They are heroes, yes, men who stand in lyric slants of light on immaculate green fields, but the other part of their lives is something less glamorous. Mostly, it is waiting.
You lie on your bed with your clothes on in the middle of the day, flipping through a comic book or cop novel. You mill in the lobby. You eat breakfast at an hour when you should be having lunch. You buy all the papers and read them twice, at least the sports sections. You go out to a mall and find a Cinema III and sit through "Blue Thunder" and "Flashdance." You stoke endless quarters into video games. You nap by the pool. You phone home.
Then you fly to another city and do it all over again . . .
Another airplane had brought a ball team through the night, almost halfway across the country, this time to Kansas City. It was nearly four in the morning by the body clocks of the Baltimore Orioles. Tomorrow they would play a baseball game. For now they just wanted rest, relief against fatigue and their sixth straight loss, which had occurred about four hours earlier in Memorial Stadium.
But they still had to ride the bus in from the airport. It was a K.C. metro bus, all lit up, with a big blue Delta Airlines ad on its side.
"If I don't get a window seat, I'm guaranteed drugs," a voice said.
"What's the caper with the sunglasses?" another voice said.
"I heard the moon was going to be out," a third voice said.
Everything felt strange and half-remembered. It was like picking your way back through the maze of an old, recurrent dream. Missouri looked flat as an inland sea, and a full moon, white as alabaster, lighted the darkness like an all-night diner.
"What is this, the St. Joseph International Airport?" somebody said.
"Christ, these roads look like runways," somebody else said.
Forty grown men in the moonlight, trying to find their beds: Home is somewhere else.
Baltimore, a few hours ago, had felt so different from this. Baltimore was cramped, closed in. Baltimore was yellow tunnels under a stadium, was players kissing their wives and babies goodbye because they wouldn't be seeing them again for a week. "Hold it, hold it, Dempsey's parking his car," somebody had shouted to the driver at the last minute at Memorial Stadium.
"A-C, A-C," several other players had begun chanting. A-C means air-conditioning. Baseball players crave it.
"Hit it, Bussie," somebody had yelled, and the bussie did.
But now they were on another bus, somewhere in Missouri, trying to fill space, kill time, light a lamp against loneliness. Early hitting was only 11 hours away; the start of the first game only 15 hours away. It was so late it was almost light and still they hadn't found their beds.
"I wasn't exactly craving to see St. Louis tonight," a voice said.
The next voice you could easily identify. It belonged to Sammy Stewart, smoke-throwing reliever from Swannanoa, N.C. Sammy is 6-foot-3 and weighs 208. He can bring it, as ballplayers say. On the plane a while ago Sammy had been up and down the aisles in a blue sport shirt, looking immense, sitting on the arms of seats and grabbing necks.
"You guys wanna know sumpin?" he said, sounding serious. "I think I was 20 years old before I found out St. Louis wasn't in Utah."
Up at the front, Cal Ripken Sr. was nodding, though not in assent. His arms were crossed and his tie was still knotted snugly at his throat. The bus lurched and jolted and the 47-year-old coach's head fell from side to side. He was asleep.
Rip, as some call him, is iron-visaged and short-haired. He looks humorless as a Jesuit prefect of discipline and isn't. He has been in baseball practically all his life, 15 minor league towns in 20 years, and is the father of the Orioles star shortstop and great white hope for Cooperstown, Cal Ripken Jr. Big Rip has been to Kansas City a time or two; there wasn't anything new you were going to show him about the place, not tonight.
Two shadows down the line sat Ray Miller, the O's pitching coach. Miller yawned, pulled up his shirt and scratched his belly with a thick hand. He made his eyes go wide as half dollars. He was telling some story or other about an outfield in Florida, and how it kind of fell off. The story kind of fell off, too.
"Wonder if there'll be any local talent waiting at the hotel?" a voice said.
"Nah, just dawgs."
A snort of laughter; it swelled against the hum of the tires and died.
On the plane, coming out, there had been food everywhere, card games, Sony Walkmans. The players had quickly established their territorial rights with that peculiar admixture of arrogance and banged-up grace that seems to characterize pro athletes. These are men playing a game for uncommonly high pay, but who in the end--which is usually sooner than later--seem terribly used and put-upon. And they know it.
