Phil Rosenberg’s Montreal Expos uniform is steeped in sweat as he studies the crouching batter. On the line is his future.
Despite a good college record at the University of Buffalo, the pitcher had not been selected in baseball’s major-league draft. Consequently, at his own expense, he is here in Daytona Beach this March afternoon, hoping to catch on with the Denver Bears or another team in the Montreal farm system.
After four straight pitches are fouled off, he slips a curve over the inside of the plate, which the left-handed batter catches on the bat handle. The result is a routine chopper wide of first. The first baseman, also there for a tryout, glances to make sure Rosenberg is covering, and muffs the play. The ball caroms off the heel of his glove toward foul territory, and the batter, legs pumping high, chugs into second on the error.
The bearded first baseman stands with head bowed, kicking at the hard-baked red clay infield. Ten minutes later he snags a rifled toss from the shortstop for a putout to end the inning, but not until two unearned runs have crossed the platter.
Following the game, a farm-system spokesman informs Rosenberg that his tryout is a failure. A pitcher must haul himself out of hot water whether he puts himself there or a teammate did.
Back in the clubhouse after taking a shower, the first baseman learns of Rosenberg’s fate. His immediate reaction is to wince. I know exactly how he feels. The first baseman, you see, was me. Everyone has a schtick. Run a bank, sell shoes, drive a truck. People pay you for this expertise. My schtick is experiencing other people’s schticks, and then writing about them for magazines. To this end I have, among other things, helped Basques herd sheep, investigated life in a Louisiana leper colony, chased grey whales along the California coast and bogarted into hideouts with a 360-pound bounty hunter to nail bail skips. This past winter I arranged to do a story for Denver Magazine about participating in spring training with the Denver Bears of the American Association, only one big step removed from the major leagues.
This presented a formidable challenge. Restaurant food and liquid lunches had ambushed my closer-to-35-than-34-year-old body. I packed 225 pounds on a frame meant to hold 190. Ironically, since leaving my Buffalo home to become a roving writer.. But with my blood pressure occasionally soaring and my endurance fading fast, I feared my Type A tendencies might allow me little time to enjoy what little professional success I’d attained writing about hazing, my specialty area, and sports. More than just an assignment,then, getting in shape to play for Denver represented a sort-of redemption.
My first workout was February 15th in Hollywood. That Sunday-afternoon outing around a high school track was torture. A quarter-mile was all I could manage. My lungs felt as though someone had lit a firecracker within them. I knew I needed to psyche myself up. The vision of my paunchy body waddling into a dressing room crammed with trim athletes bothered me no end.
Fortunately, my impetus to change came that very afternoon. I drove into the Hollywood Hills to slop down some consolatory suds witha friend, and a girl whose car had died flagged down my pick-up on Hollywood Boulevard. She turned out to be a Hollywood starlet. Lightning strike medown if I lie. Curvy blonde actress Beverly D’Angelo, the co-star of Hairand Coal Miner’s Daughter, clambered onto my truck to search for jumper cables.
Right off the bat, she brought up the subject of weight. “I’m going on a macrobiotic diet tomorrow,” she confided.
I looked across the seat at her with barely concealed longing. “I’m going on a diet, too,” I said in what I hoped was an offhand voice. “I need to shed a few pounds.”
Now, what I wanted her to say was something like: “Oh, you do not. I just adore men with furry chests and round teddy bear bellies.” But she looked at the deflated white-wall drooping over my belt and agreed that I needed an overhaul. I dropped her off at her boyfriend’s house with the cables.
What ensued here is a minor Hollywood success story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy kicks himself in butt and vows to lose weight. Which is precisely what happened in the next five weeks. I subsisted on a daily feeding of rabbit food and fish and I joined the Hollywood Y,where I exercised up to eight hours a day and finished each session in the steam room.
The results were dramatic. In just one month I had built up to three miles on the jogging track, six miles on the floor bicycle, 100 sit-ups and 50 pushups, and one hour of baseball practice a day.
By March 25th, when I boarded a jet to Daytona, I’dmanaged five fewer notches of leather hooked into my belt spike. My weight was 192 pounds. “Eat your heart out, Bev D’Angelo,” I growled as the plane soared out of LAX over Hollywood.
I have the most regular digestive tract of anyone I know; it’s always in a cataclysmic state. Therefore it is of little surprise to me the morning of my professional baseball debut, March 27th, that I spend the dawn with palms flat down on my motel room’s toilet seat. I have just downed a breakfast of Rolaids, paregoric and Metamucil when the phone rings.It’s Jim Fanning, the Expos’ vice president of player development, who has consented to setting up my participation in spring training.
