You could smile at clowns of yore

Originally published June 29, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

Remember when baseball was a just a game? Remember when players and fans alike had fun following a simple sport that helped define this country’s character?

The dilemma of the Cordero family is merely the latest example of how baseball has so lost its way that it can now steal our whole summer in June. But, instead of getting bummed­out by these bums, let’s assemble an All Star Team of some of the funniest people to ever play. And, for expert guidance, we turn to “The Monster,” Dick Radatz, who was, hands­down, the greatest relief pitcher of his era.

“I’ve done it by position,” Radatz said yesterday. “First Base: Dick Stuart or Norm Cash. Stuart played for the Red Sox when Johnny Pesky was manager. When John told us one day there were going to be fines for violating curfew ­­ 500 bucks for first offense, 1,000 for a second ­­ Stuart sat in the back of the clubhouse, and when Pesky asked if there were any questions, Stuart said, `John is this tax­deductible?’

“Once, Norm Cash is up at Tiger Stadium and he breaks his bat. All kinds of Superballs spill out, so the umpire grabs the bat. Norm tells the umpire that it’s actually his son’s bat.

“Second Base: Billy Gardner. His nickname was `Slick,’ because he had great hands. He told George Scott the reason he was so quick was his dad used to drive golf balls at him from 10 yards away and it was either catch the golf ball or die.

“Third Base: Kenny Hunt. His son was Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster on TV. Kenny told me, `It’s not bad enough that I’m a major league third baseman and my 12­year­old kid makes
20 grand a year more than I do. He has better hands.’

“Shortstop: You have to have Eddie Pellagrini, who played here 200 years ago, or Ray Oyler of the Tigers. Ray used to use Hank Aguirre, a pitcher, as his puppet. Aguirre was 6­foot­4, and Ray would stand behind him in the dugout screaming obscenities at opposing players and when they’d look over, all they’d see was Hank, not Ray.

“Outfield,” Radatz continued. “Gates Brown. Gates loved to eat and wouldn’t sit in the dugout. He’d fill his uniform with food and go sit in the bullpen and eat all during a game. And he’d have all the fixings on his burgers and dogs, too.

“One day, Mayo Smith, his manager, calls him in about the second inning to pinch hit but Gates hasn’t finished eating. So he stuffs the hot dogs into his jersey and goes up to hit. Remember the scene in `The Natural’ where Hobbs is bleeding when he’s at bat? Well, Gates is up there at the plate with this huge mustard stain on his jersey and ketchup leaking through his pants. And he hits a home run!

“Gary Geiger. He played for the Sox. A very funny kid. Nickname was `Onions,’ because he’d tell pitchers, `I’m gonna make you cry, kid.’ Mantle was funny, too.

“Catcher: Bob Uecker. Everyone knows him. And Yogi. Once, we’re at one of Mickey Mantle’s golf tournaments and Yogi shows up late and Mantle asks him what happened. Yogi says he had to go to a funeral for his cousin’s sister’s brother. Mantle says, `That’s a waste of time.’ And Yogi tells him, `Mickey, if you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours.’

“Pitchers: Dennis Bennett, played here. Used to carry a gun. Don’t ask me why. One night we’re at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Walls are paper­thin and I’m next to Bennett’s room. He comes in late, and I hear his roommate, Lee Thomas, say, `Turn out the light.’ Bennett says, `You turn it out.’ Thomas says, `No. You do it.’ Next thing I hear, Bennett says, `OK.’ And then I hear bang­bang­bang. He shot the light out.

“Frank Sullivan. Sparky Lyle. Gary Bell. Bill Lee. They were all funny. Pitchers are funny. Tiant was the funniest of them all, and if you could have understood him he would have put Richard Pryor out of business.

“We had a lot more fun than players today have for a very simple reason,” Dick Radatz explained. “We had no other agenda. We would have played for nothing. Today, it’s the rare exception when a player is doing it for fun, rather than money. It’s a shame, too, because they’re killing the sport. They have almost succeeded in turning a game into strictly business.”

By the way, want to know how truly great Dick Radatz was? Over his career, he faced Mickey Mantle 63 times and struck him out 47 times. Mantle only got one hit off him, ever, a home run.

Imagine! These clowns today couldn’t carry Radatz’s resin bag and they get paid millions and perform without a smile. And too many of them are losers who don’t know how to laugh. Or play.


