I was standing in leftfield, hands on my knees, waiting for some action to come my way, when I first noticed her. She was one of those leggy Santa Monica blondes. She wore tapered Georges Marciano jeans and a white T-shirt tied in a knot just above her left hip. Her hair was in a ponytail, and she carried a clipboard in her hand and a Polaroid around her neck. I figured she was just strolling through the park.
There certainly was no reason for her to have any interest in our softball game. She didn't know any of us. We were just a group of writers and poets out for a little Saturday afternoon over-the-line. We called it Ugly Softball. Most of the guys played like...poets. There were no double-knit uniforms, no wives or girlfriends in the stands—just a dozen middle-aged men with one bat and ball among us. (I was the only guy with any playing experience higher than Pee Wee League; I had a cup of instant coffee as a pitcher with the Phillies in 1968.)
Nevertheless, she took a seat on the bench behind third base. I continued eyeing her, trying to figure out why in the name of Jesus Alou such an attractive, healthy young woman would want to waste time on a beautiful Oregon Saturday watching a game of Ugly Softball. She looked like she should be windsurfing or hiking the Cascades.
I wasn't the only player checking her out. (These guys played like poets, but they eyed the bleachers like real ballplayers.) The shortstop didn't move an inch on a ball hit 10 feet to his right. I lobbed it back to the infield, wondering if my team was ever going to hit again. I was afraid our mystery fan would get bored and move on before I got a closer look. And who could blame her?
April 12, 1987
Finally, after the longest inning ever, the third baseman snow-coned a pop-up to retire the side. I was amazed to see she was still there. I tilted my head to one side, tucked my elbows tight and gave it my best Mickey Mantle trot into the infield, the lope I'd spent years perfecting as a kid. From the corner of my eye, I saw her motion a few players toward her. By the time I reached the bench, 11 poets and writers, none of whom could hit their way out of a teacup, had her surrounded. I took a place in the rear.
"Does your team have a name?" she asked enthusiastically.
"We're not into labels." replied one of the poets.
"We're thinking about calling ourselves More Jail Space," offered another, referring to the hot political issue in Portland.
She smiled politely, then handed one of the players a business card. I was right; she wasn't local. "I'm the casting director for Coppos Films, a Hollywood production company," she said. "We're in Portland this week to film a new Burger King commercial."
"Burger King?" interrupted the shortstop, furrowing his eyebrows. "As in Herb?"
"Herb didn't go over too well," she replied. "That's why I'm here. Burger King is putting together a new ad campaign for the Double Whopper. We're looking for slice-of-life-type people, you know, Joe Average softball player."
That leaves out this group, I thought.
"Specifically, we need several guys between the ages of 30 and 45," she continued. "There will be an audition this evening at the Red Lion Motor Inn. If you're chosen, we'll pay you $100 to be in a scene. If your scene actually ends up on the air, you can make up to $10,000 in residuals. This is for a national spot. Any of you interested?"
Suddenly, 24 eyes—blue ones, brown ones, bloodshot ones—pleaded. Noses quivered, like dogs after the scent. These were literary purists, guys used to working in garrets and getting $100 for five years' worth of poems. The thought of $ 10,000 for a few hours' work was as realistic to them as hitting a Dwight Gooden fastball into the upper deck at Shea, or for that matter, hitting it anywhere. Everyone volunteered.
Arriving separately at the audition, we were each ushered into the Cascade Ballroom on the second floor of the motel and told to wait for the director's call. Our usher was the Santa Monica blonde. She looked just as healthy indoors.
Three of the poets didn't show up. "They're not into commercialism." explained a magazine writer. "Either that or they couldn't afford bus fare."
We got no hint about what to expect in the audition. The only acting I had ever done was in 1961 when I asked my dad if I could borrow the car to go to American Legion practice when I really wanted it to sneak over to Janelle Reiring's house. Still, I was ready. How tough could it be? I knew how to grunt when I hit a softball and how to wipe my chin when I finished a burger. I was no Jim Palmer, but then who is?
