Back on tonight’s Virtual Front Page, Herb said he couldn’t join me in cheering for St. Louis tonight, as he is from Texas.
Well, I have no choice in the matter. The Rangers mean nothing to me. I have this rule: I can’t get interested in a baseball team that didn’t exist when I was a kid.
And while I tend more toward the Braves these days (a matter of proximity, I suppose), I was a Cardinals fan before the Texas Rangers existed.
I was cheering the Cardinals in 1968, when they lost to the Tigers. Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Tim McCarver.
And I couldn’t stand that Denny McLain.
The next spring, I attended a Cards-Tigers matchup at the training ballpark in St. Pete. Spent the whole game trying to get autographs from Cardinals.
Near the start, Tim McCarver was coming out of the locker room, through a chain-link corridor with fans on both sides. He stopped to give some autographs to kids on the other side, while my nose was about six inches from the letters across his back. Then he moved on without having turned around.
Later that day, after the game, my little brother and I were trying to catch players coming out of the locker room. There was a lanky young guy in street clothes standing around, and we were sure he was a player. My brother went up and asked him for his signature. He said, “Aw you don’t want mine. I’m not anybody you want.” But we insisted, and he signed.
We walked away, looked at the program and said to each other, “He was right. Never heard of him.” He had written, “Steve Carlton.”
Years later, I was dating the girl who would be my wife. She had taken it upon herself to organize family photos in an album. I was rooting around in the box and she was telling me about the people I saw there, when I came across something that didn’t seem to belong. It was a small publicity photo of Tim McCarver. I pointed out that something extraneous had gotten into the box.
No, she said. That was her cousin Tim. First cousin. I was blown away… I mean, I was put off that he was wearing an Expos cap in the picture, which didn’t seem natural (he had just played with them one year, and was at this point back with the Cards), but still. Turns out his mother, Alice, was my future father-in-law’s sister.
Two years later, my bride and I were visiting my family in Orlando, and we drove over to Winterhaven to catch a Red Sox game. Sure, Carlton Fisk was the star catcher, but we thought there was a chance Tim would get in. (Often, when I tell this story, people insist that Tim was never with the Sox — they think of him as first a Cardinal, then a Phillie — but he was). As it happened, Pudge hurt his wrist in the first inning, and Tim went in for him. He didn’t have a great game, but at least I got to see him play again.
At one point, after getting out at first, he was turning back toward the dugout when we caught his eye, and surprised to see J (he didn’t know me from Adam), he came over to chat. Either then, or after the game, he asked us to give him a ride back to the house he and his family were renting during spring training. Sure. No problem.
As we were pulling away, he asked me to pull over and rolled down the window to chat with another player. Tim asked, “Think you’re gonna make it?” The guy wasn’t sure. He looked familiar. As we pulled away, Tim explained: “Tony Conigliaro.” (He was trying to come back as a DH, but his damaged eyesight forced him to retire not long after.) For those who don’t remember, Conigliaro is the reason ballplayers today wear helmets with protective flaps on their exposed side.
I thought this was AWESOME! I was hanging out with legendary Major Leaguers!
At the house, he sat back, stiff, and took a muscle relaxer. Coming off the bench like that had been hard on his knees. He explained to me that taking such a pill was very unusual for him. He offered me a beer. I turned it down, since I had to drive back to Orlando. Yes, I did. I turned it down. Like my wife couldn’t drive. What a dork I was! For 36 years now, I have NOT been able to say, Yeah, one time I was kicking back having a brewski with Tim McCarver at spring training. He was moanin’ about his knees, and I was sayin’ quitcher bellyachin’! You know me, Al…
Now that we were buds — kin, even — I decided I could fling accusations. I told him that when I had been 15, he had not turned around to give me an autograph, even though I had kept calling his name, inches away: “Mr. McCarver!” You know, for my kid brother. Stuff like that matters to little kids.
“Aw,” he said, “I wasn’t playing ball when you were 15…” He couldn’t have said anything better. He was including me among the old guys who had been around, and couldn’t possibly have been a kid so recently.
But I had been. The Cards had signed Tim McCarver right out of Christian Brothers High School in 1959, and brought him up to The Show when he was just 17. And I wasn’t quite yet 6.
And tonight, he’s calling the World Series, as he’s now done many times. And I’m listening, while writing this.