"A few months ago, I figured I was going to end up 60 years old, driving a taxi and telling AAA stories. Now, I may still be 60 and driving a taxi, but I'll be telling big league stories." -- Dan Gaham, catcher, Baltimore Orioles
When Dan Graham sits in the Orioles' dugout and looks at the green field, there still seems to be a hint of disbelief in his eyes.
Like thousands before him, he had given up hope and resigned himself to a lifetime as a baseball busher. Oh, he thought he could play in the majors and never gave up his belief in himself. But, a darker thought, he gave up his faith in the game around him.
He could see it everywhere. He was going to be one of those snake-bit, wrong-place-at-the wrong-time guys who, finally, just becomes forgotten.
"A year ago, I was totally depressed," said the now jubilant Graham, who, before tonight's 5-0 Oriole loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, had driven in 19 runs in his previous 27 at-bats.
"I was sick of beating my head against the wall. After three years in college ball and five years in the minors, all I had to show for it was three struggling years in AAA ball.
"To say I was wondering if I was going to make it would be an understatement. Things didn't look good for me at all.
"In five years with the (Minnesota) Twins' organization, no one had ever said one word to me about how I was doing, what they wanted from me or where I fit in. You just had to guess, or listen to secondhand stories of what somebody in the front office said."
That's the rule, not the exception, in baseball.
"There is no more competitive business in this country than baseball," the O's Manager Earl Weaver, said tonight. "Each year, you sign 40 new guys in the organization and turn 'em loose. You want 'em to trample the guys ahead of them in climbing up the ladder. From an organizational point of view, the best thing that can happen is for some young guy to come up and drive a veteran out of his job.
"That's a harsh way of putting it. But that's it."
In that survival of the fittest, Graham was feeling more and more like the victim, not the predator. As a 21-year-old catcher in the California League in 1976, he hit .320 with 29 homers, 115 RBI and 102 walks in 132 games. How much better start could a man have?
What that got Graham from the Twins was word, filtered down through the organization, that Butch Winegar was the catcher of the future and that Graham had better learn to play third base or forget about making the majors.
So, for three AAA years, Graham stumbled, sometimes putting good numbers together, like 23 homers and 85 RBI at Toledo in '78. By 1979 he was demoralized, hitting .213 in 403 at-bat in the same league where he had been an all-star the year before.
Graham's career was turned around with one phone call. "I was in Venezuela playing winter ball and heard I'd been traded to Baltimore," Graham recalled.
"I just said one word: 'Outstanding.'
"It was like becoming a new man. Nobody could believe the transformation -- not even me. I went from being a grouch to being happy overnight. Baseball was a joy, instead of drudgery."
Before the trade, he had, on a whim, again tried on the catcher's tools of ignorance one day. "They felt heavy. I took the equipment off immediately," Graham said.
But, when he heard he was an Oriole, Graham knew that meant he was wanted as a catcher. "I realized I didn't even have a catcher's mitt. The one I used in '76 was still in my brother's basement," Graham said.
When Grahm arrived at the Orioles' camp this spring, he knew he was in a different world.
"First, they gave me a raise out of the blue -- nearly doubled my salary," Graham said. Since his salary in the minors was less than $10,000 a year, that wasn't a princely raise. But it was symbolic. At least, he was wanted.
He brought his old catcher's mitt to Miami, but what the O's wanted to see was the bat.
"First time I saw him in BP (batting practice)," Weaver said, "I said, 'Oh, bleep. This guy's got a chance to be a left-handed-hitting catcher who can hit home runs.'"
Since Weaver has been searching, pleading and begging in vain for such a creature for nearly eight years, you could say that his heart warmed toward Graham.
When the season started, Graham was back in AAA, at Rochester. But it was different.
"Both Earl Weaver and Hank Peters called me into their offices," Graham said, using their full names, "to explain that I was just going down to get some catching back under my belt.
"Since they said it, I knew it was gospel."
Good news, indeed.
In Venezuela, Graham had hit .348. In Miami, it was .393. And now, at Rochester, he again tore up the league.
"I was like a new person," he said. "I knew what I had to do. They gave me guidelines, told me exactly what was wanted. It was simple. I had to fulfill their expectations or find another job."
Graham was called back to Baltimore in May. One cold spell -- four for 40 -- gave him a scare. But this week, on his return to Minnesota, the club that had kept him on a slow boat to nowhere for five years -- he delivered a message from the bottom of his soul.
In three games, he drove in 13 runs. His first swing produced a grand-slam homer. He hit .545 during his memorable visit. He came to bat with an amazing 22 runners on base, 14 of them in scoring position.
"And he delivered," Weaver said.
"We could hear him grunting on the bench with every swing," Mike Flanagan said. "Like he was saying, "Take that. And that.'"
"Dan had a good month in three days," Ken Singleton said. "He never said a word about it. He looked like John Wayne shooting the bad guys. You know, he's from Arizona and he's got that gunslinger walk."
"The young boy had his neck bowed up there at the plate," Sammy Stewart said. "Looked like he wanted 'em pretty bad."
Tonight, Graham had his team's first hit, in the fifth, and in the seventh he threw out a Brewer base stealer -- the 11th man he has thrown out in 27 tries. For every other player on the field, the game was important. For Graham, it was like the seventh game of the World Series. Once, when he struck out, he looked like he wanted to eat the bat.
"He only talks on the field," Flanagan said. "He's amazingly confident, like he's been waiting a long time for this. The first game he ever caught in the big leagues, (speedster) Kirt Gibson (of Detroit) got on base. He came out to the mound and said, 'Don't worry about that guy. Just throw a good pitch.If he goes, I'll throw him out.'"
Graham's stock has risen amazingly. His catching seems decent, but, more important, Graham's thirst to learn the position seems immense. And his bat carries a shock.
"It's tough to tell Rick Dempsey to share the position, like Andy Etchcebarren and Elrod Hendricks did for years," Weaver said. "I went through six years of explaining it to Andy. But these two guys could be just as good, maybe better."
For Dan Graham, who thought baseball had him tagged for the scrap heap, that sounds like a promise of plenty of good big league stories to tell someday.