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Those early years in the tules were not the best of times for a young man with such a strong attachment for home and family as Harrelson has. When one sees his attention wander—when, say, he is fully dressed in uniform, a solitary figure seated at his clubhouse locker with chin in hands—he probably is not thinking about how to repair a batting slump or where to eat that night. It is quite possible that he wondering what his wife Yvonne may be doing at the moment, or whether daughter Kimberly, 3½, and son Timothy, 1, have learned any new words in daddy's absence.
The strong sense of family was born out of a hard struggle. Harrelson's forbears forsook Oklahoma for California in the days of the dust bowl and stopped in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno, where so many of the migrating Okies scraped a living picking crops. His parents were raised there, married young and then during World War II moved on to war work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bud was the middle of three Harrelson children who grew up around Hayward, where Glenn Harrelson, Bud's father, later sold cars and then started up his own used-car business.
Bud is proud of his father and the other members of his family. "He's not the normal guy you'd hear of," he says of Glenn, "who'd sell you a piece of spit. When he sells you a car you'll come back for another. He's a smart businessman, and he's helped me and my older brother Dwane a lot in business. He's not the type you're going to walk all over. We're all pretty much alike in this respect. We're independent. We like to be our own bosses. And we love our family life."
There are a lot of cousins and relatives scattered through the Central Valley, so Bud and Yvonne like to take the children home at Christmas for a month or so of visiting. "It's only fair to the grandparents to let them see the kids as they grow," says Harrelson. "My family means more to me than anything."
Harrelson's first year away at Salinas was not too bad. He had just started courting Yvonne, and she could drive over on weekends with his parents. The next year at Buffalo was misery. Yvonne, who was only just out of high school, was working as a dental assistant in Hayward, and they would write each other almost daily. They had planned to be married in the early spring of the following year, but soon after Harrelson returned home they decided they couldn't wait. Yvonne went to Jacksonville with Bud, and baseball was no longer such a lonely game.
By the time Harrelson reached the Mets to stay in the late stages of the 1966 season, the team was about to finish better than 10th for the first time. The following year it slipped back again, and it was not a pleasant experience for an ambitious young shortstop. "The losing feeling has a way of rubbing off on you," Harrelson recalls. "When you lost, that was it. You just lost. When you won it was like winning the World Series. Even so, in '67 there were a lot more new ballplayers coming up, and we could feel things falling into place. We just had to get over the feeling that losing didn't really matter. We just had to get over it."
Gil Hodges arrived to take charge in 1968, and, as Harrelson describes it now, "We began to change the meaning of the word 'amazing.' " Even so, it was not a good year for Harrelson, who was limping along on the knee he had injured breaking up that double play in Jacksonville a couple of years earlier. Before the season ended he went into the hospital to have the cartilage removed, and the next year he helped bring the miracle to Shea Stadium.
The way everyone looks back on it now, there seems never to have been any doubt that Bud Harrelson would become a shortstop of some stature. Roy McMillan, another of the players obliged to close out a glorious career with an inglorious team, held the job when Harrelson arrived. Harrelson quickly adopted McMillan as a model for fielding, and McMillan remembers the schooling of his young pupil in detail. "I knew he'd be a good one," he says. "He had good hands, good range, got a good jump on the ball and he didn't have trouble with the double play. The thing I tried to teach him was to use his body when he made a throw and always to get into a set position when he made it from deep in the hole. That's the toughest play for a shortstop, and he does it very well.
"He wasn't a real good hitter, so I worked with him on taking advantage of his speed. I bet we worked on bunts some days 200 to 300 times." By that time Harrelson, a natural righthander, had appraised the scene carefully and had decided to emulate Maury Wills, the small, switch-hitting short fielder of the Dodgers. He explains about learning to hit left-handed: "I had to live with the fact that I wasn't going to be a hero hitting those home runs. I'm not a home-run hitter, I'm not a .300 hitter and I'm not going to make $125,000 a year. [He does make at least $30,000.] All I'm supposed to do on offense is get on base and score a run. I may not be as much of a hero to the fans, but I'm just as much of a hero to the club. I have to take advantage of what I am. I am Bud Harrelson, contact hitter, who has to hit the ball on the ground. If I try to hit a fly ball, I'm thinking wrong."
Except during the 1968 season when he was lame, Harrelson developed into a steady .250 hitter. Then came this spring, when his average suddenly soared over .300. "He was like a kid in a candy store," Seaver recalls. "He didn't care who the pitcher was or where he threw the ball. He hit a home run over a fence for the first and only time." Then the mid-summer weariness set in, the weight fell off and the strength left Harrelson's arms and his hands. Signs began to appear in the stands referring to him as Twiggy. His average has dropped to .245 (.287 right-handed, .229 left-handed), and there was an 0 for 27 stretch when everything looked like a swinging bunt. "I can't take my slump into the field with me," Harrelson kept telling himself. "I'm paid to field, and if I'm not thinking about what I'm doing out there, if I'm not expecting every ball to be hit to me, I'm going to make errors." Hodges and the coaches tried to get Harrelson to relax at the plate, but they were not overly bothered by the slump. "He's not a strong boy, and he gets tired," Hodges pointed out, "but we just have to play him and let him help the club defensively. He can go 0 for 4, and if he does his job defensively he's 4 for 4 as far as I'm concerned."