Nine Inningsby Daniel Okrent
Using one particular moment in baseball history--a June 10, 1982 game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles--Dan Okrent explains the facets of our national pastime that are crucial to its nature but invisible to the uninitiated fan, such as catcher's signals, pitching physiology, club owners' balance sheets, and scores more. See more details below
Using one particular moment in baseball history--a June 10, 1982 game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles--Dan Okrent explains the facets of our national pastime that are crucial to its nature but invisible to the uninitiated fan, such as catcher's signals, pitching physiology, club owners' balance sheets, and scores more.
"Interesting and meaningful." Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Informative and amusing . . . we get a little bit of everything and a lot of entertainment." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times
"An astounding piece of sports journalism . . . the best book about the best game there is." - ST LOUIS DISPATCH
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
On the morning of June 10, 1982, beneath the stands of Milwaukee County Stadium, equipment manager Bob Sullivan and his assistants placed clean uniforms in the clubhouse lockers. Above each locker a shelf contained gloves, caps, spare shoes. These shelves were further individualized by other items: containers of Super Acerola, jojoba oil, mink oil, Desenex, Aqua Velva, Nivea cream; pouches of Levi Garrett and Skoal; cans of Foot Guard. Gorman Thomas, the center fielder, arrived early for the afternoon's game. Thomas was always the first one there, arriving as many as five hours before game time. On June 10, as on virtually every other game day, he sat in front of his locker drinking coffee, greeting (or pointedly not greeting) his various teammates as they wandered in. They were a reasonable cross section of professional athletes. The youngest was a lithe, 24-year- old Puerto Rican named Eddie Romero, a reserve infielder whose very membership on the team was all but unknown to any but the Brewers' most ardent fans. The eldest was a tall, elegantly mustachioed relief pitcher named Roland Glen Fingers, 35. Fingers, who was born in Ohio and raised in California, had in his thirteen seasons in the major leagues distinguished himself as had very few others in baseball's entire history. Their 23 teammates stood on a line between Romero and Fingers, spaced along it by age, talent, wealth, renown.
Somewhere near the middle of this line was Bob McClure, today's starting pitcher. McClure didn't arrive in the clubhouse beneath the stands until very late in the morning of June 10, barely two hours before game time. He hadlingered over the carbohydrate-heavy breakfast he always ate before day games. Now, he spoke with his catcher, Charlie Moore, as he dressed, then quickly went out on the field. "Once I've talked to the catcher," McClure said, "once input is lodged in my melon, I have to go out on the field and be a part of what's going on. I can't stand the clubhouse. You can only sign so many autographs and read so many letters before you get bored stiff. I have to be out on the field, shagging flies, hanging around the cage, talking with the players. That's relaxing."
Up in the stands, as McClure and his teammates and the members of the visiting Baltimore Orioles stretched and ran and threw and socialized and started batting practice on the field below, the day's crew of ushers waited for the gates to open. It was a lovely, sunny Thursday. The Orioles and the Brewers were scheduled to play at 1:30 in the afternoon. Allan H. Selig, the president of the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, Inc., arrived at his unprepossessing office in the bowels of County Stadium just before noon. By then, the rest of the front office staff had been at work for nearly three hours. In the publicity department, Tom Skibosh and Mario Ziino entered statistical data from the previous night's game into large ledger books. In the ticket office, armed guards stood by to protect the stacks of bills that would be collected in the hours leading up to game time. Bruce Manno and Dan Duquette, in the farm department, read the game reports the minor league managers had phoned in the night before. Harry Dalton, the general manager, was on the phone. At the reception desk, Betty Grant told callers that, yes, it was a day game today. The Milwaukee newspapers sat on Grant's large desk. There were no sports sections left.
Bud Selig had always loved baseball. He had been the chief executive of a major league club for thirteen years. Baseball "is not a toy," he said. "It is not a hobby. When we were starting out here, Walter O'Malley said to me - I'll never forget it - that baseball was his only business. It can't be tinkered with."
By and large, Bud Selig abided by O'Malley's dictum. Although Selig was also the president of his family's auto dealership and often found himself of a morning reviewing inventory sheets and sales reports at the showroom, it wasn't auto business that had him arriving late for work on June 10. When things were going bad for the Brewers, Selig could all too easily sink into despair, chewing up his insides with as much energy as he chewed the little cigars that were usually clutched between his teeth. Things were definitely not going well for Selig's Brewers there days. In April they had been one of the favorites to win the American League's Eastern Division Championship, and now they were in fourth place. The Orioles, their primary rivals for the championship, had the night before won their third straight game in Milwaukee. Bud Selig had allocated many millions of his partners' dollars to build a contending team. He had, wisely, placed those dollars in the hands of Harry Dalton, a widely admired executive who had, it seemed, deployed the money well. He had seen Dalton barely a week earlier resort to the most expedient of solutions in any attempt to turn a team around: Dalton had fired the manager, Bob Rodgers, who had led the Brewers to the best record in the American League just one season earlier. For a moment, the team had appeared to come alive, winning four in a row under the new manager, Harvey Keunn. But Baltimore today stood 27 outs from a sweep of the series - a sweep in the Brewers' home park - and Bud Selig had simply stayed in bed until the last possible moment.
