Even though I had been a pitcher during my professional baseball career, when I was invited to play in an Equitable Old-Timers' game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium last summer, the fantasies I began to have were about hitting. I would dig in at the plate, getting ready to face big, bad Bob Gibson. The bases would be jammed, with the game on the line. In the stands 50,000 fans would be screaming, stomping, going nuts.
My one game in the big leagues, with the Phillies in 1968 (two innings, 4.50 ERA), hardly made me a household word around Philadelphia. So for me, merely stepping on the field with such Hall of Famers as Gibson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller, Bobby Doerr, Enos Slaughter and Robin Roberts would be the highlight of my baseball career. Getting into the game would be a bonus.
I had been asked to participate in the three-inning game not because I had played 15 minutes in the majors, but because I had written a story for this magazine about the Baseball Alumni Team (BAT), a nonprofit foundation underwritten by the Equitable Old-Timers Series, which provides emergency financial assistance to former major leaguers. I had been invited to play with the Phillies Old-Timers against the Equitable Old-Timers, a team of former major league All-Stars.
When the big day arrived and I walked into the clubhouse—filled with more than 30 stars from the last 57 years—I felt slightly out of place, like a high school tuba player invited to sit in with the Boston Pops. Still, I felt privileged—and thrilled.
May 15, 1988
It was as if nothing had changed over the years for these men, except perhaps their belt sizes. I listened carefully as Luke Appling and Lou Boudreau swapped Chicago stories. Mathews, tattoos and all, sat in front of his locker, loosening up with a cigarette and a beer. Banks, with a smile that stretched from here to Wrigley Field, was telling anyone who would listen that it was a great day to play two. And across the room, sitting next to Curt Flood and Jim Maloney, and looking just as formidable as he had in my fantasy, was Bob Gibson. Unlike most of the Old-Timers, he had a waistline the same size as he had in his playing days.
A few minutes later I headed down the tunnel for the start of batting practice. After shagging flies in the outfield for a while, I started easing my way to the cage. I figured that if by some miracle I actually got up against Gibson, it might be helpful if I had at least a couple of practice rips. I had been a centerfielder at the University of California and I had always thought of myself as a pretty decent lefthanded hitter in the minors, even pinch-hitting on occasion. In my one game in the majors, manager Gene Mauch had the temerity to pinch-hit for me before I ever got a chance to show him what I could do with the stick. But all that was in the '60s. I had played some softball since then, but I had not taken so much as a swing at a baseball.
I managed to sneak into the batting cage for five cuts, even nailing a couple of line drives, but they weren't enough to impress Andy Seminick, the manager of the Phillies Old-Timers. When the game started, Roberts was on the mound, Richie Ashburn was in center and I was on the bench.
The Equitable Old-Timers roughed up Roberts for eight runs in the top of the first, including a huff-n-puff inside-the-park homer by Minnie Minoso and a triple by Flood that Ashburn kicked halfway to Delaware. So when Ashburn led off the bottom of the inning against Gibson, he was hoping to redeem himself. Keep in mind that the pitcher's objective in an Old-Timers' game is to let the batter hit the ball.
Gibson did just that on his first two pitches to Ashburn, serving it up right down the middle with nothing on it. Ashburn fouled off both pitches. With the count no balls and two strikes, Gibson suddenly reached back and fired a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, low and away. Stunned, Ashburn took a feeble cut at the ball, which by then was deep in catcher Mike Shannon's glove. Shaking his head, Ashburn turned and walked back to the dugout. He took a seat next to me, put his hand on my knee and said, "Larry, take over for me in center next inning."
I felt like I had just been told that I had won the lottery. Not only was I going to get to play, I was going in for the great Richie Ashburn. I was halfway to my fantasy.
After Gibson retired the side, I grabbed my glove and bounded up the steps, heading toward centerfield before Ashburn could change his mind. I could hear a boo-bird in the right centerfield stands screaming at me: "Colton, you were worthless in '68 and you're still worthless!" I was thrilled that he recognized me.
