- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Leaving these disputed, if widely accepted, opinions aside, simple homesickness is a major factor, and ball clubs are unwilling to invest much in a kid who may very well get up one morning three months later in Waterbury, Conn. and decide that it is time to go home.
"Homesickness is more than just the language," Haak says. "You'd be surprised. Many of these boys don't like our food. They don't eat their meat the way we do. They chop it up. They're crazy for rice. All these things. I'll never forget Manny Gir�n, a pitcher I signed out of Panama. Oh, that rascal could throw." To buttress this claim, Haak cited Gir�n's won-loss figures, ERA and other pertinent data for his entire stay in organized ball.
"He may have had the best arm I ever signed. But maybe he was the poorest, too. His father was a fisherman. They lived in a hut down there, right on the ocean—the Atlantic or the Pacific, I forget which. When I came for the father's signature, he was actually up in a coconut tree. The hut had a dirt floor, the kitchen was in the living room and there was one bedroom for eight children.
"Now you would think that kid would be happy to get out of there, but from the moment he got to the States he would finish throwing and go out to the outfield and sit there on the grass and cry like a baby. He just wanted to go home. A couple times he quit and came back, but the last time we never heard from him again." It baffles Haak on two counts that anyone could behave like that. First, that anyone could turn down a chance to be in baseball; second, that they could get so hung up on home. Haak travels up to 46 weeks a year.
In 42 years of organized baseball, Haak has never been professionally eminent yet he has often played the vital role of Fifth Business—the old theatrical term for that character in the play who is neither hero nor villain, but necessary to the denouement. Branch Rickey soon noticed that lightning struck near Haak, for he kept him wherever he went. Howie, for example, was the guy at the other end of the phone when Rickey decided to bring Stan Musial up to the Cardinals. Howie says he played baseball with Sammy Baugh, as well as with Dizzy and Daffy Dean, while brother Elmer Dean sold peanuts in the stands. "Best peanut salesman in baseball," Haak says. Howie managed the Spokane team for a few games shortly after the Lucky Lohrke bus tragedy. Howie wore the short pants of the Hollywood Stars (remember?). And, to hear him tell it, Howie had quite a lot to do with Roberto Clemente making his 3,000 hits in the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1954 the Pirates were the worst team in the National League, which entitled them to first choice in the minor league draft. The Dodgers, who had signed Clemente, had tried to hide him that season on their Triple A roster at Montreal. Rickey ordered Haak to scout Clemente (another Pittsburgh scout said he had a bad arm), and he caught up with Montreal around August 20. Haak had come over from the Dodger organization three years before but, providentially, he had signed many of the Montreal players. As soon as he walked into the clubhouse, one of them, a pitcher named Glenn Mickens, said, " Hey Howie, we got the best prospect in baseball, but they won't play the kid." In fact, Haak followed Montreal for the whole next month and only saw Clemente come to bat four times.
But one night on the road Clemente went into the starting lineup, batting seventh. As luck would have it, the first six guys got on. A right-handed reliever was brought in and Montreal's manager took that as excuse enough to put an infuriated Clemente back on the bench. The next afternoon, when Haak arrived at the ball park, Chico Fernandez, the Montreal shortstop, advised him that Clemente was packing for home. Haak scrambled to the hotel, found Clemente and promised him that if he did not leave he would be playing in the majors next season.
If Haak had not talked Clemente into going to the ball park that day, Roberto might have been disqualified from the team and made ineligible for the draft that year. The next year the worst American League team (the Washington Senators, as it turned out) could have had a crack at him. Clemente's presence in that league would have changed the face of baseball, but of course he was not disqualified, and Pittsburgh plucked him.
Another pitcher had arrived late for the tryout, so to give Serrata a better test Haak sent him up to hit against something more than Julio's fat batting-practice pitches. "With that speed and arm, all he's gotta do is hit a little," Haak said. The pitcher finished his warmups and Serrata stepped in right-handed. He had no more than taken his stance when Howie spat and said a very dirty word.
The kid held the bat out stiff-armed, his hands far apart on the handle; any good high school pitcher could jam him all day, and against the boy on the mound Serrata managed only some high pop-ups and fouls. "That kid can't hit any better than I can fly a kite," Haak muttered. He was disappointed: he had wanted to sign Serrata. "He's a sweeper. No bat speed. There's two kinds of power—batting-practice power and game power. The difference is in the speed of the bat. Lots of guys can sweep those easy batting-practice pitches out of the park. 'Course, the way this kid holds the bat, he couldn't even do that. You always got a chance to teach anybody how to hit a curve, but if they can't hit a fastball, you can never teach them."