He came to bat in the second inning. Just as he had predicted, he hit the second pitch a ton. A tremendous shot over the leftfield wall. I don't know who was happier, me or Bando. As he rounded second base he was clapping his hands and whooping. I totally forgot where I was and ran toward him. As we came together he held out his palm and I slapped it hard, then slapped him on the behind as he trotted past me. I watched him swing around third base and...then I realized what I'd done. I'd broken every behavior code in the book. I'd actually congratulated a player on the field. What were the fans going to think? What was the opposing team going to think? Most important, what was Lee MacPhail going to think?
I lowered my head and began slinking back toward third base. As I got close, the third baseman was looking at me as if I were slightly out of my mind. But before he could say a word, I said firmly, "It's O.K. We're Italian."
Probably the worst thing that can happen to most hitters is that they eventually become base runners. For some that is an extremely difficult transition to make. I've been caught in a rundown myself. This was in 1973, when I was still hustling. A California player got caught between first and second. I started moving back and forth with him so I could get a clear view of the play. We had them going, too. We were dancing back and forth, four steps toward first, five toward second. A properly executed rundown shouldn't require more than two throws, but we had them so mixed up they'd made four throws and we were still alive. I was really into it, waiting for the opportunity to make a break for the base. But somehow, to this day I don't understand how, I got too close to the runner. I sort of tripped him. Not tripped, exactly. It was more like running into him. We both went down and I had no choice but to call both of us out. Neither of us argued.
Only once did I ever try to help a base runner, and there was a very good reason I did so. Greed. Pure greed. In 1975 baseball was building a promotion around the one-millionth run scored in major league history. The players—and umpires—involved in the game in which the run was scored would receive engraved wristwatches. The magic word was free. Everybody in baseball was going for it.
I was working third base for the White Sox and A's on the fateful day. We were in the fourth inning, nobody out, Oakland had runners on first and third, when the announcement was made that the 999,999th run had been scored. Man on third, nobody out? I could hear that snazzy timepiece ticking on my wrist. I could feel the gold against my skin.
The batter lifted a short fly to right-field. No way it was deep enough for the runner to tag up and score. No way at all. But I saw him bend into the running position, his back foot pushed against the base. "Don't go," I yelled pleadingly, "don't go!"
He went. Ed Herrmann caught the throw from the outfield on a fly and stood at home plate with a sad, incredulous look on his face. He had no choice but to make the play, and he did. I couldn't believe the runner had taken my watch away from me.
We still had a shot, though. On the play at the plate the runner on first had alertly tagged and gone to second. A base hit would score him with the one-millionth run. And on the first pitch the batter smacked a line-drive single. The runner tore around third...and stopped. He just stopped and scampered back to third base. Again I was screaming. "Go! Go!" I was signaling with my hands. "Go!" I wanted to take him by the hand and drag him home.
It was probably too late anyway. As soon as that play ended, the announcer informed the crowd that Houston's Bob Watson had scored the millionth run in major league history. So today some National League umpire is wearing my watch.
Over a period of time I learned to trust certain catchers so much that I actually let them umpire for me on the bad days. The bad days usually followed the good nights. Those were the days when I knew I was in trouble because I'd be seeing two baseballs, and Nolan Ryan wasn't pitching. On those days there wasn't much I could do but take two aspirin and call as little as possible. If someone I trusted was catching, like Elrod Hendricks, Ed Herrmann, or Johnny Roseboro, I'd tell him, "Look, it's a bad day. You'd better take it for me. If it's a strike, hold your glove in place for an extra second. If it's a ball, throw it right back. And please, don't yell."