"Look, Rick, it's like this. The consensus is that you're definitely going to hurt us as a team," Champion said with a straight face. "The real question is, How badly will you hurt yourself?"
At game time, the temperature was 49� with a sharp breeze out of the north. I took infield practice, checked the lineup card, and found my name penciled in for the ninth slot. I actually felt pretty good; I even had the first play of the night come my way at second, which I again handled.
Burlington was starting a lefty, and as my teammates returned from the plate, I quizzed each one on what the pitcher was throwing. "Aw, he's just throwing pus," third baseman Greg Roth angrily said. "Nothing but pus." That reassuring thought began to point up evidence that perhaps minor league ball hadn't changed all that much. All batters, no matter what the era, always claim that the opposing pitcher is throwing nothing more than pus—even if the pus does happen to cross the plate at 90 mph plus.
I came to bat to lead off the bottom of the third. By now, the crowd of more than 5,000 (the Chicken was in town for the evening) began to take note of the old-timer. I fouled off a couple of pitches down the rightfield line and then—with an 0-2 count—laced a clean, solid, line-drive hit into right center. Nobody was more surprised than I was. What I remember more than anything else was that glorious feeling of hitting a pitch right on the money with a wooden bat, that true feeling of a bat conquering a pitch.
In the fifth inning it happened again—another shot to right. In the sixth, I hit a one-hopper to short, but on my fourth time up, in the eighth inning, I lofted the ball to right for a sacrifice fly and my first RBI in the Midwest League in 15 years. In the field, I was making the plays, picking up grounders, catching pop-ups, taking care of business. I was charged with one error. That occurred when a pickoff throw from the pitcher literally went through my glove; the ball broke one of the strings between the fingers. Remember—I had been using that glove before most of my teammates had been born.
Late in the game, I began to notice a change in my teammates: Wayne Busby, our hyperkinetic shortstop from Mississippi, said, "Hey, old-timer, you better keep your cap on, 'cause people are going to start thinking there are two Golden Domes here in South Bend." And from one of the pitchers, "Tell us, Rick, you must have known him, what kind of player was Babe Ruth?" I had become the target of some old-fashioned needling—the ultimate acceptance in baseball. Even the Latin American kids got involved. I caught Clemente Alavarez, our talented catcher, pointing at me and saying to infielder Leo Tejada, "Mucho loco, si?"
It was a glorious, wondrous evening, and I was even awarded the game ball by Patterson, who laughed and shook his head in disbelief. And, of course, the White Sox had won again, 4-1. I showered and looked around for a celebratory beer.
"Sorry, old man, but no beer in the clubhouse," I was told. "Organizational policy."
No beer? After a win? Things have changed a bit. Sometimes, I guess, it's for the better.