So they had slouched onto the charter with their valises and canvas bags slung over their shoulders, tossing pillows and blankets aside, picking up two and three cans of Bud at a time from a serving tray at the front of the plane, picking up oranges and apples and candy bars, stuffing them into their coat pockets, then finding their seats and popping open the cans and slugging into them wholesale even before the captain had had a chance to come on and say something over the intercom: truant boys defying the principal.
The beer tabs went on the floor, of course; so did several decks of cards, once they had been wearied of.
Joe Altobelli, the manager, had chewed moodily on a cigar.
Leo Hernandez and Aurelio Rodriguez had sat together and talked in Spanish. They are a baseball odd couple, a rookie third baseman and an old one. Leo, from Venezuela, is coming up; Aurelio, from Mexico, is going down. On the field, Aurelio wears a menacing black glove on his fielding hand.
Dan Ford had sat by himself and read his Certified Life Underwriter manual and poured wine, or maybe it was champagne, from a bottle he kept beside him in a brown paper bag. Al Bumbry had helped pass out peanuts. It's just something he likes to do. He also likes to give out meal money at the start of a trip, the key envelopes when everybody gets to the hotel.
"There it is," somebody said now, and sure enough, there it was off to the right: Royals Stadium. The park loomed up from its amphitheater setting on the other side of the interstate like something prehistoric. Even in the dark you could make out layer after layer of deck, row after row of brightly colored seats. Tomorrow people from as far away as Vinita, Okla., would be filling this techno-marvel of a ballpark, oohing at its humongous electronic scoreboard.
"She's beautiful, really," somebody said softly, as though talking of a woman.
"A speed park," somebody replied with what sounded like the slightest worry, or at least warning. You could feel the tension in the remark: They were down six straight now. And Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan, their ace pitchers, were back home in Baltimore with injuries. The team would have to snap out of this losing streak, that's for sure. This was still the front end of the season, and all, but . . .
At the hotel, several minutes later, the tension seemed forgotten. There was more food, piles of it: ham-and-cheese sandwiches, chips, Coke on ice. Sleepy men stuffed two and three and four of these freebies into their pockets, got their room keys from Bumbry (which had been set out on a table) and scattered toward the elevators. Phil Itzoe, the traveling secretary, had already announced that the luggage wouldn't be brought up till morning. Nobody seemed to care much. To hell with brushing your teeth.
If there were K.C. Baseball Annies waiting, they weren't visible in the lobby.Maybe it was Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" that hoodwinked America into thinking a ballplayer's life on the road is one long ribald tear. After "Ball Four" was published 13 years ago, Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball, told Bouton: "You've done the game a grave disservice. Saying players kissed on the Seattle team bus--incredible! Or that some of our greatest stars were drunk on the field. What can you be thinking of?"
Actually what Bouton had been thinking of, and recounting hilariously, was the fondness of Yankee boys for hitting the trail. Hitting the trail is a ballplayer euphemism for seeking the company of women. Baltimore Orioles who hit the trail with ardor do so at a discreet distance: It's a club rule that players don't even drink in the bars of the hotel where they're staying. They are also required to wear sport jackets in the lobby. And drinking with a coach is strictly taboo."Hey, Phil, thanks a lot."
"You put me in Palmer's room last night and three broads rang the room."
"What can I say? Were they nurses?"
"I think one was a nun. You know, just in case."
"Hey, dummy, a nun can't administer last rites."
"Oh." FF riday, May 27, 5 p.m. The world has light in it now. Amazing how quick the F mind and body will make itself adapt to a new environment. Kansas City, after a day and a half, doesn't seem alien anymore. In fact, all this space and flatness are beginning to seem like metaphors for another kind of space and flatness.
The ball team lost again last night, 8-2. That makes it seven straight, longest losing streak in the American League this season. Mike Boddicker lasted until the third; his last pitch served up a three-run homer. In the locker room afterward, the team had eaten from paper plates in morose silence, facing toward their wooden stalls, all but shutting out the press. The boys in the box had come in, tentatively, with pencils in their mouths, watching for any sign of opening that someone would talk.
This morning, at 11 o'clock, Gary Roenicke, outfielder, had been wolfing down strawberry waffles and bacon and buttermilk biscuits in the hotel's Pantry Restaurant. "Rhino," they call him, and not all the reasons have been revealed to the press. Rhino had declined the country gravy and Ozark country steak.
A reporter had gingerly approached.
