- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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After another silence, he smiled. "Tell you what, kid," he said. "We've got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I'll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?"
I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer! He thought I had major league potential! I thanked him and left in a daze. I had been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a long-ball hitter! For a few minutes I was 11 or 12 again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.
Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city, it was dusk, and I had no place to sleep. I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, and met some guys who let me use the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day—wouldn't it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand! In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade and trying to "hit the long ball."
But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game, anyway.
Spring training is relaxed and informal, and in '62 it was even more so. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old Leavenworth Times press card and let me in. He didn't seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings, but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates' dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.
I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my looks. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to "some of the guys" in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there and so was Roberto Clemente. I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never finished.
"Who is that?" a loud gravelly voice demanded. "Get him out of here!" It was the manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh. I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did. Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave.
"Get our of here. This is the big leagues."
I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, "What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn't even look like a ballplayer."
Every fan's story should have a hero, and mine is no exception, although it took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn't Groat, Mazeroski or any of the other Pirates I'd sat with during my brief major league career. No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. He hadn't really seen major league potential in me; he thought I was a kid with big dreams, and he wasn't going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late. I wish now that I knew who he was.