Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Few of Our Participatory Moments in This Great Game of Baseball by Abby & Jesse Mendelson


We concluded our last Zisk piece, a visit to favorite spots in all 30 major league ballparks, with the vision of Jesse working as a volunteer groundskeeper at Nationals Park, “wearing the red shirt, spraying the infield, collecting every stray ball he could.”

Jesse, of course, had a grand time. So did his dad.

So did our editors, who, thoroughly teased, wanted to read more—more!—about our lives both on the field and behind the scenes. Not as fans or visitors or observers but instead as actual participants, albeit in small roles, as part of the larger baseball mosaic.

Let's begin at the beginning. Abby covered the Pirates in the tumultuous '70s, although he missed covering the '79 World Series team by a year (timing is everything). Willie Stargell was clearly the captain, the spiritus loci of that team. Lord of the Permissible, sure, but also Lord of Misrule. A wise, personable, funny man, the sobriquet “Pops” was just right for him, chieftain, elder.

Although rumors abounded about drugs on that team, during all his time in the clubhouse Abby never saw, was never privy to, any of the drugs frequently mentioned, green, white, or any other variety. Sure, he and Seńor Stargell discussed wine a great deal—the Captain was a noted oenologist—but that's where the discussion ended.

What Abby saw in the Pirate clubhouse was mucho card playing and guys shuffling off to the showers, all to a very loud soundtrack, Sister Sledge and her proverbial sisterhood.

At the time, he enjoyed nothing so much as sitting, long after games were over, talking baseball, listening, mostly, with manager Chuck Tanner. A genial man whose career as player, manager, and scout lasted many decades, Tanner loved to reminisce about his time with the Milwaukee Braves, including Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron, often comparing them to Dave Parker, in '78 racing to win his second batting title. Seemingly the Cobra had nowhere to go but up. But, well, substances, weight, bad knees, and the general impossibility of major league baseball got in the way of his plaque—his wing, to hear Tanner tell it—in Cooperstown.

Baseball, as Bart Giamatti reminded us, exists to break your heart.

Dave Parker, as Abby discovered, was like many professional athletes only moreso. He was kind, giving, gracious. He was also boyishly braggadocious, cloyingly self-pitying, and needlessly potty-mouthed.

He demanded to be the highest-paid player in baseball, and was, and was elated.  Elated! For about 15 minutes until another team paid somebody else more.

Then Dave was inconsolable.

In general, though, Abby found him, and most players, to be decent guys, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, really gentle with gentle people. If one speaks to players in a kind, adult, knowledgeable way, they tend to answer in kind. Jerry Reuss was one of those.  Unflinchingly honest and articulate, he was always happy to take time to explain things.  Steve Garvey was another. Joe Morgan, famously pilloried for same as a broadcaster, was a third.

Others, inevitable in any group of disparate people, were less so. One time on the road pitcher John Candelaria, who starred on Abby's All Obnoxious Team, got drunk and tried to pick a fight with Abby, who simply walked away. Once, on the team bus, frustrated future Hall of Famer Bret Blyleven bellowed “I'm tiring of losing,” poured wine into his own shoe, and proceeded to drink, perhaps hoping that the magic of Florsheim would improve the bouquet and his ERA.

It worked, as his plaque in Cooperstown would indicate!

Back in the day there was a great deal of hanging around and a good bit of camaraderie between reporters, players, and club officials. One time, when rumors swirled that the Pirates were considering signing Willie Horton (the aging Detroit slugger and K king, not the notorious Massachusetts convict) for the then-mind-boggling price of $500,000, Abby pulled Buc GM Harding "Pete" Peterson aside and said, "pay me half and I'll strike out for you."

Alas, to this day Abby has not been offered a Pirate contract.

But neither has Horton.

Still, those relationships, and the players' appreciation of those around them, were limited at best. Abby, for example, spent endless hours with Phil Garner, one of the brightest, most articulate professionals of any kind Abby's ever known. One highlight was a longish evening with the Garners at home for a feature on class acts off the field.  Then, upon running into ol' Scrap Iron just a few years later when he was managing another club, Garner had no recollection of Abby at all.

Alas, both fame, and friendships are fleeting.

As are manners sometimes.

Remarkable how thin-skinned some people are, even at the most innocuous questions.  Just ask hot-tempered Tom LaSorda.

Remarkable how rude some are, too. While most players are gracious about autographs, Fernando Valenzuela simply brushed aside every little kid on the way to the team bus. As he did to Jesse on a chance encounter in Cincinnati, when Abby and Jesse were there to see a Reds-Dodgers game.

Class act, Ferdo!

Parenthetically, the man who was astonishingly gracious that day was announcer Vin Scully, who treated 10-year-old Jesse as if he were royalty.

In a different context, but again strictly as a civilian Abby happened to attend a local stag sports dinner. Trying to remain anonymous, he more or less hid in the back. His best efforts to the contrary, he was nevertheless spotted by a member of the press on the dais who pointedly told Abby not to publish anything that he saw or heard that night.  (It was never Abby's intention.) Then the late Pirate announcer Bob "The Gunner" Prince got up, and, with typical panache, called Abby a favored ten-letter expletive.

It was all in good fun, and everyone wept with laughter, no one harder than Abby, who A) embraced the Gunner after the dinner; and B) invariably gets a laugh when he tells that story.

