|My ducks were in a neat row. We were playing the Royals in Kansas City. The Indians were losing 2-1 entering the ninth inning. We seemed to have this loss well in hand. Two-thirds of my game story was written and filed, and a deskman at The Plain Dealer sports department already was scanning it for spelling, syntax, taste, and libel. My four-line poem was composed. As soon as our beloved Indians succumbed quietly in the top of the ninth I would write three quick paragraphs to go on top of the story and then adjourn to the bar. |
Until that moment the game was well paced. I had a chance to meet the deadline for the first home final, something that did not always happen in the Central Time Zone. The newspaper deadline was the first consideration but not the only one. Last call at the hotel bar was a close second.
Suddenly my ducks scattered all over Royals Stadium. The Indians got a couple of men on base and then someone, probably Andre Thomton, singled home the tying run. A groan reverberated in the press box. There went my poem. There went my first three paragraphs. There went my deadline. There went my first three beers.
Thank God for Sid Monge, the Indians’ ace reliever, who entered the game in the tenth inning. The Royals had a runner on third base when Monge was summoned to prolong the agony.
Conveniently, his first pitch bounced in front of the plate and rolled to the backstop. In a wink, the runner from third scored and the game was over. Indians lose. I bought Monge a drink later that night in the hotel bar. Just in time, too. After one beer a surly barmaid who probably had a date with a local cowboy announced, “Last call.”
This incident occurred in April 1978 and set the mood for the next two baseball seasons. Welcome to life in the big leagues.
It is not true that the years of 1978 and ‘79, when I was the baseball writer traveling with the Indians for The Plain Dealer, were the most miserable years of my life. They are only tied for first. My two years in the Army — ours — were no joy either.
They were not wasted years, however, because I gained the perspective to comment on two major perceptions. First, the public perceives the job of baseball writer as glamorous. You travel with the team, eating and drinking with the players. You are a part of the team from February until October, from Anaheim to Baltimore. You see 200 baseball games a year — and get in free. You stay in fine hotels, eat in restaurants on an expense account. You have great influence because your stories are read by half a million people every day.
There is a second perception. The public thinks that the baseball writer is paid a vast salary, at least commensurate with his fame. Not true. When I was assigned to the baseball beat, I received a raise of $30 per week and was credited with four hours of over- time per week. This pushed my annual income to just over $30,000.
Now that we have covered the prestige and finances, here is my beef. Two-hundred baseball games a year are too many. Baseball is a confection, and you get sick of it as a main course. Fifty-thousand miles a year translate into too many wasted hours on planes and in airports. One-hundred fifty nights a year in hotel rooms are too many lonely nights and wasted days. Traveling salesmen at least get weekends off. Baseball writers work seven days a week. Ohio’s Largest Newspaper never has been rained out.
Travel is the main killer. One year I left home in mid-February and did not return home until mid-April, when I found the electricity had been turned off at my house. A week later we were on the road again.
Like every Army on the move, we took orders from our first sergeant, in this case traveling secretary Mike Seghi, the son of Indians’ general manager Phil Seghi. Mike loves the road. He particularly is fond of the earliest available flight after a night game. He loves red-eye specials from the coast. He cherishes bus rides from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island to meet charter flights when the Boston airport is shut down by a curfew.
I got my draft notice in early January 1978. The Plain Dealer’s front office ordered a shuffling of the ma- jor sports beats. Russ Schneider, who had covered the Indians for 14 years, moved to the Browns beat. Chuck Heaton, who had covered the Browns for 24 years, was freed to concentrate on his column. I got baseball.
First assignment as a baseball writer: spring training, Tucson, Arizona.
Contrary to popular belief, Tucson is no place for a man of refinement like myself. It seems to have been developed by Ray Kroc. Tucson is one tremendous golden arch. You will find every fast food hamburger, chicken, pizza, pancake, hot dog, cheapie steak, and taco joint in Tucson. You will not find a decent restaurant that seats anyone after nine o’clock.
The Indians’ headquarters hotel is the Sheraton Pueblo, an undistinguished refuge where it is possible to starve to death in the dining room. Its chef was trained as a cook in the Russian Army in World War II. Everything tasted like yellow snow. As a service to ignorant travelers, he stopped serving after the early bird special.
However, beneath the grandstand of Hi-Corbett Field, the Tribe’s spring training baseball park in Tucson, was a little lunchroom for members of the Indians’ official family and the media. It also was the writers’ workroom. We set up our typewriters and electronic devices on lunch tables where we pecked out the accounts of daily developments. We followed well-established routines: First, before they get cut, write about the rookies who were not going to make the team. Then concentrate on the veterans the rest of the season.
The outstanding feature about this lunchroom was a keg of Coors beer kept in a refrigerated tap unit. Evenings got pretty mellow in the old lunchroom. Bob Sudyk from the old Press, Hank Koslowski from the Lorain Journal, and I spent many contented hours around that keg until their wives showed up. It was our small corner of civility in a totally uncivilized part of the world.
