The Day I Worked for My Favorite Baseball Team (Oh, and I Was 13-Years-Old)

Note: The following is a guest post from Matt Sammon.

I had always liked sports as a kid, although I was far from athletic, or a kid who needed to play sports 365 days a year. While I played tee ball as a youngster, and later soccer and bowling, I was perfectly content with playing with my Legos and MASK toys indoors. But around the age of 10, my interest in sports went from casual to incredibly in-depth. I suddenly had an appreciation for the rules, the history, the players, the uniforms, you name it. I absorbed everything like a sponge. And when it came to baseball, I quickly adopted the Toronto Blue Jays as my favorite team.

This was in the late 1980s, and I was living in Tampa, Florida. I had no good reason to like the Jays, especially since they were about 2,000 miles away, but like most 10-year-olds it probably had something to do with the cool 70s unis they were still wearing in the late 80s. And while most kids gravitated towards the home run hitters as their favorite players, I gravitated towards pitcher Dave Stieb, who to this day I think is one of the most underrated pitchers of the era. In a time where fastballers like Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden stole the spotlight, Stieb’s backdoor slider frustrated more than his fair share of batters.

A Magical Day

In 1991, I was able to go to a spring training game for the first time. I had been to many minor league games at Tampa’s Al Lopez Field before, but this was the first time I would see real live Major League players in front of my eyes. You have to remember before the internet, the only ways you saw your favorite team or players was on TV or in a stack of baseball cards. A family friend of ours drove me and my 11-year-old brother to Dunedin Stadium, where we would spend $6 (!) a ticket to watch the Jays play the Chicago White Sox.

Back then, the home clubhouse and dugout were on the 3rd base side, and in between the two on the end of the grandstand was a little “fan dugout” where fans could stand behind a chain linked fence to try to get autographs of players as they walked out to the field. Naturally, as a 13-year-old baseball nerd, I had my small binder of baseball cards ready to go. One of the first players to come out was the golden-mulleted Kelly Gruber, and while I was getting his autograph, a Blue Jays employee asked me how old I was. “Thirteen”, I said. The man then asked me, “Do you want to be a batboy today?”

I was stunned… this was totally unexpected. Of all the kids in that little space, why should I be the one that gets selected for such an honor? I replied, “Yeah… let me check…” My goodness, what a doofus. “Let me check?!?” Clearly I was in a state of shock. I wasn’t going to “check” with my adult guardian, I was going to tell him I was just selected to be a batboy and can you please hold on to my cards. He was as stunned as I was, and I dropped off my card book before making a beeline to the clubhouse.

Off to Work

So I’m in the clubhouse, and they give me a real spring training uniform. They give me a bag of baseballs, and tell me to sit down next to the White Sox dugout. I had no idea what to do. I had seen batboys before, and I had seen them retrieve a dropped bat, but I had never really watched what they did. So the staff informed me I had two jobs: 1) Retrieve and store the bats the players left at home plate, and 2) when the home plate umpire looked at me and put up some fingers, I was to give him that many new baseballs from the bag. Sounds simple, so of course, I screwed it up royally.

Matt was ready to go
Matt was ready to go

I quickly discovered the players not only didn’t have their names on the bat knobs, they didn’t even have their uniform numbers. It was the visitors’ dugout, so there were no name or even number plates on the bat rack. I asked White Sox manager Jeff Torborg what I should do with the used bats. “Ehhhhh… just lean up over there and the players will figure it out.” Suffice to say there was a pretty good stack of lumber rolling around one end of the dugout by the end of the game. But hey, at least I had a great seat to watch my favorite team and player that day. Stieb was starting, and in the first inning he caught Carlton Fisk looking with one of those backdoor sliders. The crowd goes wild, and I walk up to a retreating Fisk, waiting to take his bat and put it into the accumulating pile of unorganized bats. Fisk kept walking with his head down, gripping the bat. “Excuse me… Mr. Fisk… your bat…,” I weakly suggested. He wasn’t going to surrender, he kept walking. It was clear I was going to have to remove it from his cold dead hand.

Speaking of dead, Cory Snyder nearly decapitated me in the on-deck circle later in the game, as I heard the bat whiz next to my head while I was serving up new baseballs to the umpire. I could see the ump wince, and he told me I needed to be careful. In my dopey fan delirium, I said, “OK!”

