AN OLD SOFTBALL PLAYER LOOKS BACK AT THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

October 05, 1986

Let it be recorded here that on this past Mother's Day and the day after, Les Lapins Sauvages, the slo-pitch softball team that more or less represents the Washington Square Bar & Grill of San Francisco, became the first team of any description to play games on successive days (and within 24 hours) in Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. So—you may inquire—what? But think about it. Fenway opened for business in the American League in 1912, and Wrigley, also known as "the Friendly Confines," turned up in the National League four years later. And it was not until May of 1986 that any one team had ever been in both almost at the same time.

Aha, some of you will say, the Cubs and Red Sox played in the 1918 World Series. Surely.... But no! The Cubs abandoned their home park for that Series in favor of Comiskey Park, which was considerably larger. The two teams have not met in a Series since.

Let the record also show that Les Lapins swept their historic series, whipping a group of Boston politicians and newspapermen, 10-4, in Fenway, and skunking a collection of Chicago media persons, 21-5, in Wrigley. The Boston game began at 12:30 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, May 11; the Chicago game at 11:15 a.m., Central Daylight Time, May 12. It is also my sad duty to report that my own participation in these great events became a sort of waking nightmare—but we'll get to that.

Our team—I say our, because until almost this very moment I have been a part of it—first achieved international recognition seven years ago when, inaugurating a tradition of sorts, we played the road half of our two-game schedule in Paris, walloping a restaurant, 40-22, in the Bois de Boulogne (SI, Aug. 8, 1979). The Paris match also inspired our singular nickname, which translates to "the Wild Rabbits." We have since played our away games in New York, London and Dublin—a politically risky doubleheader—the Napa Valley, Hollywood (actually, Encino, Calif.) and Long Island. I don't recall the scores.

We are essentially the creation of Ed Moose, one of the proprietors of the Washington Square Bar & Grill (henceforth to be known as "the Square") and a baseball fan and softball manager of uncommon ferocity. In his restaurant, Moose is the very soul of conviviality, an attentive and concerned host who table-hops indefatigably and conspires to transform even the most pedestrian evening there into a cocktail party of such formidable sophistication that one can almost picture Noël Coward and Cole Porter passing bons mots by the piano. But put this latter-day Sherman Billings-fey in the red and white spangles of Les Lapins and an unsettling metamorphosis occurs. Suddenly the genial host becomes a merciless taskmaster capable of reducing even the sturdiest among us to quivering flesh with the lash of his tongue. "Ed Moose would have made Leo Durocher look like Jean Hersholt," it has been said by us. The dated reference to the onetime martinet of the Dodgers and Giants and to the kindly actor, best remembered for his role on radio and in films as the lovable Dr. Christian, reveals yet another characteristic of our team. Indeed, excusing our lovely women players, we are all gentlemen of middle years, many of us gone shamefully to suet. Put the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen on first base, this correspondent on second, the pianist and journalism teacher Dick Fregulia at short and Square bartender Bob Frugoli on third, and we can trot out an infield that averages 55 years of age. Except for Frugoli, I should hastily add, this has been our second-string infield. The first string is younger by maybe five years.

Even the lightest practice session leaves our decrepit roster with more injuries than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, say, will suffer in two seasons. For the Boston and Chicago games, even the indestructible Moose, our starting pitcher, was disabled. Swinging a bat in a practice game before the historic trip, he pulled his left biceps so painfully that he could scarcely lower the arm. The wounded member remained fixed to his chest in a manner reminiscent of an earlier, even more legendary tyrant.

