Time is of the essence. The crowd and players
Are the same age always, but the man in the crowd
Is older every season....
Fifteen years ago I played my last season of professional baseball for the Clinton (Iowa) Pilots. It was a Detroit farm team at the time, but Clinton has since become part of the San Francisco organization. It has been renamed the Giants, but it is still in the Class A Midwest League. I've undergone some changes too. Now I'm 38, and I'm an editor who leads the domesticated life of a New York suburbanite—wife, two children, station wagon. But this June I got a chance to go back to the Midwest League to play in a few games as a minor leaguer again and to report on just how life in the cornfields of baseball has changed over the years since I admitted that sliders are awfully tough to hit and that at 24, I was getting too old to play a kids' game.
Within 24 hours after I left Manhattan and found myself trying to squeeze into a pair of double-knit game pants in South Bend, Ind.—home of the Class A South Bend White Sox of the Midwest League—something happened. Something that I cannot account for, something that should never have happened, something that could only happen on a ball field in the middle of America.
Stanley Coveleski Stadium is located in downtown South Bend. You go down Main, make a right on Western, and you can't miss it. In a town with only a couple of multistory buildings, the stadium light standards are a major feature of the skyline. The ballpark is right across the street from Union Station and the rail yard, right next to the old Studebaker plant.
Rick Patterson, the field manager of the White Sox, greeted me, gave me the once-over and told me straight out with his Southern baseball twang, "Don't worry, Rick. We're going to treat you just like any other ballplayer here. That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Then go with Scott [Johnson, the trainer] and get suited up. And stick around for tonight's game. Who knows? We may need you."
"Well, skipper, to tell you the truth," I found myself saying, "I thought that maybe I'd just work out a bit tonight and then shower and go back to the hotel. It's been a long travel day, you know." I winced as soon as I said the words.
"Yeah, sure," Patterson said. "Whatever you want."
I went along with Johnson to find a uniform big enough to fit my expanded waistline and a cap small enough to protect the scant hair left on my head. Along the way, I got a real good look at "the Cove." First off, understand that the Midwest League ballparks I played in had wooden stands, usually with a peeling coat of green paint and always with as many splinters as your derriere could handle. The clubhouses were cramped quarters equipped with nails on which to hang your clothes, and the showers—which were always clogged—never had a thought of hot water.
But the Cove, just a year old, was minor league heaven. Each player had a personal stall in the big clubhouse. The trainer's room was equally big and complete with all the latest gizmos of medical technology. And there was a weight and training room full of equipment. Then there was the manager's office. Did I mention that the entire place was carpeted? Now, out these doors you can take the elevator to the general manager's office. Elevator? In Class A? I asked one of my new teammates if all the ball parks in the Midwest League were like the Cove. He smirked and said, "Are you kidding?"
A few minutes later, the deed had been done. I looked in the full-length mirror in the clubhouse, and the mild-mannered editor from New York had been transformed into an official member of the South Bend White Sox. Yeah, the double-knit pants were a bit tight, and the low-cut stirrups weren't exactly my style. But there was no mistaking it—I looked like a ballplayer. After 15 years, I was back on the roster.
The pregame workout went fine. At the start of the evening's game with the Burlington (Iowa) Braves, I sat back on the dugout bench (aluminum) and watched the Sox take a 7-0 lead behind 21-year-old lefthander Freddy Dabney. In fact, Dabney was coasting along with a no-hitter into the sixth inning when he accidentally clipped a Braves batter, who then promptly charged the mound.
Within seconds I found myself in the midst of a nasty brawl that left one Burlington player flat on his back with a bad cut on his nose and another with his knee crunched. Dabney had suffered a broken finger on his nonpitching hand, and to add to the indignity, he was one of several players given the heave-ho for having had a major role in the fight. So much for Dabney's no-hitter.
Back on the bench I felt a stirring of pride to have been one of the first of the White Sox to join in the fray. Not that I threw any punches, but I was on the field, holding back bodies, trying to reestablish a sense of order. I mean, it's been a long time since we had a bench-clearer at one of our editorial meetings. I was chuckling to myself when Patterson yelled down at me in the bottom of the eighth, "Wolff, grab a bat—you're up next!"
The last thing I wanted to do tonight was pinch-hit. Especially in a game where feelings were red-hot. After all, it was now getting chilly; my arms and legs ached a bit. Then there was the matter of not having seen a minor league fastball, curveball or slider up close and personal in more than a decade. And I had never seen a split-fingered fastball from the batter's box.
But the skipper had issued an order. So I grabbed a helmet and a bat. A wooden bat, a genuine Louisville Slugger. I tried to remember how to swab it with the pine-tar rag.
By the eighth inning, the game was well in hand, and nobody in the stands seemed to pay much attention to the "new kid" coming to bat. And quite frankly, there wasn't much to report. The 22-year-old Burlington righthander fed me a steady diet of blurry fastballs and hard sliders that seemed to break off at right angles. All I dreamed of doing was making contact, and that's all I did. With a 2-2 count, I lunged at a slider and tapped a weak roller out to short. I lumbered down to first, where I was an easy out, and then found myself heading out to the field for the ninth.
The first two visiting batters fanned, and the final man up hit a routine, powder-puff grounder to me. I picked it up cleanly, whisked it over to first and then, to my surprise, found myself engulfed by my teammates. From their perspective, it was something just short of miraculous for this fossil to have hit a dribbler to short and fielded a grounder. As we went up the runway to the clubhouse, I pulled one of the Sox coaches, Kirk Champion, off to the side and asked about the team's reaction to my play.
