A Bases-Loaded Walk Down Memory Lane
As a mom, it was probably inevitable that I would get sucked into the whole "Creative Memories" fad. For those of you who don't know what that is (hmmm, a baseball site populated mainly by guys, that would probably mean about 99.9 percent of you -- the married ones with kids MIGHT know what I am talking about), it's the ridiculously overpriced but unbelievably addictive "scrapbooking" trend that may currently be obscuring what used to be your dining room table (oh wait, maybe that's just me).
So I got invited to one of those parties where they had a hidden vacuum that cleaned out my wallet and left me with lots of adorable stickers and construction paper cutouts. I really had every intention of making wonderful memory books to commemorate my daughter's baby years, her first steps, teeth and report cards, her bat mitzvah, her rock band.
Instead I have what used to be a dining room with a table (I think) precariously piled with several categories of photos waiting to be enshrined.
Let's face it.
There is only one set of "scrapbooks" I can count on where I can leaf through their pages and evoke my life's memories. My walks down memory lane are the kind where the bases are loaded: boxes of baseball scorebooks.
Right now, I have a pile of them in my home study that date back as far as mid-1995 (I have another box of them in the basement). It's hard to pinpoint anything resembling a chronological order since generally, when I'm going to a game or on the road, I'll just grab whichever one is the right size for the bag I'm carrying and has a few empty pages left.
And the truth is, most people won't even recognize many of the names on most of the pages.
But I will.
Mesa vs. Scottsdale, Arizona Fall League, October 1995: I have always rooted for the underdog. And I have always had a special place in my heart for the guys who play, as I put it, with that special kind of "joy." It may be a totally meaningless game, maybe spring training, maybe mid-August when their low-A team is 30 games out of contention. But you can tell that, as Jim Bouton put it in "Ball Four," they still remember to tingle every time they step on the field.
Jason Maxwell was one of those players. A utility middle infielder originally with the Cubs, he was a 74th-round draft pick who, when he eventually made it to the majors in 1998, was the lowest-drafted player to ever reach the show (his "record" was later broken by Travis Phelps -- 89th round).
On this particular day, the Cubs had weathered a few infield injuries and so they summoned Maxwell over from instructional league camp to fill in for a few days. His energy and exuberance caught my eye immediately and for six innings I couldn't stop watching him. In the sixth inning, Billy Owens (now the director of player personnel for Oakland) hit a high pop to shortstop. Maxwell lost it in the sun and it came down and cracked his cheekbone so loudly that it was like hearing a gunshot in that empty park.
I remember seeing Maxwell lying there for what seemed like hours, twitching in pain, his fall season clearly over. I cried.
Two years later I would see Maxwell again, batting leadoff for the Iowa Cubs in the very last Triple-A American Association championship series. I would tell him my story and he'd show me the small moon-shaped scar he has right below his eye.
Buffalo Bisons vs. New Orleans Zephyrs, Games 1 and 4 of the Triple-A World Series, Las Vegas, September 1998: I scribbled the following note on the bottom of the page of Game 1, a 7-2 victory by eventual TAWS champion New Orleans: "Guess which of these two starting pitchers was out all night at the casino?"
I truly regret the demise of the three-year Triple-A World Series. And not just because it meant a few days in Vegas. Okay, so maybe just because it meant a few days in Vegas. So sue me. But honestly, that first year of the event was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my baseball-writing life and I never even bet a dollar. And this time I am serious. Headquartered at Caesar's Palace, I spent most of my time trading stories and sipping lemonade (and an occasional strawberry margarita) with some of the most interesting and insightful veteran ballplayers Triple-A had to offer (I defy anyone to talk baseball with Jeff Manto and not come away knowing so much more about the game than before you sat down).
