Monday, January 26, 2015

Thoughts of the summer game on a snowy day

After several years’ absence, I had the privilege of attending the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual banquet.

The reasons for the return of the prodigal former chapter chair were three-fold:

I miss my fellow ink-stained wretches, from whom I learned so much about the craft and life these last 35-plus years. I miss writing for newspapers. I miss the organized chaos of the press box that builds and builds, then settles into intense quiet as gifted reporters pound out prose, hour after hour, day after day, game after game, season after season. Most people can hardly take the pressure of preparing even a page of an annual budget. Writers and photographers hit deadline around the clock, thanks to The Internet. Electronic journalism is electrifying. So, too, is print. Hope the world remembers that before it is too late.

The second reason for my return I can sum up in two words: Sandy Koufax.

Third, I once again was lucky to see baseball’s magic as it appears through the prism of a young child’s eyes -- my beautiful young nephew, Emery. More, much, much more on Emery’s banquet debut in a moment!

As for Mr. Koufax ... One of baseball’s greatest pitchers was one of the honorees, joining Vin Scully and former Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley as winners of the “Willie, Mickey and The Duke" Award.

Sandy, being ever the reluctant superstar, insisted beforehand that he was not there to collect, but to give, presenting the NL MVP and Cy Young Awards to Clayton Kershaw. But the audience coaxed him from his seat so that he could recount the game that inextricably linked him to Hendley and Scully -- the perfect game he threw, and won, in 1965, fending off Hendley, who merely tossed a one-hitter. The one-hit game remains a major-league record for offensive futility -- and brilliant pitching.

Personally, Sandy matters so much to me, and has since he caught my attention in 1965. That October, the best pitcher in the game led his Dodgers to the World Series by unfurling a second straight Cy Young Award campaign (he led the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts -- 382; the highest modern day total at the time). Sandy then he stunned the sport when he declined to pitch the opening game of the Fall Classic because it fell on Yom Kippur. Sandy is Jewish, you see, and though not devout, he felt an obligation to honor his heritage, its history, its people. The world took note, and never forgot.

For that, and many other reasons -- such as a remarkable humility, priceless insight into an ever-evolving game, as well as sweet but whip-sharp wit and a gentle soul, Sandy Koufax is my 1-A hero to Jackie Robinson’s No. 1.

Jackie, Sandy, Larry Doby, as well as Ernie Banks and Tony Gwynn (the latter two Hall of Famers we lost during, then after the 2014 season) are cut from the same cloth. They represent all the right reasons adjectives like “class,” “character,” “charm,” “courage” should attach to any human being, whether famous or not.

So if you tell me there is one more opportunity to appear in the presence of a hero-turned-friend, I will be there.

Now, for the beauty of seeing this all reflected in the eyes of a child.

I used to love taking my boys -- son, Joshua; godsons Christopher and Troy, nephew Will -- to these events. They’ve grown up, and grown away, though, and I miss their company. But I do have a new baseball buddy -- my 12-year-old nephew, Emery, a sweet little guy with an old soul, who not only likes baseball, but devours its history. He made his banquet debut Saturday and, perhaps sensing his depth and sincerity, most every baseball figure I introduced Em to took to this sharp youngster like an old friend.

Mr. Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, Buck Showalter, Bobby Valentine, Frank Robinson, Brett Gardner, Terry Francona, Bud Selig, Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson, all carried on conversations and asked of Emery if he played baseball, and why; what are his positions, what team does he follow (the Yankees, the resident of Harlem and starting center fielder for
Clayton Kershaw and Emery
the Harlem Little League team said). 

When Jeff asked Emery who his favorite Yankees were, the response -- Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra -- was met with an impressed smile. Marty Noble, the veteran baseball writer, upon hearing Emery’s answer, high-fived my nephew. As I said, there’s definitely depth in this young man!

Buck Showalter
Emery got thumb’s ups on his position choices -- center and short. Gene Michael certainly approved. Bud Selig gave me a knowing smile when I said “Money Ball!” 

Buck Showalter’s comment: “You must have some speed! Run track?” “Yes,” said Emery. Ca-ching! 

When told that Emery had already competed on the national level, in chess tournaments, Francona pretended to pout, saying “brains, too? Not fair!"

One more Emery story, and it still sends chills through me:

Willie Mays was my father’s favorite player, so, too, my brother, Hawk’s. So Emery -- Hawk’s son -- upon hearing that Willie Mays would also attend the banquet, made it is mission to meet the all-time great and get an autograph. Now there are a couple things Willie Mays does differently than other stars at such events. He does not hang out in the VIP room beforehand. Nor did he demand a seat at the dais after requesting a ticket (same with Frank Robinson). 

Instead, two of the four Hall of Famers in the sat room  sat in the audience of approximately 1,000 (Sandy and Cal Ripken Jr. and soon-to-be HOFer John Smoltz were a part of the program and therefore on the dais). 

Willie Mays 
Willie spent most of his downtime at his dinner table, attracting hundreds of fans. Surrounded by security, he signed what the plain-clothed and uniformed guards accepted from children-only. Needless to say, No. 24 was swamped, rivaling the crowd that gathered in front of the dais seeking, and receiving Sandy Koufax’s signature!

Now, Willie does not sign paper, only baseballs. Emery was only equipped with an autograph book, however. Not knowing Willie's policy, Emery went forward in about 10 different waves, only to be turned away when Willie tired. Emery would walk back to our table, ever-watchful, then queue up, again, when he saw Willie starting to sign, again. Still, one fail after another. Still, one attempt after another. He remained stoic, and determined. Talk about a mission!

Not til his final attempt did he get a real chance, only to be told he needed a baseball.

As he turned to walk away, Marty Noble took Emery’s arm and walked him back to Willie and introduced him to the Hall of Famer. Willie, who wasn’t making much eye-contact with anyone, looked up, then started to chat with Emery. When told about the baseball dilemma, Willie pulled a bankroll out of his pocket ("Hundreds and fifties and tens," Emery told me in amazement.)

Willie peeled off a $10 and said he'd sign that for Em. Em, bless him, said he could not accept because it was too much. So Willie pulled out a $1 and signed it. Then the two center fielders continued to talk ball. Emery's one regret: he was so excited he forgot to tell No. 24 that his Harlem Little League team plays very near where the old Polo Grounds -- Home to Willie's old New York Giants -- used to stand. Talk about kindred spirits!

Emery also listened as well as talked. He hung on every word that the adults said to him. About baseball tools, about school, about life. 

He listened intently as ALS “Ice Bucket” crusader Pete Frates accepted a humanitarian award for his part in raising $100 million in donations last August. Frates spoke to a still crowd from a wheel chair and through a computerized speaking apparatus. I watched Emery as he watched the scene unfold on one of the large screens. Transfixed was the word that came to mind. As I said, an old soul in a young body. 

Lastly, like his parents, I was very proud that Emery refused to take the $10 bill. The smile he wore the rest of the evening, as he showed the likes of Tito and Buck the dollar bill, well, that was worth much more than $10. It was priceless! 

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