Speaking of broadcast, Abby had a neat moment in the 80s when he wrote and directed a commercial for the United Way. With a corporate CEO in town, he had fan favorite and erstwhile slugger Mike “Rambo” Diaz trading high fives about the fine art of giving.  As if that weren't neat enough, Abby was onfield at the exact moment that Jesse’s day camp was taking a stadium tour. Sweet!

For a time, Abby wrote program pieces, current and historical, for the Pirates. As an adjunct member of the PR department, he and Jesse entered Three Rivers Stadium through the press and players gate. One afternoon he happened upon Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez—young, healthy, traveling the country, enjoying an interrupted string of successes that led to a newly minted contract, eating in the best restaurants, and, for heaven's sake, being paid to play baseball. Man, Abby smiled, you must be having the time of your life!

Fernandez, seemingly surprised by the question, reacted as if the thought had never occurred to him. “Yeah,” he allowed, “I guess so.”

Teenaged Jesse couldn't understand how Alex wasn't jumping for joy, especially as he missed the entire following season due to an injury and was never the same pitcher.

While Abby mainly wrote for local Pittsburgh publications, he also had some national by-lines, including a regular spot with a now-defunct baseball magazine. (Abby, in fact, holds the world land record for writing for now-defunct publications, but that's a story for another time.) In New York frequently to cover events, he often went to Yankee Stadium with his editor. One day, talking with Rich Gossage, whom he knew a bit when the future Hall-of-Famer threw for the Pirates, Abby was treated to a long, self-serving Reggie Jackson bleat, along with a mass of wet underwear hurled across the Pete Sheehy Clubhouse. Calmly removing the stinking mass, Abby thought, Gosh, these Pinstripers are really grown up.

Well, perhaps it came from the top down. When he tried to interview then-manager Billy Martin after a loss, the calm, collected Panjandrum of Punch sat in his office chair, picked at his bare feet, and refused to answer any questions. Onward!

Which was nothing compared to the trantrum the oft-fired Yankee skipper threw when Abby, writing for another now-defunct publication, quoted recovering alcoholic and counselor Don Newcombe about some of Mr. Martin’s more notorious activities.  Proclaiming “Foul!” to anyone who would listen to him, Mr. Martin took his beef all the way to the Commissioner’s office, threatening all manner of libel suits. While said antics were somewhat less than, ah, amusing, at least to Abby, when confronted with many well documented examples of his behavior, said Pinstriper simply slunk away in silence.

Speaking of turnabouts, catcher Thurman Munson was notoriously difficult, on and off the field, famed in part for his abject refusal to grant interviews. Perhaps because Abby was an unknown, polite person who asked Munson a few questions, Number Fifteen replied. Turns out it was the last interview Munson ever gave, for he died shortly thereafter in an airplane crash.

Speaking of lasts, the final time we met Willie Stargell was at a breakfast for friends and writers of the Pirates in the late 90s. Jesse, who at the time was a wildly misguided Mets fan, wore a Mets hat to the breakfast. As we entered the room, we met Pops, who simply glared at Jesse and said, “You’re wearing the wrong hat, son.”  While Signor Stargell was assuredly correct, that kind of cutting remark was unlike him. Abby wondered if there was something else wrong. It was not six months later that the announcement was made that Stargell was suffering from a severe, eventually fatal kidney disorder. It was sad to see him fall.

And firsts. Ten-year-old Jesse found himself in the broadcast booth, fulfilling a lifelong dream of calling a ballgame. On a chilly September night, Jesse announced the bottom half of the fourth inning against the Cubs. In his clear, calm, high-pitched child’s voice, he called the game with joy and aplomb. To his left, the longtime voice of the Buccos, Lanny Frattare. To his right, Tim Murphy, then a local psychologist, later a conservative Congressman, still later resigned in mistress-payoff related disgrace.

Fast forward Jesse's career in sports to 2010, Nationals Park. Then a DC resident, Jesse played part-timer on the Nationals grounds crew. There he was, in his red shirts, painting lines, watching bullpen sessions (seeing Ubaldo Jimenez throwing four-seamers up close and in his prime was truly a sight to behold), dragging the infield, watering the mound—all the landscaping that the ballpark needed. One night, some rain unexpectedly came, which gave Jesse two of the greatest thrills of his life, pulling the tarp (run as hard as you can and don’t dare let go), then putting it on (just don’t get soaked). The result: a stadium full of boos followed immediately by a standing ovation. Considering that every ballclub now employs full-time grounds crews, this isn’t an experience that’s coming around on the guitar anytime soon.

A last note. As a member of the sporting press, Abby often went to banquets in various cities. One time in Pittsburgh, attending the annual Dapper Dan, Abby answered a call of nature, and found himself standing next to Jim “Ball Four” Bouton. While Bouton's books were marvelously entertaining, he had become something of a pariah for sharing secrets about many players, including icon Mickey Mantle. Abby wondered, silently, how it felt to be reviled by the official sporting world. Then, given all the dough Bouton was making on the rubber chicken circuit, he must have felt pretty good about it.

Very good, in fact.

Abby Mendelson is a writer and educator in Pittsburgh whose books include histories of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh neighborhoods, houses of worship, and jazz, among others. Jesse Mendelson, his son, is an executive in Washington, D.C., skilled baseball historian like his dad, and highly successful fantasy baseball player.

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