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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
By John Poff
We arrived in Mazatlan in mid-afternoon. The trip down had been fairly uneventful, aside from the van breaking down in Del Rio and my poor navigational skills resulting in our going several hundred miles out of the way. To make up lost time, I decided to cross the border at Agua Prieta instead of Nogalesseveral Mexican friends commenting later, "You came down through Cananea? That road is dangerous."
And yet what I remember most is simply driving south at night through the Sonoran desert on old Highway 15 (it was still two lanes then) and seeing small fires burning off in the distance. You couldn't see the people you knew had to be sitting beside them, warming themselves, which made it impossible, for me at least, not to think about them, wish to join them, wonder what, if any, connection I had to them, here or in eternity. In 1974, the way the world was then, the way the world I came from was then, those fires were somehow the most inviting and yet also the loneliest things I ever saw in my life.
This was the first week Patti and I lived together. To begin our lives together by heading out to Mexico in her Ford van with her big Great Dane in the back, along with most of what we owned, was pretty exciting. Now, almost thirty years later, after all the strange and wonderful and life-draining things that have happened to us, I know there are times our kids haven't the slightest idea what holds us together. They don't know we were once twenty-two and in love and driving across the continent with absolutely no clue about what we were doing. It's a very deep bond.
We went first in Mazatlan to the Hotel Decima, which is on the tourist strip by the beach, just down from Senor Frog's, because I had been told that was where the American players were staying.
At the front desk I learned that the only ballplayer staying there was Jack Pierce. I went up to his room and knocked on the door.
Jack was large and reasonably friendly. He moved around the room with the kind of grace certain large people havelike Babe Ruth or Jackie Gleason.
We checked each other out.
Jack: "So where'd you play last year?"
"Just half a year in Rookie League and then the Instructional League."
"They sent you down here with just that?"
"Yeah, how about you?"
"I was with Louisville last summerthe Braves Triple A team. They called me up for the last month of the season."
If he was trying to impress me, he had.
Then he asked what position I played and when I said "first base," I saw that momentary frozen look of concernthe Wally Pipp lookI was to get to know so well and which probably graced my own face more than once. You don't have to be in the big leagues to feel it. You can be in Double A, having an okay year, planning to move upward and onward when you hear about a new kid tearing them up in A ball. All of a sudden you're not on the way up, you're on the way out. I think everybody feels it, from established stars to the lowliest minor leaguers. Most stars, in my opinion, pretended to ignore it. But not all of them. One spring the Phillies had a young pitcher named Steve Waterbury who manager Danny Ozark obviously liked and seemed to be trying to find a spot for. There wasn't one. The bullpen was set with fixtures like Ron Reed and Tug McGraw. But one morning Reed was warming up on the side and Waterbury got a little too close to his catchermaybe ten feet off to the sideand Reed buzzed him about ninety miles an hour very close to his head. I always thought it was a Wally Pipp thing.
Pete Rose dealt with it in the cleanest, most straightforward way I ever saw, as he did just about everything else about baseball when I was around him. When he came to the Phillies in '79, I was the backup first baseman behind him in spring training. The interest in the Phillies was tremendous then. Reporters chronicled his every move. On top of that he got off to a terrible start in spring training games. I filled in for him in late innings and had a great springcouple of pinch-hit home runs, etcetera. Everybody knew it meant nothing. Maybe I could make the team in a backup role if I kept playing well. (I did keep playing well; I didn't make the team.) But still, the Wally Pipp thing. One day in St. Petersburg against the Cardinals, Pete took an oh-fer for six or seven innings and I came in and ripped a double off the right field wall. When I came back to the dugout, Pete picked up his stuff, walked toward the clubhouse, and said jokingly, "Man, you're going to drive me to the American League." That, I always thought, was very good, making a joke that both conveyed respect and dealt openly with the Wally Pipp demon.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2003 issue.
JOHN POFF graduated from Duke in 1974, played professional
baseball for eight years, and now is a schoolteacher in northern Michigan where
he lives with wife Patti and family.
© 2003 John Poff
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