Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Prospects

Unless you were there, it didn’t matter.

The closest I ever came to earning a check in baseball was in the summer of 1981, the strike year, selling minor league baseball tickets over the phone for the International League, Triple- A Columbus (Ohio) Clippers. I was a boiler-room pitchman, reading from a script, cold-calling hundreds of businesses a day for some stupid, spurious “Business Night” promotion. Most weeks I made less than $100, a dispirited take that soon precipitated my move to Boston.

There was just one perk – free tickets.  No matter how many tickets I didn’t sell, I could still get two free box seats for every game, right behind the plate, where the scouts and player’s families, wives and girlfriends sat.  I managed to catch about 30 games  and due to the strike, the IL had a fair number of prospects as big league clubs stashed talent there that in any other year might have been playing in the big leagues – guys like Cal Ripken, Von Hayes, Brett Butler, and from Pawtucket, Marty Barrett, Wade Boggs (who won the batting title by less than a point), Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst and Bobby Ojeda (they still finished sixth, 67-73).

Although the Clippers had a few prospects on the roster – most notably slugging Brockton native Steve “Boom Boom” Balboni (“Bye Bye” when he struck out), SS Andre Robertson (who broke his neck in a car wreck and was never the same) and 20-year old pitcher Gene Nelsen, (later a valuable head –hunting reliever for Oakland) -- most of the roster was a bunch of “4-A” re-treads that couldn’t quite make it at the next level – Marshall Brant, “Uptown” Bobby Brown, Dave Stegman. For them, Columbus was more a destination than a stepping stone. The irony of the enormous graveyard just beyond Cooper Stadium’s right field fence wasn’t lost on anyone who played there.

The two guys I most remember were two of the oldest guys on the team, both of whom started out in the Red Sox organization. Wayne Harer, 29, was a slender, switch-hitting, walk machine of an outfielder with little power. In 1977, his first year at Pawtucket, he hit .350 with an OBP of. 451, leading the league in both categories, yet wasn’t called up to Boston. A year later, he hit just .247 and his career stopped one rung shy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. In 1981 for Columbus, he was just another .270 hitter with no pop, one year away from retirement.

The other guy was outfielder-DH Dave Coleman, 30, an 18th round pick by Boston in 1969. He had some right-handed power, an almost prospect who had the misfortune to reach Triple-A at the same time as Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.  With Yaz and Dewey already in place, he got  lost in the shuffle, the fifth or sixth best outfielder in an organization there the top four all had a shot at Cooperstown.  Nevertheless, he managed to make the team in 1977 and debuted on April 13, pinch-hitting for Denny Doyle and popping up to shortstop.  It didn’t get any better from there, and he was sent down after only nine games another 12 plate appearances, one walk, one run and one strikeout on his career line. Even though he twice hit more than 20 home runs in Triple-A, he never got another chance. He made the book, and saw Fenway up close, but his MLB batting average is forever .000.   

Columbus won the regular season and played Rochester in the first round of the “Governor’s Cup,” playoffs. The Clippers dropped the first two games of the best-of-five series to the Ripken-less Red Wings, then the series returned to Columbus and the Clippers evened it up. The game five would play winner would play  Richmond for the Cup. The loser would go home, and if that was Columbus, that meant Dave Coleman’s career would end.

Now, memory being what it is, what happened next gets a little murky – you can’t find everything on the Internet-- but I remember most of it. I do know game five went 10 innings, and because school was back in session, there were only a few hundred fans in the stands. I’m pretty sure Gene Nelsen pitched the whole game for Columbus. And with the Clippers batting in the bottom of the 10th, I think there were two runners on base, and one of them may have been Harer. The score was either tied 1-1 or the Clippers were down 1-0.  Then ready-to-retire Dave Coleman, he of the non-existent career major league batting average, came to the plate in what was conceivably the last at bat of his career, his Ted Williams moment.

I can see it still, a hard line drive soaring high over the shortstop’s head.

Then it all gets blurry. Did it split the outfielders, hit the wall, go over the fence?  Damned if I know.  I do remember runners racing toward home, players running from the dugout, all tumult and shouting… and then a celebration, guys who were never going to make the majors hugging guys who were going to, and somewhere in the middle – Dave Coleman, the hero of the moment, being pummeled and praised and lifted up. And then I saw Wayne Harer, another guy going nowhere, heading toward the stands, a bottle of cheap champagne in his hand, shaking it and spraying it over our heads, then taking a big swig, and passing it into the stands, erasing the line, celebrating that this season, and Coleman’s career, would last – what?  A few more days?  Just to play another game no one would ever remember, before a few hundred fans, for a trophy no one cared about?  

