Let it be recorded here that on this past Mother's Day and the day after, Les Lapins Sauvages, the slo-pitch softball team that more or less represents the Washington Square Bar & Grill of San Francisco, became the first team of any description to play games on successive days (and within 24 hours) in Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. So—you may inquire—what? But think about it. Fenway opened for business in the American League in 1912, and Wrigley, also known as "the Friendly Confines," turned up in the National League four years later. And it was not until May of 1986 that any one team had ever been in both almost at the same time.
Aha, some of you will say, the Cubs and Red Sox played in the 1918 World Series. Surely.... But no! The Cubs abandoned their home park for that Series in favor of Comiskey Park, which was considerably larger. The two teams have not met in a Series since.
Let the record also show that Les Lapins swept their historic series, whipping a group of Boston politicians and newspapermen, 10-4, in Fenway, and skunking a collection of Chicago media persons, 21-5, in Wrigley. The Boston game began at 12:30 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, May 11; the Chicago game at 11:15 a.m., Central Daylight Time, May 12. It is also my sad duty to report that my own participation in these great events became a sort of waking nightmare—but we'll get to that.
Our team—I say our, because until almost this very moment I have been a part of it—first achieved international recognition seven years ago when, inaugurating a tradition of sorts, we played the road half of our two-game schedule in Paris, walloping a restaurant, 40-22, in the Bois de Boulogne (SI, Aug. 8, 1979). The Paris match also inspired our singular nickname, which translates to "the Wild Rabbits." We have since played our away games in New York, London and Dublin—a politically risky doubleheader—the Napa Valley, Hollywood (actually, Encino, Calif.) and Long Island. I don't recall the scores.
We are essentially the creation of Ed Moose, one of the proprietors of the Washington Square Bar & Grill (henceforth to be known as "the Square") and a baseball fan and softball manager of uncommon ferocity. In his restaurant, Moose is the very soul of conviviality, an attentive and concerned host who table-hops indefatigably and conspires to transform even the most pedestrian evening there into a cocktail party of such formidable sophistication that one can almost picture Noël Coward and Cole Porter passing bons mots by the piano. But put this latter-day Sherman Billings-fey in the red and white spangles of Les Lapins and an unsettling metamorphosis occurs. Suddenly the genial host becomes a merciless taskmaster capable of reducing even the sturdiest among us to quivering flesh with the lash of his tongue. "Ed Moose would have made Leo Durocher look like Jean Hersholt," it has been said by us. The dated reference to the onetime martinet of the Dodgers and Giants and to the kindly actor, best remembered for his role on radio and in films as the lovable Dr. Christian, reveals yet another characteristic of our team. Indeed, excusing our lovely women players, we are all gentlemen of middle years, many of us gone shamefully to suet. Put the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen on first base, this correspondent on second, the pianist and journalism teacher Dick Fregulia at short and Square bartender Bob Frugoli on third, and we can trot out an infield that averages 55 years of age. Except for Frugoli, I should hastily add, this has been our second-string infield. The first string is younger by maybe five years.
Even the lightest practice session leaves our decrepit roster with more injuries than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, say, will suffer in two seasons. For the Boston and Chicago games, even the indestructible Moose, our starting pitcher, was disabled. Swinging a bat in a practice game before the historic trip, he pulled his left biceps so painfully that he could scarcely lower the arm. The wounded member remained fixed to his chest in a manner reminiscent of an earlier, even more legendary tyrant.
Fortunately, Moose is a righthander, so he was able to start—and win—both road games. But his temporarily disabled glove hand did set in motion one sequence of surpassing absurdity in the Boston game. Moose's immobility applied immense pressure on our catcher, Ernie McCormick, a retired banker turned art student, for it was McCormick's unenviable job after every pitch to hit that fixed glove with his return throws. And Moose is not a patient man. A throw too high and the pitcher gets it in the face. Too low and.... For most of the Boston game, McCormick performed this vexing chore without a hitch, but in the fourth inning, he suffered a momentary lapse, his throw back to the mound sailing untouched past the stationary glove and out toward second base. I had just entered the game and, eager as I am to please, I hurried over to retrieve the ball. My throw—and we'll come to this problem shortly—was even more off target than McCormick's. I detected just the suggestion of agitation in our manager as he wheeled once more toward his catcher. McCormick, now apparently doomed to play a ludicrous game of catch with me, picked up my throw and threw it once again past the seething pitcher. Before I could prolong this travesty, Frugoli got to the ball and walked over and placed it gently in Moose's good hand. The game resumed.