Fortunately, Moose is a righthander, so he was able to start—and win—both road games. But his temporarily disabled glove hand did set in motion one sequence of surpassing absurdity in the Boston game. Moose's immobility applied immense pressure on our catcher, Ernie McCormick, a retired banker turned art student, for it was McCormick's unenviable job after every pitch to hit that fixed glove with his return throws. And Moose is not a patient man. A throw too high and the pitcher gets it in the face. Too low and.... For most of the Boston game, McCormick performed this vexing chore without a hitch, but in the fourth inning, he suffered a momentary lapse, his throw back to the mound sailing untouched past the stationary glove and out toward second base. I had just entered the game and, eager as I am to please, I hurried over to retrieve the ball. My throw—and we'll come to this problem shortly—was even more off target than McCormick's. I detected just the suggestion of agitation in our manager as he wheeled once more toward his catcher. McCormick, now apparently doomed to play a ludicrous game of catch with me, picked up my throw and threw it once again past the seething pitcher. Before I could prolong this travesty, Frugoli got to the ball and walked over and placed it gently in Moose's good hand. The game resumed.

This brings us to my own curious handicap. To backtrack a moment, I should say that I have been playing soft-ball in some form since FDR's second term. Ted Williams was a rookie when I started throwing the ball around in earnest. Glenn Miller was recording Sunrise Serenade. Judy Garland was starring in a new movie, The Wizard of Oz. Hitler was menacing Poland. The Niekros of Blaine, Ohio, were celebrating the birth of a son, Philip. You get the idea. I'm a veteran. Now, in all but the last three years of my seemingly interminable career, there has been one thing I've always been able to do well, and that is throw the ball. For maybe 25 of those years, I was also able to run pretty fast. I remember reading as a youngster that what the great Branch Rickey valued most in a player was speed afoot and a good arm. I had those. Sadly enough, that was about all I had. To go with my principal attributes, I brought an iron glove and a noodle bat. As well as poor eyesight. In baseball, I couldn't hit the curve ball. I couldn't even see the fastball. And the changeup gave me a lot of trouble. But in slo-pitch softball I could generally hold my own because I was fast enough to beat out my swinging bunts, and I could throw. As decade after decade rolled relentlessly by, I even learned to field ground balls—well enough, if I do say so myself, to play a pretty fair shortstop for the Chronicle softball team of the early and mid-'60s. In time, the legs, as they inevitably must, went. They always go first. The youthful speedster became a middle-aged lumberer. But I played on, mainly because I could still throw. And then, three years ago, it happened.

We Lapins were working out on our home asphalt for a game with Columbia Pictures in Southern California (on Mother's Day, of course) when, all of a moment, I couldn't throw. When I say I couldn't throw, I don't mean my arm got sore or went dead or got unhinged by a rotator cuff or anything like that. There was nothing physically wrong with the old flipper. I didn't hurt at all. I was still using it several days a week to play a mean game of racquetball. But suddenly, on this fateful day, it was absolutely useless as a throwing mechanism. And this, after nearly a half-century of winging strikes—well, mostly strikes. While I was playing catch with David Bush, a Chronicle baseball writer and at that time a Lapins relief pitcher, the ball left my hand as if it, not the propelling arm, had the final say about where it should go. Some of my throws, if they may be so dignified, would escape my fingers and flutter ridiculously off to the right. Others would linger in my hand long past their scheduled departure and plummet to the earth virtually at my left foot. I was like a golfer plagued with both a slice and a hook. Bush could not believe what was happening. Neither could I. The other players looked on in mounting amusement as I, like some manic discus thrower, peppered the landscape. Finally, I heard laughter. Cruel shouts of "rag arm" and "cracker arm" rang like J. Arthur Rank gongs in my, yes, rabbit ears. In my teammates' defense, however, I should say that in all my years of watching the game, I'd never seen anybody—man, woman or child—throw a ball as badly as I, tears nearly streaming down my face, was throwing it on this day. I tried everything to regain my composure and my control, from tossing overhand in some parody of a schoolgirl to experimenting with variations on the Quisenberry submarine pitch. I finally resorted to pushing the ball forward like some enfeebled shot-putter. Nothing worked. The practice session was for me the equivalent of a day in the stocks. I had become a figure of scorn and ridicule. The whole team had a good laugh about it over a few beers down at the Square afterward. I joined right in. But, as the song says, I was laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.

