3019 words (12 minute read)

4                          Free Agents

“Now batting for the Giants……. Number 25, Bareeeeeee Bonds.”

The fans rose as one and the wall of noise from the overflow crowd sounded like a jet screeching off of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The fans remained standing. Stomping. Up on their toes, anxious as kids at a circus, hooting and hollering. But four fellas bolted high behind the right field foul pole, were stuck in lockdown.

Barry Bonds no doubt required every second of the ninety he spent digging in his cleats to adjust, then re-adjust, before digging his cleats in once more to re-re-adjust before he finally squared away in the batter’s box. Nope. He stepped out once more to tug at his neon-orange batter’s glove. Then stepped back in.

“Bonds looks trim, poised and ready to make history.” It was almost a squeal. Bumper Morgan cringed. He wanted the kid to tune it down a notch. He wanted to warn young Vinny that he was digging the action so much that he had bursts when he sounded as shrill as a macaw in the maw of one of Siegfried’s tigers.

“Yeah,” cracked the Pistol, “he’s trim all right; weighs 265 pounds with a nine-inch belt size.”

“Steroids. None of those back in the good ‘ol days."

"Yes, Izzy,” replied Phil Sage. “Those days of self control, that frozen virtue, that freezing vice.”

“I give,” said Sammy. “Who said that one?

“Daddy Ellison, my brother. Ralph Ellison. The Invisible Man.”

“Barry’s none too invisible right now,” fired the Pistol.

“Here comes the one-ball one-strike pitch to Bonds. Nooooooo! Nooooooo!" Vinny’s voice was smothered as the fans bellowed and booed. "Senor Blue called it a strike!" The youngster crosses the border once more. "It looked a foot and a half outside to me.” Vin Hodges was lathered.

“Of course, Laddie," Izzy drawled, “you and forty-three thousand heated fans can’t be wrong.”

"Strike three!"

“Whoa! No! Take my dad’s glasses, ump,” Vinny Hodges bleated. Yet, despite what he and the restless crowd had commanded, Barry Bonds had struck out.

“Hey! Another looker!”

“Looker or hooker?” The Pistol floodlit his facetious smile over his wooden shoulder at Sammy.

“The looks of those heels,” said Izzy, “she very well might be both.” And she very well might have been.

“Know what they call heels like that?” Then, Sammy told them: “Come-hither pumps.”

"I spent years in a nightclub, daddy-o," wheezed The Pistol, "and the guys there called ‘em “come um, um, up and um-me pumps.” (seats were forbidden to cuss. Who forbade them, they knew not)

“We’ve two beauty queens riding us tonight, boys. And Hey! If we could saddle up Miss Fanny we’d have us a three-way round-up.”

Skipping her way back up, Fanny overheard naughty Sammy so she said to Phil, “I’d buck ‘ol Sammy off quicker than Dale used to trigger Roy Rodgers.” Phil laughed aloud- sort of- and beamed up at Fanny before shifting his attention to the late-comers who had just slid in front of him, into seats 101 and 102.

“Whew, double whew,” whispered Sammy, though there was no reason whatsoever to lower his voice. And no reason whatsoever to lather and blabber over the hot blond now on the scene, either. Not with Kuni Noyori shaking his pocket change.

“Think she’s a natural?” That was quite a cutting edge remark, coming from dour Izzy Dean.

“Her Rocky Ford cantaloupes look every bit natural!” Where did the Pistol get that?

“Rocky Ford, Colorado, cantaloupe capital of the world. Ken Kesey met Faye there. She was the queen for the annual festival the year he motorcycled through after he mustered out of the Korean war. Can’t miss it. Right between Pueblo and La Junta.”

“Colorado cantaloupes and she walks up here hip over hip. Whee doggies.” It was Sammy. The boys were falling out of line.

The Pistol: “Who in Jehovah’s name is the melon head with her?”

