This time of year has always been pretty melancholy for me. Fall is beautiful, especially up here in Minnesota. The leaves are ablaze and falling to the ground with every gust of wind. The temps have cooled, and can be downright chilly on some days. The sky is clear, and is more royal blue than any color palate can offer.
Fall can only lead to winter. As a kid, I feared autumn. I knew what was coming. Growing up in St. Louis, however, is quite different than living in Minnesota. Winter in St. Louis, when I was a kid, was typically four or five months of gray days, with some sleet and snow mixed in. It was depressing, for a kid who loved to be outside playing sports. Here, it’s much colder and much snowier, but everyone knows what to expect and deals with it. Many Minnesotans will tell you they enjoy summer, but they live through it and fall just to get back to winter. They ice fish. They snowmobile. They ski. I typically just hunker down, but I deal with it too. I’d rather have -2 degrees and sunny, with bright white snow on the ground, than yet another miserable day at 31 with freezing rain.
So, welcome back to the blog! It’s been a bit of a slog the last few weeks, as we go through a redesign and update. Any of you who work in this field, or have people who work for you, understand how technical and challenging it is to make things like this happen. There are glitches, things go missing, things are different, and it’s never easy. Especially for a blogger like me who likes his comfort zone. You need to be comfortable with your platform to allow your brain to disengage from the technology and just focus on the words. But, we’re back. I hope. As late as yesterday I was getting copied on emails that addressed more issues with the new look and the new tech. Fingers crossed.
There are still some things missing or different, but let’s just move forward. And that means we start fresh today!
It’s a good melancholy day for more memories…
On this day, in 1985, I was at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis thanks to the largesse of the Toronto Blue Jays. I had left my scouting position with the Jays a year and a half earlier, but when the Cardinals made the playoffs I got a call from GM (and future Hall of Famer) Pat Gillick to ask me if I wanted any tickets for the Cardinals home games versus the Dodgers. I was working for Converse at the time, and had a busy travel schedule, but I was free (or could make myself free) on October 15. It was a day game. I’ve often written about Pat Gillick, both here and in my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” to mention how gracious, supportive, and kind he was to me when I was a scout for the team. I was young (the youngest scout in MLB) and although I’d been to a million games with my dad when he was scouting, only some of the techniques and knowledge had soaked in. I had a lot to learn, but I did my best. The Blue Jays were in the playoffs as well, playing the Royals, so the very fact that Pat would reach out to me, an ex-employee, when he was clearly swamped with playoff details, tells you all you need to know about him.
I went down to Busch, by myself, on that incredible sunny fall day. The weather was perfect. The excitement was high. Pennant fever was in the air. There’s nothing like that!
It was a best-of-seven series, and the Dodgers had won the first two out in LA. The Cardinals came back to win the first two of the three games in St. Louis. This was Game 5. Whoever won would go back to Dodger Stadium with an edge.
It was tied, 2-2, in the 9th. In the bottom of the inning, the great Cardinal Ozzie Smith came to the plate. The Wizard of Oz himself. He would be facing hard-throwing right-hander Tom Niedenfuer when he came to the plate. As a switch hitter, that made the diminutive Ozzie bat left-handed. As he took his place in the batter’s box, I didn’t know the following detail: In more than 2,900 at-bats as a left-handed hitter, Ozzie had never hit a home run. Never. Not one. I learned later that the television crew, covering the game nationally, put a graphic up that pointed that detail out. As Bob Costas later said in a recent Jack Buck documentary, “That might have been the most prescient graphic ever put on the screen.”
Niedenfuer wound up and delivered. I can still hear the crack of the bat. A long fly to right. The right-fielder went back but it was well over his head. Home run, just above the right field wall. A walk-off winner for the Redbirds. The entire stadium was delirious, and “Crazy” beyond belief. I quote the word “Crazy” on purpose. The great Jack Buck made yet another of his epic and perfect calls of such a moment, on KMOX radio in St. Louis.
“Smith corks one into right down the line! It may go… GO CRAZY folks, GO CRAZY! It’s a home run, and the Cardinals have won the game, by the score of three to two… on a home run… By the Wizard!”
It was such a gorgeous day. It was such an improbable (impossible?) outcome. I drove home with the sunroof open on my car, taking as many scenic backroads as I could, rather than just flying down the freeways. I drove through Forest Park, past Washington University, out through Clayton, into Ladue, through Creve Coeur, and out to Maryland Heights, then to my house in distant St. Peters. The leaves were just like they are here right now. The scenery was stunning. St. Louis can be such a beautiful place if you know where to look. I never stopped smiling or reliving the moment the whole way. I’m still reliving it. It was a beautiful day.
As much as Ozzie’s moment was historic, it bears mention that Jack Buck always made a very difficult job seem easy. In the great moments, the ones when everyone went bonkers, he somehow managed to keep his focus and not just utter the outcome, but also come up with quotes for the ages. When Kirk Gibson stunned the world with a game-winning home run against the A’s in the World Series, pinch hitting on basically one leg, Buck didn’t just call it on the national radio broadcast, he added “I can’t believe, what I just saw” with perfect timing and emphasis. Totally unplanned. Totally perfect.
When Kirby Puckett homered to keep the Twins alive in the World Series against the Braves, in 1991, with a dramatic 11th inning homer in Game 6 at the Metrodome, it was “And we’ll see you, tomorrow night!” Perfect.
Those are great memories, and the Ozzie home run is appropriate on this date, 35 years later.
