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A Spring Training Fictional Interlude

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And now for something completely different...

I found this story I wrote back in 2005 just recently. It's about baseball, just not Astros baseball. All the events and names in the story were researched through Retrosheet and the like. I even pulled a couple of quotes from various newspapers of the time.

Oh, and don't be alarmed. I don't have a trove of baseball fiction ready to drop on you any time soon. Just wanted to get this one out there in lieu of my usual Friday minors column. Hope you enjoy.

          It was just like any other day at the ballpark.  The sun shone out from an immaculately blue sky.  The grass in the outfield was so green it hurt the eyes.  The firecracker thwap of a throw finding its home rose above the steady murmur of a growing crowd.  It was an all-too familiar scene for me.  Still, every time Dad took me to a game was as special as my first.

           On this day, a Sunday, the last day in April, our family rose early for church.  I was dressed even before Mom came to wake me up.

            "You never should have mentioned that game," my mother chided my father.

            "Oh, Mary, let the boy alone.  It’s okay to be excited every once in a while."

            After an interminably long service (at least for a boy my age), I practically skipped the entire way home.  Baseball was too precious a gift to keep waiting.

            The stock market crashed the year I was born.  Times were tough for everyone and our family especially.  We didn’t have money to throw away on things like baseball.  Dad used to tell me how when he was my age, he would go to games four and five times a week, rushing to the field after school.  Even now, he somehow found the money to bring me to a game once or twice a month.  I never asked to go; I always thought other things for the family were more useful than an afternoon at the park.

            Dad knew, though, that baseball was the greatest thing in my 10-year old life.

            After we got home, Mom started getting lunch fixed, and I ran down to get a newspaper.  I did odd jobs for the butcher on the corner just so I could earn enough money for a paper every day.  I had to see how Lou did.

            In an ironic twist of fate, my favorite player resided on our local team.  He also happened to be the greatest player in the game.  He even had the best nickname in years. How can you top the Iron Horse?

            I raced back home with my find, ready to consume all the information it held.  The score I saw, once I got it open, made the bile rise in my throat.  Senators 3, Yankees 1.  Quickly looking for the box, I saw Lou was hitless again.  His average had fallen under .160.

            I read on, only to see even worse news.  The Yankees new young gun, Joe DiMaggio hurt a muscle in his foot and had to leave the game.

            My sounds of disgust made Dad come over and look at the source.

            "Gehrig still hasn’t broken through yet?" he asked.  "You know last year was his first year under .300 since ’25."

            "I know that!" I said, irritably.  Dad smiled at me.  He was just teasing me.  He knew how much knowledge I had on Lou.  Other kids had hobbies; I could tell you what Lou’s hobbies were as a kid (football, ice skating, and marbles to name a few).

            "I’m sure he’ll pull out of it today.  His number one fan will see to that."  With those words, my face lightened as I remembered about the game.  Unfortunately, so did my impatience. I rushed Dad through lunch so we could get going.

            The trip to Yankee Stadium didn’t take long.

            "Did you see who’s pitching today?" I asked Dad.

            "I think the Sens are throwing Joe Krakauskas."  I laughed boyishly at the awkward name and tried to mouth it a couple times.  Baseball did have a ton of silly names.

            "You know, son, some people might try and laugh at my name."

            "Who? Who would?" I bristled. "Solomon’s a great name.  He was a king in the Bible, for Pete’s sake!"

            It was hard for me to fathom anyone making fun of my Dad in any way.  To me, he meant so much.  He was strong. He was smart.  He was invincible.  Dad just laughed at my protectiveness.  He understood what I was thinking.  In so many ways, he really was the best friend I could ask for.

            "Oh, look there. The stadium looks full already," he said.

            "Let’s hurry then!  I don’t want to miss it!"  I took off running before I realized Dad had the money for tickets.  When we finally got into the stadium, I was so anxious I couldn’t stand it.

            We got pretty good seats that day.  Usually we couldn’t sit close, because the hecklers were so awful, Dad didn’t want me around such language.

            Since it was Sunday, the crowd was on slightly better behavior, so we got seats right by first base.  I was in heaven.

            It wasn’t long after we sat down that the game started.  The Yanks got a one-two-three inning, hopefully a good sign for the rest of the game.

            In the bottom of the first, the leadoff man grounded out, followed by a strikeout, and Lou coming up with the bases empty.

            I heard a voice behind me say, "Ahh, that Gehrig’s done.  Did you see that game yesterday?"  His partner muttered a negative.  "He just doesn’t have it anymore.  Pitches he used to crush are ending up right at the outfield.  He used to hit it 500 feet.  Now…I’m tellin’ ya, the bum’s done."

            His words stung, but I knew better than to turn around and defend Lou.  Dad told me when I was younger about a Browns game where a riot broke out in the stands.  Fans were more dangerous than baseballs.

            I was determined to prove the naysayers wrong, though.  I willed Lou to get a hit.  He had to.