“Ready to give it all you got?” he asks.
My hand drops down to my pulsating stomach.
“Oh, most assuredly.”
The Expos’ minor league facility is short on amenities but long on hospitality. What it has is space aplenty to play baseball, and that, after all, is the reason 120 prospects and I are here.
I walk into the sparsely furnished main office and meet Fanning and two other men, Bob Gebhard, Expos minor league pitching coach, and Larry Goidetsky, a player-coach for Memphis, another Montreal farm club. He has been assigned the thankless task of supervising a writer in uniform.
Goldetsky is an unlikely Beatrice to my Dante. A fair-skinned, boyish-looking 25, he has the hand strength to peel a grenade. If he realizes the 10-year difference in our ages, he doesn’t show it. He treats me like a kid brother, helping me get a uniform, a team cap, and blue stockings with stirrups instead of soles.
“Don’t I need a long-sleeve undershirt?” I ask as Goldetsky escorts me into the locker room.
“Nah,” he says as we pass a sign over the entrance that reads Do Not Assault the Umpires (I forget to ask later if this is serious or a joke). “Us guys with good pipes (big arms) need to show them off.”
As I dress, my mind goes back to my youth. I once dreamed of getting to as high a baseball mountaintop as Triple A, Denver’s level. Growing up in a Polish neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side, I would dedicate masses at St. John Gualbert Church for God to arrange it so I had a daily fix of horsehide.
I made heroes out of players who carved a niche in the majors on guts and hustle rather than talent. And today, as I hassle with editors, attorneys and the celebrities I interview, I know that it was this scrapping for a baseball career that helped make me what I am today– obnoxious.
Out on the playing field, soft-spoken Gebhard sees me eyeing the confusion of many diamonds and many players. “How are you doing?” he asks, his eyes narrowing.
“A tad nervous,” I admit. “I haven’t faced fastball pitching in 13 years.”
“You don’t have to go through with this, you know. We can arrange something a little easier. ”
I’m more nervous than I’ve admitted, but I haven’t come this far just to blow it. “I’m ready to play, I reply.” “Good,” he says. “You’ll do fine.” He gives me a schedule of
events for the day. My first test will break me in easy, and I head out to a practice field, where, holding court before a sprawled group of infielders, is former Chicago Cubs star shortstop Don Kessinger, now an infield instructor for the Expos. As a fielder, Kessinger had the speed and range of a timber wolf.
“There isn’t just one way to do anything,” he is saying. “The mental approach is everything. Before every pitched ball you must say to yourself: ‘I want it hit to me!’ You have to think every pitch will be hit to you, and you must believe that the next pitch will demand a great play. If you go after something with everything you’ve got and are ready to make that great play, I’ll guarantee you’ll snap up whatever routine ball comes off the bat.”
For 20 minutes, Kessinger puts infielders through the motions of double plays. With the other first basemen working out elsewhere, I take the throws. They throw to me at half-speed. It is only after I leap high to come down with an errant toss that they begin to fire the ball.
Precisely at eleven, the Bears’ batting practice begins, and I hustle over to join freshman manager Felipe Alou. For the first time, I am in awe. Alou and his brothers, Matty and Jesus, were among my heroes growing up. I remember reading some seven-digit figure for how unlikely It was for three brothers to make the majors. Felipe’s 16-year career featured a respectable .286 lifetime average, and he helped lead the San Francisco Giants to the 1962 National League pennant.
Alou calls me over to the sidelines to tell me that he himself will throw batting practice today. “Our pitcher is just a bit wild,” he smiles.
He doesn’t fool me. No batting practice pitcher is that wild. He intends to groove a few pitches to build up my confidence for the game later on. “You’ll be my designated hitter today,” Alou calls over his shoulder as he strides out to the mound.
Standing around the batting cage, I watch as Dan Briggs sprays shots all over the park. For Denver last year he hit .316. He’s had several chances with big league clubs, including a full season with the San Diego Padres in 1979, but has yet to do well against major league hurlers. Still, though he and I are the same size, he hits ball after ball as faras the longest home run I’ve stroked in my life.