Waiting for the director's call, I couldn't help thinking it ironic. I was about to get a shot at a national commercial and $10,000 for being a softball player. That was more than I ever made in a year as a pro baseball player. In 1964, Paul Owens, then the Phillies' head West Coast scout, signed me to an $8,000 bonus. My career lasted six years, five of them in the minors. I pitched against a few big names: Pete Rose (my first big league hitter), Steve Garvey, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda. My highest salary for any of those years was $9,400, and I never came even remotely close to endorsing anything, not even a greasy burger. But now, 16 years after my last pitch—a 450-foot homer to Tom Paciorek (SI, May 25, 1981, NOSTALGIA)—I was on the verge of picking up 10 grand because I showed up to play Ugly Softball with a bunch of wienie-armed poets.
We were finally told we would audition in pairs. My partner was John Strawn, who once ghosted a basketball book for Jack Ramsay. When our names were called, he looked like a ghost. "I don't want to do it," he said.
"Don't let me down now, partner," I countered. "Remember...$10,000."
We then stepped into the audition suite. Seated around a large conference table were seven men and one woman. Talk about the Hollywood look. They weren't Major Studio, but they were trying—LA Eyeworks sunglasses (on a string), classic nouveau safari jacket. Rodeo Drive smiles.
"Super of you two to show up," one of them offered. I thought about casually dropping my baseball card on the table, just to let them know that if it was the real McCoy they wanted. I was the guy. I decided against it.
The director motioned us toward the wall with a flick of the wrist. His bracelet jangled. "Pretend you're in a tight ball game and you're having a heated argument," he directed.
I looked at John. His face was blank. It was as if he had just been asked to play Othello at Stratford-on-Avon, although he later said he didn't have stage fright but was merely annoyed at what he was being asked to do. I struggled to get into character, watching residual checks float out the window.
Baseball arguments, like pro wrestling matches, have always seemed like wasted energy—good theater, but the outcome can't be changed. I was kicked out of only one game in my career; it happened in the Northwest League in 1965 when I called the first base ump a tub of guts from the dugout. The league president, a lumber salesman, fined me $20. I sent him a crisp $20 bill and wrote "Suck it up" across it. Four days later I was fined an additional $50 for insubordination to the league president. I was only making $500 a month at the time, so I reasoned that I better not include any more messages on my money.
I surveyed John again, then the Burger King Eight. I think now about what Goose Gossage had said about Mrs. Kroc and what her hamburgers were doing to the world. I thought about the $10,000. Faster than you can say Oscar, I was Billy Martin in Yankee Stadium, bumping bellies with Ron Luciano. I was arguing my heart out. The problem was that John was standing there like a petrified tree. I paused, then shifted a fake wad of Red Man in my cheek. I kicked the red and gold carpet. "How could you blow that call, Homer?" I barked, three inches from John's face. "He was safe by a mile."
"No, he wasn't," John replied, with all the venom of a man addressing his ailing grandmother.
"You're missing a good game." I snorted, groping for managerisms. But they were temporarily lost in the dugouts of a bygone career. I stomped around in a circle, throwing my hands up in the air. I stammered, "You...you...you big tub of guts!"
I waited for John to respond, but there was nothing. Not even a whimper. Just a vacant stare. Finally, mercifully, after what seemed like the longest pause in theatrical history, the director spoke. "Okay, this time I want you to be yelling at the players on the other team like you really hate them."
This was another baseball exercise I didn't do much of as a player. Pitchers didn't have to be holler guys. I glanced at John. Nobody was in the dugout. I knew I was an actor out alone. "If you were any good you'd be on our team," I half yelled, pointing at the Gideon Bible on the nightstand. "You're bush. Better check your wife, one of our players is missing. Don't forget to take out the garbage in the morning, Meat."
"Stop," said John, waving his hands. "I don't want this. I'm not an actor. This isn't me."
"That's cool," said the director sympathetically. "Thanks for being honest. We don't want to make anybody do something they don't want." He immediately pointed us toward the door.
I was in the hall before I had a chance to think. I didn't even get to ask for another partner. My audition was history. I felt like a hard-luck pitcher who had just lost 1-0, a victim of nonsupport. I looked at John and saw him as the cleanup hitter who had choked with the bases loaded to take the food right out of my mouth.
The next morning the phone rang. It was from the production company's wardrobe department. They wanted my shirt size. I had made the cut after all. Two of the other players had also made it. I felt as if Gene Mauch had just told me I was leaving spring training with the big club. The caller said to be on location at a downtown garage the next day. I didn't ask any questions.
When I arrived, the location manager was the only person there. The I crew was finishing up filming at another one of the 15 locations around town. They were running 90 minutes late. I had a toothache. "I was told to be here at 2:30," I said. "This isn't Hollywood, you know. Life doesn't revolve around Burger King."
