A Baseball Story
By Mike Greenblatt
In April of 1980, I convinced publisher Jim Rensenbrink to let me cover baseball for the Aquarian Weekly. I got my credentials for Shea Stadium and soon found myself around the batting cage while Major Leaguers take batting practice! I have my trusty tape recorder but feel so overwhelmed being on the field at Shea that I content myself with sitting in the Mets dugout, admiring the bat rack and getting drinks of water from the water fountain. I’m in baseball heaven, hardly believing I’m on such hallowed grounds. All around me are ballplayers but I can’t get up the courage to speak to them. I had met all sorts of rock stars no problem but when it came time to go up to a Major Leaguer, I was tongue-tied.
Suffice it to say, I went home without speaking to anyone.
Summoning up my courage the next night, I go up to second baseman Wally Backman, standing a mere few feet from me idly scratching his crotch.
“Hey Wally, how do you think the Mets will do this year?”
He walks away.
I spot outfielder Dave Kingman. “Hey Dave, how do you think the Mets will do this year?”
He walks away.
Embarrassing! It felt like the few thousand in the stands who always come early for batting practice were all watching me look like an idiot. Four more questions ensued to four more different ballplayers. No quotes. Then I spied my old high school classmate Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger and he hipped me to the realities of sports journalism.
“Mike,” he patiently explained, “these guys are ballplayers, not musicians. They have nothing to gain from talking to you. Musicians sell albums when they talk to guys like you. Ballplayers talk only to the press guys they know. Sorry pal, but that’s the reality of the situation.”
I was stumped. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became. Each ballplayer I attempted to speak with reacted to me as they would a fly buzzing around their head. They weren’t mean, nasty or condescending. I just didn’t exist. I wasn’t there. How could I cover my beloved Mets if none of ‘em would even acknowledge my existence?
But I was game and refused to give up. As I was ruminating on this subject, I looked up and there in the distance of only about two or three yards from me was my all-time baseball hero: Pete Rose. Pete Fucking Rose! I stood there riveted to the spot. The Phillies were in town on their way to winning their first World Series ever in 97 years. I held my breath and walked up to him. He was taping his bat. I then proceeded to ask the stupidest question any journalist ever asked any ballplayer.
“Hey Pete, how’d it feel to strike out three times last night?”
Pete Rose didn’t look up. He continued taping his bat. There was a pregnant pause as I realized he was going to ignore me…but he didn’t. He looked up. He blocked his left nostril with a finger. With his right nostril, he blew out one major league snot rocket that landed on my shoe. Then he walked away.
I pretended to fiddle with my tape recorder in the pretense of professionalism because, after all, I was convinced that a few thousand folks just witnessed the indignity. Then I went home.
I tried to tell my Pete Rose story to New York a few years later when I called up “The Howard Stern Show.” I got on and told the story but Stern said it was disgusting and hung up on me.
My first successful quote from a real live ballplayer was from Dave Kingman, the surly outfielder. I don’t remember the question. But I remember his answer.
“I really don’t have much to say.”
What is it going to take?
My first “scoop” was from Jose Cardenal who admitted to me about his lack of playing time, “I can’t take it anymore.” That opened a floodgate of quotes.
Jerry Morales: “I don’t want to talk about nothin’.”
John Stearns: “We’re not the same old Mets!”
Elliott Maddox: “I don’t like playing third base.”
Dave Kingman (again): “I’ve got nothing to say.”
I try to get Manager Joe Torre to say something but he literally runs away from me into the sanctity of the clubhouse. I run after him but get thrown out within seconds.
It would be five years before I’d step onto a field again and this time it would be Yankee Stadium. Ricky Henderson is holding court in the dug-out with about eight or nine guys like me (and one girl) holding out their tape recorders for quote gold. Feeling comfort in numbers, I join them to also hold out my tape recorder. At the end of each answer, the reporter who asks the question leaves. I wrack my brains for an intelligent subject in which to elicit the warmth, wit and intelligence of Mr. Henderson. Finally, it’s down to two reporters, the female and myself. Ricky takes forever with her, flirting, trying to cajole her into coming back into the dressing room with him, smiling, being gracious, entertaining, funny and folksy. It’s taking forever and I’m bursting to finally ask him my question. At long last he finishes with her, she packs up her stuff, and I blurt out some inane query about getting a jump off first base when attempting to steal. Ricky doesn’t even look at me. He just leaves.
I spot Hitting Coach Lou Piniella leaning on a bat behind the cage. I go right up to him and asked him if he changes his advice depending upon the hitter (another stupid question). “Aw, don’t ask me that,” he at least says to me, “ask that to the guys themselves.”
“But that’s just it, Lou,” I stammer. “I tried! No one will talk to me!”
“Hey Pags,” he calls out to infielder Mike Pagliarulo, “talk to this guy, willya? He has a question for you.”
“Sure,” says Mike, sauntering over. “Let’s go inside.”
I follow dumb-struck as the starting third baseman of The New York Yankees walks me in through the dug-out, up the tunnel, and into the Yankee dressing room where a huge spread of food is layed out. I didn’t want to say that my field pass is good for the field only.
“Help yourself,” said Pags.
And he gives me a 20-minute interview.