Rocky Bridges still talks a good game of baseball, as well he should. He's been doing it for almost 40 of his 58 years.
He used to play it, too -- 11 years in the majors, including Washington -- but his numbers are sufficiently undistinguished to make him more remembered for his humor than for skills with bat and glove.
At the moment, Lamar Everett Bridges, who hates his given names -- whoever chose Lamar Everett? -- is about an hour's drive on I-95 south from Washington, managing the Class A Carolina League Prince William Pirates farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Managing in the minors is not a new experience for Bridges, who did it for the first time in 1964 at San Jose, where his debut was spiced by a rousing inspirational inaugural address to the team, he recalled with relish here recently.
"Well," he began, "here I am back in the minors where I began my slump.
"I'm the only man in the history of baseball who started his career in a slump and stayed in it," he said, not excessively overstating the facts as his lifetime major league batting average with seven teams -- .247 -- suggests.
"I always wanted to be a ballplayer and now that I've quit playing I still entertain that idea," he said.
It was Bridges' idea of ingratiating himself to his charges, who probably never had heard of him before, but who always would remember him for his good spirits and sense of fun.
It was also his way of easing fears and tensions of high-strung, heavily bonused players who perform better, Bridges feels, when "they relax and when they play better, I can relax."
Bridges said he has no idea what he'd be doing today had it not been for baseball. He had only one ambition when he was growing up in Long Beach, Calif., playing shortstop for his high school team.
"To play baseball, to play pro ball," he said proudly. "I wasn't qualified to do anything else."
The Brooklyn Dodgers helped him realize his ambition when they signed him for their Santa Barbara Class D team as an 18-year-old in 1947. Four years later, he had worked his way through Branch Rickey's farm system on to the big team as a spare infielder in Ebbets Field.
His chances of playing shortstop or second base were nil. Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson had those jobs. "No infielder wanted to be in the Dodger system with Pee Wee and Jackie there," Bridges said. "Between them they must have run 400 infielders away from Brooklyn, but I loved it. What a great place to be, watching them play every day."
Although he didn't demand it, the Dodgers traded him to Cincinnati, where the chance of active employment also was slim. Roy McMillan was the Reds' shortstop and the classy Johnny Temple played second.
Bridges came to Washington, on waivers from Cincinnati, in 1957 and became the shortstop immediately. He was also reunited with a Brooklyn teammate, Cookie Lavagetto, who was managing the Senators.
As a Senator, Bridges endeared himself to ownership, not only of the Senators but throughout baseball.
He spurned the chance of a slight raise by signing for the 1958 season for the same money the Senators paid him in 1957. Less than an hour after the last game of 1957 had been completed at Griffith Stadium, Bridges was in owner Calvin Griffith's office to sign next year's contract for the same pay, about $10,000, he had made in 1957.
What was the rush?
"I hit .228 that year," he explained. "There must have been 100 infielders in the minors who could have done what I did waiting for a chance to be in the majors. I was just lucky to be there."
His popularity in Washington was not limited to Griffith. He was a fan favorite, too, not so much for his performances, but for his enthusiasm and his eagerness.
He also made a sizable contribution to the legend of Rocky Bridges humor on a bus ride in Florida spring training from Orlando to Tampa. Lavagetto noticed an old, decaying schoolhouse, its windows smashed and roof rotting.
"Wonder what happened there?" Lavagetto asked.
"Somebody flunked chemistry," Bridges replied.
His nomadic baseball career has taken Bridges to 17 cities, majors and minors, including Honolulu, where he managed the Hawaii Islanders for the California Angels.
But Hawaii, where he managed for two years, held no special appeal for Bridges. "Because I don't surf and can't play golf well, and that's the only things there," he said.
And as far as intellectual pursuits are concerned, Bridges' ambition is to become so smart "that I can use a ball point pen to work the crossword puzzle in The New York Times."
And, of course, like other old-timers, Bridges has his feelings about the astronomical money that ballplayers make today.
"I'm not jealous, not at all," he says, switching the ever-present wad of tobacco. "I got my pay raised often -- every time the minimum salary went up."
For the previous three years he had been in the Giants organization as either a coach at San Francisco or scouting. The Giants offered to sign him as a scout again this year, but he chose the Pirates' offer to manage at Prince William.