Brilliant. Where we sec the potential for peril, Van Slyke sees two Portlands. Again the optimism. Again the off-center perspective. The world looks at the sky and sees a hole; Van Slyke sees the ozone. Is it any wonder he is the only man left in baseball who doesn't wear those rose-tinted Oakleys? Andy Van Slyke doesn't need them.
He is in the top 10 in the National League in 11 offensive categories—12 if you include covertly affixing a bubble-gum cud to the cap of an on-camera teammate. And what category could be more offensive than that? Van Slyke has also been known to throw knuckleballs back to the infield when Pirate knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is on the mound, and to do his stretching with a dead weasel on his head (it was, actually, either a very bad coon-skin cap or a very, very bad toupee).
"Andy is a lot more sane than he lets on," cautions Pirate catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere, Van Slyke's teammate for the last eight years in both St. Louis and Pittsburgh. "He comes to play every day. He has a lot of talent, but he works very hard."
You want focus? Van Slyke passed a kidney stone during a game three years ago. Talk about your squeeze plays.
He was not always so driven. As late as his senior year at New Hartford High School, when he was the sixth player taken in the 1979 draft, Van Slyke did not treat baseball as reverently as a boy growing up 30 miles from Cooperstown should. "How seriously could I take it," he asks, "when we only played 18 or 20 games, half of them in the snow?"
The man has a point. Van Slyke preferred basketball to baseball. At 17 he had a three-foot vertical leap, and he led his high school league in scoring two years in a row. He also preferred sleeping to school. Van Slyke woke up each morning at five to eight, grabbed a banana and arrived unshowered in his homeroom two blocks away at five after. If he was ever tardy, well, he had to see his father for the tardy slip. Jim Van Slyke was the principal at New Hartford High.
"One morning I came in late," Andy remembers. "I sat down, and some kid across the room gets up and says, 'Yeah, principal's kid, he comes in whatever time he wants.' I ignored him. He was one of those hoodlum-bully types. So he goes on and on. 'Yeah, Van Slyke, blah blah blah.' " Once again, as Van Slyke tells the story, the part of the hoodlum-bully type is played by the Popeye voice.
"So finally I stood up and told him if he said something else, I was going to come over there and take care of him," Van Slyke says. "I sat down and he stood up again. 'Blah blah blah blah blah.' So I got back up, went over to his desk, grabbed him here"—Van Slyke grabs the back of his own head—"and crunch, crunch, crunch, I started banging his head against the chalkboard. This is homeroom. First thing in the morning."
The two boys were sent to principal Van Slyke's office. He suspended Andy. He let the hoodlum-bully skate. And then the principal told his son: "I'm glad you did it."
Van Slyke was playing a summer-league basketball game when he met Lauri Griffiths of Notre Dame High. Lauri had gone to the game to see Andy's teammate Ron Evans. But Andy asked the gum-chewing girl for some of her Juicy Fruit, then invited her to a Doobie Brothers concert. And Ron? In life, as in high school basketball, you can't let 'em go back door on you, buddy. "I just worked harder than he did," says Van Slyke.