The night I arrived, there was a welcome reception for the players, press and other "luminaries" (yes, I am kidding when I say that word). I sat for awhile chatting with New Orleans' Game 1 starter, John Halama. He sipped Coca-Cola and went to bed early. The next morning I was heading downstairs to catch some rays at the very cool Caesar's Palace pool and ran into Buffalo's Game 1 starter Jason Rakers. He was on his way UP to bed after spending all night in the casino. (This is not a knock on Rakers, who was always a terrific kid to deal with).
Linescore: Halama, W, 9 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 9 K. Rakers, L, 4 1/3 IP, 7 H, 6 R.
Game 4's boxscore is notable for the three-homer game from New Orleans outfielder Lance Berkman. He'd had a meh series, but the one-man wrecking crew performance he put on in the 11-6 TAWS clincher earned him the MVP award. In fact, when he hit his third of the game in the ninth inning, the ballots had already been filled out (unofficial tally indicated that journeyman Marc Ronan would have won). When that ball left the park, the sound you heard in the pressbox was the collective ripping up of all of those ballots.
East vs. West, Midwest League All-Star Game, Lansing, Mich., June 1999: Come on, tell the truth -- when is the last time you saw 14 pitchers combine on a one-hitter? The coaching staff of the Class A league's West Division All-Stars apparently were determined that every player on the bench and in the bullpen was going to get into this game, and no pitcher was going to be overworked. The result was this unusual gem and an unsuccessful campaign by the members of the pressbox to get the entire West Division pitching staff named "MVP" of the game (Jon Schaeffer of Quad Cities, who went 2-for-3, earned the honor). Even more interesting, only one of those 14 pitchers spent 2005 in the majors: Juan Rincon of the Twins. Okay, MOST of 2005 in the majors. At least one member of the East pitching staff had better success but his All-Star status wasn't enough to earn him a spot on his club's 40-man roster the following winter and so Houston farmhand Johan Santana was shipped to Minnesota in that year's Rule 5 draft.
Surprise Scorpions vs. Grand Canyon Rafters, Arizona Fall League, Oct. 10, 2005: If there is one boxscore that can sum up why, after all these years, I am still in love with baseball, this is the one. I love that in an almost empty ballpark, in a game that is virtually meaningless, you can see something you have never seen before and may never see again.
It was my first day on a week-long road trip to Arizona. My main assignment was to catch Angels shortstop prospect Brandon Wood to interview him since I'd chosen him as our USA Today Sports Weekly 2005 Minor League Player of the Year. I was a little nervous about chatting with him in the dugout prior to the game, only because ballplayers are nothing if not superstitious. What if I broke his routine and he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts? He might never talk to me again. But Wood was sweet and friendly and humble and when we were done, I took a seat in the shade between home and first and pulled out a lucky purple pen to score the game.
In his first at-bat, Wood lined out to second. In his second (third inning), he hit a home run to left field. In his third at-bat, in the fourth inning, he homered again, and again to left. In his fourth at-bat (fifth inning), a home run to right field. Surprise was crushing Grand Canyon across the board (they would eventually win, 20-1) and so it took me a few seconds to realize he had hit three home runs and it was only the fifth inning and the pitching wasn't getting any better.
In the seventh, when he came up again, the Rafters had brought in perhaps their best relief pitcher, Twins prospect Travis Bowyer, and he held Wood to a single. So when Wood came up for a sixth time, with Bowyer still on in the eighth, I knew this would be his last at-bat of the game. Bowyer bore down and Wood worked him to a full count, and then blasted his last pitch over center field wall, perhaps his longest shot of the day.
I know they say there is no cheering in the press box. But I wasn't in the press box, I was in the stands. And I cheered. Quietly, but I cheered. Not for Wood -- for me, for getting to see something that special.
Oh, and best of all, Wood said he'd be happy to have me interview him any time I want. I wonder why?
Lisa Winston is a senior writer/baseball for USA Today Sports Weekly. She soon will reach her fourteenth anniversary with the magazine, where she has covered minor league baseball since the 1994 strike.