The injuries make
success all the sweeter. In Buhrke's wallet is his trophy list, a compilation
of every home run he has ever caught. There in neat letters are a Willie Mays,
a Frank Robinson, a Harmon Killebrew, a Willie McCovey, a Joe Morgan, a Vada
Pinson, a Jim Wynn, a Davey Lopes. There are also more obscure players: John
Boccabella, Tim Hosley, Andre Rodgers, Steve Boros. There are three Orlando
Cepedas, five Billy Williamses, two Adolfo Phillipses, two Lee Mays, two Joe
Torres, two Donn Clendenons, 10 Ron Santos. The oddities on the list include a
home run hit by Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins; a homer hit off Jenkins by another
pitcher, Larry Jackson of the Phillies; a home run by Felipe Alou, and one by
his brother, Jesus; and a Johnny Bench caught barehanded on Thursday, Aug. 12,
1976. "Man, that hurt," said Buhrke. "I'd just gotten a Joe Morgan,
and I'd left my glove in the car."
ritual of a big catch, Buhrke said, "First you hear the crack of the bat
over the radio, then you hear it from the park. Just from the sound you can
tell if it's got a chance. Then one of two things will happen: either you'll
hear. There's one hit deep,' over the radio, or if the announcer is slow to
react, you'll see the ball as its line of flight makes it look as if it is
higher than the upper deck behind home plate. The crowd will always stand up
and look in the direction the ball is going. If I suddenly have to look up, I
can usually tell from their faces where to run. Then I have to make a quick
decision—whether to play it on the bounce or on the fly. That's crucial,
because the street has been giving some funny bounces lately."
Just as Buhrke
finished, a loud smack resounded from the other side of the wall. In a moment a
tiny white dot hovered above the screen atop the 11�-foot left-field wall, then
descended. Rich played it on a hop, gloved it, examined it and put it in his
pocket. A man in the bleachers turned and cupped his hands to his mouth.
"Valentine," he yelled. Buhrke nodded. " Ellis Valentine," he
said. "Big, strong guy. Lots of potential."
Buhrke has been
through thick and thin with the Cubs. He remembers getting Santo's 300th home
run. "After I caught it," he says, "I was just standing there
feeling good when I heard a 'Hey, you!' I looked down Waveland and saw this guy
in a Cub uniform running toward me. He'd come out of the bullpen and he kept
yelling, 'Hey, you!' It was Joe Pepitone. In the papers he said he had to chase
me five blocks to get the ball. It was very strange, because actually I was
just standing there, too excited to run."
Buhrke has played
his position in Waveland Avenue (switching to Sheffield Street as lefties come
to bat) when the sidewalks have been empty and when they've been jammed, as
they were during the 1962 All Star Game. (He got a Ken Boyer in batting
practice that day.) But on the few days when neither Buhrke nor anyone else is
there—or when the retrievers are slow to react—the balls that shower out of
Wrigley sometimes do damage. Broken windows and dented cars are only part of
it; Buhrke has seen a homer go through the roof of a convertible. The Cubs'
policy has always been to make reparations on valid claims. "We're not
usually liable since these things happen off our property," says assistant
director of park operations Stoney Feeney. "But we sometimes do it out of
Buhrke, who has
been nearly run down by cars and has had his scrapes with dogs and younger
chasers, realizes he cannot field home runs forever. It would please him if his
7-year-old son Jimmy would carry on. (In 1975 Rich brought Jimmy to the park
for the first time, and the boy already has four balls of his own.) To those
who scoff at such a pastime, Buhrke points to the moments that, for him, make
it all worthwhile.
Such an occasion
came on April 14 of last year when the Mets were in town. With a massive swing,
New York's Dave Kingman got the meat of his bat on a Tom Dettore fastball, and
helped by a stiff southeastern wind, the ball climbed like an ICBM. Labeled
"The Ball That Hasn't Come Down Yet" by sportscaster Jack Brickhouse,
Kingman's swat has taken its place beside Gabby Hartnett's 1938 "Homer in
the Gloamin' " and Babe Ruth's 1932 "Called Shot" in the pantheon
of Wrigley Field home runs.
Only Buhrke and
his friend Rich Kieber were outside the left-field wall as the ball reached its
apogee. "I've never seen a ball that high in my life," says Buhrke.
"It was higher than that flagpole; it was a pea up there."
have shown that Cardenal moved not an inch once the ball was hit. "It
looked like a rocket ship," he says. "I never thought a human being
could hit something like that."
Waveland on the fly, the ball descended on the east side of Ken-more Avenue,
landing against a frame house three doors down. Inside the house, Naomi
Martinez, 19, was watching the game on TV. "I heard a thud and ran
outside," she says. "I couldn't believe the ball was hit that far.
Later some friends told me they saw me on TV coming out of the house."