"It's as if he were the first man to step out of the Olduvai Gorge," says pitcher Bill Lee of the Winter Haven Super Sox. Olduvai, Lee explains with historical inaccuracy, is where archaeologist Louis Leakey discovered the prehistoric remains of the hominid Lucy. "You remember Lucy," says Lee. "She's one of Mickey's ex-wives."
After 15 years in the big leagues. Mick the Quick retired in 1984, when it began to take him about a minute and a half to reach first base. "My legs didn't give out," he says, "they gave in."
Rivers is the most sweetly irascible of ballplayers. His conversation is so full of twists and turns and switchbacks and culs-de-sac that no grammatical roadmap can help you understand him. "He mixes you up," says West Palm DH Mike Easler. But if you listen close, he makes a hell of a lot of sense."
"I like playing on this team," Rivers says. "We actually been doin' real good. Got a different mix here. Most important thing is you gotta keep pickin' up in paces. That's why we're playing contentious play. We got top names, guys can still hit in the majors, guys been out of the game hittin' the ball, shockin' it. Don't have no old, old guys. Not sayin' they don't get a good job done. Fact is, they been vice versa. So that's incentive right there. It's been a plus."
Rivers coined the word gozzlehead back in the 1970s when he was making $200,000 a year playing centerfield for the New York Yankees and spending $200,001 at Belmont and Aqueduct. It was a term of affection for his teammates, but the name has stuck to him. A gozzlehead, he once explained, is "just, you know, like a bullfrog face. Now a warplehead, that's a different shape. A funny-looking creature. Odd-shaped. Funny-looking."
Which sounds a lot like the play in this rickety 35-and-over league. Gozzlehead says he's making $36,000 for the three-month season; management says it's less, but either way, Rivers is one of the few players in the SPBA who might be underpaid. At week's end he was second in the league in batting with a .364 average and had sparked the Tropics to the best record (47-17) in the eight-team circuit. "Hit like this in the majors and they probably wouldn't be able to pay me," he says. "Don't want no two million dollars; give me 10 million dollars. Got to buy me an island. Coney Island!"
Of course, the Goz is batting .364 against pitchers who rejoice when they can crank up their fastballs to 80 mph. After giving up 11 runs and 14 hits in 5? innings against Bradenton, Tropics starter Tim Stoddard said, "Well, I thought I threw the ball pretty good." He was right, too. West Palm Beach won 22-13.
Still, the SPBA keeps Rivers and his mates off the streets and out of the dog tracks. "Wondered what it be like to go out there again and play every day," he says. "Didn't think my legs hold up on me. All my career—outfield, outfield, outfield, outfield. Legs go. Don't want to run around the bases. Numb. Every day I go in the whirlpool and the next day, better. Run, run. Take a little treatment. Hold me up. Running better! Don't know how, but I am. Don't feel no stronger, don't feel no weaker. Feel good! Got to be a plus."
Lee, baseball's professor Irwin Corey, attempts an explication of Gozzlehead: "Mickey understands that the baseball is just two Cartesian coordinates going out to infinity," he says. "He doesn't think, therefore he is. There's no premeditation. If he sees it, he hits it. If he doesn't see it, he hits it anyway. He maximizes the diamond's plus-minus axis to perfection."
He does this by minimizing clubhouse protocol. "Mickey's never on time," says Fralick. "He's never where he's supposed to be. He was so afraid of missing the team bus on one road trip that he slept overnight in the locker room."