The Yellow Hammer
[Editor's note: Russ McQueen and my brother Tom were All-CIF pitchers on the Lakewood High School team that won the California Interscholastic Federation championship at Anaheim Stadium in 1970. Russ played on four consecutive NCAA championship teams at USC. He was named the College World Series MVP in 1972 when he pitched 14 shutout innings in relief while chalking up three of USC's five wins and saving a fourth. A 1970s CWS All-Decade selection, McQueen tossed a no-hitter vs. Cal to mark the opening of Dedeaux Field on 3/30/74. Russ was drafted by the California Angels in June 1974 and pitched three years in the club's minor league system.]
As I recently read some of Rich's articles, I was taken back to the Lakewood High baseball field one dreary, overcast, fall Saturday morning.
Seated in the third base dugout, I tried to stay as close to manager, scout and former Dodger pitcher Ed Roebuck as possible, to catch whatever he might say to help me comprehend the game of baseball. He might even ask me to get loose and pitch an inning or two; that is, if he ran out of pitchers or happened to remember I had thrown batting practice the last several Saturdays.
There was nothing unusual about seeing new faces, arms and bats at "The Lake" on a Saturday morning. After all, it was a scout league where minor leaguers and some college guys would show up for some work. A few of us high school guys came out in case... well, just in case.
A new fellow came by that morning with a big equipment bag and exchanged quick hellos and howaryas up and down the line. He meant nothing to me, and I figured him for another lower minor leaguer looking for some work. Mr. Roebuck caught his eye and offered, "Get loose and work a couple innings if you want to."
"If you want to?"
I thought no more about it, other than to spend an inning or so quietly lamenting the fact that I'd now have to wait at least two more innings to have any hope of hearing those words myself.
Then something happened.
The new guy took the mound and things changed. An air of expectancy took hold, and the place got quiet. Sounds were reduced only to those necessary. It felt like a premonition of something terrible, or terribly great, like right before a big fish takes your lure and you know in your gut he's about to hit.
The first batter took his stance. Fast ball, strike one called. Not bad, right down at the knees and on the inside corner. With considerable zip. Not the one he wanted to hit, I thought. But then the new guy threw something I had never seen before. It was gorgeous, and it was terrible, and I wasn't sure I had seen it correctly. Fast like a heater, but in front of the plate it made a wicked dive, down and a little bit away from the batter, who buckled at the knees. Strike two called. Hearts beat faster – I know mine did.
"Throw it again," I prayed.
He did, only this time the batter mustered up a feeble excuse for a swing and made his retreat back to the bench, where he joined other mortals to watch the continuing carnage.
Five more up, five more down. One guy grounded out, but everyone else fell to that monstrous, terrifying curve ball.
I've seen the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons. I've walked into Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and Wrigley Field on a Sunday afternoon. I've been to dozens of countries all over the world and seen it all. But I have never seen anything more riveting than that curve ball on that one cool, gray Saturday morning.
I have always remembered that awesome pitch as a big hammer the new guy swung and pounded batters with. It certainly went way beyond any fair deal I ever witnessed. To say "he threw a curve" was to understate the terror of the act. However ordinary the new guy looked to begin with, to me he had become substantially taller, heavier, and more dangerous.
For a moment there was no one sitting between me and Mr. Roebuck. "That's some kind of a curve ball," I managed, trying to make it sound as casual as I could so Mr. Roebuck wouldn't think I was overly impressed.
"Son, that's a pure yellow hammer," replied Roebuck. "And that is Bert Blyleven."
Russ McQueen, a CPA with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, is married to his wife Betty (thirty-two years) and has three sons, including Matt, first baseman for the Biola University Eagles.