After almost 14 years in exile — OK, retirement — leaving behind the perpetual second childhood that was 47 years writing about kids games for The Times-Dispatch, we’re off and babbling again.
Desperate times mean desperate … you know the line. So this is scheduled to be the first of a weekly look back at those glorious days of yesteryear (and the nights weren’t bad either) as seen by a now-octogenarian whose mind still works even if the old body has betrayed him. Of course, if I mess up, we’ll blame it on age, which is what most old people do.
First, I’ll apologize for using so much first person. Although it’s become the norm these days, it doesn’t come easy for me. Early on, shortly after joining the paper two weeks from graduation at Washington and Lee, a crusty not-so-old desk man told me first-person was a lazy form of writing. “You can get a wino off a street corner to write, ‘I think …,’” he said. From 1959 to 2006, when I covered just about everything, I wrote a lot and only twice did the first-person appear under my byline. That included a copy editor inserting an “I” in one of my pieces. Why? Quien sabe?
Each week will have a theme. There will be such things as “Near Misses,” about scary travel and threats of violence; “Rockin’ First Tenant,” ice hockey comes to Richmond and the new Coliseum; “The REAL Hero of the ‘68 Tangerine Bowl,” and “The World’s Greatest Soccer Coach” as well as a collection of memories — and funny quotes not always meant to be funny — from 28 years writing a radio-TV column. Yes, there also will be one devoted entirely to professional wrestling, recalling interviews with assorted grunt-and-groaners, including Ric Flair and Andre the Giant. So much for name-dropping.
This week’s theme is “Short Stuff that Might Be News to You.” Let the babbling begin.
In a nostalgic look back at the 1986 Peach Bowl the other day, a Virginia Tech player was quoted as saying North Carolina State had been arrogant leading up to the game, which was won by the Hokies 25-24 over the 18th-ranked Wolfpack. The reason for the attitude, he said, was because State belonged to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Tech didn’t. The Hokies were in the midst of a 26-year streak as an independent in football. That would end in 1991 when they became a charter member of the Big East Conference.
With archrival Virginia in the ACC, Tech kept trying to join and kept being rejected. Finally, governor Mark Warner said something to UVA president John Casteen that ended Tech’s frustration. The Cavaliers suddenly went from adamantly opposed to having nothing but kind words for the Hokies (publicly, that is), and their application was accepted by the conference, effective 2004.
Actually, Tech had every reason to believe it would join the ACC back in the 1970s after the University of South Carolina dropped out in a snit in 1971. Georgia Tech was added in 1978. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech athletic director Frank Moseley had gone to Greensboro, N.C., for an ACC meeting all but assured the Hokies were in. However, at the last moment, the state of North Carolina’s Big Four of North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest huddled behind closed doors, came out and said they had changed their minds. Sorry about that, Frank.
So umpire Angel Hernandez is suing Major League Baseball because he didn’t get more World Series assignments. It’s always something with umps. Never mind Hernandez has a moving strike zone that naturally leads to claims of favoritism — and serious debate.
There was a time, many moons ago, when the writers and umpires talked enough to get to know — and almost like — each other. In the late 60s and early 70s, one of most engaging, outgoing “men in blue” was Ken Kaiser, who had been in the minor leagues a long time and was beginning to think he might never get a chance in “The Show.” The Rochester, N.Y., native couldn’t disguise his bitterness during assignments with the Richmond Braves. He was 6-3, a huge, intimidating man who spent one offseason in the Pacific Northwest as a professional wrestler. Kaiser had a quick trigger on the field, which was a problem. After 13 years in the bushes, he finally got a call up to stay in 1977 and lasted 23 years, working two World Series (1987, 1997).
“Nobody likes umpires except other umpires, and a lot of umpires don’t like each other,” Kaiser said during a one-on-one in Baltimore in July 1979. That was the season 52 resident umps refused to report over a contract dispute. They were replaced by a few minor league professionals as well as sandlot amateurs, who gave new meaning to incompetent, and hastened the return of Kaiser and friends, with one caveat: The minor leaguers who crossed the picket line were allowed to remain. That made for, shall we say, an awkward workplace.
There were reports the so-called scabs had been threatened with bodily harm. At 250-pounds-plus, Kaiser could have done some physical damage had he so desired. He didn’t, he said. His crew for that series included John Shulock, who was promoted from the American Association and crossed the picket line. And, in the umps’ dressing room, he clearly was getting the silent treatment.
“On the field we’re a four-man crew. We’ll talk to him,” Kaiser, then 33, said. “Off the field, it’s different. He’s on his own.”
Another long-time minor league umpire, Steve Fields, also crossed the picket line. He and Kaiser worked the International League together and were friends. Empasis on ”were.” Said Kaiser, “If we were such good friends, why didn’t he call me first? … but he never did.”
Well, Fields did call yours truly after his three seasons of purgatory, saying he wanted to write a book about it. Was I interested? No. Surely others had turned him down, too. From Alexandria, Fields was fired after the 1981 season by the National League for “failing to show improvement,” among other things. He sued major-league baseball for $1 million, telling whoever asked he was penniless. Fields died in 2009. He was 68 and bitter. Kaiser died in 2017 at 71 — and, from all indications, happy.
There was reference recently to Mickey Mantle’s appearance here with the New York Yankees for a preseason game at Parker Field. Mantle was a real fan favorite, and still lodged in the mind’s eye was a pregame scene of a group of young lads standing in the box seats to the left of the home dugout along the first-base line.
They obviously were excited, armed with pens or pencils and something to write on, waiting for their hero, hopeful of getting an autograph. And here comes The Mick, a few yards away, strolling toward the dugout along third base. It was a moment to remember.
“HEY, MICKEY! MICKEY! MICKEY!” they shouted to get Mantle’s attention.
He acknowledged their presence. “AWW, SHUT UP!” Mantle said, walking away.
If you like violence in baseball — and, geez, who doesn’t? — sorry you missed a brief but intense punchout in Atlanta after Game 1 of the 1969 Mets-Braves playoff series. Off the field.
There we were, assorted media types in the visitors’ clubhouse, seeking wisdom from Mets manager Gil Hodges. Now, by today’s standards, this was smaller than your average high school locker room. Hodges sat, not in an office or conference room, but in front of a garden-variety stall normally used by a player. It was downright cramped with about 20 writers, TV cameramen, photographers and hangers-on crowding in to listen.
Dick Young was in front of me. He was a short, slightly built veteran of the New York tabloid wars. You had to be no-holds-barred feisty to survive, and Young was. He wrote an entertaining if not always accurate notes column for the New York Daily News then and thought he knew it all. In other words, a typical New Yorker. He could be mean, too. At the 1978 World Series, postgame in the Yankees’ press room, this poor soul happened to wander in and immediately was accosted by Young shouting “GET THAT (censored) OUT OF HERE.” Young repeated it it several times before the bewildered guy exited stage left. He should have popped Young in the chops.
In Atlanta nine years earlier, it was Young who came out swinging. A TV cameraman, with one of those huge, now-ancient things on his shoulder, pushed me aside and tried to do likewise to Young. “Get back,” he said, “Get back.” When the cameraman kept coming, Young turned and slugged him. Thus triggered a melee involving a number of combatants.
There was a team trunk nearby. I jumped up on it to join Mets infielder Al Weis watch the nonsense. We mostly laughed while shaking our heads.
Until next time ...