FW: The Toy Cannon or, the Last spring Training Story (honest)
I would have never thought that in four days of watching baseball I would have four blog ideas. I would rather have written them out there, but the hotel I stayed in charges a buck a minute for internet service. I have never written a blog which is worth a dollar for the whole thing, so a dollar a minute seemed out of line.
The last game I went to this spring was in Mesa, home of the Chicago Cubs. I hate Cub fans. They are divided into twitty North side type Chicagoans who went to Northwestern and think that being a Cubs fan is just the cutest thing ever. Ordinarily you see them in bars over on Rush Street ,drinking over priced martinis and complaining about Mayor Daley. Come baseball season they are in all the good seats. The other Cub fans are blue collar types, in the bleachers. They are not as bad as the Northsiders because they know something about baseball, but they go out of their way to be obnoxious. In truth, Cub fans are just like Red Sox fans with different accents, except the Sox white collar guys tend to be authors or poets or Harvard Profs., guys who are too good to make money. I don’t dislike the Red Sox fans at all, but that is probably because the Cubs have been in the same division as my team and so I have a dislike for their team.
The Cubs had a Hall of Fame pitcher named Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins, known as “Fergie”. He was the first major league baseball player ever to be arrested on a drug charge. He was busted for transporting cocaine from his native Canada into the United States, whether for sale and distribution or for personal use just to while away the long hours on road trips, I have forgotten. If for sale, it was not a bad plan at all. Most all drugs enter the U.S. from our southern border. Canadians, in general, prefer blended whiskey (Crown when they can get it)to cocaine and so the idea of a very fine pitcher sneaking cocaine in from Canada would have seemed outlandish to our border security, which was pretty lax in those days anyway( which I can say having snuck Cuban cigars in from there myself) ..But the 70s were a fast time, even north of the border.
At any rate, ballplayers, at least good ones are given the same leniency by the public that Auden said that writers were entitled to, no matter what the sin (“Pardon (them) for writing well”)and Fergie was forgiven this indiscretion years ago. You hear a lot of complaints about ballplayers using steroids, but not cocaine, that was never an issue. Fergie now runs a little charity up in Chicago and one of the ways he raises money is to bring in his old ballplayer friends and charge people to meet them. He calls these meet and greets. As we entered the park in Mesa the other day, there was a sign that said Fergie had, that day, brought in his old friend Jimmy Wynn aka The Toy Cannon, for one of these sessions. Wynn was a hero of mine when I was 11 years old and he was playing his first year with the Houston Colt .45s. He was a genuinely fine ballplayer and, because of the prevalence of now favoring certain baseball statistics over others, which were favored years ago, he is today looked upon as a great ballplayer.
No matter what the era, Jimmy was strong. He was five foot nine and weighed about one seventy, He played in a park that was the hardest park to hit a homerun in in all of baseball. Yet he was a great homerun hitter. If he had played anywhere else, or even in Houston ,after they moved in the fences years later, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame. I saw Jimmy play dozens and dozens of times and there were several things I wanted to discuss with him. So Gaston and I went looking for him. We found him sitting at a table with Fergie Jenkins and no one else around. Jimmy was never a big name in Chicago or, apparently, Mesa.
I stuck out my hand and walked right up to Wynn, saying “Jimmy Wynn, Wade Porter”. He shook my hand and though his reply was understated he did seem glad to see me, or perhaps anyone. I told him all the usual bunk about growing up and watching him play and I told him that I had come to get an autographed picture for my brother who I explained had been with me at the last game ever played at old Colt Stadium. The last baseball game played out of doors in Houston for thirty five years and we had seen him Jimmy Wynn, break up the scoreless tie in the ninth inning with a run scoring single off of the Dodger’s Ron Peranoski, prior to our storming the field in celebration of the win, what did he think of that ? Wynn looked puzzled and I got the distinct impression that he did not know what I was talking about. How could that be, this was one of the very highlights of the childhood of the Porter brothers, everybody remembered that game. The guy who won it must still hold the memory sacred. His eyes glazed over.
“And Jim” I said, I was there the day in 1973 that you hit the walk off homer against the Giant’s Sudden Sam McDowell to win the game for us and propel us into first place, what a thrill.”Jim quietly reflected, a look of doubt in his eye, probably remembering that McDowell had spent most of his time in the American League and wondering just who this lunatic in front of him was. Finally he responded, “That was in the dome wasn’t it ?” Well, of course it was in the Dome, didn’t he recall the scoreboard exploding and the roar of the big Sunday crowd as he rounded the bases, one of the biggest hits in his career. Not so much. “You say your brother’s name is Clay ?”he asked, “what would he like me to write on the picture ?” “45’s 1 Dodgers 0 I said. He looked confused, but wrote what I asked. I picked up the picture of Jimmy, as he looked at 22 .I admit to being a little disappointed. “Oh” he said, “I want you to be sure to tell Clay I said hello.” “Will do, I replied, thanks for all the thrills !” and I left.
It was another lesson learned. The things that seem so big to you in life are often not even footnotes to the other six billion people on the earth. Even when they are involved in them. Jim Wynn probably played over 1,000 baseball games. He did it to earn a living, not create memories for 11 and 7 year olds, that was a byproduct of what he did, but not the reason for it. Even his best games are probably just looked back on as another day at the office. Something that happened to him in 1964 or 1972 does not mean a whole lot to him today. Also, Jim can’t really understand. For years he was a hero. He probably forgot what it was like to be the hero worshiper. Today he is neither, just a mortal trying to make a living and to help out an old friend like Fergie Jenkins.
But in the end it does not matter. It is your memory which is important. I can still see my brother happily stomping on the infield at old Colt Stadium, staying and staying until the lights were turned off and our father had to leave his car to come look for us, probably regretting dropping us off on our own, a couple of true irresponsibles. We heard a little about that as we walked back to the car. Dad never liked being kept waiting, but he always put up with it and let us return. The next time we returned, it was to a stadium with a roof on it, the one of its kind and the first of its kind. Even the name of the team changed from that of a cowboy’s gun to a celebration of Astronauts and Houston’s place in the space race. You can draw a bright line in the history of Houston between the city in September of 1964 and April of 1965, and Clay and I were there to see the sun set on the old town. I’m sorry for Jimmy if he does not remember it. He may be sorry for me that I remember it too well. But I am right about this one.