His name was Butler. Roger Butler. Her name was Penny. Penny Platinum. Folks who had known her for more than a San Francisco second, understood her nickname: "Turbo." As in Turbo Mouth. Warp speed gums. She was not only drop-dead gorgeous, she was spiffed up to the nines. Not church clothes, either. Next to Turbo tonight, Madonna would have looked, well, virginal.

She could easily afford to dress a hundred and nines because she cleared more than $1,000 in twenties and hundreds just about every night she table danced at Big Daddy’s on Broadway. If she could have zipped her mouth, Big Daddy harbored no doubt that she could make two grand every evening. (She had been promised three grand should she ever succumb to the carnal cravings of wicked young Little Daddy)

She and Butler had met that previous Saturday at Cheaters Sports Bar perched at the end of Pier 39. Butler sported a close-cropped, snow white crew cut that rolled back from his forehead to lend him a sort of Kelsey Grammer look. Kelsey Grammer on steroids. His face was plain, surprisingly unmarked, and set upon his tortoise neck that rose from a chemically chiseled body that would humble Governor Arnold. He had won the tickets to the pair of Dawg seats in front of The Pistol and Phil from a radio machine. Specifically, he had won them in an evening show contest when the only thing moving inside the Dawg House was the computerized network that was the evening show.

Roger Butler was no Rhett Butler and certainly a couple of dance moves removed from being a ladies man. But that was okay, Penny Platinum danced solo just fine. Saturday night, she had put the shake to her short skirt against the table where Butler and his goggle-eyed pals had been seated at Cheaters when she overheard his pal say he had to beg off the Friday night Giants game. She had moved in on Butler like a circus seal on a mackerel.

Turbo was flopping her fins every which way, before shimmying her dress down upon lucky seat 102 (alas, 102 was a mute seat so we will never know how he really felt). When she finally turned toward Butler, she grabbed his arm to appreciatively bleat, “Butler, baby, this is sooooo nice, so nice. You are such a nice guy.”

"Heed Leo Durocher’s warning, big fella!" The Pistol wanted to wag a wooden finger at Big Butler. "’Nice guys finish last.’”

Once Butler located his prize seats and Penny shimmied in beside him, she cried, "Whoa baby! Check out these seats!" That’s pretty much the way the seats felt about her.

A winded Merrill Hodges locked in every rivet of Miss Platinum’s scarlet leather skirt with short matching jacket that did little to hide her micro-mesh tube top. Platinum trimmed anaconda stilettos set off a Samsonite-sized platinum, pearl trimmed Chanel handbag. Whirrrr, Miss Platinum’s turbines spun to the fore.

“Ooooooh Baby Butt, buy me a frozen margarita! But pick me up if I go one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor! Ha-ha-ha-ha.”

Butler didn’t know if that was her real sentiment or if, like other "entertainers" he had known, Penny was frozen in character.

"Frozen margarita? A study in frozen insecurity." Izzy was clearly edgier than usual tonight. His noggin’ rattled around the foul pole when he had remembered how Joan Didion had described Nancy Reagan’s smile.

“... Dodger pitcher, Andy Messersmith.”

Merrill Hodges, the youngster’s Pop, perked up. “No Messersmith, no baseball reserve clause. No reserve clause, no free agents. No free agents, no players too young to shave that earn enough bucks to hang with Bill Gates.”

Mister Hodges, a math whiz from Santa Cruz, wore a stylish but rumpled beige suit (with black shoes) and a taped pair of glasses that slid up then down, then seemed to shimmy back up his schnoz. Odd, that sky blue tape, for Merrill Hodges earned right around $660,000 a year as head widget counter at SSC; some startup company. To put a fine pencil to it, he and his ex-wife shared his $660,000 income. And they shared Vin Hodges, who lived mostly with mom down south in Cucamonga.

