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TRIUMPHANT RETURN
Rick Wolff
August 21, 1989
Time is of the essence. The crowd and players Are the same age always, but the man in the crowd Is older every season....—ROLFE HUMPHRIES Polo Grounds
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August 21, 1989

Triumphant Return

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FRIDAY EVENING

A crowd of 3,000 curious fans came out, all eager to see whether the oldest player in South Bend Sox history could somehow keep the magic going. I hadn't slept much the previous evening; even an ample dose of Extra-Strength Tylenol couldn't keep my throbbing legs from demanding that I come to my senses and return to the safe confines of suburbia.

But game time came at dusk and Patterson even moved me up to eighth in the order. When I walked on four straight pitches on my first at bat, I could hear the manager of the Burlington club. Jim Saul, screaming at his befuddled young pitcher, "C'mon, just throw strikes to this old geezer. He can't touch you! He can't even see you!"

I next came to bat in the fourth inning with a teammate on second and first base open. The Braves pitched to me instead of intentionally walking me, which made me furious. I hit a scorcher. The first baseman was just able to snare it in the air, and then he fired to second to double up the runner. O.K., it was an out, but it was yet another solid shot right on the sweet part of the bat. In the seventh, the Braves started a reverse shift with everybody shaded heavily toward right on me. Again feeling my oats, I pulled a liner down the third base line for a base hit.

Finally, in the eighth, I came to bat with men on second and third. "Geez, you've gotten your hits, your RBI, your walks," squeaked Busby. "You might as well go for it all and try to smack one over the Pepsi sign." Nice thought, but even fantasy has its limits. Yet on the first pitch, I swung, made contact and saw the ball headed for extra-base land in right centerfield. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ball bounce oh one hop against the wall, and I cruised into second with a stand-up double and two more RBIs. It was at this point that I realized the fans were on their feet, giving me an ovation and cheering my name. Even the Burlington shortstop came over to me and asked, "No offense, mister, but how the hell are you doing this?"

Patterson sent in a pinch runner, and I came off the field with both arms in a triumphant Kirk Gibson-style salute. Amid a sea of high fives and happy congratulations from my teammates, Patterson started laughing and gave me a big bear hug of approval on the dugout steps. "Old man," he chortled, "you just did what every old ballplayer has dreamed of doing. To come back one more time and do it again. By golly, you did it!"

And that was that. Over the three days, the Sox had won three, and I had finished 4 for 7, with three RBIs, one BB, one SF, one E and a league-leading .571 BA. The next morning, under sober gray skies, I headed back to New York and to my seat on the 7:59 train. The South Bend White Sox climbed on a bus and headed for a three-game series in Kenosha, Wis.

But for a brief moment, I had been able to go back and experience minor league ball again: The unique smell of fresh pine tar. The grainy grip of a wooden bat. The sound of spikes clacking on a cement runway. That final pregame rush of adrenaline as you stand at attention during the national anthem. The playful but biting wit of teammates. And, of course, the pure joy of hitting a pitch solidly for a base hit.

Jim Bouton, another ballplayer who knows something about comebacks, once wrote that "you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

FOOTNOTE
South Bend White Sox: In case you need some extra offense for the pennant drive in September, you still have my phone number.

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