dark, and claimed to be an actor with a role in "Bull Durham."

Reporters are skeptical by nature, of course.

I didn’t recognize the name of the guy who claimed to be a former Twin. I had a pretty good knowledge of major leaguers since baseball card companies at the time issued extensive sets that included just about every player in the bigs as well as even minor prospects from the minors.
I'm taking this guy deep!

And Will is a walking baseball encyclopedia. In fact, if there was a contradiction between Will and the official baseball encyclopedia, I’d believe Will. And he didn’t recognize the name, either.

The guy did have a 1987 Twins ring, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a player. Teams give rings to a lot of employees.

The other guy claimed to be an infielder in "Bull Durham," one of the guys on the mound when one of Nuke’s eyelids is clogged, Jose needs a live chicken to sacrifice and no one knows what to get Jimmy and Millie for their wedding. "Candle sticks," of course, was coach Larry Hockett’s answer.

The guy had the lines down pat, and we didn’t have any photos from the movie in hand for comparison purposes.

This was a little icky. It seemed like the kind of lines guys would be spouting trying to pick up girls over a bottle of Bud at the Cubby Bear after the game.

We told them we were in town for the final Comiskey games — a very big deal, the hottest ticket in town — and they didn’t seem to believe us, either.
No roof-top spectators for our big game.

Will and I exchanged some skeptical glances. It’s not like we could openly debate this in front of them. Lacking proof, we decided to let them play. We even took some photos — just in case they were legit. Although I must say the alleged Major-Leaguer couldn’t hit my nasty Wiffle knuckleball, making his claim that much more dubious. Note the photo, the knuckler is on the way!

After playing for a while, the guys moved on, presumably to hoist those brews at the Cubby Bear.

"What do you think, were they telling the truth?" I asked Will.

"Who knows," Will replied. "They may be lying. But we know for sure that we really are going to the final game at Comiskey!"