As relief pitcher Don Cardwell completed his warmup throws, I heard the P.A. announcer give the lineup changes: "Now playing centerfield for the Phillies Old-Timers, Larry Colton." I glanced around the stadium, surveying the enormous crowd. (Attendance was 46,732; there had been a gathering of 3,991 for my one game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1968.) I was in heaven. I had now appeared in as many Old-Timers' games as major league games. I wanted the moment to last forever.
Fortunately, nothing was hit my way that inning, unless you want to count the foul ball by Banks that caromed off the tarp along the leftfield line and rolled all the way into short center. I trotted over, fielded it cleanly, then lobbed a strike to the ball boy down the foul line. I decided that I would count it in my career defensive statistics.
In the bottom half of the second, after Mudcat Grant had replaced Gibson on the mound, the Phillies started a rally. Harry Anderson, Gene Freese and Ed Bouchee greeted Grant with three straight singles to load the bases. The next hitter, Bob Bowman, popped up, but Chico Fernandez followed with a single, driving in a run. And then suddenly, there I was walking toward the plate, bat in hand, bases loaded, one out, 46,732 fans going nuts. Just like the fantasy. Only it was Mudcat on the mound, not Gibson. All the dreams. All the games. Little League. Babe Ruth League. American Legion. High school. College. Pacific Coast League. Spring training with the Phillies. I was finally getting to bat in a major league stadium; never mind that it was an Old-Timers' game.
It's funny, but I wasn't nervous. By all rights, I should have been more anxious than a chicken on a conveyor belt. But I wasn't. The rally had happened so fast—in fact, the whole weekend, with the banquets and the cocktail parties, had been such a blur—that I hadn't really had time to think about it. I didn't even think to glance up at the giant television screen in centerfield to check out how I looked. I just walked up to the plate and started to dig in.
Before I really had a chance to get set, Mudcat was into his windup. It was the same smooth delivery that I had seen on TV in 1965, when he had won two games against the Dodgers in the World Series. The ball was on me in a flash. He had suddenly turned up the dial, putting some mustard on the ball. I swung, not like an ex-pinch hitter, but like a debutante waving a dead fish through the air. It was one of the worst swings in history. Worse than Ashburn's. It was embarrassing. I could almost feel Ty Cobb reaching up to pull more dirt onto his grave.
I looked out at Mudcat. I wanted to yell at him, "Hey Cat, remember me? I sat next to you at the banquet last night. I'm your good buddy. Pipe one in here." Instead, I decided to turn up my own dial a few clicks. I would be ready if he came in with more heat.
Wasting no time, he went right back into his windup. And again, he humped up, bringing more smoke. But this time I was ready. I took a wicked cut. If baseball is a game of inches, I had it down to centimeters. I fouled the pitch straight back. The crowd oohed and aahed.
I stepped out of the box, asking umpire Shag Crawford for time. Gazing into the vast throng, trying to milk the moment, I realized that I had been at bat for less than 20 seconds and I was in perilous danger of suffering the lowest of Old-Timer lows—a three-pitch strikeout. I took a deep breath, steeling myself for the next pitch.
Quickly, I stepped back into the box. Mudcat had his back to the plate, motioning rightfielder Al Oliver and second baseman Curt Blefary to play me to pull. My second swing, evidently, had put the fear of Cobb into him. He toed the slab again.
The next pitch, another 83-mph fastball (which is the Old-Timer equivalent of a 147-mph aspirin tablet) came in low and inside. I started to swing, but at the last instant, I held up. It was a ball. I breathed a momentary sigh of relief. At least I wouldn't go down in three pitches. The next pitch, another hummer, was in the exact same spot. I eyeballed that one for ball two.
Again I stepped out of the box. I realized that this wasn't exactly a showdown of Dwight Gooden-Dale Murphy proportions, but it had all the drama I wanted. I stepped back in, eyes riveted to the ball as he went into his windup for the 2-and-2 pitch. As the ball came rushing toward the plate, my eyes lit up. It was a fastball coming right down the pipe, waist-high, a little inside. I will see the pitch until the day I die.
I took a level cut, arms extended, eyes glued to the ball. Ted Williams would have been proud. I was right on it. I made contact, only it was with the top half of the ball. The ball bounced casually right to the spot where Mudcat had just moved his second baseman. The ball had double play written all over it.