Oldest Trick in the Book

A couple of members of the Jays’ staff saw the newbie barely getting by, and decided to have some fun. In the 5th or 6th inning, one of the staffers sat behind me and asked me to go to the Blue Jay dugout and “get the keys to the batter’s box”. Not even thinking, I went up and did it. The Jays’ players, and even manager Cito Gaston, played along. “Oh, I think the guys in the bullpen have the keys.” So of course, I jogged out to the bullpen in left field, all the while having White Sox players dig through a pile of bats and the home plate umpire getting his own baseballs. The bullpen played their part. “Are you sure they don’t have the keys in the dugout? Why don’t you go check again?” So I start heading back to the Jays dugout. “Nah, we don’t have them, we’ll look for them later.” So I trot back to my stool next to the dugout. Mission accomplished, the staffers say I did my best. Again, in my awestruck delirium, it never dawned on me that the batter’s box was the outlined box next to home plate. I totally crossed it up with the batter’s cage, which may or may not have needed keys but that was beyond the point.

jays2I don’t remember much else of the game, other than Stieb got the win as the Jays prevailed, probably because the Sox batters were using the wrong bats. Afterwards, I went back towards the clubhouse, where my guardian gave me my card book back. I changed back into my regular clothes and was “paid” with a fitted Blue Jays ball cap (which doesn’t fit, but I still have) and a cracked game-used Joe Carter bat (which I still have), thinking I was batboy of the year. Nobody showed me the way out of the clubhouse, back to the public area of the stadium. So as I’m wandering around trying to find a door, sitting in his locker stall still basking in the win was Stieb. My favorite player, right there, a chance for me to meet him face-to-face.

Fringe Benefits

jays1He was talking to his teammates, loudly, and cursing up a storm. Let me tell you, it’s a bit of a shock when you’re 13 and your favorite athlete is cursing up a storm, even if they are words you’ve heard and said before. Stieb saw me, said “Hey what’s up?”, and I introduced myself to him. I said I was a big fan, and I was happy he finally got that no-hitter the season before. Oh, and by the way, can you sign a couple of cards for me? Stieb obliged, signing a 1988 Topps and 1991 Donruss Diamond Kings (pack fresh!) on the spot. I thanked him, finally found an exit to the concourse, and went home.

That was over 25 years ago, yet I still remember it all like it was yesterday. Stieb’s last good season was 1991, as he developed arm problems in 1992. When the Jays finally won the World Series that year, I noticed Stieb was one of the first guys out of the dugout at Fulton County Stadium heading towards the celebration pile in the infield. The former outfielder-turned-pitcher finally could celebrate after so many close calls in his career. Several days later, he was released. The next season, he was with the White Sox, probably telling his teammates about that one spring training game he won because the batboy was looking for keys to the batter’s box.

Stieb won’t get into the Hall of Fame, and it still baffles me the Jays haven’t retired his number 37. For many years, he was often the only half-decent pitcher on the team. But even though he still doesn’t get the honor he deserves, I’ll always remember the day I got to see him pitch a gem of a game and meet him in person. And it’s a constant reminder to me that especially the little things like a hat, a bat, or an autograph can make a kid’s day… and life for many years.

 

ABOUT MATT SAMMON: Matt Sammon is the Director of Broadcasting for the Tampa Bay Lightning and currently roots for the Tampa Bay Rays. He can be found on Twitter @SammonSez.

Missed it by that Much – The Britt Burns story

“If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” said White Sox skipper Tony La Russa after Britt Burns made his final start of 1980.

“I think (Joe) Charboneau, (Dave) Stapleton and (Damaso) Garcia… had fine rookie years,” he continued. “But there’s no way anyone had a better year than Burns.”

Unfortunately for La Russa, voters didn’t agree as Burns finished 5th in the R.O.Y. voting, but that did nothing to diminish the fantastic season he had. In his first full season, Britt Burns won 15 games with a 2.84 ERA. He was a 6’5″ lefty and he was destined for stardom.

Early Dominance

Burns grew up in Alabama and established his dominance at an early age. He was a standout in Little League, owing in part to his tremendous size. A growth spurt resulted in him shooting up from 5’10 to 6’2 in less than 6 months. But spurt also caused problems. Growing so quickly resulted in damaged cartilage in his hips. The damage was severe enough that his femur would actually slip out of the socket. The problem eventually required surgery on both hips in which pins were inserted to stabilize the joints. Between the two surgeries he spent nearly a year on crutches and missed a year of school ball when he was 13.

When he finally returned to the diamond he didn’t miss a beat. He threw a no-hitter as a Freshman and he was so impressive that his high school his coach advised him to transfer to a bigger school where he would face better competition. His father worked for Allstate and was able to arrange a transfer to Birmingham so Burns could switch schools. He ended up at Huffman High School, a baseball factory. In the mid-1970s, the school was using videotape for pitchers to break down their deliveries. Burns thrived.

At Huffman he threw four no-hitters, struck out nearly 300 batters in 139 innings and allowed just two earned runs over a two year period. Scouts noticed. The White Sox chose selected him in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft and after 31 innings with Appleton in the Midwest League he made his big league debut. He got pounded. In two starts, he lasted a total of seven and a third innings and surrendered 11 earned runs.

Standout Rookie

Britt Burns
With Burns, Trout and Baumgarten, the Sox were seemingly set

After another brief stint in the big leagues in 1979, Burns made the team out of spring training in 1980 and quickly became a force. In three April starts, Burns allowed just one run while facing the Yankees twice and the Boston Red Sox. He flirted with a no-hitter against Seattle in mid-May and while the Mariners did scratch out four hits, Burns threw his first career shutout and ran his record to 5-2. A six start winless streak may have cost him Rookie of the Year honors. From July 21st through August 7th, Burns went 0-5 but still posted a respectable 3.40 ERA. The offense did him no favors during the stretch, scoring just nine runs.

