It was a foolish hope. In our warmups under the Southern California sun, I was throwing even worse than before. I was especially inaccurate with Les Lapins' 6'6" first baseman, Bob Rowell, an old friend from undergraduate days at Cal. If you're an infielder and you can't throw to the first baseman, you're in trouble. The game became a horror movie with me playing the idiot who opens the creaking door into the darkened room. I was terrified of what might happen. My only hope, I decided, was to convert even routine grounders into diving stops, so that, scrambling to my feet in a cloud of infield dirt, I might be forgiven if my throws should miss the towering Rowell by 10 feet. As it turned out, I booted the first ball hit to me—who wouldn't have under these dreadful circumstances?—and fielded the next one close enough to second base to make a short flip, not entirely accurate, to shortstop Fregulia for a force-out. I got through the day relatively unscathed, but I was demoralized. The affliction seemed permanent.
There was nothing for me to do but retire, to cut short a career that had looked as if it would take me from swaddling clothes to the tomb. I advised Moose of my decision, and to my immeasurable delight and relief, he told me that he, too, had decided to pack it in. Managing a team of aging sybarites on international and transcontinental road trips had become too much for even his iron constitution. Les Lapins were finished. This was fine with me. No team, no regrets. Alas, neither Moose nor I was true to his vow. The Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco in July '84, and an eastern media softball team captained by NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and featuring New York Governor Mario Cuomo had challenged Les Lapins to a game on our home diamond. Moose couldn't pass up such an opportunity.
Neither, unbelievably, could I. The odd thing was that in this game I found there were times when I could actually throw the ball with some of the old zing. Not every time, mind you, but just often enough to convince me that my situation was not entirely hopeless. Still, I resisted the temptation to get back in the game full-time, and when Les Lapins traveled to Long Island in '85 for a rematch with the Brokaw bunch, I professed to have other, more pressing affairs. The game was played near the lush estate of our centerfielder, Herb Allen, the New York investment banker who loves softball and the Square so much that he annually flies west to don the colors of Les Lapins. I understand they had a helluva party after that game.
I had settled comfortably into retirement this spring when Moose announced plans for the Fenway-Wrigley double-header. He had put the games together with the cooperation of Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston and Andrew J. McKenna, a member of the Cubs' board of directors. On separate visits to the Square, these two otherwise distinguished gentlemen had been so captivated by their host and the ambience that, before they knew what they were doing, they found themselves organizing softball games in the ballparks in their respective cities.
This time I decided to go into training. I bought a cheap softball at a neighborhood Woolworth's and took it with me an hour or so before our first practice to a playground near my house in San Francisco. My plan was to test the treacherous arm by throwing the ball against a backstop there before risking human contact. Stationing myself about 50 feet from the backstop, I cranked up. Voilà! Right on the money. The arm was back! Sweat waterfalling from my temples, I threw and threw and threw with mounting joy. The arm was infallible. I drew an imaginary bull's-eye on the backstop and—bingo!—hit it every time. I cannot recall being happier.
The thing to do now was show my teammates that the old rifle was firing again. I rushed to our practice field and immediately spotted Rowell. Smiling smugly and brimming with a confidence that must have startled him, I uncorked a high hard one. The ball fluttered like a stricken sparrow off the side of my hand and rolled into a basketball court adjoining our field. Rowell shrugged sympathetically and resumed his warmups with more dependable partners, and I jogged miserably off to find the ball. Nothing had changed, so far as my teammates were concerned. But I knew something had. I could throw, all right, but only, it seemed, to inanimate objects. In a way, this was an even more devastating discovery. Now I began to see my problem as one with profound Freudian undertones. Was my inability to throw to another human a sign of rejection? Was I saying no to mankind? Was mankind saying no to me? Was playing catch a metaphor for life itself? The word "warmup" began to take on deeper meaning.
But I refused to give up. At subsequent practices I found that if I first warmed up against a wall or some other bloodless object immediately before playing catch, there was some carryover. For a time, at least, I could play catch like a normal person. There was something else: I could throw the ball better to some of my teammates than to others. Why this was so, I had no clue. Don Leary, a reserve outfielder and, in real life, a private investigator, was a favorite partner. Leary has a friendly, forgiving Irish face. If my throws sailed past him, he merely retrieved them without wisecrack or admonition and resumed our game. My confidence, which had sunk to record depths, was climbing tentatively out of the abyss. I even got through one practice—after a lengthy wall-throw—without making a single lousy throw. "Where'd you find that arm?" inquired our nonplaying captain, Chris Sullivan, a retired police inspector. "It was always there," I replied unconvincingly.
And so, as we headed east for our rendezvous with destiny, I was buoyed by just the faintest ray of hope. At Fenway, I headed directly for the Green Monster leftfield fence and began firing shots off it with my Woolworth's ball. Good. Every throw on the money. To those unfamiliar with my pregame ritual, I must have seemed a poignant, even romantic figure. "Just look at that guy out there by himself," they must have said. "I bet he dreamed all his life of playing here." Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. I didn't give a damn about Fenway or its wall. I was fighting for survival.
We had 23 players suited up, one fewer than major league teams now carry, so I knew my playing time would be limited. Just as well. But when I got into the Fenway game, I discovered to my horror that my throws in the infield warmup were developing that ominous flutter. There before me stood Rowell, the most likable guy in the world, but to me, an executioner. I was determined to grit it out. Two balls were hit my way in that game, both unreachable. Unreachable, that is, for me. I gamely lurched after both, barely touching one. I was grateful for their elusiveness. At bat, I hit a ground ball to the Boston second baseman, Marty Nolan, editor of The Boston Globe's editorial page. He kicked it, and I pulled a leg muscle running to first.
The Wrigley game would be my swan song. Nobody would have to tear the uniform off my back. Forty-seven years was career enough. But this grand old ballpark confronted me with one final frustration—the damn vines on the outfield fences. How could I conduct my solitary warmup against a wall almost covered with vines? Fortunately, I found a clear spot near the rightfield foul pole and got into my routine. In time, good old Leary came by and we had a nice game of catch. I knew I was ready.