Yeah.  Exactly that.
from Boston Baseball July 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I can still remember the last pitch.

My father was a fan, but not a big fan. No one in my family was, but baseball grabbed me when I was only three or four and never let go. If it was too dark to play ball when my father got home from work I would have a fit, so he installed floodlights in the backyard. Then, no matter how tired he was from working a 12 or 14 hour day in construction, we could still play ball.

Most of my memories of my father are somehow wrapped around a baseball - playing catch, him taking me to games or watching me pitch. It was the one way we really connected. But in high school I tore my rotator cuff and had to stop playing. We didn’t have as much to talk about after that.

Almost twenty years later my shoulder healed and I joined an adult league, one in Boston and later, another in Worcester County, where I then lived. For three or four years I was in both leagues and played forty, fifty games each summer, usually pitching and playing first or third.

I’d call home every week and for the first time since I was a kid my conversations with my father were wrapped around baseball again. I sent him the ball after I won a game for the first time since I was 16-years old, and a T-shirt I got for making the league all-star team. I was as proud of each as of any book I’ve ever written, and so was he.

In April of 1996, the week my daughter was born, Pop was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had ignored the symptoms for too long and his doctor told him he had a year to live, give or take a week, and to enjoy the time he had. My mother had died a few years before and my father re-married, the widow of a man who my father pulled from a burning plane when he was in the Navy, an old family friend. That July he and my stepmother loaded up the RV and he drove out for his final visit.

I had a ballgame, the last one of the year. I was new to my team and we were not very good and I had not been much help. We were playing a team that had already beaten us once and needed only to beat us again to make the playoffs.

Half our team didn’t even show up, but it was a beautiful summer Saturday morning and old Soldier’s Field in Douglas, Massachusetts sparkled like a postcard, dew on the grass glinting in the sun. My dad and stepmother, my wife and baby daughter, my brother, and our neighbors and their kids all sat together in the bleachers, half the crowd.

Before the game our manager muttered “We’re gonna get killed today.” For the first few innings it appeared as if he were right. We played like we did not want to be there and were trailing 5 - 0 in the fourth when I led off with a single, a soft line drive. From the bleachers I could hear his voice again. “Alright!”

That’s the only thing my father ever said at a game - “Alright!” I was happy to get a hit in front of him and some sloppy baseball netted us a couple runs to make it respectable. But when our pitcher put a few guys on in the bottom of the inning it looked hopeless. My manager waved me over from third and even though I had pitched in Boston two days before and my arm was still sore and my legs were shot, I took the ball anyway, just like my father had gone into the backyard all those evenings after working 14 hour days. I was his son. A pop-up, a strikeout and a groundball wrapped around a walk got us out of the inning.

Something happened. We started making impossible plays and improbable hits, rallying against one of the best pitchers in the league. I wiggled through the fifth and sixth, and in the bottom of the inning, down by one with runners on second and third, I bounced a single through the middle. Now now we led by a run and I needed only three outs for the win. “Alright!”

I had nothing but somehow got two outs and then, with runners on first and second, the batter hit a ground ball down the first base line. I sprinted over to field the ball and end the game.

It felt like someone hit the back of my leg with a ball-peen hammer. I went down hard.  My first baseman picked up the ball too late. The batter raced to first on an infield hit, loading the bases, as my hamstring started to hemorrhage.

I tried to stand and fell. I couldn’t throw another pitch.

I saw him sitting in the stands and I pulled myself up.

Limping to the rubber, using all arm and one leg, I somehow got the count to 3-2. With two outs, a one-run lead, the bases loaded and all the runners moving, I threw the last pitch my father would ever see me throw, a fastball down and away.

Another grounder to my left. I reacted, but I was too late. My first baseman ranged into the hole to make the play.

I lurched toward first, muscle fibers popping with each stride. He flipped the ball ahead of me. I could hear the baserunner coming down the line as the winning run tore toward home.

The throw was wide. I stretched and reached out with my bare hand. My hamstring exploded as I snatched the throw from the air. My foot, then the runner’s, hit the base and I fell, holding the ball tight in my fist.



That afternoon I sat on my front porch with my father, drinking beer, a bag of ice under my thigh, talking about the game. He told me he was not surprised I had stayed in and that we had won, that I still played the game the way I always had, hard, just like he had taught me.