For his part, Bob Rodgers was in no hurry to get to work either. He had just returned home to Yorba Linda, California, having left Milwaukee after cleaning out his small apartment at the Astor Hotel. Throughout his baseball career, Rodgers had spent the off-seasons as a glue salesman, representing a firm that manufactured industrial adhesives. He said he understood why Dalton had fired him - the moment came for all managers - but he was nonetheless embittered by what he deemed the selfishness and obstinacy of some of the team's players. He was happy enough that he had his glue-selling job to turn to, but he had spent a lifetime in baseball and was now suddenly on the outside.
Rodgers was a tall man, broad in the shoulders, blessed with bright eyes and a movie star's face. He wore cowboy boots, well-cut sport coats, open-collared shirts. Expectedly, his baseball friends called him "Buck." He had chewed tobacco all of his adult life, yet always took care to use whitening drops on his teeth to combat the inevitable staining. Playgirl magazine had once featured Rodgers in an article on baseball's sexiest men. Pete Vuckovich, when he was still working for Rodgers, once noticed the older man off in the distance. Vuckovich, a pitcher, had just been making some uncomplimentary comments about Rodgers' professional capabilities. "He sure is good-looking, though," Vuckovich said. Vuckovich, a pitcher of frightening mien, immense strength, and wildly unpredictable behavior, was rather mild in his criticism of Rodgers, complaining mostly that the manager was too quick to pull a starting pitcher from a baseball game. "He doesn't know as much about pitching as he thinks he does," Vuckovich said. "He's never been out there."
Rodgers had, indeed, never been out there, out on the small rise in the middle of the baseball diamond. Rodgers was, as the spectacularly bent digits on his right hand revealed, a catcher. In fact, in a nine- year major league career, he had spent only one game at any position but catcher. He was proud of that career, even if it was more distinguished by his indefatigability - in 1962 he caught 150 games, just 5 games off the American League record - than by his offensive statistics. He was particularly proud because the career almost didn't happen. He was foundering in the Detroit Tigers' minor league system, making no progress, when he finally decided, still only 22 but a five-year veteran of professional baseball, to find another career. Then the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, the unincorporated association that controls half of major league baseball, decided to expand. The eight members of the league voted to increase their number by 25 percent in 1961. The new teams needed players, of course, and the established clubs arranged to provide some of the least accomplished in their own organizations. Bob Rodgers was the twelfth player picked by Gene Autry's Los Angeles Angels. "Autry saved me from having to find a real job," Rodgers often said.
The first major league manager Rodgers played for was Bill Rigney. Rigney had distinguished himself as one of the particularly combative, and especially cagy, members of the New York Giants teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was as cerebral as he was bumptious, and he put the two qualities together to become a manager of considerable accomplishment. With the Angels, he often found his catcher, Bob Rodgers, and his shortstop, Jim Fregosi, challenging him after a game. " 'Why'd you do that? What were you thinking? What did you know?' Bob and Jimmy were always asking me things. It never stopped. You could tell these two were thinking, and they wanted to learn things," Rigney remembered. "Hell, if you had to pick future managers on that team, you wouldn't have had to look very far." Rigney, for his part, had learned his managing from Leo Durocher, who had learned from Miller Huggins in the 1920s. Rodgers' managerial bloodlines, at least, were superb.
It took Rodgers, the catcher, nineteen years from his first season at Rigney's elbow to become a major league manager. After his retirement as a player, in 1969, he became a coach with the Minnesota twins - a pitching coach. He managed in the minor leagues for two seasons, coached the San Francisco Giants' pitchers in 1976 - working for his old mentor, Rigney, who was doing his last turn as a manager that season - and came to Milwaukee as third base coach in 1978. In the beginning of the 1980 season, Rodgers was made acting manager of the club while George Bamberger recuperated from heart surgery. At season's end, he formally took over the team when Bamberger announced his retirement.
"There's a lot a manager can do," Rodgers said one day in 1981. "But on this team there's not much: you can pinch hit for [second baseman Jim] Gantner when there's a lefty pitching, and you can rest your regulars every so often. You can talk to your pitchers and catchers, and make sure they don't throw the change-up to a Doug Flynn-type hitter." Flynn was a weak-hitting second baseman for the Texas Rangers. "Other than that, you just got to let 'em play ball." The Milwaukee Brewers played ball in 1982 for Bob Rodgers until June 2, when Dalton fired him. He was replaced "on an interim basis" by hitting coach Harvey Keunn, a former major league shortstop and outfielder who, in the preceding five years, had undergone quadruple- bypass surgery, lost fifty pounds from a mysterious stomach ailment, and had had a leg amputated because of life-threatening blood clots. Kuenn was 51.