The Indians are one of the bastards of the Cactus League. Five major league clubs train in the Phoenix area, which has grown dynamically in the last two decades. The Indians are all by themselves in Tucson, two-and-a-half hours to the south, while the San Diego Padres took up residence in Yuma, which is even more remote to the west. The California Angels train in Palm Springs, California, but no one there seems to object.
If anything contributed to the preservation of my sanity, it was that we had a good group of players to deal with every day. It is a fallacy that all ballplayers are stereotypical spoiled brats. Oh, some them were unusual. Infielder Larvell Blanks, for example, never smiled. Manager Jeff Torborg believed that Blanks someday would commit a terrorist act, like blowing up a plane while it was in the air — with us on it. But Blanks finally revealed to me why he seemed so distant and cautious. “I don’t trust white people,” he said. That was good enough for me. I left the little terrorist alone. Another strange one was Bo Diaz. He was terrified of flying. He was much more comfortable after we traded Larvell Blanks.
That 1978 spring was borderline chaos. It was Torborg’s first spring training as manager after replacing Frank Robinson in mid-season the year before. Torborg inherited a deplorable club. Of course, if the team had any talent, Robinson still would have been the manager.
It also marked the return of President Gabe Paul after a five-year stint as president of the Yankees. Because the club was flirting with bankruptcy, Paul took a hard line against the third baseman Buddy Bell’s demand for a contract renegotiation. Spring training was sparked by vicious shouting matches between general manager Phil Seghi and his discontented third baseman. Reporters would huddle outside Seghi’s office wit hears to the wall in order to eavesdrop. Others simply listened while sitting in their cars in the parking lot. Seghi kept telling Bell to “bide his time.” At night around the keg of Coors, Sudyk and I sang a parody to the old standard, “I’m Biding My Time.”
During the course of spring training, Indians’ pitcher Jim Bibby was declared a free agent on a technicality. The big righthander, who had been a key member of the starting rotation, packed his bag and signed a big contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sudyk and I snuggled up to the Coors keg and, to the tune of “Bye, Bye Blackbird,’’ sang a parody that went roughly like this:
“Pack up all my cares and dough; I don’t care where 1 go; bye, bye, Bibby.” That took care of many harmonious nights around the old keg.
Gabe Paul seemed obsessed with get ting rid of some of my favorite drinking companions. I’ll always remember it as Gabe’s spring training massacre of 197».
He traded pitcher Dennis Eckersley and washed-up catcher Fred Kendall to Boston. In return we got Rick Wise, who preferred to drink fine wine by himself, Mike Paxton, who did not drink at all, Bo Diaz, who only drank with Sid Monge in an attempt to forget Larvell Blanks, and Ted Cox, who did not do much of anything. Cox and Wise were the only white guys on the team whose constant companions were not 35-pound ghetto blaster tape players.
Pitchers Pat Dobson and Al Fitzmoms were released near the end of spring camp. They could not pitch any longer, but they were great storytellers in the bars at night. We missed them immensely. Then Wayne Garland blew out his rotator cuff and was finished. Beneath Garland’s gruff exterior was a good old boy who was quick to buy a round.
I was keeping the beer keg company all by myself one night when Rico Carty’s car pulled up to the ballpark.
“Big Mon traded to Toronto,” said Carty, who referred to himself in the third person as the Big Mon, the only general in the Army of the Dominican Republic ever to play in the Major Leagues. Naturally, I had the lucky scoop, one of the few I scored that first year against Sudyk.
Sudyk was a tough competitor. He had a dozen years on the baseball beat behind him. Like any veteran beat man, he had a sixth sense. He could smell a developing story. He also had Saturdays off because The Press did not publish on Sundays. That gave him one day a week to recharge his batteries, to explore the mountains or the canyons Or the bars. The Plain Dealer guy goes seven days a week, battling fatigue and monotony and demanding early evening deadlines.
Sudyk and my predecessor, Russ Schneider, had some great head-to- head wars in their heralded rivalry. Their approaches were different, but the result was scintillating baseball reportage for Cleveland baseball fans. Schneider was the sleuth, a veritable baseball detective. Sudyk wrote base- ball like a fantasyland, drawing caricatures with words.
I tried to do it with doggerel; four-line verses of simplistic meter and coarse, juvenile rhymes led each of my baseball stories for two years. More than once under fierce deadline pressure I would plead to my press box colleagues, ‘ ‘Who’s got a rhyme for Pruitt?’’ Nope, not’ ‘do it” because Pruitt usually did not. My approach fooled people. They thought it was new. Actually, it was 1920s sport writing resurrected. What the hell? It gave me my lead. I did not have to be that clever in my story. Talent is not something that is possessed;
It is something that is perceived. If people think you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Barnum was right. Fool ‘em. I did not have the time each night to dazzle anybody with brilliance.
The morning paper deadlines are a mixed blessing. The Plain Dealer reporter has his story filed and forgot- ten minutes after a night game, particularly in time zones to the west. I was not proud of those pieces, but nobody ever accused newspapers of being great literature. Then and now, the stories are written hastily backwards, hoping an alert deskman will catch a misspelling, a typo, or a mistake. Sometimes they do correct one or two. The readers catch the rest the next day and write you letters about them.