Time to Replace Fenway Dearest

Originally published April 9, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

 All week long, legions of workers have been busy putting a fresh face on an old friend in anticipation of an annual event that sends millions of New Englanders into short-term spasms of frenzied optimism. So, yesterday, five 18-wheelers were lined up in an on-deck circle along Yawkey Way, unloading Papa Gino’s kitchen equipment, Dove bars, hot dogs and Coca-Cola because, tomorrow, it all begins again with the return of baseball and the Olde Towne Team.

Tomorrow, the park will be filled with faces that will rarely return until — or unless — the club turns the corner of September as contenders. You could fit a front-running Opening Day crowd’s appreciation, knowledge, and respect for the actual game being played into a Hoodsie cup.

It’s a day when Fenway is home to dabblers, dilettantes, and event groupies who attend to be seen or to simply say they were there. A lot of seats are occupied by “suits” who show up in the second inning and leave after seven.

Unfortunately, the future of Fenway — along with the entire Kenmore Square area — now seems to be in danger of falling into the hands of well-intentioned groups absolutely no different than those who push through the turnstiles on Opening Day: Clueless, self-appointed saviors of a tradition that happens to be sinking into the soil.

No doubt about it, the old ballyard is a wonderful sight and a magnificent destination. It is a marriage of history and geography that occurred in an earlier, easier time.

But it has to be replaced.

Eyesight alone provides a litany of reasons: The park is located on landfill due to the fact the whole Back Bay used to be a swamp. So the foundation, bearing the weight of years of renovation, cannot support additional construction. The cement cracks anew each season. The beams and everything else, inside and out, have to be painted regularly in an effort to keep it from becoming an eyesore. Fenway’s cosmetic bill is almost as much as the tab for Elizabeth Taylor’s mascara.

Anybody who claims Fenway can be rebuilt from the ground up around the existing facility qualifies for a slot in an asylum. While anything is possible, the construction cost would be prohibitive, perhaps $400-$500 million.

Who’d pay? And where would the team play while the site was razed and rehabbed?

Right now, season ticket holders shell out $2,000 to $5,000 to sit in chairs once used in a POW facility. That’s because the place was designed when the average person was no bigger than Mickey Rooney and weighed less than Tara Lapinski. Get some fat guy squeezed in next to you and you’re not a fan, you’re a hostage.

That gets us to the absurd claim that Fenway cannot be touched because it is a baseball mecca, a place people come to for its ambience rather than for the activity on the field. What preposterous nonsense.

The vast majority go to see baseball. To see the Red Sox. To see Vaughn, Garciaparra, Martinez, and players like Junior Griffey, Cal Ripken, and Mark McGuire, now in another league.

Certainly, quaint rustics from White River Junction, Vt., or Auburn, Maine, are willing to drive down once a summer to look at The Wall but the bulk of customers arrive because they are fans, not architects or historians. It’s the game, stupid!

Predictably — given the infectious disease of parochialism that afflicts this area — we are now told that Fenway Park is the equivalent of the Pyramids, kind of a Freedom Trail with a roster that couldn’t outrun Paul Revere or outhit Sam Adams.

But this is a case where old doesn’t mean better. And new doesn’t mean bad.

It might come as a shock to some to realize that Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester is not the Pacific Ocean, that there are other metropolitan areas just as sophisticated as Boston where modern, comfortable ballparks not only have been built but also have helped revitalize the cities around them. Go to Jacobs Field in Cleveland or Camden Yards in Baltimore, attractive evidence for the argument that a town can still improve itself around a leaderless sport too often floundering in the past.

Remembering a Perfect Day

Originally published Oct 19, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Yesterday, we all stood on the sidewalk in front of the MCM furniture store on Main Street watching the World Series on a TV that had been placed in the window as a display item. As the ninth inning began, a guy pulled to the curb behind the wheel of a dark green DeSoto.

“What’s the score?” he asked.

“Two-nothing, Yankees, ” he was told. ” Larsen’s pitching a perfect game.”

“You mean he’s got a no-hitter,” the guy said.

“No,” came the response. “I mean he’s pitching a perfect game. Nobody’s reached base.”

The crowd had multiplied throughout the afternoon, beginning with about 10 people and growing to the point where a lot of shopkeepers and school kids had dropped by to watch the drama of Don Larsen and Sal Maglie in Game 5. As good as “The Barber” was — allowing only 5 hits through 8 innings, including a home run to Mantle — Larsen was in the middle of one of those miracles only the baseball gods can explain.