This brings us to my own curious handicap. To backtrack a moment, I should say that I have been playing soft-ball in some form since FDR's second term. Ted Williams was a rookie when I started throwing the ball around in earnest. Glenn Miller was recording Sunrise Serenade. Judy Garland was starring in a new movie, The Wizard of Oz. Hitler was menacing Poland. The Niekros of Blaine, Ohio, were celebrating the birth of a son, Philip. You get the idea. I'm a veteran. Now, in all but the last three years of my seemingly interminable career, there has been one thing I've always been able to do well, and that is throw the ball. For maybe 25 of those years, I was also able to run pretty fast. I remember reading as a youngster that what the great Branch Rickey valued most in a player was speed afoot and a good arm. I had those. Sadly enough, that was about all I had. To go with my principal attributes, I brought an iron glove and a noodle bat. As well as poor eyesight. In baseball, I couldn't hit the curve ball. I couldn't even see the fastball. And the changeup gave me a lot of trouble. But in slo-pitch softball I could generally hold my own because I was fast enough to beat out my swinging bunts, and I could throw. As decade after decade rolled relentlessly by, I even learned to field ground balls—well enough, if I do say so myself, to play a pretty fair shortstop for the Chronicle softball team of the early and mid-'60s. In time, the legs, as they inevitably must, went. They always go first. The youthful speedster became a middle-aged lumberer. But I played on, mainly because I could still throw. And then, three years ago, it happened.
We Lapins were working out on our home asphalt for a game with Columbia Pictures in Southern California (on Mother's Day, of course) when, all of a moment, I couldn't throw. When I say I couldn't throw, I don't mean my arm got sore or went dead or got unhinged by a rotator cuff or anything like that. There was nothing physically wrong with the old flipper. I didn't hurt at all. I was still using it several days a week to play a mean game of racquetball. But suddenly, on this fateful day, it was absolutely useless as a throwing mechanism. And this, after nearly a half-century of winging strikes—well, mostly strikes. While I was playing catch with David Bush, a Chronicle baseball writer and at that time a Lapins relief pitcher, the ball left my hand as if it, not the propelling arm, had the final say about where it should go. Some of my throws, if they may be so dignified, would escape my fingers and flutter ridiculously off to the right. Others would linger in my hand long past their scheduled departure and plummet to the earth virtually at my left foot. I was like a golfer plagued with both a slice and a hook. Bush could not believe what was happening. Neither could I. The other players looked on in mounting amusement as I, like some manic discus thrower, peppered the landscape. Finally, I heard laughter. Cruel shouts of "rag arm" and "cracker arm" rang like J. Arthur Rank gongs in my, yes, rabbit ears. In my teammates' defense, however, I should say that in all my years of watching the game, I'd never seen anybody—man, woman or child—throw a ball as badly as I, tears nearly streaming down my face, was throwing it on this day. I tried everything to regain my composure and my control, from tossing overhand in some parody of a schoolgirl to experimenting with variations on the Quisenberry submarine pitch. I finally resorted to pushing the ball forward like some enfeebled shot-putter. Nothing worked. The practice session was for me the equivalent of a day in the stocks. I had become a figure of scorn and ridicule. The whole team had a good laugh about it over a few beers down at the Square afterward. I joined right in. But, as the song says, I was laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.
What on earth had happened? I thought then of two pitchers whose careers were mysteriously terminated by a similar throwing malfunction—Steve Blass, once a World Series hero for the Pirates, and Kevin Saucier, a former bullpen ace for the Phillies and the Tigers. Both had been control pitchers who had suddenly and inexplicably gone wild—hopelessly wild. Strange as their cases seemed, they did not seem nearly as strange as mine. It was obviously a phobia of some kind. Probably something to do with my mother, although for the life of me I couldn't recall ever playing catch with her. So what do you do? Go see some bearded Viennese shrink and confess to him that I can't throw a softball anymore? "Hmmm," he would probably say, "so why do it?" I concluded it was just one of those things and it would soon go away. I decided I wouldn't throw another ball until our game with Columbia. By then, surely, I'd be back to normal.