Watching Briggs is a mistake. Feeling intimidated, I reach for the lightest bat I can find. With muscles tight, I hit four weak grounders to the infield before I force myself to concentrate on seeing the ball come off the bat. In the next six swings I connect for three line drives and a hard poke into the hole between third and short. On my 10th swing the bat snaps like balsa, and another is pushed into my hands. This one feels fine, and I grip it right on the knob. It’s heavier, but with a nice, thin handle that tapers to a barrel you could plug a cannon with. I manage tobelt three line shots to straightaway center in three swings.
Fanning, who has been watching my performance from right field (no doubt to make sure I wasn’t too big a turkey), calls out some praise. “Hey, Hank,” he shouts, “I thought your magazine was sending us a writer, not a ball-player! ”
I strut around the field until Jerry Fry, the catcher-coach who’d handed me the new bat, pulls me over. “I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of all the players,” he whispers, “but when you bat in a game, don’t use a light bat like the one you busted.”
“Why not?” I ask, figuring he is going to let me inon some great secret of hitting.
“That light bat ain’t a real bat,” he replies. “It’s called a fungo bat. We use it for hitting grounders to the infield.
Playing a little later in an exhibition game for the Class A Jamestown Expos against Montreal’s Class A West Palm Beach Expos, I am having trouble concentrating. My mind is still out there the inning before, when I’d booted that ground ball and stuck Rosenberg with two unearned runs.
Goldetsky ambles to my side and points down to my stockings. I’ve noticed they’ve threatened to slip down around my ankles. He ushers me into the adjoining restroom to help
me tidy up.
“Larry, help me out!” I implore. “How the hell can I hit this guy?”
Goldetsky gives me the once-over to make sure I’m not joking, then assumes a batting stance. “Step up there with authority and pick out a strike zone,” he says. “When you see the ball’s going into thezone, step into it and unload.”
Hustling back outside, I grab a bat and kneel in the batting circle withmy eyes boring into the lanky right-hander on the mound. A player passesby and I motion him over.
“What’s he got?” I demand.
“Good fastball and a hard-breaking curve,” he says,spitting a stream of brown tobacco juice. “Watch him, though. He’s wild.”
“Wild,” I echo. “Just what I need.” My mind flashes back to 1960, and I see myself in my Pony League days, when my whole teamshared the same batting helmet, which wasn’t a helmet at all but a hard-hatour coach had stolen from his job at Republic Steel.
On the mound one Saturday was a bull of a youth named Mel Grubka, destined to play briefly in the old Kansas City A’s organization. At 14 he was already several inches over six feet and could knock over an anvil with a pitch. He wore Coke-bottle glasses, through which he squinted fiercely to read the catcher’s sign. Erratic control and blinding speed made him terrifying to those of us who took longer to mature.
The image of Mel Grubka rushed back into my mind asI knelt there waiting to hit in Daytona. I had broken my glasses twice that year, and my mother had forbidden me to wear them in a game, so from theplate Grubka was just a blurred figure in a black shirt. As always I crouched in tight against the plate, and I watched him wind up with a step that threatened to land one long leg square on the plate. His arm came around like a buggy whip, and the ball whirred in, headed straight for my head. With my hazy vision it took me a fraction of a second longer to see that it was a fastball.
BAM! The hard-hat disintegrated like a walnut shell. My last memory is of the umpire and a frightened-looking Mel Grubka hunched over me at the plate. Then I blacked out. Later that evening, I learned from teammates that I’d brushed myself off, trotted to first and stole second base. I have no recollection of that at all.
The experience finished me as a hitter, even though I played for seven years in city leagues and American Legion, and at Cheektowaga Central High and Buffalo State College. I became a “foot-in-the-bucket”batter, stepping toward third base on every pitch. Not that I would have made the majors-or even the minors-even without that glitch! (Interestingly, that bad habit went away in my thirties, and I had no trouble keeping my feet still even against top minor league pitching.)
Again I force myself to concentrate as I wait in the on-deck circle. The young pitcher goes into his windup and fires. Deja-vu! The ball smashes into the batter’s back and bounces high in the air. It lands on me. The hitter is all right, and after shaking off the pain he takes first base. I stride to home plate. The hurler looks me over carefully. His first pitch is in the strike zone and I foul it off to the right.
The second pitch is below my knees, and the third well outside. With the count in my favor I elect to swing only at a fastball in my favorite area, just below the letters on the inside part of the plate. It arrives. I snap my wrists and follow through, but I’m a trifle late and foul the pitch back.
“What’s the count, ump?” barks the catcher.
Poised with bat held high, I watch the pitcher stretch and fire. The ball hops hard across the plate, but at collar level.
“Ball three! Full count.”