            Dad reached over and patted my knee as the fastball ran right past Lou’s bat.  Oh for 1.

            I noticed Dad’s squinting eyes watching Lou walk back to the dugout.  Trouble flickered through my mind, but left as quickly as it came.  There was talk that Lou had a gall bladder disease, but I didn’t believe it.  He was the Iron Horse.  No one had played more consecutive games, since he took over for Wally Pipp all those years ago.  This was number 2,130 if I had counted right.  I was convinced he was fine.

            One of my favorite newspaper quotes came from Hank Goudy.  He once said, "Gehrig never learned that a ballplayer couldn’t be good every day."

            I liked that for so many reasons.  It really was Lou.  He was so mild-mannered, the direct opposite of the Babe.  He could do anything he put his mind to.  It made all this talk of being finished silly to me.  Did they not realize who they were talking about?  I remember thinking.

            Still, that little doubt I saw in Dad’s eyes wouldn’t go away.

            Later in the game, after Oh for 2 and Oh for 3 had come and gone, Lou scalded a ball that looked headed for the gap in left.  Until it fell harmlessly into the shortstop’s glove, about four steps behind second base, that is.  I didn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it.

            In the top of the next inning, it all came to a head.  There was a soft come-backer hit at pitcher Johnny Murphy.  My eyes were glued to Lou.  His footwork and fielding made playing first base an art form.  I loved watching him field.  This time, he went to his left routinely to cover the bag.

            There was a problem, though. His legs didn’t go with him.  He struggled to get over to the bag, his feet not responding nearly in time.  He just narrowly beat the runner and made the out.  I had never seen him make such an easy play look so hard.

            We were close enough to the dugout that I could hear the players.  As Lou walked back in, they congratulated him with a "good play" here and a "nice pickup" there.

            I put my head in my hands.  I knew something was wrong.  The Iron Horse was fading before my eyes.  I kept waiting for the hecklers to sound their disappointment, for the men behind me to start with their, "I told you so’s."  They never came.

            Neither did Lou, for that matter.  He took himself out after that inning, replaced by Babe Dahlgren.  The Yanks went on to lose 3-2, but it didn’t matter.  I had lost much more that day.

            Two days later, I read Lou wasn’t in the lineup.  I wasn’t surprised. I knew that Sunday.  Dad also knew, and he’d been trying to lighten my mood ever since. 

I was inconsolable.

            Lou was born in New York City, just like me.  He was born on June 19, just like me.  He was even German, like my mom.  I didn’t want him to be gone so soon.

            When Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day came on July 4, Dad had to work.  I somehow managed to smuggle myself into the stadium, on the promise I’d leave right after the ceremony.

            I heard the speech.  As soon as he said, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," tears clouded my eyes.  It was too much.

            On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died.

            Fifteen years later, I sat by my dad, lying in a bed much as I imagine Mr. Gehrig did.  After that day at Yankee Stadium, I realized my hero, my role model wasn’t wearing pinstripes, after all. He sat beside me, and had for years.  All the things I imagined about Mr. Gehrig were there in my dad.

            Just like Mr. Gehrig, he was battling a foe he couldn’t beat.  I’d like to believe it was a disease of class, affecting only the purest souls.  My father certainly fit the bill. 

            The two greatest men I had known died exactly 15 years apart.  Every year, I go to my father’s grave and leave a quote I borrowed.  It may have been said about one, but it was meant for both of them.

            The paper always reads:

            "He was the kind of man that if you had a son, he’s the kind of person you’d like your son to be."

            Amen.


I wrote this story about a year after my dad was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). It's a very sentimental look at a father-son, kid-baseball player dynamic. Yes, parents are never as perfect as kids think and yes, ballplayers probably shouldn't be heroes.

If I were expanding this, I'd probably write more about the moral ambiguity of the father. I'd show him doing things that we'd see as not great, but that the son wouldn't quite grasp. I'd also show a little more about the kid's favorite memory of Gehrig and not just the last time he saw him play.

But, I think that last game has poignance too. This was also shortly after Jeff Bagwell had most of his season ended with the arthritic shoulder. As I've mentioned before, I saw his first game out of the lineup and I saw his return late in the season against the Cubs. Both memories are linked for me. One day when I tell my son about Bagwell, I'll mention those games, but I'll also mention the Fourth of July where I saw Bagwell hit a home run into the night sky, just after the roof opened. Or the story of his goatee gone wild. They're all intertwined.

The point of the story is not that parents or players are 'pure.' They have never been that, because they are all human. No, the point is trying to remember a time when our own perspective showed us the purity in others. Sometimes, I'm sure we all wish we could see our parents and our ball players the same way we did when we were kids. Sometimes, it's nice to think about things in a sappy, Field of Dreams way. What better time for that than in spring training?

This is a piece of fiction, we're a baseball website. Feel free to talk about the story, but let's talk about baseball. Were there any players that you had a connection to as a kid? Anyone you couldn't wait to see at the ballpark? Do you have a favorite memory of seeing the Astros as a kid?