Chavez Ravine at sunset after a World Series game. with the crowds gone home and the San Gabriel Mountains aflame behind the outfield fence, is themoslt beautiful, transcendent setting in baseball.
As Thurman Munson walked slowwly around the upper deck of empty Dodger Stadium one October evening two years ago, he shuffled along like an old man with sore feet, stretching the minutes before he reached the gate marked "Exit" and had to leave the place he loved best.
Because the game was over, the deadlines past and only an all-night flight from Los Angeles to New York was ahead of us, Munson was in no hurry -- just talking softly about the sundown and the silence and about how the park was at its best when empty.
This was how the New York yankees usually saw their captain, their almost ideal leader and perfect teammate. Gruff in public, acerbic on the bench, maniacally intense on the field, Munson suddenly became calm and unprntentiously puckish in private.
Munson's mouth played tricks under his walrus mustache as he walked, showing hidden glimpses of the michievious, prankish nature burried deep under a layer of protective pride as bristly and thick as any animal hide.
"you've changed since you won the MVP award last year," Munson was teased. "You've gotta work to stay grumpy. Pretty soon you'll be a nice guy and a lousy ballplayer."
Munson liked that, since it flirted with bad taste, hinted at the truth and dared him to make a denial. If humor holds a kernel of truth, then the adroit insult holds more -- it was Munson's metier.
"now the guys can call me Captain Bad Body or anything they want," Munson said. "The Fat Kid's doing okay.
Thurman Munson, who died Thursday at 32 in a crash while piloting his private airplane, cultivated a misunderstanding with the world at large, just as he nutured a powerful camar derie with those he loved -- his teammates and his family.
Small talk, which might only bore others, infuriated Munson. Good manners he disdained as weakness or fraud. Intranisgence -- take me or leave me -- he had raised to a standard of personal integrity. Introduced to a stranger, he might begin, "Where'd you get that ugly shirt?" It was his method for finding his social bearings quickly.
"The same place you got that ugly face," was always a proper answer.
A creature of the locker room, Munson was comfortable with conversation only when it was dangerous -- blanced on the edge between humor and hostility.
In the dugout world where a fist-fight may be seen as only a minor incident that often clears the air, Munson's sharp-sighted straigt-for-the-jugular salvos did not need to be muffled. In act, they made him a sage among his peers. Being worthy of Munson's needle was a badge of honor.
"it's unbelievable to other players that Munson is thought of as silent and surly," Baltimore captian Mark Belanger said a month ago. "I'd say that he is the most talkative player in baseball, and maybe the funniest, too."
It may be Munson's unfortunate legacy that he is remembered as a caricuture, almost the reverse, of himself, because he happened to disdain the sports media. Often the feeling was mutual.
"for the people who never knew him, didn't like him, 'i feel sorry for them," said Yankee Manager Billy Martin.
When I played against him, I hated him for years," Munson's best Yankee friend, Graig Nettles always said. "he was an absolute competitor. He wanted to be liked, but he was too proud to be politic for it."
Many will be amused at perhaps the soundest of Munson's eulogies, that of Bowie Kuhn, who called him, "a wonderful, enormously likeable guy."
Since Munson's public manner did no public harm, except to himself, it is only fair to judge him by his private face, which did much good, and by his style on the ball field, which ennobled his game.
Nice guys are a dime a dozen," said the great Army football coach, Red Blaik, 'but leaders are the rarest of breeds."
It was a nice irony that Munson found it incomprehensible that he was the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig.
"if I'm supposed to be a captian by example, I'll be terrible," said Munson, who was the heart of perhaps the most appealing of Bronx champions, those of '78.
"i seem to attract dirt," Munson once said with pride. "The game was only 10 pitches old tonight and I was filthier than anybody else was all night."
To those who appreciated him, Munson was a sweat hog, who, beneath the tools of ignorance, was the essense of pride and wit.
Great catchers bear a different dignity than other players, since what they do in their game is in every sense work and only in the highest sense play. He approved of that tradition which labeled a broken finger a sign of virtue.