He meant it. After this one small miracle I wanted to think there would be another, but I knew better. The following spring, one week before my daughter’s first birthday, only a few days before opening day, Pop was gone.

From June 11 thru June 16 - Father’s Day - Major League Baseball will support the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s Home Run Challenge. For more information about prostate cancer visit and talk with your health professional about prostate cancer testing. 
This column first appeared in slightly different form in Boston Baseball, June 2010. I re-post it every Father's Day.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Requiem for Fenway

Fenway Center. Sounds like a dirge.

Sometimes, when the end is near, you can just tell. And when I first heard the words “Fenway Center” I heard a death knell to Fenway Park, two virulent cells that when paired together marked the start of a massive metastasizing cancer. Over the next decade or two it will slowly eat away at the ballpark until Fenway Park reaches its final stage, a tombstone masquerading as a hotel or some similar other monstrosity.

First the details: Fenway Center is a $500 million dollar (which probably means $1 billion with cost over-runs) multi-use development (AKA “buildings for the wealthy”) of parking garages (wherefore art thou, Frank McCourt?), retail space (more Au Bon Pains!) and over 500 apartments (10% of which will be “affordable,” which means you’ll never see the inside of the other 90%, presumably the “unaffordable”), in five buildings, some of which will be built atop the Mass Pike. According to developer John Rosenthal, “This project is going to transform ugly, underutilized lots and windswept bridges into a vibrant new neighborhood. “ In other words, it’s gonna make a lot of people rich and inconvenience almost everyone else. 

Me? I’ve always kind of liked ugly, underutilized lots and windswept bridges, particularly those around Fenway Park. It meant that more of Fenway was visible. As ballparks go, Fenway is squat, but from certain vantage points it was still possible to see almost the entire park. And I’ve always loved the way it fit the decaying old quasi-commercial area of laundries and garages and cheesy nightclubs. But no more. They’ve already made the park itself a playground for the wealthy; now they’re running down the rest of the neighborhood. Fenway Park is just a prop for profit.

Even the name is wrong. Future Bostonians erroneously will come to think of “Fenway Center” as, you know, the “center” of the Fenway even though Fenway Center is, technically, not even in what has traditionally been considered “the Fenway” at all. No matter—nothing stops progress. Besides, I admit that “Ugly Center,” “Windswept Center” and “Underutilized Center” just don’t sound right, although personally, I am kind of partial to the accuracy of “Ugly Underutilized Windswept Center.” That’s the kind of neighborhood I always used to look for, because that was the kind of neighborhood I could afford to live in. Hell, when I first moved to Boston, that pretty much described the whole city, which, along with a gloriously rundown Fenway Park, is why I came here in the first place.

However, the most insidious impact of “Fenway Center” will be invisible—at least for a while. The development will make the rest of the land around Fenway Park, heretofore known as “properties,” worth even more, and you know what that means: enough is never enough. Much of this land is owned by the Red Sox and the temptation to exploit it will be impossible to resist. After all, by then, it will be the last ugly, underutilized windswept center in the area. In another decade or so I suspect that Fenway Park will begin to look like the courtyard at the Boston Public Library, a little tiny oasis full of pigeons, surrounded by granite and sullen workers. The team will celebrate the day actual sunlight reaches the field each season like the summer solstice at Stonehenge, complete with (yet another) surprise appearance by Neil Diamond. 

And someday soon, someone–perhaps a particularly well-connected real estate developer– will wake up one morning, look around, bat her eyelashes and say “Honey, why don’t we …” The next thing he knows the breakfast silver will be on the floors and he’ll be looking at a big fat roll of architectural drawings for “Historical Fenway Park Heritage Memorial Field of Dreams Center Plaza.” 

Oh, they won’t tear the historic little bandbox down. The Green Monster will form the backdrop to another Au Bon Pain, the Pesky Pole will be used as a flagpole on the roof, the historic trough urinals will be taken out of storage and used as planters, and they’ll offer you the opportunity to buy back your commemorative brick, but you get the idea. There will be a 30-story megamulticomplex rising above the footprint and a commemorative Whiffle Ball field on the roof available for corporate rentals and photo-ops with poor kids. And they’ll build another ballpark—somewhere. After all, there’s only one Fenway and you only get this kind of opportunity once.

Glomming on, it’s the new American pastime.

 (This column first appeared in Boston Baseball June 2013)

Glenn Stout really did move to Boston because of Fenway Park and the abundance of slum housing. He is the author of many books, including the award-winning best-seller Fenway 1912, and edits the award winning SBNation Longform page. For more see @GlennStout