Baseball saves the day. Again.

I am now in Week 4 at my new job, continuing to cold call businesses to pitch my firm’s service.  I was on the phone yesterday with a spa owner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas when a thought occurred to me.

Arkansas has long been famous for its natural hot springs, and baseball teams used to flock there for spring training, along with mobsters like Al Capone.  Babe Ruth ended a holdout one winter while at the baths with sportswriter Dan Daniel.  Daniel recounted years later in the memoir, No Cheering in the Press Box, about how he helped broker the deal between Ruth and Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert.  It was pointed out to Ruth that he made more than the U.S. president at the time, Herbert Hoover. “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it?” Ruth reputedly quipped. “Besides, I had a better year than he did.”

Anyhow, I was on the phone yesterday with this spa owner, a woman named Nicole, when it occurred to me to ask if Ruth had ever frequented her business.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I have this uncanny tendency to connect everything to sports.  There was Rick Burleson, the architect I called a few weeks ago who has the same name as a former All-Star shortstop.  One of my clients also has the same surname of a former Sacramento Kings backup (though she’s no relation, I checked.)  As for the spa owner, her business is also located inside a hotel that’s been around since the 19th Century so it made sense that Ruth may have come through at one point.  She wasn’t sure, though.  I told her I would do a quick Google search.

This picture turned up and I sent it to Nicole.  She signed up for a trial account of my firm’s service this morning.

Oh, you're not that Rick Burleson?

I recently started a new day job in Berkeley, California.  Unfortunately, I can’t make all my money as a baseball blogger/historian.  Thus, I pay the bills doing sales work and have recently begun a position as an account executive for an Internet start-up in the East Bay.  In a given day, I’ll cold call upwards of 50-60 businesses, pitching review services, and I get to talk with some interesting characters.   Occasionally, they have names I recognize.

One of my quirks, dating back to childhood, is that I have an encyclopedic brain.  Some people probably use this to become ace scientists or attorneys.  I simply clean up every time I go to bar trivia, pulling out the names of hit movies and politicians like I was a walking Wikipedia.  My knowledge base unfortunately doesn’t extend to much that has practical use, though I like to put on my resume that I know most World Series winners and the names of all the U.S. presidents from the 20th century– backwards.  If I ever figure out how to make money off this, I’ll be set for life.

I bring this all up because I recently called on an architect named Rick Burleson.  Some may know that there was also once a baseball player named Rick Burleson, who played shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and California Angels in the 1970s and ’80s.  I brought this up in my initial call with the architect and he laughed, telling me had Burleson’s baseball card.  We set up a follow-up call for this morning and to prepare, I did some research on-line on Burleson the Ballplayer, learning he’d been a four-time All Star and had finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1974.  He even placed 13th in Most Valuable Player voting in 1975, when he hit only .252 at the plate.  His nickname was Rooster.

Unfortunately, Burleson the Architect didn’t have much time to talk when I reach him today.  I’ll be sure to tell him about how he once got traded for Carney Lansford when I next call.

A bar I used to drink in

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I used to often visit a baseball card shop downtown.  It was two doors over from a building whose sign was a large, glowing baseball with the words, “Joe Marty’s” emblazoned over it.  I used to wonder what the place was.  As a baseball card junkie (I had a few thousand cards at one point), the ball caught my eye and as a kid, I once went in, thinking it maybe was a card shop.  The swaying drunks I encountered let me know otherwise.  Joe Marty’s was a bar.

Eventually, I learned Joe Marty had, in fact, been a real person, a ballplayer at that.  My senior year of high school, I did my final project on an old Pacific Coast League team that had played in my hometown, the Sacramento Solons.  As it turned out, Marty played for and managed the Solons back in the 1940s and ’50s.  Before that, he played in the major leagues, appearing with the Chicago Cubs in the 1938 World Series.  Injuries robbed him of a long big league career, though as a young man, he was once considered a better prospect than Joe DiMaggio.  The two came up together in the PCL with the San Francisco Seals and while DiMaggio missed the 1934 season with a career-threatening injury, Marty went to the Cubs for a large price.  In the end, though, as one old-timer told me, Marty returned to Sacramento, his hometown, and became his bar’s own best customer.  He died in 1984 at the age of 71.

Eventually, I drank in Joe Marty’s bar once or twice.  It had the coolest old black-and-white photos of famous players.  Sadly, fire gutted the place in 2005.  While the photos were reportedly saved from destruction, the bar hasn’t been open since.

Before they were famous: Garrett Olson

I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention.  Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game.  Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.

The pitcher’s name?  Garrett Olson.

Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes.  But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong.   Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.

He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners.  Still, he’s showing signs of improvement.  Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign.  He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.)  I hope he stays.

My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous.  Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year.  He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno.  I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him.  “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence.  The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.

Early on, talk like this is cheap.  Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters.  But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly.  His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.

Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer.  I’ll be watching, though.