Sudyk would tinker with his yams until two or three in the morning, which drastically cut into his drinking time. I would nag Sudyk to hurry up and join me in the bar, partly because I wanted somebody to drink with and also because I did not want his story to be too good.
I know one thing. We wrote baseball better than the Indians played it. The 1978 Indians had the worst pitching staff in baseball. While Eckersley won 20 for Boston, Wise and Paxton combined to win 21 for us. But they also combined to lose 30. Thank you, Boston. We picked up one-time bonus
baby David Clyde who was erratic and who confessed in mid-season that he was an alcoholic. He was out of baseball a couple of years later, wiped out in his mid-20s. The names roll out of the memory bank like nightmares — Don Hood, Paul Reuschel, Dave Freisleben.
Freisleben was a beefy righthander whom the Indians picked up in June from San Diego. He looked like a foot- ball linebacker, a position and a sport he should have pursued. Friesleben’s first appearance for the Indians was June 27, 1978, at the Stadium against Detroit. He almost got through the en- tire Detroit lineup in the first inning without getting a man out. He faced eight batters; six scored and Torborg yanked him.
“I don’t think he’s our answer,” said gentleman Jeff.
Most managers are concerned about having a rested short reliever ready in the bullpen to bail out a tiring starter in the late innings. Torborg’s starters rarely got that far. His pitching rotation plans included the starter, middle-inning reliever, and short reliever.
The season was a joke. The Indians picked up an outfielder from Oakland named Gary Alexander, and he became a one-year wonder. They made a catcher out of him. He was a fun-loving delight. He hit 27 homers. He also challenged the all-time single season strikeout record. He did not know the difference between a fastball and a curve.
In 1979 I had a new number-one drinking companion. The Press at- tacked me with reinforcements. Sudyk became the columnist and Burt Graeff packed up the big suitcase and joined me on the baseball beat. While Sudyk’s misery had been blunted by the erosion of time, Graeff’s desperation was delightfully apparent. He had dawdled for too long on the Cavaliers’ beat, covering mostly home games, and on the summer golf beat. It was his turn to go to work. It was time to see what he was made of. Graeff was homesick for his hometown bar and his hometown girl back in Orange Village, and he complained chronically about it. That was just the first week of spring training in ‘79. He got worse, but he had great stamina. When he said he would meet you in the bar, he was there.
Sudyk, however ,was now out of my sight, and that was dangerous. In mid- season he would crush me on the Indians’ managerial change story.
We knew Torborg was in trouble as early as spring training of 1979. On a long bus ride from Yuma, Arizona to Tucson after an exhibition series with the Padres, Torborg alerted me to be on my toes.
“You might have to write my obit before we even break camp” said Torborg, who enjoyed gallows humor at his own expense as did no one I have ever known.
Gabe Paul was highly critical of Torborg’s easy, relaxed training camp that spring. The Tribe president harped on it constantly in their staff meetings.
Tough camp. Easy camp. With the talent available, it would not have made any difference. The only person who could have turned the Indians into contenders was the Man who raised Lazarus from the dead. Here is an example. Torborg held a tournament among four young players for the starting job in left field. The guy who won the tournament was a third baseman. Three years later none of the four was in the Major Leagues. Three would up back in the minors forevermore, and one went to Japan.
I sympathized with Torborg, who became a close personal friend. Our families had great times together. But that spring I sympathized more with my- self because I was introduced to the computer age. A new machine entered my life, a little computer with a TV screen and a most unpleasant disposition.
The machine allowed me to do the work of two persons. Not only would I write my story, but I could also set the type by sending it electronically over phone lines to a Big Brother computer located on the third floor of Ohio’s Largest.
I wrote some of my all-time best stuff on that machine. Unfortunately, stories that surely would have won Pulitzer Prizes were erased by the blasted machine. It only ruined the good ones, too. Children can use these machines to infiltrate the Pentagon. I could not make the damn thing grasp a baseball box score. Only later, when an autopsy was performed, did the computer coroner discover that the machine was defective.
While I was fighting with the machine, Torborg was fighting with Gabe Paul, and the Indians were fighting with each other. Reliever Victor Cruz and backup catcher Ron Pruitt engaged in a brief fight in the aisle of a plane from Minneapolis to Chicago. Many passengers, including a couple of nuns and a Protestant minister, were appalled, but Pruitt blithely explained it. “That’s nothing,” he said. “We do that in the bullpen all the time.’’
A typical Indians’ season droned on with Graeff and me sparring for the trivial day-to-day angle — until Sudyk struck. We were in the middle of an eastern swing through New York, Baltimore, and Detroit when back in Cleveland Sudyk broke the story that Paul was about to fire Torborg and replace him with former Yankee manager Bob Lemon, a longtime Cleveland favorite and hall of fame pitcher with the Indians in the 1940s and ‘50s. This was good stuff, the best baseball story