Thoughts on George Brett and the glove he inspired

I don’t know how old I was the first time I got a baseball mitt, though I suppose it would have been when I began playing Tee Ball in kindergarten. If my memory serves correct, I first used a light tan Ozzie Smith model glove, and if I wore it today, it would probably be scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand, like one of those old-time, miniature gloves seen in pictures of players from the 1920s. Even as a child, that glove felt small.

I grew out of my first glove pretty fast, probably no later than the third grade, and when the time came to purchase a new mitt, my parents and I set out to find the biggest thing possible, something that would never need to be replaced. We found just the glove. The George Brett Signature Model by Wilson that I got looked like the head of a snow shovel on my nine-year-old hand and quickly earned the nickname, “The Black Hole.”  Balls could disappear into that laundry trap of a glove, which made it ideal for outfield duty, even if it was sometimes as unwieldy as a Buick.  I remember catching five or six flies to right field one time in a game when I was maybe ten and feeling like former San Francisco Giants center fielder Darren Lewis.

I always liked playing with a glove named for George Brett.  I think at the time, I felt this way largely because Brett was one of my dad’s favorite players.  In retrospect, though, I think it maybe goes deeper than this.  Brett offered All Star caliber play without seeming top-conditioned, something that would be unheard of in baseball today.  At least to me, there was always something fairly human in Brett’s appearance, an everyman, underdog quality that made him look slightly out of place in uniform.  My dad played high school baseball and never went beyond it, though I’d like to think that if he’d ever made it to the majors, he’d have looked something like Brett.  To this day, it puts a smile on my face to use a glove named for Brett.

I last played Little League when I was eleven, but I still have the glove, which feels normal-sized now and remains in great shape.  I use it occasionally, and it struck me yesterday, after taking the glove to softball practice that all things considered, it’s probably among my oldest possessions.  Maybe I’ll give it to my son someday.

Baseball, the great equalizer

My friend Chris has been in California, visiting from Washington D.C. recently, and today, we did something that has become a tradition of sorts for us.  We went to visit Helen.

Helen is a 92-year-old woman who used to live next door to Chris’s family when he was in elementary school.  I never knew her as more than the nice lady who always gave back our balls whenever we hit them over the fence into her yard, but Chris’s mom Carinne kept in contact with Helen after they moved.  I first saw Helen again a few years ago when Chris’s family had her over for dinner.  Carinne mentioned ahead of time that Helen had played baseball as a young woman, so we talked about the game at dinner. Everyone at the table was amazed when I knew who’d played in the 1962 World Series, which Helen attended.  I read a 500-page book of baseball trivia when I was eight, and I still know most World Series winners.  And any Giants fan should know of 1962, the year that Bobby Richardson snared Willie McCovey’s line drive and stole a championship for the Yankees.

We went this afternoon to the assisted living facility in downtown Sacramento that Helen lives in now and spent an hour talking with her.  I hope I am as active at 92 as she remains.  The wall of her apartment is plastered with cut-outs from the sports section of the Sacramento Bee, pictures of men like Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee, as well as many of the Sacramento Kings.  We talked baseball, of course.  She knew of the death of Art Savage, the owner of the Sacramento River Cats.  And though Helen was sick over the holidays she also knew of Mark DeRosa’s recent signing with the Giants.  I said I didn’t know if I liked the move but that I thought DeRosa might be good off the bench and that he had a good bat.  She noted he could play several infield positions (a good point, admittedly.  DeRosa is definitely an upgrade over Rich Aurilia.)

For some reason, the 1969 World Series also came up, and Helen wanted to know the name of the player who was at bat when a wild pitch went in the New York Mets dugout, where manager Gil Hodges ordered black shoe polish to be smudged on it to look like the player got hit.  The umpires bought it, the player got on base and the next batter made a critical hit that helped secure the championship for the Mets.  The name of the batter escaped me at first.  I said Donn Clendenon and that didn’t seem right, nor did Tommie Agee. Then I remembered Cleon Jones.  I mentioned this to Helen and also said I had seen a broadcast from that series on YouTube.

I find baseball one of those topics in life that helps allow a connection for people who might not otherwise have much to talk about.  It’s easy, regardless, to take a little time out and visit someone like Helen, and I feel good after doing it.  It’s a nice thing to do, and my mom instilled a respect for seniors in me at a young age.  All the same, I’m glad Helen and I share a love of baseball.  We should watch a game on television at some point.

A gift from a friend

One of my favorite stories from The Onion, a satirical newspaper I like to read, tells of a White House slam dunk competition that results in no slam dunks. “I tell you, this is some sorry stuff I’m seeing,” celebrity judge and former San Antonio Spur George “Iceman” Gervin is quoted as saying in the story. “The three-point contest was bad enough, but this is just depressing.”

Well, I now have something comparable that’s real.