Bob McClure, the left-hand pitcher, looked at Charlie Moore, the catcher. He had thrown in the bullpen, and he had come to the center of the diamond and thrown his eight warmup pitches. Now he would start the game.
After nearly four years of erratic performance in the Milwaukee bullpen - one press box joker called McClure and his right-handed relief partner Bill Castro "Ethyl and Premium" - McClure had been placed in the team's starting rotation in September of 1980 by George Bamberger. "I always thought of myself as a starter," said McClure, who never pitched relief until the day he reached the major leagues. "But no one else ever did. I guess there wasn't anybody else to be the relief man here, and because my arm was pretty trouble free, the job fell to me.
"In fact," McClure remembered, "when Bambi did tell me I was going to start, I thought he was joking." But McClure won four of his five starts that September, and when the newly installed Rodgers assembled his starting rotation out of the available arms in the winter of 1981, McClure had a place in it. Then, what appeared to be tendinitis assaulted his previously "trouble free" arm (it was later diagnosed as a rotator cuff tear), and McClure was fundamentally useless for the 1981 season. His return to health toward its close was one of the primary reasons Rodgers and his colleagues in the Milwaukee front office were confident entering 1982.
Baltimore's first batter was Lenn Sakata, a Hawaii-born nisei who had reached the major leagues in the Milwaukee organization. An excellent second baseman who could also play shortstop, he was nonetheless deemed enough of an offensive liability that he was shipped to Baltimore for John Flinn, a pitcher of little consequence who was unable to stick in either city. Sakata was one of the shortest players in the majors, listed in the Baltimore press guide as 5'9" but at least a full inch shorter. He was also distinguished as one of the first major leaguers to turn to the Nautilus machine as a strength builder; standing next to a taller teammate, like the elongated pitcher Jim Palmer, Sakata's overdeveloped chest and shoulders gave him the appearance of a midget wrestler. On the mound, Bob McClure stared in at Moore, his catcher, then pivoted on his left foot, swinging his right leg back and around, twisting his body so far that Sakata could see the numbers on the back of McClure's uniform. Then, spinning forward, he released the first pitch with his wrist stiff, the edge of his hand slicing perpendicularly through the air. The ball tumbled straight ahead, then suddenly dipped when it came near the plate as the topspin imparted by McClure's release made itself felt. He had devised his spinning motion at the urging of Bob Rodgers and pitching coach Cal McLish, who noted that McClure's pitches sank more readily when his arm dragged and that his arm would drag more if he adopted the whirling delivery. But on this pitch the ball dropped a milli-second too late; ball one, high.
McClure missing with his curveball was good news to Baltimore, for without an effective curve, McClure was rarely an effective pitcher. Sakata waited on the next pitch, this time a fastball, also out of the strike zone. He looked toward Cal Ripken, his third base coach, received no intelligence from the sequence of gestures Ripken offered, and swung ineffectively at the next pitch, a fastball. He fouled off another fastball, and McClure had managed to restore a bare edge over the batter, the count 2 and 2. It is called an "even" count, but there is nothing even about it: there is still room for the pitcher to err, none for the batter. And the pitcher holds both a weapon in his hand and the power of commission in his head. It was up to McClure to execute; Sakata could only react.
At 2 and 2, Paul Molitor, Milwaukee's third baseman, backed up some five feet, no longer guarding against the bunt down the third base line. Then, another fastball, another foul. McClure peered at his catcher, Moore. To Molitor's left, Robin Yount, the Brewer shortstop, saw Moore signal for a curve, the shouted a "Humnow!" at McClure, out of view of Moore's signals, that a curve was coming. McClure pivoted, kicked, spun, threw; as he released the pitch, Molitor leaned slightly toward the third base line, prepared for Sakata to get around more quickly on a slow pitch and, perhaps, pull it down the line. Sakata watched it go by: 3 and 2.
In their broadcast booth, Bob Uecker and his partner, a young man named Dwayne Mosley, were talking about Uecker's military career when McClure threw the seventh pitch of the afternoon. It was a change-up, the second off-speed pitch in a row. Sakata immediately judged its speed and trajectory, and brought his arms around in front of him, fully extended. Uecker interrupted his armed services reverie to watch the ball land ten rows up in the left field bleachers. As Sakata circled the bases, and as the boos began to well up from the grandstand, Uecker told his listeners, "Lenny Sakata leads off the Oriole first inning with his second home-run of the year, and the Brewers play from behind again today."
Meet the Author
Daniel Okrent is an editor-at-large at TIME, INC., and has published four books, including the best-selling BASEBALL ANECDOTES and NINE INNINGS: THE ANATOMY OF A BASEBALL GAME. The author resides in New York City.
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