"Look, Rick, it's like this. The consensus is that you're definitely going to hurt us as a team," Champion said with a straight face. "The real question is, How badly will you hurt yourself?"
At game time, the temperature was 49° with a sharp breeze out of the north. I took infield practice, checked the lineup card, and found my name penciled in for the ninth slot. I actually felt pretty good; I even had the first play of the night come my way at second, which I again handled.
Burlington was starting a lefty, and as my teammates returned from the plate, I quizzed each one on what the pitcher was throwing. "Aw, he's just throwing pus," third baseman Greg Roth angrily said. "Nothing but pus." That reassuring thought began to point up evidence that perhaps minor league ball hadn't changed all that much. All batters, no matter what the era, always claim that the opposing pitcher is throwing nothing more than pus—even if the pus does happen to cross the plate at 90 mph plus.
I came to bat to lead off the bottom of the third. By now, the crowd of more than 5,000 (the Chicken was in town for the evening) began to take note of the old-timer. I fouled off a couple of pitches down the rightfield line and then—with an 0-2 count—laced a clean, solid, line-drive hit into right center. Nobody was more surprised than I was. What I remember more than anything else was that glorious feeling of hitting a pitch right on the money with a wooden bat, that true feeling of a bat conquering a pitch.
In the fifth inning it happened again—another shot to right. In the sixth, I hit a one-hopper to short, but on my fourth time up, in the eighth inning, I lofted the ball to right for a sacrifice fly and my first RBI in the Midwest League in 15 years. In the field, I was making the plays, picking up grounders, catching pop-ups, taking care of business. I was charged with one error. That occurred when a pickoff throw from the pitcher literally went through my glove; the ball broke one of the strings between the fingers. Remember—I had been using that glove before most of my teammates had been born.
Late in the game, I began to notice a change in my teammates: Wayne Busby, our hyperkinetic shortstop from Mississippi, said, "Hey, old-timer, you better keep your cap on, 'cause people are going to start thinking there are two Golden Domes here in South Bend." And from one of the pitchers, "Tell us, Rick, you must have known him, what kind of player was Babe Ruth?" I had become the target of some old-fashioned needling—the ultimate acceptance in baseball. Even the Latin American kids got involved. I caught Clemente Alavarez, our talented catcher, pointing at me and saying to infielder Leo Tejada, "Mucho loco, si?"
It was a glorious, wondrous evening, and I was even awarded the game ball by Patterson, who laughed and shook his head in disbelief. And, of course, the White Sox had won again, 4-1. I showered and looked around for a celebratory beer.
"Sorry, old man, but no beer in the clubhouse," I was told. "Organizational policy."
No beer? After a win? Things have changed a bit. Sometimes, I guess, it's for the better.
A crowd of 3,000 curious fans came out, all eager to see whether the oldest player in South Bend Sox history could somehow keep the magic going. I hadn't slept much the previous evening; even an ample dose of Extra-Strength Tylenol couldn't keep my throbbing legs from demanding that I come to my senses and return to the safe confines of suburbia.
But game time came at dusk and Patterson even moved me up to eighth in the order. When I walked on four straight pitches on my first at bat, I could hear the manager of the Burlington club. Jim Saul, screaming at his befuddled young pitcher, "C'mon, just throw strikes to this old geezer. He can't touch you! He can't even see you!"
I next came to bat in the fourth inning with a teammate on second and first base open. The Braves pitched to me instead of intentionally walking me, which made me furious. I hit a scorcher. The first baseman was just able to snare it in the air, and then he fired to second to double up the runner. O.K., it was an out, but it was yet another solid shot right on the sweet part of the bat. In the seventh, the Braves started a reverse shift with everybody shaded heavily toward right on me. Again feeling my oats, I pulled a liner down the third base line for a base hit.
Finally, in the eighth, I came to bat with men on second and third. "Geez, you've gotten your hits, your RBI, your walks," squeaked Busby. "You might as well go for it all and try to smack one over the Pepsi sign." Nice thought, but even fantasy has its limits. Yet on the first pitch, I swung, made contact and saw the ball headed for extra-base land in right centerfield. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ball bounce oh one hop against the wall, and I cruised into second with a stand-up double and two more RBIs. It was at this point that I realized the fans were on their feet, giving me an ovation and cheering my name. Even the Burlington shortstop came over to me and asked, "No offense, mister, but how the hell are you doing this?"
Patterson sent in a pinch runner, and I came off the field with both arms in a triumphant Kirk Gibson-style salute. Amid a sea of high fives and happy congratulations from my teammates, Patterson started laughing and gave me a big bear hug of approval on the dugout steps. "Old man," he chortled, "you just did what every old ballplayer has dreamed of doing. To come back one more time and do it again. By golly, you did it!"
And that was that. Over the three days, the Sox had won three, and I had finished 4 for 7, with three RBIs, one BB, one SF, one E and a league-leading .571 BA. The next morning, under sober gray skies, I headed back to New York and to my seat on the 7:59 train. The South Bend White Sox climbed on a bus and headed for a three-game series in Kenosha, Wis.
But for a brief moment, I had been able to go back and experience minor league ball again: The unique smell of fresh pine tar. The grainy grip of a wooden bat. The sound of spikes clacking on a cement runway. That final pregame rush of adrenaline as you stand at attention during the national anthem. The playful but biting wit of teammates. And, of course, the pure joy of hitting a pitch solidly for a base hit.
Jim Bouton, another ballplayer who knows something about comebacks, once wrote that "you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
South Bend White Sox: In case you need some extra offense for the pennant drive in September, you still have my phone number.
Former Detroit Tiger farmhand Rick Wolff now works for Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.