And a side note: Ozzie hit that homer off Tom Niedenfuer, a hulking hard-thrower. In 1980, as a rookie regional scout for the Blue Jays, I was assigned to cover the huge (mammoth) NBC tournament in Wichita, a gathering of great amateur summer teams from around the country. It was a marathon of an assignment, but I had my Blue Jays scouting buddy Tim Wilken there with me. In one game, a team from the Alaska League (one of the best collegiate summer leagues in the country) was playing and Niedenfuer came in to pitch. After the game, I dashed back to the hotel (no cell phones then) and called Pat Gillick directly, to tell him what I’d just seen. I said, “Pat, he can pitch in the big leagues tomorrow.” Pat said he’d check with the regional scout who covered him in college, at Washington State. He called me back and said “Our guy out there didn’t rate him very highly, but you think he can pitch, huh?” I said I did. The radar gun and my eyes were impressed. Maybe our guy out there saw him on a cold wet day in the Pacific Northwest. In Wichita, it was 100 degrees. He was firing. Pat believed in me enough to give me a dollar figure I could offer. It was generous for a kid who was effectively a free-agent just looking to get signed. The Dodgers out-bid me by double. But, what meant a lot to me was the fact the GM of the Blue Jays believed in his young rookie scout enough to take my word for it and give me a chance.
Moving on… We’re also living through some very sad times in terms of baseball right now. One after another, some of the all-time greats are leaving this mortal planet. Tom Seaver, Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Whitey Ford. All gone. And now the latest loss, of Joe Morgan.
I’ve seen and heard a lot of people who “blame” all this on the year 2020, which has no doubt been awful, but the year isn’t to blame. The passing of time is to blame.
With that in mind, it occurred to me that what we’re really seeing is a look back in time. These legends were all part of an era in the game of baseball that was incredibly special, that being the 1960s and the early 70s. There were so many great players, many of them the best of all time. It’s now 2020. We’re all only here on this planet for a while, and the plethora of great players from that era are at the end of their lives. I had the honor to know both Gibby and Lou, thanks to my Cardinals’ connections. Gracious men. Fierce competitors. Great players.
As a kid, I attended too many games at old Busch Stadium (aka Sportsman’s Park) with my dad, to count. Then, in Busch Stadium II, my mom worked for the Cardinals in 1967 and 1968, and we had four season tickets right behind home plate. I saw so many games, and so much greatness, but I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time.
On any given afternoon or night, it might be Gibson versus Koufax, or Drysdale, or Jenkins, or Seaver, or Marichal. Amazing. It could be Lou Brock stealing base number 105 to break Maury Wills’ stolen base record, sliding in feet-first like he always did. What a way to grow up. If ballparks had DNA, I’d have a good dose of both the old St. Louis parks in me.
And then the final bit of sadness, and this one is music related. Eddie Van Halen passed away just earlier this month.
To be honest, I was never really a fan of the band Van Halen when they were becoming popular. Don’t judge. Music taste is personal, just like your taste in food. I just didn’t appreciate what they were doing at a time when I was really deeply into serious music. Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Kansas and, a bit later, Rush. I thought Van Halen was too much of a drunken party band, and a lot of that had to do with singer David Lee Roth, who I genuinely considered a lousy vocalist and basically a buffoon. The songs weren’t serious, they were sophomoric. But I knew Eddie Van Halen could play.
It wasn’t until later in life that I finally understood that. I think when Sammy Hagar replaced Roth it allowed me to get more into what the band was doing, and that meant watching Eddie play in ways he actually invented or adapted to his own amazing style. He changed the way truly great players could attack the guitar. He changed music.
But what I found out I loved about him was his personality on stage. While many talented guitarists are so serious about their playing they tend to make grimacing faces when hitting those technical notes, Eddie Van Halen relished playing the guitar, especially at the moments when he was doing mind-bending finger gymnastics on the fret board. He played with joy. Pure joy. He ran around the stage like a kid, jumping and twirling. He was almost always smiling on stage, even laughing, because he loved it so much. I didn’t know how sad I would be when he left us. I knew it the minute I heard the news. I’ve been soaking up videos every day since. Rest in peace, Eddie Van Halen. You changed music.
And here’s a little tidbit I just learned due to his passing. When Michael Jackson was reaching his zenith, one of the great songs that pushed him even higher was “Beat It.” It’s a fabulously constructed song, and on MTV the video was in constant rotation.
There’s an epic guitar solo in the middle of that song. It’s Eddie Van Halen playing that solo. Once I heard that bit of trivia I had to give it a listen again. Amazing stuff. Now, listening to it with the advantage of the passing of all this time, I can hear it and say “Of course that’s Eddie Van Halen. That’s his sound, popping the strings on the frets.”
We’ve lost a lot of greatness this year. We’ve lost a lot of Americans. We’ve lost friends and loved ones. We’ve lost jobs, and restaurants, and movie theaters, and live sports. We’ve lost a lot of joy, but we’ve persevered and we need to keep doing that. This demon virus isn’t going away any time soon.
We could use a fresh Eddie Van Halen solo right about now. We need the joy and boyish energy.
It’s good to be back here. I hope you enjoy the new look of the site and I urge you to take a look around at the whole thing. My brother Del does great work with this charity, and I know he faces big challenges to keep it going.
I’ll see you next week. Take care, be safe, and wear your mask!
And if you like the words here, or even just the look of it, please click on the “Like” button below. I always appreciate that!
Bob Wilber, at your service and missing so many great ones.
PS: Well, I just posted this and see that the photos won’t enlarge when you click on them. I thought we had that sorted out weeks ago. I’ll work on it and hope to get that fixed. Sorry!