With the fireworks exploding. All across the summer sky.
And the people watched in wonder
How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer!
–Joe Raposo ( There Used to be a Ballpark Here)
We don’t grow up. We merely leave our childhoods behind. Like little Jackie Paper we desert the land called Honahlee and make way for other toys. But we don’t grow up, not really. A song plays on a car radio and the rearview mirror reveals the strings and sealing wax, and other fancy stuff we once reveled in. Our Puff could be Elvis, or Sinatra, or four mop tops from a small waterfront city in the UK. Our fields of dreams are varied but for many of us, the boys of summer were our first heroes.
Mine were Casey’s boys. Mantle, Maris, Ford, Berra, Skowron, Boyer, Kubek, Howard and Richardson. There were more, too numerous to name here but if called upon, trust me I could name them all. They won their share of titles but fell short a few times as well. There was a buzz saw of a Brooklyn kid playing out of Los Angeles in 1963 named Koufax who had a habit of making big men look puny. It was over in four games. Cleanly and mercifully. In 1964, they ran into a big Cardinal named Gibson who once told his own catcher during a mound trip to go back behind the plate because “the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it”. The result was the same but this time they went down swinging in a full seven games. The Cards had another future Hall of Famer named Brock AKA “The Base Burglar” for his propensity for purloining the bags on the diamonds he scampered across. During the cold spell years, when the Yankees were planning their fall vacations in July and I needed someone to root for in the latter stages of the season, I found myself pulling for the speedy outfielder and the big stern looking pitcher. I even rooted for them against such American League stalwarts as The Tigers of Detroit and of course that team from Massachusetts.
While Yankee Stadium resembled a mausoleum under the stewardship of the Columbia Broadcasting System, the city’s National League representative was growing up in Queens. The United States planted its flag on the moon in 1969 and the NY Mets planted a pennant and a World Series banner at Shea Stadium. Quite a year it was.
To be clear, I never abandoned the Yankees, and in 1976, with a different cast of characters, they finally returned to the Series, being swept in four by the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, but I could not have been happier or prouder. In the following two years they beat the hated Dodgers, and all was right in the world again. But from 1965 to 1976, as grade school faded to high school and high school to college, when things were bleak in September and October, the Cards and the Mets filled a void for me. They bought me a little more time in Honahlee and no two players contributed more to that than Tom Seaver and Lou Brock, who left the field this past week within days of each other.
Some Yankee fans couldn’t understand how I could have rooted for the Mets during those years. Baseball rivalries die hard for some people. But I didn’t root for the Mets against the Yankees, they played in different leagues and in those days there wasn’t even any inter league play. I knew who I would root for in a mythic World Series matchup (which would come decades later) but for those times when baseball was closed for October in the Bronx I had to find my heroes elsewhere. I found them in Queens and St. Louis.
Louis Clark “Lou” Brock began his 19-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs. In 1964 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and the rest is history. He was the National League stolen base leader for 8 seasons. On his journey to Cooperstown he collected 3,023 hits on a .293 BA and gathered up 2 World Series rings along with 938 stolen bases. He was a six time All-Star, and a winner of the Roberto Clemente Award in 1975. He led the league in doubles and triples in 1968 and singles in 1972. After breaking Maury Wills’s single season record he retired as the lifetime stolen base leader and held that record until he was surpassed by another future Hall of Famer, Ricky Henderson.
At the tender age of 22, in his rookie season of 1967, Tom Seaver went 16-13 for a last place team. He struck out 170 batters, completed 18 games and posted a 2.76 ERA. But perhaps the most important weapon he delivered to the beleaguered young franchise was hope. In 1968 he won another 16 games. And in 1969 the full scope of his potential was realized. With 25 wins he took the team from Mutts to Miracles. From the basement to the penthouse. Along the way he collected the first of his three Cy Young Awards. Reggie Jackson once said of him, “Blind men come to the park just to hear him pitch.” Similarly, when a TV was not available on the days of his starts, kids all over NYC watched their tiny transistor radios. Many of those kids were collecting social security.
In his rookie season, playing in his first All Star game, Brock spotted him in the locker room and mistook him for a fresh-faced teenager. He shouted, “Hey kid, get me a Coke”. The kid’s reply: “Get your own bleeping Coke. I’m on the team”. Brock retorted “Who are you?” Over time Lou Brock found out exactly who Tom Seaver was. In fact, when Seaver pitched his only no- hitter while with the Cincinnati Reds in 1978, Brock was in the lineup and added his own 0-4 to the tally. No batter faced Tom Seaver more in his career than Lou Brock and no pitcher faced Lou Brock more than Tom Seaver. Over the course of 157 face-offs, Seaver struck out Brock 21 times and walked him 4 times. Brock hit .250 with 10 doubles, 2 triples and 1 home run. There was no clear loser as they were both always the epitome of what it means to win both on and off the field.
As disease fills the air in this abbreviated season, cardboard people fill the seats and pre-recorded chants blast through the PA systems; it is difficult for me to wrap my brain around this. But when I recall Seaver’s “dirty knee” or Brock’s “rolling start” off first base with all the attendant oohs and ahs, the stands are always full, the sun is always shining, and breath is always bated. And in those moments, Smith and Wollensky steaks have nothing on ballpark hot dogs. Watered-down beer is Dom Perignon . In the song, which we all know better than our ABC’s, we shout the line, “I don’t care if I ever get back” and with Seaver on the mound or Brock on the base paths, that sentiment was never truer.
It hurts to know that The Franchise suffered the cruel fate of Lewy Body Dementia and one of the greatest runners in the history of the game lost a leg to diabetes. Seaver and his wife Nancy became vintners in post-retirement. I have this image in my head. The Franchise and The Base Burglar are on a boat with pillowed sails on some celestial lake. They fuss with a tiny transistor radio, tuning in a Mets-Cards game, eschewing Cokes for a nice cabernet. Earl Weaver once said: “In baseball, you can’t kill the clock. You’ve got to give the other man his chance. That’s why this is the greatest game.” I couldn’t agree more. After 157 chances, the clock has not run out on The Franchise and The Burglar. Not really.