He’d punched out 26 in a row when Walter Alston, the Dodgers manager, sent Dale Mitchell up to pinch hit with two down in the ninth. A couple of things happened simultaneously as soon as Mitchell struck out: Yogi Berra rushed from behind home to jump into Larsen’s outstretched arms and everyone standing there on Main Street — 200 miles from Yankee Stadium — began cheering and chattering because we’d just witnessed history.

Now, I told you this happened “yesterday” because it did. In many ways, to a lot of people, that kind of day and those type of events — a huge ball game — appear in more vivid detail than things that occurred, say, last Tuesday morning.

In fact, we’re talking about Oct. 8, 1956, an age when so much of the nation saw so many things in basic shades of black or white. But somehow, it is still so clear that I can recite the lineups for both clubs more quickly than I can recall my bank card PIN number or the new telephone area codes, because in the kingdom of continuous conversation, baseball rules.

No other sport lends itself to memory like baseball. When was the last time somebody rambled on about a tackle or a touchdown? While all sports sure do have stunning individual achievements, only baseball is discussed as a whole, with each game a story unto itself and every recollection an epic.

Plus — because baseball takes almost a whole year to resolve itself — all the runs, hits, errors, and mental flashbacks combine to provide a sketch of the society in place at the time. Don Larsen pitched his perfect game three months after Jack Kennedy jumped onto the national stage as a failed vice presidential candidate and four weeks before an election in which Ike hammered Adlai Stevenson. Larsen threw 97 pitches that afternoon in a country still mesmerized by the glamor of Grace Kelly’s wedding to the prince of a place called Monaco.

Unfortunately, too many of those who have been granted the privilege of running (ruining is actually a better word ) baseball today are greedy dopes. They are so caught up in their own ego that they don’t know they’re failing as trustees of this great game’s past, present, and future too.

For example, you would be hard-pressed to provide a better set of ballgames than those between Cleveland and Baltimore or Florida and Atlanta. Yet the lords of the game cannot capitalize or market their fantastic product for one basic reason: They are blindly stupid.

But owners don’t have a monopoly on blindness. Agents as well as a totally out of control players’ union all join in the collusion against optimistic hopes that baseball can flourish because of the simple fact that it is our best game.

It’s a game of such normal human dimension that little kids see themselves on the same field with Cal Ripken or Ken Griffey Jr. No pads. No protective gear. No 300 pounders or 7-foot-tall power forwards. Only real live dreams.

It’s a game of skill, touch, and a kid’s belief: That you can catch the ball. That you can make the throw. That you too can hit it. That you are Nomar, Mo, Tony Gwynn, or Charles Johnson.

Don Larsen had his perfect day 41 years ago but because baseball is a continual dialogue the game was played yesterday. Sadly, as we start another World Series, those in charge cannot see as far as that crowd that stood in front of a furniture store window 41 Octobers ago, all of them looking at a wonderful game they figured was too good to ever end.

A Pox on this Bullpen

Originally published May 13, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


In a world where we often tolerate contemptible behavior by those we’ve known for years, it is weird how so many people — like me — hate complete strangers.

Here’s how Webster’s defines hate: “Intense hostility toward an object (as an individual) that has frustrated the release of an inner tension.”

Here’s how I define hate: “A deep, self-destructive, long-lasting dislike of these incompetent slob relief pitchers who keep coming out of the Red Sox bullpen to toss absolute meatballs that even Ray Charles could hit.”

I don’t know Heathcliff Slocumb. I have never met Rich Garces. Never shook hands with Ricky “Serial-Killer Face” Trlicek, OK?

I hate them. Hate them all.

Believe me, I understand that this is illogical as well as immature. I also understand that it is quite real.

For example, let’s return now to 3:55 p.m. Saturday afternoon: Slocumb the undertaker is on the mound doing his best impression of Little Stevie Wonder trying to find home plate.

He walks a couple guys. Botches a perfect double-play ball. Bases loaded. Juan Gonzalez in the box.

Gonzalez is a big, strong guy who plays for the Texas Rangers. With his swing, if he played for the Red Sox he would absolutely hit 107 home runs a year here.

While Slocumb struggled with the dog bone in his throat, Gonzalez could not wait for his turn. In seconds, it was three balls, no strikes and everyone in North America knew Gonzalez would be swinging at anything that came close.

Ever see a kid toss a beach ball? Ever witness a loving parent throwing underhand to a child just learning how to hit? Ever set up a T-ball stand?

Slocumb, making millions for his effort, enabled Juan Gonzalez to establish a new land-speed record for the time it takes a ball to travel from Back Bay to Central Square, Cambridge. A Polaris missile takes longer to get to target than the rocket that came off his bat took to clear the wall.