Young Vin had twisted dad’s arm to embark on a summer-long tour of every major league baseball stadium. Tonight was number eleven. A big East Coast swing loomed ahead: Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, the Orioles in Camden Yards, then wrap up the trip in Pennsylvania, where Merrill Hodges’ kid sister lived. Young Vin would belly up to his microphone in the Keystone State to call Dodger games from PNC Park in Pittsburgh, then Citizens Bank Park, home to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Back to Messersmith. Mr. Hodges doggedly reminded Vin that in 1975, the pitcher had successfully challenged baseball’s reserve clause to earn a trailblazing "no trade" clause in his next contract. Standard practice today. Whoa, upon hearing this, Izzy Dean reckoned the fella in the beige suit with black shoes actually knew a little something about the game. A little something more than he knew about fashion.

Phil Sage was more pragmatic. Yes, he reminded the lads yet again, in 1975, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players’ union and the owners declared that the team owned the exclusive right to renew a player’s contract for the period of one year. Unless the team chose to trade him or release him, his first big-league team would be his only big-league team. A player’s only recourse was retirement.

So, Messersmith had pitched 1975 without signing a contract, thus, he contended that he had retired a year earlier, so the Dodgers had owned him for only one year after that, and since that year had passed, he was free to sign a new contract with any team that showed an interest. He prevailed. Late 1975, Andy Messersmith became baseball’s first free agent.

"Yessiree. No Andy. No free agent." Merrill Hodges was emphatic.

"Very well and true," Phil whispered back at Sammy. "But as Vin’s dad might more accurately say: ’no Flood, no Messersmith.’" Six years earlier, it was what Curt Flood had not done, that set the stage for Messersmith. He did not accept a proposed trade.

Flood was a three-time all-star who had won seven Gold Gloves for the St. Louis Cardinals. At the end of the 1969 season, the Cardinals tried to trade him and two teammates to Philadelphia for Richie Allen. Flood refused the trade. Management refused his refusal. So he sued Major League Baseball.

The Players Union Executive Director Marvin Miller argued on his behalf: "The courts are saying ’yes, you’re an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you like, but this right does not apply to baseball players.’"

The day Curt Flood testified, not one then-current player stood by him. Immortal Jackie Robinson and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg had stood beside him, and elite basketball star Oscar Robinson had also appeared.

The court ruled yes, Flood should have the right to become a free agent. Nonetheless, baseball’s antitrust exemption could only be removed by an act of Congress. Stunningly, that is precisely what happened. (Oscar Robinson led the creation of the National Basketball Association’s free agency ruling three years later).

Jesse Jackson’s funeral eulogy stands as Curt Flood’s epitaph: "Baseball didn’t change Curt Flood. Curt Flood changed baseball."

"Sammy my boy, Curt Flood cracked the owner’s precious golden egg that was the Reserve Clause. And lest we forget, every thing comes from an egg." Phil Sage sounded humbled... reverent.

"Say again?" puzzled Sammy.

"Ovid. Metamorphoses."

"Gesundheit, trumpeted The Pistol.

"Yep," concluded Phil Sage. "First, the egg. No egg. No Flood. No Messersmith. No free agency. No millionaires hanging out with Bill Gates."

“Microsoft sponsors free Wi-Fi anywhere in the park tonight.”

“The Dodgers went down in order so we move to the home half of the second.” Vin Hodges was back on the mic. His aside earlier about broadcast legend Vin Scully sitting alongside him and showering him with compliments was mile-high, pie in the sky. He would give anything just to visit a genuine big league broadcast booth. Were he to meet Mr. Scully in person, he would likely keel over and fall from the booth into the prestigious box seats behind home plate. (Izzy always boasted that he had the dearest of dear friends in that uppity, high-falutin’ seat section)

Vin’s dad believed mightily in his son which is why he felt compelled to constantly feed him prompts. “No Vin Scully. No modern broadcast. You’re the next Vin Scully, Vin.” Mister Hodges dearly hoped so and was profoundly encouraging. “Don’t forget, son, Mister Scully himself started out lugging around a forty-pound tape recorder- forty pounds— for old Red Barber back in the day, before he got his own shot at the big-time.”

