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MY TURN AT BAT
Aparicio's Glove and Other Gifts
By Rick Wilber
For a baseball fan, it isn't easy watching your heroes get oldthose ordinary men with extraordinary gifts, the ones who wore baggy pants and shirts and used a bat and ball and a leather glove to play a kids' game that we all cared to watch, now turning gray and frail. It's especially difficult, I'm discovering, when one of those heroes is your father.
As I write this, I'm in Philadelphia for a convention of science-fiction and fantasy fans and writers. It's the annual world convention, or worldcon, and as a minor writer in the genre, I'm here to meet the fans, sign autographs, sweet-talk editors into buying more of my short stories and novels, and generally get some business done. I should be at the party for Tor Books right now, in fact. I have a novel coming out next year from Tor, and I'd like to write a couple more. (The publisher is even a baseball fan.) I need to show my face and say hi. Instead, I'm in my room, thinking about baseball, because it was here, in Shibe Park, exactly fifty years ago this week, that my father, Del Wilber, had his best day as a big league hitter.
My father was a career backup catcher. From 1946, when he appeared in four games for the Cardinals, until his playing days ended with the Red Sox in 1954, he played in a total of just 299 major league games, with 720 at bats, 19 home runs, and a career .242 batting average.
That's hardly the stuff of legend, and his career highlights are actually most impressive as being great material for trivia contests. For instance, in 1953 with the Red Sox, he had 112 at bats and turned 27 hits into 29 RBI. In the history of the game only a handful of hitters with more than one hundred at bats have managed to have more RBI than hits.
And in 1973 Del Wilber was interim manager of the Texas Rangers for just one game, a victory, making him the all-time winning percentage leader among big league skippers (I'll let you look up the name of the other man who has also accomplished this feat).
And then there's 1951 (his most productive year by far as a player) when Dad had a singular evening for the Phillies, hitting three home runseach on the third pitchto win the game for his pitcher, Ken Johnson.
On a recent visit to our home, Dad recalled that day for me:
The Reds had Ken Raffensberger on the mound. Phillies catcher Andy Seminick had caught the first game of the doubleheader, so his backup, Del Wilber, was catching the second game. He faced Raffensberger for the first time in the bottom of the third.
Raffensberger's first pitch was, Dad remembers, a sinker down low for ball one. The second pitch was a žbig, sloppy curve, over the plateÓ for strike one. The third pitch was a hanging slider that Dad took deep to left, into the upper deck of Shibe Park, for the first run of the game.
As the innings passed, Raffens-berger was pitching a fine game except for that one mistake to Del Wilber that cost him a run. In the bottom of the seventh, Dad was the leadoff hitter. The first pitch was a sinker, low, for ball one. The second pitch another sloppy curve for strike one. Dad recognized the pattern and, he recalls, thought it was worth guessing at the third offering. He guessed right: in came the slider and out it wentdown the left-field line and again into the upper deck. Home run number two.
The next time he came up, in the bottom of the eighth, the score was still Wilber two, Reds nothing, so Dad figured Raffensberger would deck himand he was ready for it. Instead, in came that sinker, low, for ball one, followed by the sloppy curve for strike one, followed, looking fat as a melon now, given the moment's history, by that slider. Dad swung, and, insofar as I can tell, became the only player in baseball history to blast three home runs that accounted for all of his team's runs in a 30 victory.
Left to right: Del Wilber with sons Rick and Del Jr. in Fenway Park.
Photo by George Woodruff
Last year, eighty-one years old, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In July of 2000 he had a prostate specific antigen (PSA) count in the mid fifties. PSA is the test commonly used to assess whether you may have prostate cancer and a normal result is in the range of zero to four. Fifty-six is deadly, and we thought we'd lost him. I was in Ireland at the time, where I run a college summer school in writing at the University of Limerick. A flurry of phone calls and e-mails from home had me checking plane flights to St. Louis. It was not a happy time, and one physician, in fact, told us it was best to just make Dad as comfortable as we could, and then let him go.
But my sister Mary, the hero of this story, is a catcher's daughter and a bulldog when she needs to be. She pushed and shoved and insisted and before too long Dad was visiting a good urologist, who started him on a series of shots of the hormone Lupron, which is a dramatic, if temporary, elixir for some lucky men.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2001 issue.
RICK WILBER, a journalism professor at the University of South Florida, frequently writes about baseball when he isn't writing college textbooks. His baseball mystery novel, Rum Point, is forthcoming from Wildside Press and his novel The Cold Road will be out from Tor/Forge in late 2002. His collection of short stories and essays on baseball, Where Garagiola Waits (University of Tampa Press), was a finalist for the inaugural 1999 Dave Moore Award.
© 2001 Rick Wilber
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