What on earth had happened? I thought then of two pitchers whose careers were mysteriously terminated by a similar throwing malfunction—Steve Blass, once a World Series hero for the Pirates, and Kevin Saucier, a former bullpen ace for the Phillies and the Tigers. Both had been control pitchers who had suddenly and inexplicably gone wild—hopelessly wild. Strange as their cases seemed, they did not seem nearly as strange as mine. It was obviously a phobia of some kind. Probably something to do with my mother, although for the life of me I couldn't recall ever playing catch with her. So what do you do? Go see some bearded Viennese shrink and confess to him that I can't throw a softball anymore? "Hmmm," he would probably say, "so why do it?" I concluded it was just one of those things and it would soon go away. I decided I wouldn't throw another ball until our game with Columbia. By then, surely, I'd be back to normal.

It was a foolish hope. In our warmups under the Southern California sun, I was throwing even worse than before. I was especially inaccurate with Les Lapins' 6'6" first baseman, Bob Rowell, an old friend from undergraduate days at Cal. If you're an infielder and you can't throw to the first baseman, you're in trouble. The game became a horror movie with me playing the idiot who opens the creaking door into the darkened room. I was terrified of what might happen. My only hope, I decided, was to convert even routine grounders into diving stops, so that, scrambling to my feet in a cloud of infield dirt, I might be forgiven if my throws should miss the towering Rowell by 10 feet. As it turned out, I booted the first ball hit to me—who wouldn't have under these dreadful circumstances?—and fielded the next one close enough to second base to make a short flip, not entirely accurate, to shortstop Fregulia for a force-out. I got through the day relatively unscathed, but I was demoralized. The affliction seemed permanent.

There was nothing for me to do but retire, to cut short a career that had looked as if it would take me from swaddling clothes to the tomb. I advised Moose of my decision, and to my immeasurable delight and relief, he told me that he, too, had decided to pack it in. Managing a team of aging sybarites on international and transcontinental road trips had become too much for even his iron constitution. Les Lapins were finished. This was fine with me. No team, no regrets. Alas, neither Moose nor I was true to his vow. The Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco in July '84, and an eastern media softball team captained by NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and featuring New York Governor Mario Cuomo had challenged Les Lapins to a game on our home diamond. Moose couldn't pass up such an opportunity.

Neither, unbelievably, could I. The odd thing was that in this game I found there were times when I could actually throw the ball with some of the old zing. Not every time, mind you, but just often enough to convince me that my situation was not entirely hopeless. Still, I resisted the temptation to get back in the game full-time, and when Les Lapins traveled to Long Island in '85 for a rematch with the Brokaw bunch, I professed to have other, more pressing affairs. The game was played near the lush estate of our centerfielder, Herb Allen, the New York investment banker who loves softball and the Square so much that he annually flies west to don the colors of Les Lapins. I understand they had a helluva party after that game.

I had settled comfortably into retirement this spring when Moose announced plans for the Fenway-Wrigley double-header. He had put the games together with the cooperation of Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston and Andrew J. McKenna, a member of the Cubs' board of directors. On separate visits to the Square, these two otherwise distinguished gentlemen had been so captivated by their host and the ambience that, before they knew what they were doing, they found themselves organizing softball games in the ballparks in their respective cities.

This time I decided to go into training. I bought a cheap softball at a neighborhood Woolworth's and took it with me an hour or so before our first practice to a playground near my house in San Francisco. My plan was to test the treacherous arm by throwing the ball against a backstop there before risking human contact. Stationing myself about 50 feet from the backstop, I cranked up. Voilà! Right on the money. The arm was back! Sweat waterfalling from my temples, I threw and threw and threw with mounting joy. The arm was infallible. I drew an imaginary bull's-eye on the backstop and—bingo!—hit it every time. I cannot recall being happier.

