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MY TURN AT BAT

Tinker to Disney to Mischance
By Michael Rogner

 

On a recent visit to Florida to see my family I mentioned the name Joe Tinker, and my oldest brother, a sports fan but not a baseball zealot, said, "Yeah, Tinker to Evers to Chance, the greatest double-play combination of all time." Unfortunately, his statement isn't accurate. The three Cub infielders are certainly the most recognized double-play combination of all time, but clearly not the best. However, perception rather than truth is often what propels us, and in this case, history is blurred by the most famous piece of bad sports poetry, "Baseball's Sad Lexicon":

 

These are the saddest of possible words,
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.
Trio of Bear Cubs fleeter than birds,
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon
bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble.
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

— Franklin P. Adams

 

Joe Tinker is a Hall of Famer. He wasn't a great hitter (.263 lifetime), but he was a master of both ends of the hit-and-run, and he carried a slick glove, leading the National League in fielding five times. Tinker, along with Evers and Chance, was part of an excellent infield, but it was not one especially proficient at the double play: the trio never once led their league in this statistical category, nor even came in second. And lost in the historical landscape is the fact that Tinker refused to speak to Johnny "Crab" Evers for years after a dispute over a cab ride. They played together; they just didn't talk. But some things don't mesh well with the poetic form.

 

When his baseball career ended, Joe Tinker came south to Florida in seach of his fortune. He settled in Orlando, where there's a beautiful old ballpark named after him. Tinker Field is where I saw my first professional game, and where I learned to love baseball. At that age I knew nothing of the Seven Wonders of the World, but had I, I would have been certain Tinker Field was among them. It was a giant pop-up book, a place where dreams turned to reality. My grandfather, who lived midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, had introduced me to the pro game while we lay together in his room at night listening to radio broadcasts. I learned it only in abstract. But then came Tinker Field, with real players in real uniforms and the crack of real wooden bats. On my first trip I identified the press box and wondered if my grandpa could hear the broadcast in his home fifteen hundred miles away.

Looking back, the park wasn't extraordinary, but that doesn't matter. It's where I first witnessed pro ball. With age comes cynicism, so moments in my life that compare to that first walk down the runway at Tinker—seeing the deep-green playing field unfold, seeing, with my seven-year-old priorities, the wealth of barbeque and junk food—are rare: my first trip to Fenway, my first glimpse of Enchanted Valley, my first wild, native trout dangling from a number fourteen Adams. Moments of simple magic, of the universe slowing and allowing me to witness a miracle.

Florida didn't have any major league teams then, but every March the Grapefruit League would swing into action—a beautiful circus that came in the night and disappeared heartbreakingly fast. It was there that the men from TV stood so close I could touch them. While other kids gathered autographs, I stared into the players' eyes and knew in my heart that they were the equal of comic-book superheroes. Yaz and Fisk and the Spaceman could have taken the Fantastic Four without breaking a sweat.

I saw them all—J.R. Richard, Rod Carew, Reggie, Catfish, Luis Tiant, Freddy Lynn. For a month they were mine. Then, as quick as they'd arrived, they would depart north to the cold and snow, and for the next six months my Saturday afternoons were scheduled. (We got three channels, unless it was stormy and then only one, but luckily it was the one that carried the Saturday Game of the Week.)

Tinker Field, though, remained. It hosted the Double A Orlando Twins of the Southern League. We played Columbus and Greenville and the Memphis Chicks; the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Huntsville Stars. We played the Birmingham Barons and the Knoxville Blue Jays. There were all the minor league promotions—squirt-gun battles and tire races, money grabs where people ran frantically onto the field pulling bases from the ground. The grandstand had ceiling fans which buzzed lazily along with the crickets. And looming over right field, like a tidal wave about to break, was the Citrus Bowl. I was convinced that I'd see a ball pulled over the right field lights and onto the football field. I even had my route planned on how I'd get to it. We liked to walk around beneath the bleachers looking for baseballs and coins and hats, for ballpoint pens, for thighs, too—the creamy white skin of skirted women who never knew we were there. Someone had busted a hole in the chain-link fence and from there I could get beneath the Citrus Bowl. I figured I could dart out and grab the ball. Never mind it would have taken a seven-hundred-foot blast to get it there. I was convinced. I was ready.

During the height of summer, when it was too hot to prowl around Tinker Field, we would sneak into Disney World. It was simple. We'd ride our bikes about forty-five minutes down a series of country roads and then ditch them in the woods. Then it was a twenty minute walk through the forest and we'd pop out next to Space Mountain. Now it's barricaded, a faux Fort Knox, but we got to go whenever we wanted. The best part was crossing a wetland, a swampy area with alligators and water moccasins and thousands of turtles lined in rows atop every exposed log. Of course, central Florida was still relatively intact then, so swamps were everywhere. But there was something special about sneaking past marsh hawks and snapping turtles and wild turkeys to enter Disney.