In my prime, on a good day, I was slow. But over the years, I have lost a step or two. As I took off toward first base, furious with myself for not having drilled the perfect pitch, I was acutely aware that only 90 feet separated me from the ignominious distinction of hitting into a double play in my one at bat. Either that or a hamstring pull.
Those 90 feet seemed like the Gobi Desert. Blefary fielded the ball cleanly, flipped it to Banks coming across the bag, who then turned it back toward first. They got me by a stride. Mudville's Casey couldn't have done worse: a rally-killing double dip.
After crossing the bag, I turned to umpire Jim Honochick, of Miller Lite beer commercial fame, who had called me out. The crowd was booing. I wasn't sure if it was at him or me. I tried to summon the rage to argue with him, but I couldn't. The only thing I could feel was the air leaking out of my fantasy.
Head down, I headed back out to center. By then, my boo-bird buddy in the stands had been joined by a few of his bigmouthed bleacher brethren.
But as fate would have it, in the next inning I was given a chance to redeem myself in front of the home crowd. When big Gene Conley and then Ray Semproch couldn't find enough gas to get the ball up to the plate, Seminick went to the mound, signaling toward center. I was shocked. He was actually calling me in to pitch.
After throwing two warmup pitches, I signaled umpire Crawford that I was ready to go; I knew there wasn't enough time for me to work the rust off my arm. As I took my stretch, checking Banks leading off second, I had only two concerns. The first was whether I could throw strikes. Not Gibson or Mudcat sneak attacks, just nice easy lovin' balls. Because I had not been on a pitcher's mound in almost two decades, there was considerable doubt in my mind as to whether I could even get the ball over the plate. My second concern was my safety.
The first batter was Earl Battey. To my delight, my first pitch was a nice fat juicy melon right down Broadway. Battey took a mighty cut, sending a high chopper toward third. Freese backed up and made the play, but his throw to first had all the oomph of a dead dog. That put runners on first and third. The next hitter, Vic Power, also swung at my first pitch, arching a high, lazy pop behind short, the kind that Bobby Wine would have caught in his hip pocket. Unfortunately, Wine wasn't there and the ball fell to earth untouched.
As Blefary stepped up to hit, I started to have the feeling that maybe I was doomed to spend the rest of my life on that mound without ever getting anybody out. Nevertheless I took the hill again and let it fly. Blefary also swung at my first pitch, hitting a gift-shop grounder right to first baseman Bouchee, who fielded it and threw to second for the force on Power. Instinctively, I broke toward first, just as I had done in a million spring training drills. Shortstop Fernandez made the pivot, then threw back to first. I was there, stretched out to take the throw, nipping Blefary by a stride. The crowd went crazy. I thrust my fist into the gathering Philadelphia twilight. It was the first 3-6-1 double play in Old-Timers' history.
But I still had one out to go. The next hitter was Oliver, former national league batting champion and a career .305 hitter in 17 years in the majors. For years he had made a living hitting bullets back through the box—and he had been out of the game only a couple of years. Watching him step to the plate, I had the distinct feeling that I could get hurt pitching to him. If at all possible, I was going to make him pull.
The hurling gods were with me. Oliver, like each of the other three batters, swung at my first pitch, a harvest moon on the inside. He hit a soft roller to Bouchee at first for an unassisted putout.
I leaped off the mound, a la the Tugger. Four pitches, four strikes, no injuries. One double play had erased the misery of another.
We failed to score in our half of the inning and lost the game 9-1. But nobody cared, not even the boo-birds. The fans brought us back onto the field, showering us with a thunderous ovation. I stood there, surrounded by some of the finest players in the history of the game, the sweet roar of the crowd ringing in my ears.
For the Hall of Famers, I would guess, it sounded great. They know that sound. But for me, it was new. It was truly the highlight of my baseball career—even better than I had imagined in my fantasy.
That is not to say, however, that I don't still see that Mudcat fastball coming up bigger than a beach ball. I should have killed it.
Larry Colton, who now lives in Portland, Ore., is working on a nonfiction book.