The thing to do now was show my teammates that the old rifle was firing again. I rushed to our practice field and immediately spotted Rowell. Smiling smugly and brimming with a confidence that must have startled him, I uncorked a high hard one. The ball fluttered like a stricken sparrow off the side of my hand and rolled into a basketball court adjoining our field. Rowell shrugged sympathetically and resumed his warmups with more dependable partners, and I jogged miserably off to find the ball. Nothing had changed, so far as my teammates were concerned. But I knew something had. I could throw, all right, but only, it seemed, to inanimate objects. In a way, this was an even more devastating discovery. Now I began to see my problem as one with profound Freudian undertones. Was my inability to throw to another human a sign of rejection? Was I saying no to mankind? Was mankind saying no to me? Was playing catch a metaphor for life itself? The word "warmup" began to take on deeper meaning.

But I refused to give up. At subsequent practices I found that if I first warmed up against a wall or some other bloodless object immediately before playing catch, there was some carryover. For a time, at least, I could play catch like a normal person. There was something else: I could throw the ball better to some of my teammates than to others. Why this was so, I had no clue. Don Leary, a reserve outfielder and, in real life, a private investigator, was a favorite partner. Leary has a friendly, forgiving Irish face. If my throws sailed past him, he merely retrieved them without wisecrack or admonition and resumed our game. My confidence, which had sunk to record depths, was climbing tentatively out of the abyss. I even got through one practice—after a lengthy wall-throw—without making a single lousy throw. "Where'd you find that arm?" inquired our nonplaying captain, Chris Sullivan, a retired police inspector. "It was always there," I replied unconvincingly.

And so, as we headed east for our rendezvous with destiny, I was buoyed by just the faintest ray of hope. At Fenway, I headed directly for the Green Monster leftfield fence and began firing shots off it with my Woolworth's ball. Good. Every throw on the money. To those unfamiliar with my pregame ritual, I must have seemed a poignant, even romantic figure. "Just look at that guy out there by himself," they must have said. "I bet he dreamed all his life of playing here." Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. I didn't give a damn about Fenway or its wall. I was fighting for survival.

We had 23 players suited up, one fewer than major league teams now carry, so I knew my playing time would be limited. Just as well. But when I got into the Fenway game, I discovered to my horror that my throws in the infield warmup were developing that ominous flutter. There before me stood Rowell, the most likable guy in the world, but to me, an executioner. I was determined to grit it out. Two balls were hit my way in that game, both unreachable. Unreachable, that is, for me. I gamely lurched after both, barely touching one. I was grateful for their elusiveness. At bat, I hit a ground ball to the Boston second baseman, Marty Nolan, editor of The Boston Globe's editorial page. He kicked it, and I pulled a leg muscle running to first.

The Wrigley game would be my swan song. Nobody would have to tear the uniform off my back. Forty-seven years was career enough. But this grand old ballpark confronted me with one final frustration—the damn vines on the outfield fences. How could I conduct my solitary warmup against a wall almost covered with vines? Fortunately, I found a clear spot near the rightfield foul pole and got into my routine. In time, good old Leary came by and we had a nice game of catch. I knew I was ready.

I sat out most of the game but kept my-self busy warming up our leftfielder, Steve Cox, a lawyer, between innings. Cox was another one I could throw to, but when shortfielder Jerry McGrath, a stockbroker, unexpectedly called for the ball, my throw to him soared toward Lake Michigan. I had no chances in the Wrigley infield, thank heavens. And I got on base once on an error.

Les Lapins Sauvages and our vanquished opponents repaired to a jolly tavern just outside Wrigley's centerfield bleachers, for a few postgame beers. I was emotionally drained but, outwardly at least, in good spirits. My mind was made up. This was the end. I held a glass aloft with my traitorous arm and toasted my own decisiveness.

I know I'll miss the game. All of us retired players do. Slo-pitch Softball has given me some wonderful moments. I think. The trouble is, when I look back, all I can remember are ground balls rolling between my legs, pop flys popping out of my glove, strikeouts and, finally, those ghastly, humiliating wild throws. Maybe the game wasn't so good to me, after all.

Geez, I hope Moose doesn't book us into Yankee Stadium next year.

ILLUSTRATIONDON KEENE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)