Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bob Feller

  Pitching great Bob Feller passed away last week at the age of 92.  Plenty of sport's pages talked about the speed of his fastball which was once clocked at 102 m.p.h..  That would certainly be a wicked blur coming up to the plate and the hitters back in his day didn't wear any head protection, batting gloves or elbow guards so if one of his pitches nailed you, you definitely got nailed.  I got to hit against him.
  When I was playing pro ball(in El Paso, TX) for the California Angels in 1970,  Feller came through town and doing promotions for Campbell Soups as I recall.  It was kinda strange to have him in our club house, getting suited up in an old, wool Cleveland Indians uniform and being over 50 years old.  It was a good 100 degrees outside in the blazing sun there at Dudley Field but he went out there and warmed up.  Wow, Hall of Famer Bullet Bob Feller shagging fly balls and stretching his legs on our minor league field.  We were playing the San Antonio Cubs that night and they gawked and asked, "Who the hell is that?" 
  I think we told them he was a rookie who was trying out for our team and might be pitching tonight!!
But, actually he was touring for the Campbell Soup Company and conducting a Home Run Derby at various minor league parks.  Volunteers(one was me) from each team were asked to hit off Feller who was out on the mound going through some wild, herky-jerky wind-up and throwing soft-tosses to home-plate.  If you hit one out, you won $100.  That was good money back then, peanuts now.
  Nobody could touch the guy and he was getting pretty amused.  Come on old man, throw it in here.  His pitches would come in pretty slow but dart about two feet sliding from left to right.  We, pro hitters, looked like idiots up there waving and cussing after whiffing thin air.  Where in the world did he come up with that kinda pitch?  The fans were yelling and booing us, too.
  After the exhibition and torture was over, he came into the dugout and I went up to him while he was toweling off and drinking a coke.  "What were you throwing out there?"  And he laughed and picked up one of the balls he was using and tossed it to me..."The balls weren't rubbed up with the umpires mud...they're slick as ice"..."and when you hold them on (with) the seams and throw directly overhand, they get thrown with an uneven tumble and slide or run to the left and right"..."try it" and I went back out on the field and was soon throwing a ball that moved like his.  Actually, it's called a "cut fast ball or a cutter" these days if you hear it on a broadcast.  Many times balls don't "cut" and wind up in the stands for a jack but most of his must have.  But, back then, it was a called a moving or running fastball and he must have used it in his career.  My God, check out his strikeout year, he rung up 348 K's.  That's huge!
  I thought it was so interesting in his obit to see an old newspaper picture of him gripping a baseball in front of himself back in the 40's.  And wouldn't you know it, there it was...he was holding the ball with the seams...throwing a "cut fastball"...I can't even imagine trying to hit one of them blazing at 95+ miles an hour.  I couldn't do it at 55 mph. 
  But, you know.  I hit off the legend and I learned one of his pitching secrets.  People who don't know the complexities and nuances of baseball say it's slow and boring game...but...there are dozens of micro-scenarios all going on at one time during a major league game...the fascinating, real story is not how fast Bob Feller could throw a ball, but what his ball did in the 60' 6" trip it took from his finger tips to home plate.  Now, that's a story.  Thanks, Bullet Bob. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

340 Feet

  Back in the late 50's when I was growing up, there was a syndicated tv show called, "Home Run Derby" hosted by announcer Ray Scott and it was filmed at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.  There would be a batting practice pitcher with a bucket of new baseballs and he'd lob them into the wheelhouses of guys like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, etc.  It would take these guys about 3 pitches to get their timing down to the slower pitching but when they found their range, they would start crushing balls halfway up the light towers and Scott would announce, "she's gone".  It would always be Mantle against Mays or Orlando Cepeda against Rocky Colavito (don't knock the Rock!) and while one guy was in their swinging, Scott would interview the other.  Me and my buddies really sucked it up as we had seen games at that stadium, in person, when the Los Angeles Angels played there in the Pacific Coast league about '55 and '56.  
  Anyway, I remember the fence in left center had a sign that said 340 which meant it was 340 feet to it and a pretty short porch for a major league slugger.  I think Mantle would hit 'em way over 100 feet over the wall and the baseballs would disappear into some old tract homes sometimes bouncing real high down the asphalt in sight, hit a car, "clunk!"(our favorite) or land on a roof.  Absolute nirvana for us, Pony Leaguers.
  In 1960, I was 14 and a pretty stout young athlete (5' 5", 130 lbs) and was always testing myself for strength, speed, quickness and athletic ability against guys my age and I was way past the any average curve.  I excelled against athletes my age so I started gunning for high school records, even past that, but never forgot that 340 sign at Wrigley Field.  I wondered if I could get into one good and drive it over that 12 foot brick fence.
  One night that summer at Pony League practice, I was taking my right-handed hacks against my coach, Bernie Fitzpatrick on a field at Izaak Walton junior high. There was this huge fenced-in orange grove that ran from the right field foul line all the way west  to the street but provided a "center field", too.
I was swinging an Adirondack. "Willie Mays", 33" wooden bat and really got into one to straight away center...and it sailed deep into the orange grove, a mammoth wallop.  I thought, "God, I really hit that a long way"...Nobody could believe it except probably cocky me.  I kept thinking to myself, "I wonder if it went over 340 feet and would have gone out of Wrigley Field!" and I knew I had to know immediately.
So, I ran home, got a ball of kite string and a nail and ran back to the field in anticipation...nailed down the string at home plate, ran towards center field unraveling the kite string as straight and hopped the chain-link fence where the white ball was plopped down in soft, recently plowed brown earth like a golf ball in sand trap.  I leaned down to the ball, snapped off the string and I had my measurement.
Almost frantic, I reeled it all in and made a bee-line for my house and the wooden yard stick in the garage.  There I unraveled it, length-wise or 3 feet around two nails in the ground, and kept count in my head...when I ran out of string, I had...116 lengths or 348 feet...I did it!!  I had major league power at 14!!  Not exactly scientific data collecting but it was good enough and very significant to me.  No one would believe how far I had jacked one but I knew...and even better thoughts to ponder, how far would I be able to hit one in high school?  That is another story but I will say this: When I was 18, I played on a Los Angeles Dodger Rookie baseball team and we played the Watts All-Stars in that same Wrigley Field with 340 sign in left-center.  I would be standing in the same batter's box where they filmed "Home Run Derby"...too cool.
Before the game, I was up at the plate, taking batting practice and cracking towering home runs far over that same 340 fence and thick LA smog, hitting houses, parked cars and watching some of the balls bouncing down the street so you could see them..."a way out there and she's gone!"  I can't tell you the feeling of power and accomplishment that came over me. A couple of other teammates were hanging around the cage, getting on me a little about hitting so many, so far out of the park and I just smiled and laughed and said, "Hell, I could've hit 'em out here when I was 14, boys!" 
And you know what, friends and neighbors?  I was pretty much right!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jumping One at Midtown Market, Danville, Va