For the first time I become aware of my name being called by a dozen or more players.
“Come on, Hank! Stick him! ”
I dig my cleats into the earth and shut out the sounds. I feel good up there. It’s only natural that I am doing what I must have done 10,000 times before: playing a kid’s game with a ball and bat. The difference is that I am no longer a kid.
The pitcher fires again and I see the ball break. I swing hard and anticipate the kerr-CHUNK and the sweet sensation in my forearms as the ball booms northward.
With more savvy than I, however, the pitcher has mixed his speeds well. I am a fraction ahead of the ball.
Disgusted with myself, I resist the impulse to gnaw on my bat and march back to the bench. Over by the backstop a fan shiftshiscigar to let words escape his mouth. “Hey, you! ” he shouts. “What kind of ball did he throw ya?”
“Not sure,” I mumble, humbled but still a wise apple. “Either a Spaulding or a Rawlings, I suppose.”
With new determination I rejoin the Bears for theirgame against the Orlando Twins. Alou meets me as I lope over to the bench.”You’re leading off,” he says and ambles away to coach.
As I grab a bat, second baseman Mike Gates steps along side me. “Slider and fastball,” he grunts.
“How do you know?” I ask, slapping on my helmet.
“His name is Ed Hodges,” says Gates, a newcomer to Denver. “I batted against him in the Southern League and up in an Alaska all-star game in ’78.”
“Slider and fastball, huh? Do you always remember who you’ve batted against?”
“Always,” he nods. While the ball is zinged to second and then around the horn, I glance over to the Orlando bench.
“What the hell is HIS name?” one of the players calls to another.
Max Hellweg, my photographer on many assignments over the last two years, turns away from his camera. “His name is Hank,” he says. “He’s the writer doing a story.”
“Uh-oh,” says the player. “He’s the writer? Somebody better tell Hodges. He don’t know who he’s pitching to.”
“Don’t you dare,” Max says with a snarl. “Hank’s worked for this assignment. Let him face the guy’s best stuff.”
“All right,” shrugs the Orlando player. “He’s got a helmet on, I guess.”
Good grief! Tell him, tell him, I think as I hold the bat high, choking up slightly this time in hope of making contact.
Hodges works quickly. His first pitch is dead across the middle at thigh level. I swing hard but over the ball, sending a tipped foul straight back into the catcher’s groin. Several seconds pass as he recovers.
“You okay?” I ask.
“No,” he grimaces, but resumes his crouch anyway.
The count works up to two and two. Despite what Gates told me, Hodges winds up and fires a curve. Too late I realize the ball is going to fall right off the plate, and I chase the bad pitch for strike three. The ball glances off the catcher’s glove
and rolls away. Still hobbled by my foul tip, he chases it a few feet while I lumber to first. When I’m six feet from the bag, the ball splits the first baseman’s webbing and the umpire’s thumb shoots out.
So much for my professional baseball career.
Back at the motel, I mosey inside a still-unmade room to see Phil Rosenberg. Also in the room is pitcher Joe Hesketh, who has known Rosenberg for five years. The two were once bulwarks of the University of Buffalo pitching staff, and both are hard-nosed, talented competitors. But Hesketh’s future is bright. Last year, his first as a pro, the Blasdell (NY) native, 22, had a 9-2 overall record for West Palm Beach and Memphis. Montreal thought so much of him that they invited him to their major league camp this year. Phil Rosenberg, on the other hand, is leaving camp.
As am I.
I mumble an apology to Rosenberg for muffing the ground ball while he was on the mound.
“It’s okay,” he grins wryly. “You just cost me my whole friggin’ career, that’s all.”
Turning serious, he takes all responsibility. “I left my curve behind in the bullpen and had to rely on the fastball. I just didn’t throw up to my potential. I got behind the hitter and then had to come straight in.”
Rosenberg says he has no hard feelings toward the Expos, and I tell him what Fanning had said to me a few hours before: “‘Telling a young player he can’t have the life he’s always wanted is a very hard thing, particularly if it’s a kid you’ve signed and worked with year after year. You never get used to it, never.’ ”
Rosenberg nods and rubs a thick index finger across his moustache. “Without a doubt it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” he admits.”Playing baseball was my boyhood dream. Now I’ll go to work as an electrician and hope something will come up. All I want is someone to give me one more chance.”
“You’ll get it,” I say.
“Yeah,” he responds, his face brightening. “A pitcher doesn’t reach his peak until he’s 28. And I’m only 21. ”
Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.