Willie Stargell never suspected. To him, it looked just like any other cake, except on top it said, "Happy Birthday, Captain."
Jim Rooker and Phil Garner, Stargell's teammates on the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, were worried. They had stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before, figuring how to con Stargell, how to distract him.
Rooker found the key; he played on Stargell's pride.
"We have a special presentation to make to Willie on his 39th birthday," intoned the southpaw Rooker this morning. "Because we want to express how much this man means to us."
The normally raucous Pirate clubhouse was almost solemn. After all, union boss Marvin Miller would be in the room to conduct a strike vote in just a few moments. It was a serious meeting.
"We really got his mind off that cake," said Rooker.
A signal, as both Rooker and Garner held the cake, was to be Rooker's wink.
Rooker finished his florid speech. Stargell stepped forward to accept the huge whipped-cream-filled cake. He open his mouth to speak and Rooker winked.
That's when they shoved the cake in Stargell's face.
"For once, Willie was truly stunned," said Manager Chuck Tanner. "He wanted to say something You could see the wheels turning. But nothing would come out of his mouth."
"Hey, Willie," said catcher Ed Ott. "Need a razor? Looks like you're ready to shave."
"I can't believe that Willie didn't see through that cake gag," marveled Dave Parker.
"He should have known. One year on his birthday, we gave him a portrait of himself framed in a toilet seat. Another year, we all tackled him in the outfield and beat him up. But last year, we didn't do anything. So he forgot. He didn't see through the cake until his head was in the middle of it," cackled Parker.
"The players always try to do something to Willie," said Tanner slyly. "But this was the icing on the cake."
"Direct hit," pronounced commander Rooker. "The U.S.S. Stargell was sunk with one torpedo. We even got that bomb in his ear."
Stargell exited for a hot shower, then returned, interrupting the union meeting. "I have an announcement to make," said Stargell. "I'm leaving for Baltimore."
The sky was unflawed here today, the temperature 80 degrees, and the cracks of Pirate line drives were tiny peals of electricity enlivening a blissfully languid Florida day.
This was a pastiche worthy of every child's fantasy of spring training. And the Pirates are, in fact, the sort of team that fans concoct in their dreams of big leagues.
"I'm the key," pontificated Parker standing by the batting cage after reporting two days late to camp, thereby risking a small fine out of his million-dollar-a-year salary. "Anybody got one of my bubble gum cards?"
"I do, I do," cried a woman in the stands.
"See?" Parker told his mates. "All I have to do is ask. I have two batting titles and four Gold Gloves. I am the king," finished Parker, who wears a diamond in his left ear, and a star of David around his neck because my name is David and I'm a star."
"You got four Gold Gloves and one wooden arm," Ott told Parker. "you're the only guy who ever butchered two fly balls in the same All-Star Game and ended up getting named Most Valuable Player in the game."
So it went for three hours of workout until Tanner announced, "That's it for today. Everybody go in. Willie you don't have to run (wind sprints) today. It's your birthday."
"It's my birthday tomorrow, too," said Stargell, pausing to think, "Skip, can I have one present?"
"Let me decide," begged Stargell, "whether or not the pitcher has to run."
"Nobody runs," replied a grinning Tanner. "Today, everybody's 39."
If the Pirates seem unlike any other team, they are.
"We may be the only modern team in baseball," said Rooker. "We act the way players on other teams would love to act. Hundreds of players in our league wish they were Pirates.
"People talk about the free spirit, they wonder what one really is. Here, everybody is a free spirit in their own way.
"People put ballplayers on a pedestal, but we sure don't belong there. It's the worst thing you can to do to us, because 95 percent of us are egomaniacs.
"We need to be deflated and get a cake in the face. We need to laugh, especially at ourselves."
Tanner has had several novel managing theories over the years, but none more uniquely his own than his deliberate encouragement of chaos.
"I want them to act like they're still in high school" said Tanner. "I want them to love game, love to work, and love to get to the park because it'll be more pleasure than anywhere else they can think of.
"I have never doubted," said Tanner, his eyes hard under all his bonhomie, "that, in an instant, I can regain control."
The Pirates may be childlike. Their world may resemble the real one no more than a cake in the face resembles an assembly line time clock.
Nonetheless, for those who feel momentarily transported by the idylls of champions cavorting in the soft tropical sun, it is of interest to know that for a few hours on Willie Stargell's birthday, that myth seemed close to a reality.