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An Old Hand with a Prospect
Pat Jordan
June 14, 1971
Men play out their time—those who are too young and those who have become too old—in the minor leagues. And there, in failure, a man sometimes finds success
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June 14, 1971

An Old Hand With A Prospect

Men play out their time—those who are too young and those who have become too old—in the minor leagues. And there, in failure, a man sometimes finds success

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Woody Huyke blows Bazooka bubbles as he takes quick, pigeon-toed steps away from home plate. His shin guards click between his legs and his chest protector rises and falls against his gray-flannel uniform. His cap is still on backward, and his olive-skinned face is streaked with red dirt and sweat and the light outlines of his catcher's mask. He shakes the hand of a tall, impassive Negro who has just walked in from the pitcher's mound. Huyke says something in Spanish and Silvano Quezada smiles. The Waterbury ( Conn.) Pirates' team crowds into the dugout, slapping Huyke and Quezada good-naturedly. A voice calls out, "Nice going, you old goat." The remark could be meant for either man. Together they have played 25 years of professional baseball, and their combined age is near 70. "God only knows how old Quezada is," Huyke will say with a raised eyebrow. "He is ageless. Me, I am a mere boy in comparison." Soon Woody Huyke will be 34.

The rest of his teammates disappear, but the catcher remains in the dugout of the Elmira, N.Y. ball park. The outfield, which is nothing more than intermittent clumps of grass, is bordered by a wooden fence painted with advertisements. On this muggy afternoon there are less than a hundred fans on hand. Directly behind the home-plate screen is a cluster of eight women, the wives of the Elmira players. Throughout the game they have chattered amiably, and now that it is over they do not seem to have noticed. Woody Huyke looks at them and at the few old men sleeping high in the shade of the home-plate stands and at the young boys fooling around in the third-base bleachers and he shakes his head. Then he steps onto the field and says with just a trace of a Spanish accent, "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your applause." He pulls off his cap, sweeps it with a flourish across his chest and bows deeply.

The Waterbury Pirates, a farm team of Pittsburgh, have just won the first game of a twi-night doubleheader from the Elmira Royals behind Quezada's four-hit pitching. The victory, a shutout, moves the Pirates into second place in the AA Eastern League.

The team had arrived in town earlier that afternoon after a six-hour bus ride from Waterbury. The players had only enough time to change into their uniforms at the Mark Twain Hotel and wander conspicuously about the streets of Elmira for a few minutes before reboarding the bus for the drive to the shambling ball park.

During the six-hour ride many of the players tried to sleep. They jacked their knees up into their stomachs, flattened their hands into knuckled pillows and closed their eyes to the pines and lakes of the Hudson Valley flashing by. Between naps players drifted in and out of a pinochle game. Before the ride ended, every man but two would be devoured by the game.

Bruce Kison, a 20-year-old pitcher, had no patience for cards, and he had not traveled on enough charter buses to be able to fold his 6'4" frame into a cramped seat to sleep. Instead, Kison spent the time reading The Sporting News . He bypassed the stories about Tom Seaver and Sam McDowell and turned to the back pages, which told of the accomplishments of minor-leaguers like himself. Kison looked first for news of other Pittsburgh farmhands, specifically pitchers, so that he could see just who stood in his way to Three Rivers Stadium.

Woody Huyke did not sleep or play pinochle either. He had been on too many 28-hour bus rides to be impressed by a mere six-hour jaunt. Nor did he read The Sporting News . There was no Pittsburgh farmhand either beneath or above him who could cause him anxiety. Instead, as is his custom, Huyke talked ceaselessly to anyone who would listen and finally, after a few hours, he would talk only to himself. He spoke of his winters in Puerto Rico, where for three months each year he played baseball with some of the most famous major leaguers—Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda—men he would never meet during the regular season because he had never played one inning of major league baseball. "I played some beautiful games in Puerto Rico," he said. "The most beautiful was when I hit a single off Juan Pizarro in a championship game.... Ah, I would have paid to be part of it." Huyke turned in his seat and elbowed Ray Cordiero, a balding 32-year-old relief pitcher. "Heh, Rook, you know what it means to play in such a game?" Cordiero grunted and went back to sleep. "Rookie!" said Huyke in disgust.

Halfway to Elmira the bus stopped at a roadside diner and the team got out to eat. When the bus resumed its journey the players were still grumbling about the greasy food. Huyke, who sat up front, began smacking his lips and rubbing his stomach. "Man, that was a great meal, eh, Rook?" Cordiero, an 11-year veteran, said it was the greatest meal he had ever eaten. Huyke nodded emphatically. "I loved it, too," he said. "I love it all." The players began to hoot and swear at Huyke, and someone threw a rolled-up Sporting News up front. "Bah!" said Woody. "These kids, what do they know? Always complaining. They don't appreciate the finer things in life, eh, Rook?" He nudged Cordiero again. "What they gonna do when they get our age, huh, curl up and die?"

Cordiero put his hands over his ears and said softly, "Why don't you shut the hell up, you old goat?"

After catching the first game of the doubleheader Huyke sits down, too tired to unbuckle his shin guards. Steam rises from his face. He is just beginning to be stocky, although he claims that his waist is the same size as when he was a 20-year-old rookie. What he does not admit, however, is that his uniform no longer fits him in the same way. The buttons seem about to explode and his pants fit his calves like an added layer of skin. The constant squatting and standing of his profession have made Huyke's legs round and muscular, like gigantic bottles of Coke. Because of his age, Huyke ordinarily would not catch the second game, but today is an exception. The team's backup catcher is on reserve duty and furthermore, Bruce Kison, the Pirates' talented right hander, will be making his first start after sustaining a sore arm.

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