Although his statistics may one day squeeze his squatty body into the Hall of Fame, Munson's most indelible contribution to the game was his manner -- ring of roustabout powler that seemed to encircle him and protect him in those moments of crisis that he relished.
At the plate, where he was a .300 hitter five times, batted .339 in three playoffs and .373 in three Series, Munson took his sweet time, digging in his back foot defiantly, adjusting his batting glove interminably, twisting the last kink out of his fidgety neck, then pawing, yanking and nodding until he was absolutely ready.
His message to the pircher was evident to the entire stadium: "when I get all this finished, you're in trouble."
"you'd jam him with every pitch, the way you know you ought to," Jim Palmer said once, "but he'd actually move into the pitch and let it hit him."
On the bases, Munson revealed the all-sport athlete who was concealed under shin guards and chest protectors as he dashed first to third as though his britches were on fire, ending his digging, stumbling dashes with a variety of wildly improvisational sides that left him deliciously filthy.
If Pete Rose epitomized conspicuous hustle in his era, flavored with a taste for self-promotion, then Munson was the greastest of hidden hustlers who disquised his injuries, never curried the crowd's favor and was best appreciated by players who universally saw him as their model.
As a receiver, Munson had a jerry-rigged three-quarter-arm throw that made him seem comic, plus a scrimbling style on low pitches that was weak. Yet on key plays, key steals, he usually seemed to win. And his secret strength was his studious knack for calling pitches and needling hitters.
"munson spent countless hours gabbling around other teams' batting cages, pretending to chit-chat but really studing stances. Everyone knew his motive, but was helpless. Once, a metal bar fell from the Baltimore cage and knocked Munson dizzy The Orioles cheered and laughed -- just as Munson would have.
"munson always says, 'How's it going, Kid?' to rookies, and 'How's the family?" to the veterans when we come to the plate," Belanger said recently.
One day, I got furious and said, "Thurman, we all know what you're doing. You're trying to distract me and I'm hitting .190. Just leave me the hell alone. Just shut up when I'm up here or I'll hit you with the bat.'
"he got this terrible hurt expression and said, 'Jeeez, Blade, I didn't know you felt that strongly. I swear I'll never say another word to you."
On his next at-bat, Belanger was all ready to swing when the high-pitched penetrating voice behind said, "How's the fimily, Blade?"
"i nearly fainted," Belanger said
If Munson had an instinct for victory on the field with his indestructable will, he had a penchant for feeling bitterly slighted at other times. For years, he felt he played in the shadow of glamorous Carton Fisk of Boston. He almost had apoplexy when Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson said of Munson, "Don't embarass him by comparing him to Johnny Bench." When the Yankees paid Reggie Jackson, a slugger of few all-around baseball skills, more than Munson the catcher was permanently galled. The list of indignities, real and imagined was long.
Yet Munson, contrary to his image, often laughed about his annoyances, saying, "I'm just happy to be here," or, "The Fat Kid was not consulted." Those who thought Munson obnoxiously serious in all his grumbling about money were unware of Munson's guileful and lusty ability to acquire capital -- and real estate. The dugout scuttlebutt on Munson was that he would eventually own Ohio as Ty Cobb wished to acquire Georgeia. Munson flew airplanes for two reasons central to his misunderstood personality: 1) because he disliked digcity bluster and loved his family in Canton, and 2) because he planned on owning not just one airplane but eventually an entire commuter airline.
Ballplayers do not leave epitaphs, only memories and friends. Munson, the man who many have been baseball's ideal teammate, was rich in both.
Though some may wonder why, the mourning for Munson will be as geniune and deeply felt within baseball as it was for the last Yankee captain who died too young.
The Fat Kid left memories of a style of play as indelible as those of any man of his time. CAPTION: Picture, Yankees observe moment of silence for late captain Thurman Munson. From left are Yogi Berra, Don Hood, Mike Ferraro, Bobby Murcer, Charley Law and Manager Billy Martin. Catcher Munson was killed Thursday. AP