Charlie Briley is a ramrod-straight, Southern-bred gentleman with a shock of silver hair and a face profoundly furrowed by the good life. On this spring night, seated as always on his stool at the crook of the bar in his Pink Pony restaurant, he is haunted by the suspicion that something is up.
And with good reason. It is his 70th birthday, after all, and so far, at eight o'clock, the occasion has gone unrecognized. As he warily takes in the scene around him, Charlie is struck by what seems to him an exaggerated calm. It's as if his normally animated patrons are operating at reduced capacity. Why, just look at Billy Martin, will you, sitting there solemnly toying with his beer, agitating no one, looking the very soul of innocence. He's obviously up to something. Miguel (Mike) Murphy, the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse man, who's ordinarily about as subdued as a rock guitarist, is examining his fingernails, smiling serenely. He must be in on it. Ray Shore, the dapper Phillies scout, appears to be in deep conversation with his wife. Sure. Don Sutton, the gifted and talkative pitcher, has his eyes on the front door. Expecting someone? And there at a table are Chub Feeney, the National League president, and Bill Rigney, the Oakland A's executive, two of Charlie's oldest and best customers. Now these two old friends can generally be counted on to dredge up hilarious memories from their rich past with the Giants or to noisily dispute the check—Chub insisting Rig should pay. Rig protesting it's Chub's turn. This night they are sitting there as orderly and polite as choirboys. And where's Gwen, Mrs. Briley? Well, she's at the door where she's supposed to be, but why does she keep looking down at Charlie's end of the bar? Probably to make sure he doesn't get away, a thought that has certainly occurred to Charlie. He is, above all, a man of a certain dignity, and the unexpected tends to unnerve him. It's the unexpected he expects on this, his birthday.
It comes. Along about 8:30, a female police officer strides purposefully through the front door and heads straight for Charlie. "You're under arrest," she tells him. Before Charlie can demand his rights, she leads him to the middle of the room and handcuffs him to a chair. The crowd at the bar forms a circle around him, and to his amazement and chagrin, the officer removes her badge, then her hat, and finally, just about everything else. Conduct unbecoming an officer! A mariachi band appears out of nowhere, and with the nearly naked ersatz cop prancing before him, everyone sings, "Happy Birthday." Charlie wants to crawl into a hole. "Oh Charlie, oh Charlie!" cries Rita Lim, the tiny waitress from Singapore, in a voice that rings like wind chimes. She is laughing sympathetically from her perch atop one of the booths. Billy is dancing with Gwen. Sutton, the future 300-game winner, brings in the birthday cake from the kitchen, announcing to all, "I'm the world's highest-paid busboy." And the party is under way in earnest. At least it is as soon as Charlie is unchained from his chair.
Just another night at the Pink Pony? Well, not quite. But take away the milestone birthday and, certainly, the stripper—as Charlie, whose sense of propriety is positively Victorian, surely would have—and the scene on that March 25th of last year wouldn't exactly be unrepresentative of life in Charlie Briley's steak house in Scottsdale, Ariz. during spring training. Certainly the cast of illustrious characters would be about right, for from late February to early April every year, the Pony, as the regulars call it, is beyond argument the most popular hangout for baseball people in the civilized world.
Briley's joint is in the great tradition of hangouts, one that dates at least to the late 16th century, when Benny Jonson, Walt Raleigh and the boys hoisted a few down at the Mermaid Tavern on Bread Street. Hangouts are not to be confused with establishments like, say, Elaine's in New York City or the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, where auslanders habitually wander in to ogle the resident deities. That's not possible in the Pony in the spring because there are more celebrities than outsiders. And the locals have developed an immunity to stargazing. "In any other place, these baseball people might be worshiped and bothered," says year-round Pony patron Bill Anderson, a 68-year-old retired sea captain. "Here, nobody gives a damn. I've been here when there've been 17 Hall of Famers around. You get used to it."
The Pony is much the way you would imagine Valhalla to be—a comfortable spot where famous folks sit around having a helluva good time. The spring clientele is, of course, special. Most ace hangouts appeal to special people, whether they be newspapermen, Broadway types or the literati. We need look no further than the Algonquin Round Table. With the Pony, the talk is mostly baseball, although the conversation can take some unusual turns. Consider the following overheard Pony dialogue, for instance, between Rigney, baseball's ranking oral historian and the father of a poetess, and Oakland A's broadcaster Bill King, another .400 talker and a student of Russian history. Here's how it went:
King: Let's have just one more, Rig. Then I've got to get back to my room and watch Chernenko's funeral. You were saying?
Rig (with characteristic flamboyance): I was saying that Ferris Fain [American League batting champion in 1951 and '52] was one of the best damn hitters of his time. But, oh my, what a guy! You couldn't keep him out of fights. We called him Burrhead. Once we were in this fine restaurant together, and Burr-head thinks he detects an insult coming from, the next table. Now, just like that, he's got this poor innocent guy by the collar and is shaking him like a puppy. Somebody tells him to lay off and Burrhead looks around and says, "Wait your turn, pal. You're next."
King: The new man is Gorbachev, accent on the last syllable.
Rig: But Burrhead could sure hit.