Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Every signature tells a story: Mets, Tigers and Cookie Rojas
Is it strange to have a favorite third base coach?
Should the Mets pull this out as we all expect, they’ll come to Detroit for the second time. The first was in 1997 and it led to an encounter with Cookie Rojas.
Cookie and I go way back, though he doesn’t know it.
Back when I was a new reporter in Connecticut, I was handed what was supposed to be a temporary assignment in what we considered the Siberia bureau working for a bureau chief we universally despised. The three reporters were branded malcontents, and one day the suburban editor came up to set us straight.
I didn’t like my role, which was filling in for the other reporters, basically doing the stories they either couldn’t get to or didn’t want to do. Which means I ended up attending a lot of sewer commission meetings.
I expressed this to the editor, a baseball fan who grew up in Philadelphia but wore a Giants jacket.
"Well, you can be like Cookie Rojas," he said.
"Cookie Rojas? What?"
"He played all over the place and had a good career."
I was young and cocky and indignant. Cookie Rojas? Being compared to a utility infielder was not what I had in mind after graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
"I don’t want to be Cookie Rojas, I want to be Darryl Strawberry!" Keep in mind, this was 1988, when being Darryl Strawberry would have been a good thing.
The editor rolled his eyes. I thought I showed great restraint in not summoning the names of Seaver or Willie Mays.
"Yeah, yeah, Cookie Rojas. He played a little bit of everything," the editor repeated.
That night I pulled Rojas’ 1977 Topps card to hang above my desk, probably just to be difficult.
Truth is, I was selling Victor Octavio Rojas sort. He had a 16-year career as a player with the Reds, Phillies, Cardinals and Royals. The five-time All-Star had a .263 career average and 1,660 hits in the pitching-dominated 1960s.
I started following his career. He managed the Angels for a season, and was tapped to be a coach for the Florida Marlins. In a spring training game against the Mets, I took much delight in seeing Rojas coaching third base and pointed him out to my dad and sister, who proceeded to yell "Coooookkieeeeeee" until he finally turned and waved.
Shockingly, this became something of a tradition in the coming years, with the apparently unfazed Rojas responding with a wave every time.
So I was glad when Cookie was hired to be a coach for our favorite team, and he kindly signed my Mets book at a spring game in Vero Beach.
Later that year the Mets made their only appearance at Tiger Stadium for and interleague series, and naturally we were decked out in Mets gear from head to toe for the first game.
I was standing by the rail before the game taking photos when Rojas walked by on the field. In purely a reflex reaction, I yelled "Coooookkkkiiiieeeee."
But rather than waving, he stopped and started walking in our direction. My son and I certainly stood out in our Mets jerseys on Tiger turf.
"Sure, I’ll sign something."
This was not what we were seeking, but I sure didn’t want to insult the guy. How do you turn down when someone comes over and offers an autograph. I quickly dug into my backpack and pulled out the official National League ball I had hoped to have signed by Todd Hundley, John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo or Rey Ordonez.
Cookie signed it with a smile, right on the sweet spot. I shook his hand and thanked him.
That was the high point of the game, which the Mets lost 14-0, with Bobby Higginson hitting three home runs.
So I’m counting on the Mets next trip to Detroit, hopefully this weekend, to turnout a little better -- though with someone else in the third base coach’s box waving people home.
I’m a more specialized reporter now, but the bosses still appreciate that I can tackle other kinds of stories in a pinch. And when I’m out of my element I think of Cookie Rojas.