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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

I'll Just Erase His Name
By Phil Stein

It happens every spring. When I spot those first news items in the sports pages about pitchers and catchers reporting, my mind races back to the spring training season of 1955. There I was, one of two hundred-plus hopefuls at a Chicago Cubs three-day tryout camp. The site was the Amerige Park ball field in Fullerton, a sleepy, small town about twenty-six miles southeast of Los Angeles. The Cubs' Triple A farm club, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, was holding its spring training camp there.

Chicago scout, Jack Fournier, and Angels coach, Jackie Warner, ran the tryouts. They said thanks but no thanks to hopeful after hopeful on days one and two. By day three, there were only thirty or so of us left. Fournier and Warner divided us into two teams to play a ball game. Fournier flipped a baseball to me and told me to warm up in the bullpen. I was going to pitch the first three innings for one of the teams.

With a humming fastball, I struck out batters one through three in inning one. Batters four through six went out the same way in inning two. Ditto went batters seven and eight in inning three. Hoping to end my stint with nine consecutive strikeouts, I wound up and hurled the baseball as hard as I could. The pitch was about letter high to the batter. He swung and missed. My next pitch was to the same spot. The batter swung and missed again. I knew that I had him on the ropes. I threw my third pitch to the same spot. The batter swung yet a third timeˇand connected. The crack of his bat hitting that baseball was as loud a sound as I'd ever heard on a ball field; it sounded like a pistol shot piercing the still of night. The third baseman threw his glove up in front of his face, more to protect himself than anything else it seemed, and there, in the pocket of the glove, the line drive stuck. The batter was out.

Fournier called me aside as I came off the field.

"You did okay kid," he said. "You can throw that ball, alright. How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"How tall are you?"

"Six feet, one inch."

"You're awfully skinny. How much do you weigh?"

"One-sixty-five."

"Do you wear those specs all the time?"

"Yessir."

"Well, kid, I like what I've seen of you so far. But I want to see more. I've got to leave for Chicago in the morning. I'll be back in a few days. In the meantime, I want you to join the Angels ball club for spring training. Is that okay with you?"

 

The next morning, after pausing for a moment or two in front of the Angels clubhouse door, I took a deep breath and turned the doorknob. I was pretty full of myself for being the only prospect picked from the tryouts, yet jittery because my confidence was going up and down like a kid bouncing on a pogo stick. The smells of liniment and oil of wintergreen and pine tar hit me in the face like a wet blanket, so heavy and so smothering were those smells. And then, in the next instant, I was all eyes. Right there before me, in all manner of dress and undress, were ex–major leaguers and other veteran Pacific Coast League ballplayers, many of whom I'd read about in the sports pages and seen play at Los Angeles's Wrigley Field and Hollywood's Gilmore Field. Although I tried to be "cool" about it all, about being there among them as if I were one of them, I caught myself staring at them just like the star-struck fan that I was.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2006 issue.

—EFQ

PHIL STEIN retired in 1992 as the chief of operations for the Los Angeles County Probation Department after thirty-one-plus years of service. He has been married to his wife, Judy, for more than forty-seven years, and they are proud parents of three children and five grandchildren.

© 2006 Phil Stein

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