"We can get somebody else." she responded.
"I'll give them a few minutes." I said.
Two hours later they showed up. They came like the crew from Heaven's Gate: two Winnebagos, two rental trucks, one sound truck, three vans, five rental cars, 30 crew members and two motorcycle policemen. Everybody except the cops had flown in from Hollywood. This was big-time burger budget. They immediately broke for lunch.
After lunch (which wasn't Burger King), the policemen set up barricades and diverted traffic around the block. I figured it was going to be some kind of stickball scene, with me playing a middle-aged, white Willie Mays. I was ready, but I was wrong.
"You're going to be a gas station attendant," said the director. "You'll be standing next to the pump, eating a Whopper and some fries."
"Hmmmm," I replied. "What are my lines?"
"None," he answered. "We're only looking for about two or three seconds from this scene, if we use any of it at all."
"I thought I was supposed to be in a softball game," I said.
"We got somebody else for that scene," he said walking away. My eyes followed him. Where was the casting director? I had played pro ball, hung a thousand curves, covered a million bases. How could they cast me as a gas station attendant? I never took a shop class. Was this how Bob Uecker started?
I was taken to the wardrobe truck and handed a dirty mechanic's uniform. The makeup woman rubbed grease (actually charcoal) all over my arms and face. A gofer brought a huge metal tray filled with fries and 25 Double Whoppers. He set a bag of fries and one of the burgers on top of a gas pump.
"I want you to stand next to the pump," said the director. "You're taking a break, eating your burger. Don't look at the camera. Understand? Just take a bite of your burger and act like you love it. Hold the bite in your mouth a couple seconds, then spit it out. You don't have to swallow." There was a trash can behind the pump.
"Quiet on the set," he ordered. For the next 45 minutes, with a crew of 30 standing by and the camera dollying in from every angle, I bit into 25 Double Whoppers, smiled, counted to three and then bull's-eyed the garbage can. After each take, a new Whopper was placed on top of the pump. After a while they started to look like piles of infield dirt. The fries tasted like it. "That's a wrap," said the director, just when I thought my sore tooth was going to explode.
The crew started to gather up the gear. "Hold everything," yelled the assistant director. He had spotted a large Coca-Cola sign on the side of a building across the street, directly in line with the camera. Burger King has a contract with Pepsi. "We have to do it all over again," he ordered.
"This isn't in my contract." I said. Nobody laughed. Another tray of 25 Double Whoppers and stale fries was delivered, along with an empty garbage can. We did it all over again—the biting, smiling, spitting. It had been an expensive mistake. The extra burgers alone had cost $48.75.
"Thanks a lot for the help, pal," said the director after it was over.
"How will I know if I end up on the cutting-room floor?" I asked.
"Just keep watching your TV," he said, turning to leave.
I turned in my wardrobe, washed off the charcoal, then smiled as the company's business manager handed me a brand-new $100 bill. "Fifty dollars an hour for playing a mechanic," I said. "That's about what mine gets."
I said goodbyes to the crew, then hopped in my car and headed for the freeway. I thought about classy restaurants where I might treat myself on behalf of Burger King. I thought about paying the dentist. As I neared my exit, steam started coming from under the hood. I pulled into the nearest gas station. Not being a real mechanic, I inquired as to the nature of the problem. "Looks like you've got a broken water pump," said the mechanic.
"How much?" I asked.
"A hundred bucks for a rebuilt one," he said. I picked up the car the next day. The real mechanic got the $100.
For the next two months, I checked the mailbox for residual checks. No luck. I watched closely every time a Burger King commercial came on TV. Nothing. Then finally I saw it. Flashing across the screen were two of my wimp-hitting buddies from Ugly Softball. They had not only made the cut, they were on the all-star team. I called one of them. He had already received $8,600 in residuals. "I'm really happy for you," I said.
I called the production company, figuring that surely my check was in the mail. Surely I was just missing my commercial. I wish. My scene had been cut, zapped to the floor, like Whoppers to a garbage can. They promised to keep my name on file in case they ever came to Portland to film again.
I hung up and shrugged. At least I got a water pump out of the deal. Besides, I learned long ago that debuts don't always go as planned: Pete Rose drilled my third big league pitch off the top of the centerfield wall.
Larry Colton recently signed a Whopper of a book contract with Doubleday.