"Now isn't a good time," he said. "Right after this a couple of us are going to a movie and then shoot some pool. We'll be gone all day. Meet me later in the locker room."
He hadn't said it with any particular enthusiasm or impoliteness.
A call to John Lowenstein's room, about 11:15 a.m., had been equally rewarding. Lowenstein is regarded as the team intellectual, somebody who reads books. He's been known to give investment advice to younger players and rookie reporters.
"Hello," a voice moaned on the third ring.
"Did I wake you?"
"That's okay," the voice said. "I was going to get up in another three hours anyway."
Lenn Sakata, substitute infielder, had been willing to talk, though. He was sitting alone in the restaurant in a funnel of frowsy light, a cup of coffee and The Kansas City Times before him. Go ahead, sit down, he said. Sakata, a native of Hawaii, is a small, thick man with a sad smile. He had on a pink polo shirt and his sport jacket. At Gonzaga University in Spokane a while ago, he made third-team All America.
"After this I'll go back to my room and read my Bible. Watch a little TV, probably go to the stadium early. I go early to get the feel of the locker room. We'll sit around, play cards. I play Spades. The other night, on the plane, I played Maui-Maui with Dempsey. Don't ask me to explain it. It's kind of like Crazy Eights.
"Look, this is a job. I just do whatever has to be done to help us win. That's the way I look at it. I've played baseball most of my life, and maybe the majors aren't what I thought they'd be, the boyhood dream thing. This is an imperfect world. That's the way God intended it to be. When you're on the road, virtually every day's the same. Basically you're trying to find a way to waste time.
"I couldn't sleep last night. Somebody was making noise in the room next to me.
"My son is two months old. The day we leave on a road trip, I miss my wife already. I'm 6,000 miles from home. Hawaii is so small, you know. Most people never get off the island in their whole life. I guess that was my biggest dream, to get off the island to go to school. I didn't finish school, though. That's a big disappointment.
"You can put down I'm happy doing what I'm doing. Fairly happy."
Phil Itzoe, the team secretary, also had been willing to talk--about Jim Palmer, among other things. Palmer is the constantly felt presence on this trip, the actor offstage you can't see but know is there. His concern for his health is legendary.
Itzoe laughed. "Palmer. He's an unlicensed doctor, that's what it amounts to. He told me yesterday on the phone he was going to see his doctor today. He might throw a little today to see how he feels. It started out as a back problem, then it was in his shoulder. I think it's safe to say he's not coming today, or tomorrow either."
As it would turn out, he wouldn't show the entire trip.
At noon Ken Singleton had been in the lobby signing autographs. Singy, 36, is an old, honored, injury-plagued vet, the team's designated hitter. He is coming back from a slump. There was a story about him in the morning paper, and it was folded under his arm, but he played dumb when a little girl came up and asked him to sign her newspaper. "Am I in there?" he had said.
He sat on a sofa with a polite coiled hugeness.
"I might get up at 9:30 or 10. You sleep all day and you feel worse than if you only got six or seven. I want to eat a good breakfast because that's all I'll eat all day. If we're staying downtown, I might walk around, go shopping. I know just the stores I want. There's a department store in Minneapolis, Dayton's, I think. They didn't have any sales tax on the clothes last time I was there.
"You're kind of tuned to the game all day. I usually don't wait for the bus to go out to the park. I go over myself in a cab or get somebody from the hotel to take me. Four walls, y'know?
"It's getting to the point where I'm really sick of the road. I can't sleep on an airplane, sometimes I can sleep on a bus. I room alone--it gives you a chance to watch David Letterman in peace. Most of us room alone now.
"I call my wife and two little boys every day. Last night she called me, after the game. We spoke twice yesterday, in fact. The first part of a road trip is rough. I got back early last night. Grabbed a cab outside the stadium. I guess I was back in the room by 11:30.
"I guess you could say the O's are pretty much of a unit. You get a feel about certain teams. The Yankees, they're always in turmoil. The Red Sox never seem to enjoy playing baseball. Maybe they suffer from too much press. We're pretty much equals. When Earl Weaver was here, all the attention in the lobby went to him. Or else Palmer.
"Maybe my little boy will play this game someday. My dad says he is better at four than I was at that age. He's got what I had when I was a kid: He's never too tired to play ball."
All this was earlier today.
