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It was the greatest feeling in the world—or maybe the worst. Five years ago, there I was in a San Diego uniform about to take a pregame workout with the Padres. Warming up on the sidelines were the champion Cincinnati Reds—Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, those guys. This was the big time. This was where I belonged. Nobody ever wanted to be anywhere more than I wanted to be in this spot.
The trouble was, it wasn't me. Or, to be more exact, nobody knew it was me. The guy on the field was known as Rocky Perone, supposedly a 21-year-old rookie from Sydney, Australia. At least, that's who the Padres thought they had signed. Actually, my name is Richard Pohle, and I'm from Lisbon Falls, Maine. And my age, by God, was 36!
Except for Satchel Paige, I probably was the oldest rookie ever signed to a professional baseball contract. But look, at 36 I was desperate. I had to do something. I wasn't some rinky-dink from Pipe Dream City. Over the years, I'd proved myself repeatedly. I had to prove myself again just to be here. I'd had to show them something. The hoax about my age was just a device to get the scouts to look at me, to really look at me. Can anyone picture a scout giving a tryout to an American shortstop who is 36?
God knows the number of places I'd gone for tryouts, how many times I'd hitched to spring-training camps, traveling from Maine to Florida or from California to Florida, and how close I'd come to making it years ago. The trouble with scouts is that they seldom believe what they see. What they want to see is some big rangy kid with a sensational high school rep, a .575 hitter with power, someone destined for a big bonus, someone about whom the scout can tell the front office what it wants to hear. But who was Richard Pohle? Just some dumb kid from Maine, a little guy who was already 18 and no one had ever heard of him. They can really cut a man down. Year after year, I kept coming back for another shot, and then I would end up playing ball in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Cape Cod. It seemed like I was never more than a month or two away from the opening of a season. I even went to England, Sweden and Australia. Name places where anyone plays decent ball, and I've been there.
When I reached the age of 36, I was living with my sister in Huntington Beach, Calif., which is about an hour's drive from Los Angeles. I guess I'd been beaten down too many times, and it was beginning to show in the mirror. I had wrinkles around my eyes, a heavy black beard, not too much hair on top, and more than a trace of gray around the temples. If a scout saw me now, he'd push me into a rocking chair. I was washed up before I'd even been given a real chance.
I had this friend back in Lisbon Falls named Richard Lister. As kids, we'd played a lot of ball together. Now he was a clinical psychologist in Costa Mesa, a few miles away from my sister's house. He'd become something of a miracle worker, you might say, helping people to become successful. He had this theory that age was an exaggerated bugaboo, that there were athletes who could perform way beyond the normally accepted limits. Most of them, when they reached 35 or so, would begin to quit on themselves; they believed their talents were decaying because that was the way the baseball Establishment laid it down. Like Maury Wills. When he was closing in on 40, he was still a better shortstop than the 24-year-old guy, Bill Russell, who took his job away. But you couldn't get a sportswriter to write that.
I remember that Doc Lister and I were once in a locker room when a guy came in for a tryout, and right away the scout asked, "How old are you?" The guy blanched a little and said, "I'm 26." Right away the scout waved him off. "Twenty-six! You want me to get fired?" It was the sort of thing that could turn an honest man into a liar.
"I'm a better ballplayer at 36 than I was at 21," I told Lister one day, "but it doesn't do me any good." The Doc was staring into his coffee, the wheels in that big brain of his spinning, and when he looked back up at me, suddenly everything was different. I saw that look and I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking the exact same thing myself: The name of the game is 21.
I could knock off 15 years and become a new man with a new identity, new looks, the works. Wow! I liked the idea, but it scared me right out of my shoes.