I hate Slocumb. I hate his set-up guys, too. Calling them “relief” pitchers is like calling Timothy McVeigh a prankster.

By 4:05 p.m. on a chilly Saturday, 28,000 spectators were ready to put on their Nikes and cover themselves with a purple shroud. The spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet will get here before these clowns save a baseball game.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m sure Heathcliff Slocumb, fat Garces, Trlicek, and Jim Corsi are all very nice human beings. I bet they like kids and dogs, brush after every meal and stop for old ladies in the crosswalk.

But I hate them.

I do not hate Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Mr. Rogers, Johnny Cochran, Sally Jesse Raphael or some of these truly loathsome individuals who clutter the corners of our lives. I don’t hate Saddam Hussein, Albert Belle, Dennis Rodman, Ulf Samuelson, Rudy Giuliani, Lamar Alexander, Peter Jennings, Ricki Lake or any of these other semipublic dolts who can be so incredibly annoying.

I hate the bullpen. All of them. Because they are not getting it done. Because they are stealing my summer right here in the heart of spring. Because they are lame and predictable. Because they have gotten me to the point where I automatically tune out as soon as they are called in. Because I know what the ending will be. Because they are right out of a Stephen King horror story. Because they stink.

I love Jimy Williams. I love the third baseman, the shortstop, the first baseman. Hey, I’m so soft I even love Joe Kerrigan, Wendell Kim and Dave Jauss, coaches all.

And I am willing to wait till next year to love Suppan, Rose and Pavano, who might provide us with starters capable of going beyond the fifth inning. I love you, man.

However, I’m never going to make it to next year with these dopes on the mound. I’d rather see Dick Radatz out there; he’s almost 80 years old now with a waist size bigger than Route 128, but he is still better today than what we saw yesterday.

Hate is a bizarre emotion. If allowed to prosper, it can consume us. Here in the second week of May, I am totally obsessed with guys I don’t even know.

I understand that I have no life. I hate a pack of perfect strangers who can’t throw strikes.

Call it stupid, ridiculous or juvenile. Call it whatever you want. Just don’t call the bullpen.


Public Servants Step to the Plate

Originally published March 12, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Last word about the man on first. And it comes from the type of public servant we see all around us but who, oddly enough, remains invisible due to our take-it-for-granted society.

Bob Kilduff is a Boston firefighter assigned to Ladder 23. A few days ago he reported for jury duty in Norfolk County and quickly found himself sitting in judgment of Mr. Maurice Vaughn, Red Sox first baseman.

Vaughn, of course, was found not guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. And as soon as the verdict was rendered, people from Ashmont Station to Albany, New York, had their own opinions of the decision.

Here’s Kilduff’s, contained in a letter sent to the newspaper: “I don’t like overpaid, often obnoxious men who play kid’s games for a living. Not even a little bit.

“But last week, eight men and women — of which I was one — were asked to decide the fate of a baseball player who had been charged with drunken driving. I can honestly say that not one of us cared the least about Mr. Vaughn’s celebrity.

“It had no effect on us, even with the zoo atmosphere the pathetic media created around the trial. All we knew was the Commonwealth summoned us to do a job and we simply wanted to complete our duty and go home.

“But since the verdict much of the print and electronic media in the area has second-guessed our decision and in many cases painted us as a pack of simpletons. From something called the Two Chicks to the sports radio get-a-lifers to the sports writers who clearly have no clue that there’s a big difference between watching a ball game and watching a real judge, a real jury, and a real defendant sitting in a real courtroom, I have a message: Try attending a trial and not merely listening to sound bites before self-righteously passing judgment on people and talking like fools. Trials are about a bit more than ratings!

“We were asked to determine NOT whether the defendant had been drinking, but had he consumed a quantity of alcohol sufficient to impair his ability to operate a motor vehicle. The conflicting testimony absolutely did not meet the Commonwealth’s burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“As a result of our verdict, we were accused of selling out. All sorts of ridiculous reasons were hurled around, too: Vaughn got off because he’s a celebrity or because he’s rich and had enough money to hire an expensive lawyer. Race was even included in the discussion of why he was acquitted. Well, guess what? If we found him guilty based on what we heard and saw, we the jury would have sold out.”

“It’s not a whole lot different from being a firefighter,” Kilduff added. “When the alarm goes off, color, money, nationality, religion — none of it matters. We go out the door to do the job. And that’s exactly what the fine people who served with me as jurors did: their job, which is part of living in a country where a Mo Vaughn has a right to a trial and the media have a right to make asses of themselves.”