Ballplayers I have interviewed

I majored in journalism in college at Cal Poly, with an unofficial focus on sportswriting, and between my time on the campus paper and freelancing and interning for various publications, I got to talk to some pretty cool people. The following are baseball players I have interviewed:

Ozzie Smith: My first big interview, done my sophomore year at Cal Poly. Smith gave the morning and afternoon commencement speeches at graduation that year, as an alum of the university. I met Smith the day before graduation, when a statue of him was unveiled at the baseball field. I had researched Smith in the preceding weeks and learned he had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, in his Hall of Fame induction speech. As Harr died in 1987, I rhetorically asked Smith who he would have if he could have anyone at the statue ceremony. He almost teared up answering Harr. The following day, he gave two lovely commencement addresses and the outgoing student body president did a back flip in his honor.

Dom DiMaggio: I’ve recounted the story of this interview before, but to recap, I got to interview the Boston Red Sox great at the start of my senior year of college.

Nick Swisher: I interned for the Davis Enterprise in the summer of 2004 and part of my duties included covering the Triple A team for the Oakland Athletics, the Sacramento River Cats. Their best player that year was a jovial outfielder from West Virginia on the fast track to the majors, Swisher. I don’t know if I ever actually used a Swisher quote in print but I talked to him at least once or twice and the guy was pretty funny, always quick with a lighthearted quip.

Hideo Nomo: Another guy I interviewed for the Enterprise, Nomo came to Sacramento toward the end of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers for an injury rehab start. Nomo only went a couple innings and needed an interpreter afterward to talk to reporters. He didn’t have much to say even in Japanese and the most interesting thing about this interview was the gaggle of Japanese media that was on-hand exclusively for Nomo and departed right after he was done.

Rollie Fingers: I also freelanced for the Enterprise in 2005 and got to interview the former A’s closer that summer, after he made a promotional appearance. I appreciate him giving me time and his handlebar moustache was cool, but Fingers seemed somewhat aloof, saying he had never heard of Huston Street who had just broken one of his records.

Jose Canseco: My most recent professional clip, I interviewed Canseco in April 2008, when he came to Oakland for a booksigning. I was worried I’d get blown off by the former Bash Brother, who has come across as something of a jerk over the years, but Canseco was surprisingly polite to me, answering all my questions (though he did mention in jest that I could take a bullet for him.) With that said, I asked a bunch of softball questions and wrote a pedestrian story. Thereafter, I kept reading shit about Canseco elsewhere that I’d missed: He was writing a book on cloning; his house was getting foreclosed; he was going to take part in a mixed martial arts fight; he thought he was addicted to steroids; he regretted writing his tell-all bestseller, Juiced. This was a good learning experience, I suppose. On a side note, Canseco is freaking huge in person.

(UPDATE: I remembered a couple more of these.)

Willie McGee: Technically, I didn’t interview McGee, but it’s worth a mention anyway.  The uncle, by marriage, of a former Cal Poly point guard named Kameron Gray, the St. Louis Cardinal great showed up at a Cal Poly game my junior year of college.  McGee didn’t agree to my interview request, saying something to the effect that he was just there for his nephew.  He had the droopiest eyes.

Carney Lansford/Robin Ventura: I group these guys together because I interviewed them at the same Cal Poly-Cal State Fullerton baseball game my senior year of college.  Lansford was at the game because his son Josh was playing third base for Cal Poly at the time.  In Ventura’s case, he grew up in the area, attending Righetti High in Arroyo Grande.  Both players graciously let me interview them during the game, though I had to fight back the urge not to ask Ventura about his infamous 1993 fight with Nolan Ryan.

The Aloysius Travers of wiffle ball

On May 15, 1912, Ty Cobb went into the stands in New York after a crippled heckler and set up for the one of the more bizarre games in major league history.

As recounted in one of my favorite books, Ken Burns’ Baseball, the Detroit Tigers immortal earned a suspension from organized ball after going into the stands for Claude Lueker, who had taunted Cobb as a “half [racial epithet].” Georgia-native Cobb was a legendary racist, with longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb speculating in his autobiography Baseball As I Have Known It that the Tigers great moonlighted as a Ku Klux Klan member (Lieb also wrote that Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Street and Tris Speaker told him they were members.) A disabled newspaper reporter, Lueker commonly berated Cobb at games, but when he shouted the racial epithet, in the third inning of a Highlanders-Tigers game, Cobb had enough. Page 109 of Baseball captured what ensued:

Cobb vaulted the railing, knocked down his tormentor, and began stomping him with his spikes. When someone shouted that the man was helpless because he had just one hand, Cobb answered, “I don’t care if he doesn’t have any feet,” and kept kicking him until a park policeman pulled him away.

(For his part, Lueker may have gotten off light– toward the end of his life, Cobb reportedly told biographer Al Stump that he killed a would-be mugger in the street that same season.)

