The Blue Jays’ visit here allowed me to visit with an old, old acquaintance. “Still the highlight of that season,” Scott Rolen insisted again, for at least the third time since it happened, just the other day – in 1996.
The late Bill Robinson was managing the Reading Phillies of the Eastern League. I had known him since I was a kid and he was the next great Yankee superstar who fizzled out, only to reclaim a terrific career as a clutch 4th Outfielder for the Phillies and Pirates. Robby sent me a note one day, saying he wanted to give his team a tour of ESPN the next time they came to play in nearby New Britain, Connecticut, and he dangled considerable bait. If I arranged it, he’d let me be his bench coach for one of the games against the newly-christened “Rock Cats,” who played only about twelve minutes from my house.
I did not let Bill know I would’ve given his guys the tour, no charge.
They got the guided visit (far less interesting than it would seem, then or now), and Robby and I agreed on a date. And soon I was there with him on the bench, in full uniform, and wearing the spare shoes of the only guy with feet approaching mine, the one and only Wayne Gomes. Robinson even made me work for my living: I had to chart hits and defense. But mostly I was there to talk to the kids on the team, no fewer than fourteen
of whom eventually made the majors (though they weren’t all there at that juncture). The highlights were Marlon Anderson, as great a guy then as now, Bobby Estalella, Matt Beech, and Rolen, who spent half his time practicing an imaginary golf swing.
I also took some ribbing from the pitching coach, Larry Andersen, most of it along the lines of “I’m getting paid to do this. What’s your excuse?” That’s when I reminded him he was in New Britain, where the guy he had been traded for in 1990 had insufficiently impressed the parent Red Sox. “What was his name, Larry? Bagwell? Whatever happened to him?”
It was, of course, a tremendous education. As I’ve alluded to before, it would obviously be the dream of any fan to watch a game from such a venue, with such entree to the process. But how much you learn and how many presuppositions you are disabused of. And the game moves twice as fast as it does from the stands or the press box, which is why players stare blankly at you when you talk about enforcing speed-up rules.
And then there’s the practical joking. In the 7th, as I was explaining the ESPN experience to two players, one of whom was an infielder named Matt Guiliano, the other guy barked out at umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, ”Hey, Blue, where was that one?” Wendelstedt ripped off his mask and barked “who said that?” The complaining player and Guiliano both pointed at me, and Wendelstedt promptly ejected me from the game.
He ran me.
I thought it was quite funny and I continued to sit in my spot on the bench and started to resume my story to Guiliano when Bill Robinson came over. “You know, he really did throw you out. You’ll have to go. But you should give him hell before you do.” I ran out onto the field and as Wendelstedt barely contained his laughter, I started screaming at him. As I recall, it went like this: “My one lousy game in uniform and you run me? I can see you’re going to make the big leagues and not just because your Daddy’s an umpire. And let me promise you, one day I will be avenged. I will get a highlight of you and I will run you into the ground with it. Your father will change his name to Runge. I swear!” Then I kicked dirt on the plate and on him and I said “Okay, have I put on enough of a show?” and he sputtered out yes, and I left, throwing my shoes and cap as I did (I retrieved the cap).
Six years later, Rolen had already gone from the Phils to the Cards and they appeared at Yankee Stadium and I saw him near the cage and went over to ask him if he remembered it, when I suddenly realized he was running over to me. “Where was that when they threw you out of our game?” I told him, New Britain, in 1996. “The highlight of my season,” he said. We both laughed and I reminded him that a few weeks later he was called up to Philly to make his big league debut. “Like I said,” he said dryly. “Highlight of my season.”
Sunday afternoon we visited briefly and we repeated the exchange. “I know, I know, the year I broke in. Still the highlight of that season.”
You could expand the All-Star Rosters to 75 guys and somebody would still have a complaint, but Mark Reynolds isn’t going? The only thing besides Justin Upton keeping the Diamondbacks from sinking into the PCL?… Chad Gaudin looked like a BP pitcher in the first inning Friday against the Dodgers, then recovered fairly well thereafter, but still has a little ways to go. On the other hand, Rule V shortstop draftee Everth Cabrera may be there already… the Pirates may be serious about dealing Matt Capps. If they can get a juicy package for him, and something that will make them all go dreamy like they have over Charlie Morton, they’ll do it… and lastly, if this hasn’t shown up anywhere, old Yankee Stadium is now enmeshed in protective netting like a widow at a funeral, and the bit-by-bit demolition of the superstructure isn’t far off. I was literally offered a full piece of the outfield frieze and the price was not a blood-letting for unique stuff like that. But then they said it weighed a ton and I said “I bet it does,” and they said “no, literally, it weighs 2,000 pounds” and I envisioned apartment walls collapsing and I said no, thank you kindly.