Dan Greaney isn’t a whole lot different from Bob Kilduff. He is another municipal employee — Boston Housing — who simply goes about the daily business of doing his job, honorably and well.

Last week, Jack White, a Jamaica Plain insurance man, took a deposit bag to his branch bank on Centre Street. But when he got to the bank, White figured he must have misplaced an envelope containing $3,700 cash so he went back to search his office, his house, the front seat of the car. Nothing.

He was sitting at his desk, sick, when the phone rang. It was Police Captain Bill Parlon from E-5 in West Roxbury, asking White if he’d lost anything lately. Sure, Jack White told him, figuring Parlon probably had a bag filled with receipts, not money.

“Is there anything left in the bag?” he asked the cop.

“$3,700,” Parlon told him.

Greaney had found the bag White dropped on the street as he walked from his automobile to the bank. Greaney had taken the bag to the police station at Holy Name Circle before Jack White even discovered that his money was lost and, he figured, gone forever.

“An honest man,” Jack White was saying. “It restores your faith in human nature.”

It does, too. And so does a firefighter sitting in a jury box, doing the same thing so many do all the time to no applause and hardly any notice: their jobs. What they’re supposed to do.


Overreaction Is a Bad Sign

Originally published May 10, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Somewhere this afternoon — a gray, drizzly Mother’s Day — a pack of children will be playing baseball, many of them during the ritual of Little League, an idea that has flourished for nearly 50 years.

And that’s great because baseball is our best game. It teaches kids patience as well as perseverance. It teaches them how to win and how to lose.

Because nobody goes 4-for-4 all the time. And there isn’t a soul alive capable of throwing strikes forever.

Plus, life sort of mimics baseball. Good days, bad days, errors, and home runs all mix together in games as well as across a career.

You can play smart on Monday then come up dumb as a stone 24 hours later, get caught off base or miss the obvious meaning of a simple sign. Kind of like a bunch of people in Newton did when they overreacted to a harmless billboard ad that’s been hanging on the wall of Gordon Field for the last five years.

The sign is one of 20 that adorn the fence. Each sign means $250 to the league treasury. The money goes to maintain the field at a cost of $5,000 per summer because that task falls to a handful of grown-ups who make sure the place is always in decent condition for games.

Here’s what offended a few touchy-feely, politically correct busybodies to the point where they called the news media before they called anybody who volunteers to help other people’s children: The sign was donated by a beer company and carried a logo along with the message that “Our beer is carefully aged before drinking. You should be too.”

Wow! It’s a wonder the Newton East Little League isn’t assembling intervention teams rather than ball clubs or meeting in halfway houses instead of on the bench. Little League lushes.

Yet a teeny-tiny segment managed to scream loud enough so that the sign quickly came down as TV stations clamored for a picture of a billboard a few adults actually figure could turn their kids into drunks. They sure must have a lot of confidence in their ability and prowess as parents, huh? Days of wine, roses, and a few foul tips.

“It’s really kind of silly,” Terry Sack said yesterday. “If they had a complaint they should have called me or the league. The sign has been there for the past five years. It is not telling kids to drink. Just the opposite.”

Sack is 31. He’s a coach in Newton Little League. His father Jerry is 55; he’s a coach, too. They are two of the reasons a lot of kids who can’t play baseball — either don’t know how or lack ability — continue to play.

Even though it took five years to notice the sign and get suitably aggravated, some people got honked off because, to them, it symbolized a breakdown in morality. Good grief. If kids have problems due to a sign then it’s a pretty safe bet their difficulties are rooted at home, not home plate.

Newton is no different than other cities with Little League. Each league has its share of nutcake parents and kids who need a kick in the pants. And every team usually has at least one playing because dad or mom, sometimes both, figure coaches like Terry Sack are there to serve as baby sitters while they build careers and then walk around in a daze later when their kid — ignored or simply dropped off — has pink hair, six nose rings, and no clue.

The thing that does set Newton apart, however, is that certain wards and precincts are so precious that saving whales is a higher priority than cheering their kids. That’s because Newton is home to a lot of people who go to bed hoping they’ll be lucky enough to wake up in Brookline, where you’d have to assemble a clinic of shrinks and constitutional lawyers to decide whether baseball ought to be called a game or an activity.

One thing is for sure. It’s a bad sign when adults figure their own kids are such weak little simpletons that they might commit an error based on a billboard when any sane liberal knows: Ads don’t drink. People do.