While he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, Burns was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year, an award that was made more special because votes were cast by his fellow players.

“That’s a real honor to be voted by my peers,” he said. “But I’m not going to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I want to get better. This is going to give me incentive to work a little harder and pitch a little better.”

Injuries and Tragedy

Over the next four seasons, injuries to his shoulder, recurring hip problems and the 1981 death of his father in an auto accident plagued the talented lefty. He hit bottom in 1984 when he endured a disastrous 4-12 season. In 1985 he finally broke through, winning 18 games with 172 strikeouts in 227 innings. In December he was dealt to the Yankees in a deal that brought the Sox Ron Hassey and Joe Cowley.

With Burns and Ron Guidry, the 1986 Yankees had two lefties who put up a combined 40 wins the previous season and were thinking pennant. But then Burns’ hip problems flared up again. In two spring outings he posted a 10.80 ERA and his season was over before it began.

”The condition of Britt’s hip is such that it would do him an injustice to ask him to pitch this year inasmuch as it could have a serious effect on his ability to lead a normal life later on,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a press release. “We don’t want Britt walking around as a cripple later on in life.”

Burns underwent a procedure in which his femur was cut in half and re-positioned in order to fit correctly into his hip socket. A year later he was still hoping to return but the pain in his hip was too great. At 27 years-old he was finished.

It’s hard enough to play the game. It’s even more difficult when your body betrays you.

Jimmy Piersall Loses It… Again

The summer of 1980 was brutal.

A heatwave swept across the southeast which resulted in nearly 150 deaths across seven states. From Alabama to Texas and up to Missouri, people looked for any relief they could find. The search became more difficult when temperatures caused roads to buckle in many states. Wichita Falls reached a record 113 degrees and Little Rock, Arkansas saw temps of more than 100 degrees as well, which was cited by the Poultry Foundation as the cause of death for nearly two and a half million chickens.

Perhaps the only thing hotter than the weather was the temper of White Sox broadcaster and part-time outfield coach Jimmy Piersall. Prior to the Sox July 2nd home game against the Angels, Piersall sought out Arlington Heights Daily Herald writer Bob Gallas to “discuss” his story about Piersall’s dismissal as the a part-time unpaid outfield coach.

As a player, Jimmy Piersall had a much-publicized mental breakdown that became the basis for the 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins.  A two-time All-Star selection, Piersall’s mercurial behavior made him tough to deal with for both teammates and management.

Tony La Russa and the Sox felt it was a conflict of interest for Piersall to coach players and then go to the booth and criticize their play, so after polling the players he informed Piersall of the decision.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Sox Owner Bill Veeck had been trying to get rid of Piersall as a broadcaster because he felt he was too critical of the players. Piersall responded that he could say whatever he wanted, including taking shots at Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances, on a local radio show, calling her “a colossal bore” and suggesting she should stay in the kitchen.

Piersall was upset about losing his coaching position but when Gallas’ article made it public knowledge, Piersall confronted him in the clubhouse and the two exchanged words. Piersall backed away as if to leave, then spun and started choking Gallas.

“Jimmy jumped him; I saw it because it was right in front of the trainer’s room,” said Sox trainer Herm Schneider. “Gallas started turning blue in the face. Ross (Baumgarten)… and a security guard finally pulled Piersall off. Gallas certainly didn’t swing first. He was taken completely by surprise.”

Jimmy Piersall’s troubles didn’t end there. Once Veeck was informed of the incident, he sent his son, Mike to the broadcast booth to confront Piersall.

“When I walked in, I gave him a dedicated introductory statement as to my intentions,” said the younger Veeck. “I didn’t want it to look like Cowens’ sneak attack on Farmer. I said I wanted him to look at someone his own size.”

No sooner did Mike Veeck enter the booth and “announce his intentions” were he and Piersall involved in a scuffle that took Piersall’s broadcast partner Rich King and two writers to break up. In addition to potential embarrassment to his father’s baseball team, Mike Veeck’s intensity was most certainly ratcheted up by Piersall’s comments about his mother.

Piersall left the stadium and spent the night in a local hospital with what Sox officials termed, “exhaustion.”

The first half of the season was not kind to Daily Herald baseball writers. In spring training, Dave Kingman dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald writer Don Friske. Kingman called the incident “a joke,” but Friske didn’t take it as such.

Ross Baumgarten

About the only person not affected by the pregame fracas was Baumgarten. After breaking up a fight in the clubhouse, he then threw a one-hit complete game shutout. The only hit Bumgarten surrendered was a seventh inning single off the bat of Rod Carew, who was given a reprieve after left fielder Wayne Nordhagen dropped his foul pop fly.

“It hit me in a bad spot,” said Nordhagen. “Right in the hand – U.S. Steel.”

The outing proved to be a highlight in an otherwise dismal season for Baumgarten, who finished the year 2-12. It wasn’t a good year for Veeck and the White Sox, but there was often a lot of excitement on the South Side.