Nobody ever said he had the bat of Steve Garvey. Nobody ever said he had the glove of Graig Nettles. Nobody ever said he had the arm of Goose Gossage. Mostly what they said about Kurt Bevacqua was, "Who's he?" And for 14 seasons the answer was always the same: "He's nobody."
The game may have been good to Bevacqua: "If it wasn't for baseball," he said, "I'd be back in Florida squeezing oranges." But it hasn't been generous. Through 14 seasons he has batted just 1,979 times; an everyday player will have more in four seasons. Through 14 seasons the closest he ever got to postseason play was the distance between the chair he sat in and the television screen he watched. Through 14 seasons he sat on the bench -- in his words, "an extra man, a Lloyd's of London policy in case someone gets hurt, a piece of meat" -- for mediocre teams in Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Texas and San Diego, and waited for one turn at bat or the season to end, Whichever came first. Through 14 seasons as a lifetime .236 hitter, he read the papers and found out his services were no longer required, that he had been released or sold or traded for players like Charles Bradford, Mike Hedlund or Cal Meier. Players like him. Players nobody ever heard of.
"This game has tried to get rid of me many times," Bevacqua has said.
It told him he was dead. But he wouldn't lie down.
And now, at 37, he finds himself in the World Series for the first time. After playing professional baseball for 18 years -- two years longer than the San Diego Padres have played it -- Bevacqua's dream delayed is no longer a dream denied. "The night we landed in Chicago for the first game of the playoffs was the first time my season hadn't ended on a Sunday," Bevacqua said. "It was the first time I went somewhere other than home."
And just to add some icing on the cake, when the Series opened Tuesday night there was Bevacqua, one of baseball's working class heroes, in the starting lineup as the Padres' designated hitter. Who could blame him if he thought the applause he heard when he was introduced sounded like Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"? "I'm a utility man all my life, and here I am, in my first World Series game, and I'm starting," Bevacqua said before the game. "I think that's pretty exciting. Don't you?"
In the Hollywood version Bevacqua, the most unlikely of the unlikely with just 80 at bats and 16 hits all season, would have been the star of the game. As the spotlight finally found him, he'd have come up in the bottom of the ninth, with one on and two out, and hit the game-winning homer. Cut. Print. That's a wrap. But Hollywood is a two-hour drive north of here, and while Hollywood has Robert Redford and Barbra Steisand, San Diego has Shamu the whale and a man dressed up as a chicken. Geography is destiny. You start out wishing on a star here, you wind up looking like a donkey.
Bevacqua got his moment in the spotlight all right. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Padres down, 3-2, he led off with a rope to the right field corner that looked like a sure triple. And it probably would have been, but the runner stumbled slightly rounding second. It took two nearly perfect throws, the first from Kirk Gibson to Lou Whitaker, the second from Whitaker to Marty Castillo, to get him. But they got him. Bye-bye tying run. Bye-bye momentum. Bye-bye ball game.
After the game it seemed like every camera and tape recorder west of the Rockies was aimed at Bevacqua, seeking his view of what had happened. As he stood in the middle of the Padres' clubhouse, his uniform shirt caked with dirt from his head-first slide, Bevacqua seemed on the verge of being swallowed by the circling crowd. At first he eyed it warily. "I wondered if I was getting blamed for something," he said later.
Over and over he told his story. Once, twice, even three times wasn't enough; for every reporter who went away satisfied, it seemed two more approached, curious. Each time Bevacqua spoke in a strong, though not quite defensive voice. Each time the story was the same: No, there was no one and nothing to blame. "Certainly not me," Bevacqua said. No, the ground wasn't too soft. No, no one in the dugout questioned his decision to try for third. Yes, the coach waved him on. Yes, he would have made it if he hadn't stumbled. No, he didn't know why he stumbled. He just did.
"There's two ways of looking at it," he said. "On one hand, getting thrown out at third with nobody out is dumb. On the other hand, if I make it, it's an aggressive move that might turn the game around. And even when I stumbled, to be perfectly honest with you, I still thought I would make it. Look, it took two perfect throws to get me. What can I say? I stumbled. These things happen." He forced a grin. "I've stumbled walking down the sidewalk. You know those cracks in the sidewalk? There must have been one out there tonight."
Had he felt helpless when he stumbled?
"Yeah, like they felt on the Titanic."
What would he do about it?
"I'll tell you what I won't do, I won't lose any sleep over it."
Later, after the crowd had gone and Bevacqua was left alone, someone told him that he shouldn't feel badly, that he had hit well and that he should savor the Series like he would a bottle of fine, aged wine, because the opportunities to drink it are so few and far between.
And for a moment Bevacqua's face lost its hardened intensity and seemed to relax. "You know," he said, "I've waited a long time for this, and though it may not look like it, I really am excited about being here. When you're playing, you've got to try and stay calm, but who knows, maybe in a month or so it'll sink in and I'll really pop my cork." And with that, he picked up the single red rose that had been left for him in his locker and walked out into the night, asking nothing more than another chance at bat.
And, as fate would have it, maybe Hollywood isn't two hours away after all. Because tonight Bevacqua was once again in the starting lineup as the designated hitter. This time he was batting sixth, not ninth. And this time when he took his best shot, he came away redeemed.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, facing a tired Dan Petry, Bevacqua drove an 0-1 pitch deep into the left field stands for a three-run homer, only the 26th home run of his career. It gave the Padres a 5-3 lead. Perhaps equally as important for Bevacqua, it gave him another shot at the cameras and the tape recorders. And this time there'd be no second-guessing his actions.
If ever a man had reason to smile, this was it. And Bevacqua didn't just smile as he rounded the bases, he shone like the harvest moon. He watched the ball disappearing into the seats as if it was shot from a gun, and just two steps from first base he leaped into the air, turned a full 360-degree pirouette, pounced on first and continued jauntily around the bases, waving his fists in the air, pointing his index finger skyward and, finally, as he approached third for the joyous trip home, blew a two-handed kiss to the fans.
Revenge is sweet.
Revenge is his.
"I sure played a role tonight," the veteran role player said after the game. "The key role." He allowed himself one small gloat: "I had a helluva night." And then one big one: "I knew I wasn't gonna get thrown out at third on that ball."
And no, this time around he didn't stumble at all.