With the opening of baseball season stirring excitement across the country, it’s hard to resist the temptation to reflect on a sport that once enchanted me.
My fondest memories of baseball, and of all sports, really, spring directly from moments shared with my dad — a man who grew up sneaking into the bleacher section of County Stadium in Milwaukee, where the Braves played, where Warren Spahn put the cap on his hall of fame career, where Eddie Matthews made mincemeat of opposing pitching, and where Hank Aaron began hammering away at the record books at the dawn of his career. My dad is, was, and always has been a sports fanatic, but in 1987, in the wake of a devastating divorce, sports took an even more pronounced role in his life. The majority of the weekends we spent together were carefully divvied up among watching, playing, or talking about sports – most likely to avoid talking about anything more substantial or upsetting. Like, for example, our real, actual lives and feelings. We also watched a fair amount of discovery channel. We were ahead of our time, I like to think.
Early in the ‘87 season, in mid-April, in fact, Juan Nieves threw a no hitter for the Brew Crew. While I wasn’t there with my dad – I was talking to him on the phone for the last three outs. My brother and I were at our Mom’s house in Grafton, WI, watching on a 15″ color television with our babysitter, Yvonne, because my mom was traveling on business, which she didn’t often do. One thing’s for sure – had Mom been at home, I would’ve been asleep.
I’d never witnessed a no-hitter before, didn’t even know what it was. But when my dad called at half past nine on a school night, I knew something important was going on. Yvonne handed me the phone and my dad explained, sketching out in terms a seven-year-old could understand, the differences between a perfect game, a no hitter and a shut out. As fate would have it, the Brewers’ outfielders made two super-human catches in the last innings of the game to save the no-no – the last of which came with two outs in the top of the ninth and featured Robin Yount racing through center field to snag a line drive with a head-first diving catch that still makes my heart flutter when I think about it.
“So it wasn’t a perfect game?” I asked my dad. ”No, but it was a pretty goddamned good one,” he said.
The Brewers had a torrid start to the year – winning thirteen straight. In May, Dad took us to a game at County Stadium against the Angels. We sat on the third base side, behind the Brewers’ dugout, during an unseasonably warm spring night in Milwaukee. Early in the game a young prospect batting lead off in place of the oft-injured Paul Molitor laced a triple to right field. After fearlessly rounding second, Mike “Tiny” Felder slid like a maniac into third base. He beat the throw from right field by a few steps. When he popped up safe on the bag, his thigh muscles rippled and he let out a quick enthusiastic scream. He pumped his arms excitedly and his gold chain shook loose from beneath his jersey, shimmering in the stadium lights. ”His legs are like tree trunks,” I heard my dad say in astonishment, to no one in particular. He was talking to himself, I guess.
Felder got on base a few more times that night. He stole a few bases and scored runs seemingly at will. Tiny Felder was small and fast – and as a seven-year-old those were the two traits I felt most precisely defined me. The bond was instant. “Tiny” cemented his status as my favorite player. Honestly, I don’t remember who my favorite player had been previously… probably Juan Nieves.
One hot night in July we sat behind home plate for a game against the Blue Jays. In the late eighties, Toronto truly was the toast of the American League Central. On the way into the game, at the gate, we received a commemorative poster featuring the entire Brewers’ roster rendered in semi-realistic hand-drawn sketches. This roster included the Brewer’s full coaching staff – and fresh-faced manager Tom Trebelhorn – a man I learned from my father to hate, like all the Brewers managers, with great vitriol. I clutched my poster tight throughout the game. Of course, the Blue Jays torched the Brewers. When we got back to my dad’s apartment after the game he wasted little time spreading the poster out on his couch and popping open some sort of dark-hued beer – a porter, stout or black IPA, if such a thing existed at the time. Drinking in the contents of the poster just as he did his malty beverage, Dad spent the next few hours pretending to be the Brewers’ general manager. First on his list of action items was the unceremonious dismissal of Tom Trebelhorn. ”He’s a buffoon – any idiot can see that,” Dad threw out into the night. Who was I to disagree… I was seven.
Then Dad shifted gears – next on his list: player acquisition. He concocted an assortment of deals he’d offer to clubs around the league. Many of his fantasy deals packaged the promising young prospect “Tiny” Felder with established role-playing veterans, like Dale Sveum or Jim Gantner. In return the Brewers stood to receive perennial All Stars like Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs. Of course, these were trades that no actual GMs in the major leagues would make, but that didn’t stop the sheer notion of the the transactions, dreamed up in my own father’s mind, no less, from shocking me to my core.
By mid-season the Brewers’ closer, Dan Pleasac, was emerging as one of the league’s hottest young finishers. Dad wasn’t having it. Spread out like a spill on the brown carpet of his Greenfield apartment, taking in a game against the Red Sox, I remember my dad saying – once again to no one in particular, as he is prone to do, I’ve come to realize, ”how the hell am I supposed to root for a guy whose nickname is “The Sack Man”?”
After nine innings beneath the grandstand on the first base side in early August (oddly I have no distinct memory of the baseball game itself), I spent 30 minutes gathering discarded plastic collectors cups off the ground. A huge collection of them had been strewn throughout the stands during the massive consumption that transpired over nine innings of Brewers baseball. I couldn’t believe people were going to leave these collectors items to be wasted; a whole stadium packed with unappreciative fools, it seemed to me. On the walk back to my dad’s car – which was parked off stadium grounds a mile or two away, where the parking was cheap - my young arms quickly grew tired of the cups sticky, smelly encumbrance. I threw the collection of collectors cups in the trash. ”I told you,” my dad said, “sometimes one man’s trash really is trash.”
In late August, the Brewers began to pick up some serious momentum. Paul Molitor ripped off a 39 game hitting streak – a club record – and the team seemed to rally behind his virtuoso performance at the plate, mounting a late season charge for playoff contention.
As a hitter, Molitor was incredible to watch; his swing was lightening fast; he’d wait basically until the ball was in the catcher’s mitt before firing his quick wrists at the pitch to spray it around the diamond. He was fleet of foot, as well. Any time he was on base, he was a threat to steal. At the tail end of the season, as the sting from my parents divorce began to recede fractionally from the forefront of my consciousness, slowly, imperceptibly, my loyalties as a fan began to shift. Paul Molitor’s impossible consistency and national prominence brought his excellence into slow but undeniably sharp focus in my young brain.
Without making a deliberate effort to change – by simply being a person and observing life unfolding before my eyes – my tastes and opinions changed over the course of the season. Someone who had once been my favorite – the object of my affection – had been displaced. It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t malevolent or deliberate. I wasn’t even aware of it happening in definite terms. It just… transpired. By the end of the season, Paul Molitor was my favorite player, not Tiny Felder. Tiny and my time, as sweet as it had been, was over.
A year later, Juan Nieves – at the time, the second youngest player in major league history to toss a no hitter – was out of baseball. An inexplicable injury suffered at an unknown time forever changed the physics of his delivery. He would never pitch in the major leagues again.