One of my best friends lives in Washington D.C. and works on Capitol Hill, running the mail room for a senator. My friend just came into town to visit over the holidays, and he presented me with the official program from the 48th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game this past June. I have a lot of baseball programs from over the years. This is probably the only one that includes ads for the National Archives, the Congressional Federal Credit Union and something called the German Chancellor Fellowship Program.

The program includes a recap of the 2008 game (the Republicans won, for the eighth straight year) and a roster of both teams. Former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, a representative from North Carolina, was part of the Democratic team; Florida representative Connie Mack IV, meanwhile, is listed with the Republicans, as is Tom Rooney, part of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. There’s even a Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame, denoted on pages 16 and 17 of the magazine, which shows pictures of all the members, including NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent.

There seems to be a Hall of Fame for everything these days.

I showed the program to my mom, a conservative Republican who is generally enthusiastic about politics. I thought she might think the program was nifty, but she just shook her head. “They have entirely too much money,” she told me.

I may have to agree with her. Then again, as the game is played at the home park for the Washington Nationals, it should at least give the locals a nice break from typically bleak baseball.

Nancy Bartlett

I got a sad phone call recently. The mother of my childhood best friend Devin had died after an illness. Her name was Nancy, and she deserves credit for getting me into baseball.

I met Devin the summer before kindergarten. I was out with my family one evening walking our dog and saw Devin outside, around the corner from our house. We were fast friends. Two months apart in age, we did everything together: Had sleepovers, went to the same barber, shopped for Christmas presents at the 98-cent store (where else do you shop when you’re seven?) Our moms even arranged for us to get chicken pox at the same time.

Both Nancy and my mom were recently removed from divorces when Devin and I met. My mom had remarried, though Nancy stayed single for the remainder of my childhood. She never had easy circumstances, raising Devin and his younger sister Kenna in a duplex near government housing and driving used cars. She was a tough lady, though and could silence me by saying she would tell my dad about however I was misbehaving. It made me cry at least once.

Nancy had a sense of humor, too. On her wall, she had a picture of Tom Selleck which a friend had autographed. Being young, impressionable and a fan of Magnum P.I., however, I thought the autograph was real and Nancy did little to dissuade me. Another time, at an amusement park, she told Devin and I to be extra careful on the bumper cars and not hit anyone. We did exactly as she said.

I have a small library of baseball books today, and in one of my books about the San Francisco Giants, a fan offers this quote:

“I have always loved baseball. I moved here 16 years ago and naturally started coming to games. I think the Giants are a good team because they just don’t give up. There won’t be a generational bridge, though. My kids are hopeless A’s fans.”

Devin and I started playing Little League baseball in the spring of 1989, kindergarten for us. It was the year of the Battle of the Bay, when the Giants and Oakland A’s faced off in the World Series, and Devin and I had matching posters of Will Clark and Mark McGwire lording over the San Francisco Bay. It could have been easy for Devin and I to become A’s followers, fanatics of McGwire, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. Instead, Nancy steered us right.

Nancy was a Giants fan. Through Nancy, I learned of Giants stars like Clark, Brett Butler and Kevin Mitchell, who, Nancy told me, had gotten a double off a check-swing. She also taught me about nondescript yet valuable role players like Robby Thompson, Jose Uribe and Terry Kennedy. I don’t know if we simply learned intrinsically that the A’s were soulless and evil, while the Giants were working class, blue collar and therefore good, but Nancy at least deserves credit by proxy. I think the team was a reflection of her values, which she tried to instill in us.

The picture of Selleck wasn’t the only fake Nancy displayed. There was also a photo of Devin standing in front of Clark. It looked real enough to me, and I envied Devin after hearing the story of how he met Clark. I eventually learned the truth: It was a display at Candlestick Park, where fans could have their pictures snapped for a fee. Devin and I got to have our pictures taken there, but because our families were poor, our moms took the pictures off from the side with their own cameras. The photos of Devin and I standing arm-in-arm, smiling on wooden boxes with obvious cardboard figures propped up behind us are some of my favorites from childhood. Even thinking of them just now made me smile.

After a few years, Nancy moved to a better neighborhood several blocks away, and I began to see less of Devin, until he was just a peripheral figure in my group of friends. We still keep up, but as friendly acquaintances, not childhood best buds. I last saw Nancy three years ago, when Devin got married. She had finally remarried by this point and seemed happy when I spoke to her, at the reception. I don’t know if we talked much baseball, or if the new Giants appealed to her. I know part of my childhood ended after Clark signed with the Texas Rangers following the 1993 season.

I don’t know how many people there are out there like Nancy, people who struggle through life, their labors long, joys fleeting and ephemeral. But I know that baseball at its best can provide a measure of hope and happiness to these people. I know it made Nancy happy. As a result, it made me happy, too.

(Editor’s Note, 11/12/09: I have changed the title of this post, after seeing information in my Google Analytics account which leads me to believe that people searching for porn were coming upon the old title, “My Best Friend’s Mom.” I thought it was clever when I first wrote it and would get me more hits.  I see the error of my ways.)

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.