Outside the front door of the Sheraton now, a shuttle bus is filling up with the last of the O's, who have to run a small gauntlet of kid autograph seekers. Half the team is already at the park; these are the 5 o'clock stragglers. Yesterday was wind-whipped and sunny, with a little sear of Missouri heat beading temples; today it's been raining off and on. A storm is forecast for game time.
Phil Itzoe, sitting in the front seat, gives Wally Swann, the bussie, the nod.
Cal the elder and Cal the younger are playing pepper along the third base line. Cal the younger pounds the ball at his dad, who effortlessly flicks it into his mitt. After 15 minutes, having hit and caught maybe 100 balls at close distance, Cal Sr. waves--a kind of "Aw, c'mon, Lunkhead" wave--and his son trots toward the dugout. Cal Jr. takes two balls and rolls them over the top of the dugout to a knot of grateful kids.
In the dugout, Brooks Robinson, who these days is a broadcaster and after-dinner speaker, sits with his legs crossed, interviewing one of the Royals. The most famous infielder in Oriole history is in a blue sport coat and has stringy dark hair and a little lump of a pot. He is wearing shades. Robinson will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer; on the road these days, he can be seen jogging. He wants to get the pot down.
At the end of the interview two teen-age girls with cameras approach stealthily. How did they get onto the field? No matter. "Eddie Murray will go 2 for 4 today," Robinson says, covering for their speechlessness. "He'll hit a double off the right field wall. Oh, heck, I don't know. Hey, can you get your picture in here?" A cop comes and chases the girls out.
Under the stadium, in a bare room that has the word "Manager" stenciled on the door, Joe Altobelli sits at a desk putting cards in rows. He is playing solitaire, a man in full uniform, with his hat and cleats on. Behind him is a clothes rack; the manager's civvies are hung on a lone hanger. The room is so empty as to seem comical. Altobelli doesn't look up.
Four players in the center of the room are playing cards. They are half in uniform, half out. They hunch on the backs of stools, tipping the legs forward. Lowenstein is walking and doing stretches and looking skittish.
Upstairs, a loudspeaker booms "Going to Kansas City." Now the scoreboard is doing electronic flip-flops. At 7:33 the Oak Ridge Boys are singing the National Anthem. It's a tape. Used to be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In the third, Eddie Murray sends one downtown, a two-run homer. It is an awesome 425-foot shot. The ball sails over the left field fence, plops on a knob of grass, rolls pathetically downward.
Storm Davis pitches brilliantly into the seventh. The Orioles win, 7-4. The lead in the morning paper says: "Two storms--one that showed up and one that didn't--did in the Royals Friday night." TT he towns he's seen. In Grand Forks the dirt was so black it hurt your eyes. T They get a lot of rain up there, and the jalopies would come off those gravel roads looking like moving outsized beetles.
Jimmy Williams, native of Canada, played the game for 18 years, always in the minors. Now he is the first base coach of the Orioles, and on the field you can't miss him: He's the one with wire curls of white hair licking out from under his baseball cap and the scooter trot, arms madly shoveling air behind him. During batting practice, which he helps pitch, Williams chews gum. He's 57 and can still throw the pill 8 miles an hour faster than his age.
He sits in his room this morning in loafers and slacks and a shiny shirt, the TV on but the sound down, feet up. He is reading a book called "The Scouting Report." He is gnarled and tanned and lantern-jawed. On one hand is a Dodger World Series ring; on the other a Southern League championship ring. That was Charlotte.
"I've been in the game so long I know people all over the country, any baseball town you could name. You take K.C. Cesar Geronimo played for me in Columbus, Georgia, so here he is playing right field for the Royals. Joe Simpson played for me in Albuquerque. He plays first for the Royals, so I get to rag him a little when we're at bat.
"We didn't do too good in Albuquerque that year.
"You'd rather be a coach in the majors than a manager in the minors anyday. In the minors you stay in motels next to a Burger King. No days off. You play a game in Charlotte, you get on the bus after the game and head for Montgomery. It takes seven hours. You stay there maybe three days, then you go to Memphis. You get there 5, 6 o'clock in the morning. You leave Memphis after the Sunday game and drive 17 hours to Savannah. Crummy. This kind of traveling is a piece of cake.
"Baseball's been a great life. It's got me everything I ever wanted. I got my house paid for. I put my kids through college. I'm putting my wife through now. She wants to be a nurse. We've been married since--what's it?--1950. What is that, 33 years? When the kids were small she traveled with me all the time. One year the kids were in school in St. Paul, Victoria, Texas, a couple places in between.