With that, Phil Sage stirred. Forty pound recorder? He’d have to think about that.

Young Vin’s first microphone was the black handle of a Hillerich & Bradsby 34-inch Maury Wills model two-tone bat. Dad had worked the algorithms and logarithms required to fashion that microphone from the bat handle. He then took the bat out to the garage and took a hatchet to it. Dad lived alone now in that beachside house two blocks from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Mom had taken Vin with his jagged bat handle down to Cucamonga when she had skipped out of Santa Cruz with her hair dresser. Lauretta.

Down Cucamonga-way, smack in the middle of Dodger territory, Vinny quickly abandoned his sky high dreams of slipping into a major league uniform. That’s when his new pals encouraged him to call the games out loud as he watched them play. Well, it took less than an L. A. second to strike a new career choice. That’s when, for the first time ever, he showed a pal the jagged black handle of a Hillerich & Bradsby 34-inch Maury Wills model two-tone bat.

"…beneath the umbrella on the second concourse, that’s where you get your mitts on a delicious Polish. Top it off with spicy mustard from the fine family of foods from Heinz 57”

“Heinz 57.” Mr. Hodges prompted Vin to point out that Heinz sells way more pet food than baby food but neither surpasses the amount of ketchup it sells. Tasty info but young Vin didn’t know Heinz 57 from the Hines Brothers. In fact, he didn’t know the Hines Brothers from the Doobie Brothers. In fact, he didn’t ... ah never mind.

But the Yankee Clipper had known Heinz. Joe DiMaggio once surprised a writer: “Did you know if I got a hit tonight I would have made $10,000? The Heinz 57 people dreamed that up." He confided that the night his enduring record of hitting in fifty six consecutive games had been shut down by the Cleveland Indians.

"Heinz-o, DiMaggi-o. Greatest hitter to play the game.” Sammy would proclaim this virtually every time he heard the public address announcer plug the family brands of politician John Kerry’s wife.

Then, and you could set your watch to it, Izzy would counter this way: “Whoooooaaaaah. You overlook the Splendid Splinter. Same year as DiMaggio’s streak, 1941, Ted Williams hit .400. Last man to do it. Last man who ever will.”

“Yeah, well Ted never got between the sheets with Marilyn Monroe, now did he?” None of the boys chose to argue the Pistol on that one.

“Popular old Joe, said Phil. "He was alone so much that year that he lead the league in room service."

“Oh yeah, DiMaggio was real Mister Humble,” Izzy snickered. “Told a reporter who asked him why he played so hard when he was so banged up near the end of his career: ‘Because maybe someone out there never saw me play before.’”

Sammy tossed this in: “When he was asked why he was going to retire, he said: "Because I can’t be Joe DiMaggio any more.’”

"Ted Williams was once asked who were the two best to ever play the game." This was not the first time Izzy had kept the Splendid Splinter’s name in the conversation. "Ted answered, ’Mays and DiMaggio with a slight nod to the latter.’"

"Williams," said Sammy, "used to bone his bat, with a real bone, then groove its handle with a metal bottle cap. And get this, he once asked Mark Maguire if he ever smelled burnt wood when he fouled back a pitch. Big Mac’s answer? ’Yes.’"

"What exactly is a metal bottle cap?" The boys presumed the Pistol was joking. At least they hoped he was.

"DiMaggio," Phil concluded, "was the perfect Hemingway hero, for Hemingway in his novels romanticized the man who exhibited grace under pressure, who withheld any emotion lest it soiled the purer statement of his deeds.”

“Boy,” marveled Sammy, “you got some kind of way with words.”

“Perhaps I do,” Phil said solemnly. “But, David Halberstam most certainly did.”

“…Old Timers Day here at AT&T Park. You won’t want to miss that! ”

Next Chapter: 5                          Barry Bonds Goes Deep