Following the assault on Lueker, American League President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb without a hearing. However, the rest of the Tigers sympathized with Cobb because of the nature of Lueker’s taunt, given that it was 1912, and what followed was the first player’s strike since 1890. Detroit management scrambled to fill a roster to avoid a forfeit for its May 18 game. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, among those recruited were amateur players, former major leaguers and even some fans.

For a pitcher, Detroit turned to a seminary student named Aloysius Travers, who would go down in the record books. Travers set major league marks that still stand for runs and hits allowed as the Tigers lost 24-2 to the Philadelphia Athletics. Subsequently, Johnson reinstated everyone, including Cobb, and just like Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams,” Travers’ career ended after one game.

So why do I bring this all up? This past weekend, I got to be Aloysius Travers.

One of my good friends is getting married in June and for the bachelor party, we went camping this weekend. I suppose a lot of bachelor parties involve strippers, gambling and drunken debauchery. We played sports. On Saturday, my friend’s best man organized a day of games that began with soccer, kickball, and ultimate frisbee. We started around 10 a.m. and by 3 p.m. everyone was pretty beat, including yours truly. Thankfully, by this point, we were onto our final game, wiffle ball, and because we had an odd number of players, I volunteered to serve as all-time pitcher.

When I played Little League, one of my dreams besides hitting a home run was to pitch. I got an idea this weekend of why that dream never came to pass. Over the course of seven innings, I probably allowed 20 runs between both teams. In vain, I experimented with several different wind ups, debuting the wiffle ball equivalents of Juan Marichal (kick windup), Hideo Nomo (back to the mound) and Dan Quisenberry (submarine), among others, to no avail.

My dad used to do a great job of this kind of pantomime in epic, front driveway wiffle ball games we had when I was a kid. He had a whole lineup of players he impersonated, including the sluggers Mail Murphy and Mickey Mammoth, the all-purpose spray hitter Tito Fuentes, the soft-tossing pitcher MacGregor and my nemesis, the flame-throwing hurler Nelson (for my part, I came up with Silly Mays.)  I often whiffed against Nelson’s overpowering fastball, though my dad was sometimes merciful and kept his star pitcher out of games with the excuse he was in jail.

I wasn’t nearly as menacing this weekend, and my friends teed off on just about everything. In fact, my more elaborate offerings seemed to be belted deeper into the outfield. I honestly didn’t know wiffle balls could go as far as some went. Granted I struck out a few guys, including the groom-to-be (which is kind of messed up, come to think of it.) Still, the next time we play ball, I reckon I’ll be back in the outfield where I spent the bulk of my Little League career.

Either that or, just like Travers, it’s off to the seminary for me. I’m just glad none of my friends chose to impersonate Ty Cobb.

Batter up

I have been urged by my friends– all of whom mean well– to begin writing in this space without introducing myself, as if I have been standing here all the while only you haven’t noticed.  But I don’t think I’ll do that.  I think I’ll start off by telling you a little about myself and what I believe in.  That way, we can start to fight right away.

With those words, published February 12, 1961, Jim Murray began his career as a sportswriter with the Los Angeles Times.  Over the next four decades, Murray would set the bar for excellence in his industry, winning sportswriter of the year 14 times and a Pulitzer Prize in 1990.  Along the way, he lost a wife to cancer, a son to a drug overdose and nearly went blind, though he kept writing until the day he died in 1998.  He influenced a generation of sportswriters and as one of them, Rick Reilly, wrote in Sports Illustrated after his death, “Murray could write anything; sports just happened to get lucky.”

As the great Murray did, I will begin here by telling a little about myself.

When I was eight years old, my grandfather gave me a 567-page book, the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle.  Covering every season from 1900 to 1990, the book listed World Series winners, award recipients and everything else needed to recapture nine decades of America’s past time.  My grandfather has since told me he hoped I would apply myself to something by reading it and so I did.  It took nearly three months, if I remember correctly, but I read the book from cover to cover.  I was an odd child, I suppose, and some things never change.  I can still name most World Series winners along with seemingly mundane trivia, like the year Dizzy Dean died (1974.)

It’s been almost 20 years now since I first read that book, and my relationship with the game has transformed.  As a kid, baseball for me was all about playing Little League (I struck out a lot) and trading Kevin Mitchell, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry cards with my friends.  Players to me, past and present, were larger than life heroes, more myth than men.  Somewhere between the 1994 strike, the dawn of the Steroid Era, and my own coming of age, my perspective changed.  I rarely have the patience to watch an entire game on television anymore and it’s been a long time since I cared about a team as passionately as the Will Clark-led San Francisco Giants of the early Nineties.  I am rarely enchanted by contemporary players and am in fact skeptical that most of the good ones are probably on steroids.

Nevertheless, I still love stories of when the game was great and support players these days who seemingly capture the spirit and ideals of bygone eras.  A new season has begun and Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter are still playing.  There are others like them.

This space shall ostensibly be about the best of baseball, past and present.  Perhaps the heroes of my youth never existed but in my imagination, though I will do my best to evoke what I love of the game and bemoan what I think is lacking today.

That way, we can start to fight right away.