"The first plane ride I ever took was in baseball. From Kingston, New York, to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. That was '47. 'You gotta get there right away,' they told me. So I took a bus to Albany, then a DC-3 to Buffalo. The plane left Buffalo and stopped at Detroit, Chicago. In Chicago they used to have that special train, the Route of the 400. I got off in Sheboygan. It was 6 o'clock in the morning. There was a guy sweeping the station. He musta seen my bag. He said, 'Are ya here to join the team? So what do ya play?'
" 'Third,' I said.
" 'Oh, we got a great third baseman.'
" 'How 'bout short'?
" 'Oh, if this kid doesn't make rookie of the year, I don't know anything about baseball.'
" 'How about second?'
" 'Oh, that guy's the bus driver. He's a fixture. You couldn't possibly take his place.'
"About 8 o'clock the business manager of the team picks me up and takes me downtown to meet Joe Hansen. Hansen is the manager and owns the sporting goods store in town. Hansen shakes my hand and says, 'Well, I got everything covered but left field.'
" 'That's just what I play,' I said." AA stranger in this privileged midst would come quickly to observe certain unspoken A rules and rhythms and quirks of the road; rules and rhythms and quirks that seemed as sure as the seasons, but which could get broken now and then with freak occurrence. He would discover, for instance, that there were certain places you sat on the bus and certain places you sat on the airplane.
If you are "press," you never sit in the back of an Oriole team bus (which is to be distinguished from the shuttle bus provided by the host city, which has variations on the rules), though on the plane you always sit in the rear. Coaches also sit in the back of the plane, but on the bus they get to sit in front. Nobody has ever written these things down, and nobody can say just when or why they began. But if you roil the waters, you could get a wadded cup thrown at the back of your head.
An outsider would come to observe other kinds of constants, too--like Storm Davis' predilection for Topsiders and white cotton socks. He is the team's preppie, just 21; while Disco Dan Ford is its clothes horse: pinstripe flannel banker's suits and a rich leather briefcase. At least on Sunday. During the week, Ford dresses down a bit, though flags of hanky still wave jauntily from his breast pocket. WW ally Swann works for the Sheraton Royal and has been shuttling visW iting ball teams over to the park for nine seasons. He misses the Earl of Baltimore. "Weaver," he says, wagging his head. "He's selling tomato fertilizer. No, really. He's supposed to be coming out with it next month, that's what I heard. I think a lot of people had the wrong impression of the guy. He's different away from the ballpark. Damn, I miss him." "H"H ear anything?" asks Chuck Thompson, soothing broadcasting "H voice of the Orioles.
Phil Itzoe shakes his head in a no. They are talking about Palmer. SS unday, 4 p.m. The Orioles are leaving town. They have split the four-game series with S Kansas City and are going to Minneapolis. Another city, another hotel. Tomorrow, Memorial Day, they will open against the Twins in what is known by ballplayers as the Homerdome. (The damnedest balls fly out of there.) It will be cold and windblown in Minnesota, but the mood on the team is different now. Lots of confidence.
Outside the locker room, police barricades lead to a Metro 3 bus. Eddie Murray is the first to emerge. He's in a maroon suit and has a Coke and a small bag.
"Hey, Eddie, all right, check out that suit," calls a kid.
At the airport, waiting on the charter, which has been delayed due to storms in Chicago, Rich Dauer, second baseman, sits alone in a small bar. He is in one of the longest slumps of his career. Today he was 0-2, yesterday he was 0-3, the day before he was 1-4. He has had 7 hits in 52 at bats in the last 16 games. He is a blond-headed Californian who has decided to stay in Baltimore once baseball is over.
"Did you come in here to get away?"
"Not really. I was thirsty. But I'm not doing too well right now and I don't want to talk baseball. But don't get me wrong. I'm lucky to be playing something I love.
"Tonight? The movies. We want to see 'The Verdict.' It's getting real tough right now, the travel. I've got a little girl at home, Casey. She's two. She's rooting me off the road. She's already shaved a lot of years off what I imagined it would be.
"I don't know what I'll do when it's over. I don't really have to do anything, the money's been that good. Guys like Reggie and Dave Winfield took care of that for the rest of us.
"You could say I just feel lucky to be a guy playing baseball. And, by the way, you'll never really know how it feels."