A story for your Father’s Day:
We were at old Colt Stadium, the aging, decrepit home of the team then known as the Houston Colt .45s. This was 1962, an expansion year for Major League Baseball. The neophyte Colt .45s were biding their time, waiting for the Astrodome to be built just across the parking lot. That night, the .45s, who were terrible, played the San Francisco Giants, who were splendid and headed to the World Series.
These were the Giants of Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. Those Giants also included Jim “Peanuts” Davenport, the reason we were there. Davenport, my dad’s close friend and the Giants third baseman, invited us into the Giants dugout and clubhouse before the game and got us tickets right behind the Giants first base dugout.
This was my first Major League game. The only things bigger than my eyes that night might have been the Texas-sized mosquitoes, who apparently loved sweaty, little nine-year-old Mississippi boys.
We were there early for batting practice and watched the Giants — Cepeda and McCovey, in particular — blast towering home runs far beyond the fences. McCovey, nicknamed “Stretch,” was a mountain of a man. When he shook my hand, his fingers came up nearly to my elbow.
Both McCovey and Mays were especially nice to us. In retrospect, it had to be because of Davenport, our host. McCovey, Mays and Davenport were all Alabama natives. (This was a good lesson to a nine-year old Mississippi boy in 1962, a year of so much racial turmoil in Mississippi. Davenport was white, Mays and McCovey black, and they clearly liked and respected one another as friends, as well as teammates.)
Once they began to play ball, Dad was careful to point out all the nuances of the game: How Davenport stayed down on ground balls; how Mays, no matter how hard he swung, always kept his eyes on the ball; how the catcher changed his hand signals when a runner reached second base; etc. At one point, Davenport took a wicked, bad-hop ground ball off his chest and threw the batter out at first.
“See Rickey,” Dad said, “you can’t always catch it, but you can always block it if you stay down on it.”
Meanwhile, all I could imagine was the bruise on Davenport’s chest.
My dad was a baseball man. He had been a semi-pro catcher. He knew the sport frontwards and backwards. Of course, I thought he knew everything about everything, period. That night, I surely was glad he knew Jim Davenport.
The lowly Colt .45s were hanging right with the Giants, much to the delight of the home crowd. It was a close game, a pitcher’s duel. Houston led San Francisco by a run into the ninth inning. It was the Giants’ last chance. The Giants got a couple runners on base and the Colt .45s changed pitchers, bringing in a rookie. The rookie promptly walked Mays to load the bases, bringing Cepeda, with forearms the size of most folks’ legs, to the plate.
“If that rookie wasn’t nervous before, he is now,” Dad said. “Bases loaded, no place to put him.”
The rookie promptly threw three straight balls, prompting a visit to the mound from the catcher.
Dad pointed out to the orange bleachers beyond the left field fence.
“See those orange seats?” Dad said. “Watch this. Cepeda may hit this next pitch over them.”
Sure enough, when Cepeda hit the next pitch, it sounded like a shotgun blast. The ball kept climbing and climbing and going and going until it landed near the top of the orange seats, a grand slam. I remember looking at the young pitcher. His shoulders slumped. He stared at the ground.
“How did you know?” I asked.
Dad shrugged his shoulders.
Now, of course, I know. The rookie pitcher either had to throw a strike or walk in the tying run. Cepeda, who would hit 379 Major League home runs, was looking for a fast ball right over the plate and that’s what he got.
Me? I got a memory of my father that will last a lifetime.