Swamps were my childhood paradise. The bird variety alone was stunning: bright pink roseate spoonbills three feet tall; even larger wood storks with heads like vultures. Rails and ibises. Avocets that waded in great amoeba-like flocks through the shallows. Kingfishers that dove from branches, pirouetted above creeks, or scattered while emitting a wooden rattle you could hear a hundred yards away.

There were softshell turtles that could take a toe off. Armadillos that seemed unaware of their own protection. And snakes to fill a boy's dreams: king snakes, black racers, ringnecks, corn snakes, rat snakes, moccasins, ribbon snakes, copperheads. (The poisonous we avoided; the others we challenged to see which of us could catch the most.)

There were cypress trees that four of us couldn't link hands around. Oak trees that supported colonies of mistletoe so vast it made us wonder why people thought it special. And the best part was the "swamp effect": I could go alone, or with friends, and know that whatever happened, nobody's parents were going to come along and ruin the fun.

In recent years baseball has moved back into the city. The suburbs have never been good for the game. All across America minor league parks are being built or renovated, and the fans have voiced their approval. Attendance is booming, and the minors are drawing over thirty million fans a year for the first time since the 1940s. But don't tell this to Tinker Field. At the heart of Florida's third largest city just might be the best located and most historic unused ballpark in the U.S.

What happened to Tinker Field is the same thing that happened to the rest of central Florida: Disney. Already Disney (in addition to owning ABC, ESPN, Touchstone, Mirimax, Hollywood Pictures, the Disney Channel, A&E, the History Channel, Lifetime, etc., etc.) operates four theme parks southwest of Orlando: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios, and the Wild Kingdom; but they decided there was a market they were somehow missing, a dollar that was slipping their grasp. So they built the Wide World of Sports.

There you'll find a race track, an athletic field house, championship clay tennis courts, beach volleyball, a thirty-five hundred car parking lot, an All-Star cafÈ (investors include Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and Shaquille O'Neal), and of course, now housing the Double A Orlando Rays of the Southern League, a bright yellow double-decker ball field.

Orlando, if you've never been, is a city built for cars. If you're out for a stroll, someone might pull over and ask if you need help. When western cities try to promote intelligent growth they show pictures of Los Angeles, of Las Vegas, of Orlando. The public transit stinks. People don't use it unless they have no alternative. So, needless to say, replacing a centrally located ballpark within walking distance of thousands of homes with one forty-five minutes away by car (without traffic) has left a lot of people out of the mix. You can't walk to the Disney ballpark. It's a tourists' park. A park for cars.

Actually, that's not the entire truth. It is possible to walk there. Or it was. All you have to do is be ten years old, ride your bike a few miles down dirt roads (which are now paved with four lanes), ditch it in woods that no longer exist, and then run across a wetland to get there. Only the wetland isn't there anymore, either. Now it's the ball field.

In Carl Hiaasen's book, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, he tells of Disney VP Reggie Williams giving a tour of the then-unopened facility to an Orlando reporter. They looked out over the area that had once been a wetland, an area drained and bulldozed, an area that had once seemed a part of paradise to a young boy, and Williams said, "I remember walking out here three years ago, months before we even began planning. There were snakes and spiders and all kinds of animals out here." Behind them the yellow facade of the stadium gleamed in the sun.

 

Joe Tinker died in Orlando. He's buried there, in Greenwood Cemetery, and now there's also an empty stadium in his honor. Before he came south to retire, Tinker was the first star player to abandon the National League and jump ship in 1914 to James Gilmore's Federal League. This was the first large scale attempt to break the Reserve Clause. As things go in labor history, the new league was defeated. The Reserve Clause, which made players indentured servants to the owners, held out another fifty years. Joe Tinker's major league career ended with him managing the 1916 Cubs to a 67–86 record (he collected one final hit that season in limited playing time).

A year later he managed Columbus of the American Association, where he participated in one last famous event (although one not memorialized in poetry). It was legal then to throw spitballs or otherwise doctored pitches. As a protest against this practice, Tinker sent a pitcher to the mound with a file and had him openly work on the ball between batters. At year's end a new rule took effect, and outside of Gaylord Perry, the era of famous spitballers ended with Joe Tinker.

In Orlando, Tinker lost all his money in the stock market crash, but then made it back after prohibition by opening Orlando's first tavern. He had a leg amputated in 1947, and died a year later at the age of sixty-eight. On my trip to Florida we passed Tinker Field on the freeway. Seeing it empty and knowing it was going to stay that way gave me a glimpse into the heart of Franklin P. Adams, and how he must have felt watching the Cubs knock off his Giants so many years ago: "These are the saddest of possible words," he wrote. Tinker to Evers to Chance.

—EFQ

 

MICHAEL ROGNER lives and works in Oregon. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, including the Fall, 1999 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly. He helps publish LeftField, the zine of baseball and politics.

© 2001 Michael Rogner

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