The grandstands at tinker Field in Orlando have the lonely air of a waiting room for a bus to nowhere. At tonight's Senior Professional Baseball Association (SPBA) game between the hometown Juice and the West Palm Beach Tropics, it seems that the infielders outnumber the paying customers about two to one. The only vital sign in the joint is Mickey Rivers, leadoff hitter for the Tropics.
He stands upright at the plate, as skinny as six o'clock, then beats out a gangly grounder for a single. He turns to Bob Fralick, the first base coach. "I don't want to run, Bob," he says loud enough for Orlando first baseman Bill Madlock to hear. "I don't want to run."
"O.K.," says Fralick.
"I'm telling you, Bob, you can't make me steal."
January 29, 1990
"All right, Mickey. Hold on then."
On the first pitch, Rivers takes off. He beats the throw easily. Madlock shakes his head and says, "I can't read him."
Fralick shakes his head and says, "You think I can?"
Even when Rivers was swiping bases in the majors, he looked like an old guy with bad feet. Now 41, he is an old guy. and he still moves the same way. "He walks like he's hurting real, real bad." says Toby Harrah, the Tropics' third baseman.
"Like he's dying," says their manager, Dick Williams.
"Dead," says their rightfielder, Lee Lacy.
"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 5⅖ 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."
Yet the Goz always shows up for charity events, clinics, things. "Makin' things happen," he says. "Just did a Dick Howser thing. And I'm gonna do this thing for Phil—what is it, Joe?—that's it, Fred. Fred's got this thing next week. Takin' a few players down to do that thing. Doin' a thing for Billy, too. A thing here in Florida. Set up a big, little thing for Billy, a chapel-like thing."
Billy was Rivers' old manager Billy Martin, who died after an auto accident on Christmas day. The next night, before the Tropics game in Port St. Lucie, Rivers delivered a eulogy to the crowd. "I ain't got no negative aspects about Billy," he said. "He wasn't no bad guy—did a lot of good. Had a lot of plus atmosphere, in my book. You had to go and talk to him, then judge. No first impressions. Billy was for you all the time, no matter what. Did a lot of things that helped me out. I know that for a fact. And he didn't do it just to do it. He'd have done it anyway, knowing on account of the type of guy he was. It's a tragedy. I'm at a loss for baseball itself."
"It was a strange, touching moment," says first baseman Joe Mincberg, recalling Rivers' speech. A 41-year-old West Palm Beach criminal lawyer, Mincberg never played pro ball before making the Tropics. He made the team at a tryout camp. On opening day, Rivers bestowed one of his bats on him. "He just gave it to me out of the blue," says Mincberg. "It's been the highlight of my season. I'll never forget it. Mickey's my favorite player. You can't help but love him."
Kids do. Rivers is the Pied Piper of West Palm Beach. Alas, even Mick's magic can't fill the seats at Municipal Stadium. Gozzlehead remains unfazed. "People gonna come out there if you're gonna put something out there to put 'em to see," he says. "Some are going to see names, and the rest are going to see guys play good. Put some publicity out there to get some of that and some of this, and it can't help but be a plus."
On this hot afternoon in West Palm, a crowd of about 1,500 is on hand—about average for the season—though many of the fans were no doubt lured to the stadium by the free passes in the local papers. Rivers ambles into the clubhouse wearing a black satin jumpsuit with LOVER BOY, WE ALWAYS DEMAND running in stripes down both sides. "Just an expression," he says. "French, I think."
Before the game he makes an appearance as the plaintiff in the team's kangaroo court. His dispute is over a wager made the previous day. Rivers had bet reliever Felix Pettaway that ol' Goz could throw a ball through the tarp hanging on the leftfield fence. "I can still pump it 85 miles an hour," Rivers told Pettaway.
"Like hell you can," said Pettaway.
"Pump it 85 and put it through the tarp."
"I'll bet anything in the world you can't."
"You're on," said Gozzlehead. He reared back and from about 60 feet away from the fence, launched his alleged 85-mpher—through one of. the tarp's wind flaps. "That's it!" he said.
"I ain't paying up!" said Pettaway. "Ain't no way I'm paying up!"
All this was witnessed by Tropics pitchers Al Hrabosky and Will McEnaney, who now testify in Rivers' behalf. Then the Goz is sworn in. "Gonna tell nothing but the half-truth," he swears.
"Tell the court what happened," says his counsel, catcher Jim Bonfiglio.
"A great man of my caliber is out there takin' flies, and a voice come out of the green sky," says the Goz. "It talk about the Great Arm. It question the Great Arm's ability of throwing. It say the Great Arm can't throw an 85. Bet me anything it can't put it through.
"Now, a very knowledgeable man like me, known all over the world as a money-taker, checks out everything. A worldly, knowledgeable man like me need good eyes. Good eyes to see that hole. So I take my look and a step and throw it through."
"You did?" says Mincberg, the judge.
"Yes, Your Honor. A great man of my caliber do not need but one throw."
"But even your own witnesses said you needed at least five throws," says Mincberg.
"Your honor, I repeat: A great, knowledgeable man of my worldly caliber do not need but one throw."
Mincberg absorbs the testimony and rules in favor of Pettaway. "There was too much ambiguity about the terms of the bet," the judge says. "It's perfectly understandable."
"Perfectly understandable!" says Bonfiglio. "Your Honor, I object. There's absolutely nothing about my client that's understandable."
Rivers nods sagely. "Like I say," he says, "that's got to be a plus."