Yesterday was a culinary move upward for this little city, Danville, in the Southside of Virginia.  I had the pleasure of doing a food tasting in the popular local market, Midtown Market, that stocks the usual staples but has a respectable gourmet section and three on-duty meat cutters...very rare to be able to request and get custom cuts of meat but here you can, freshly cut and all wrapped up in butcher's paper.
OK, I was pairing their deli meats with a friend of mine's bakery products from her killer bakery, Rising Sun Breads, in Ridgeway, Va.  I had cranberry and blueberry sourdough multi-grain bread with pecans, a yeasted corn bread, a Jewish rye and some toasted baguette squares.  These were matched up with sun-dried tomato chicken, roasted fresh turkey, thin slices of natural roast beef and a wonderful country ham, sliced thin and just enough saltiness to punch through that good southern, old timey taste.  Local goat cheese, too.
It was snowing outside and the store was loaded with Saturday afternoon shoppers and I had positioned myself right next to their pimiento cheese and chicken salad display...the site of solid action all day.
I set out over 12 dozen mixed samples and talked to everyone about the products, that the market was carrying a huge line of the fresh Rising Sun products and also these meats and goat cheese, too.  It was a riot watching people, especially the picky eaters, pick up the goat cheese on the cranberry/pecan bread and take that first time bite.  Most of them had never tasted chevre (French for goat cheese) but paired with either the cranberry or the blueberry pecan (and a nice Shiraz!), they were amazed at the cloying taste between them.
I had accomplished something I never thought possible...I could get over 20 ultra food conservatives in this small town to try goat cheese for the first time...the fact that it was goat cheese isn't really the punch line...the deal that they tried something new from a fast-talking guy in a chef's jacket just splits the cultural uprights from 50 yards out...any salesman knows how thrilling it is for people to listen to you and then trust you.  And then for them to thank you and buy a loaf of the blueberry bread, a tub of the goat cheese and take it on home is, in fact, a marketing and validating personal victory in itself.  Sigh...  

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Internet Dating

  For those thousands of you who are searching day-after-day for that right match on various dating sites and not having much luck, here's a story that may or should offer encouragement and hope.
  I had been on three of those sites for three years and stayed pretty busy driving all over the Va/Nc area within about a 150 mile radius.   Mostly nice, interesting girls and mostly expensive dinners, shows and costly travel expenses.  Try that for a couple of years and when you can't come up with a serious relationship,  doubt certainly creeps in.  It took a lot of time and energy, too!
  This is the truth, I swear, for on the very last day I was on, I was sent this profile of a really cute blond from Cincinnati who was an actress and Broadway showgirl and a little younger than myself(I was 61 at the time).  I sent her an e-mail and she responded and we communicated for at least a month. Something was happening, here, folks.  It was her voice that got me...made me laugh and feel comfortable and she was always giggling...that really got me.  Miss Cutie Pie, for sure.
  Well, Cincinnati was over 500 miles away but we both agreed that our life-styles had room for travel and exploration and we'd meet up and see if the phone chemistry would combine into an in-person chemistry.  She decided to fly down to Greensboro for a visit despite the yellow lights from her sisters and friends and her own inner caution.  I thought it was bold, myself, but she said she'd missed out on a lot of opportunity by out-thinking her natural instincts.
  Well, I had a huge armful of beautiful fresh, cut flowers and was standing there like a big, nervous goof at the Delta arrival gate when I saw this unbelievably cute blond waving and waving and stretching over the top of people in front of her looking right at stiff formalities here, just hugs and kisses and immediately we both fell into step with each others lives and that has been nearly three years ago.   We have been hysterically in love with each other and two months is the longest time we've been separated.  Sometimes it's only two weeks.  I have seen her perform seven times, once with the Cincinnati Pops on the 4th of July, and that thrilling! 
  Luck, faith, destiny all rolled into one, I guess.  That we were both comfortable with a long distance romance certainly made it happen, too.  Putting mileage limits on relationships won't work for high maintenance people but it's the time apart and the anticipation of seeing each other and counting the days for that which energizes us and keeps our relationship fresh.
  Now that really happened, ladies and gents, and as the old quotation says, "It can happen to you!"