Author's love of baseball helps produce new book Bullpen antics chronicled in New Windsor native's 'Pen Men'

July 05, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

NEW WINDSOR -- In the yard of his mother's home, Robert S. "Bob" Cairns points to places where wooden plates marked bases for the games he played with his father and a few friends.

"My dad and I were baseball fans together," he said. "We played catch and maintained that interest together."

He remembers which tree marked the foul line and the porch overhang that shaded the bullpen. He smiles as he recalls shattering a neighbor's window.

Instead of chastising him, the neighbor yelled, "Good hit!"

He collected baseball cards and wrote to his favorite players asking for autographs.

Sunday afternoons, he would watch the "big boys" in town at play and listen attentively to the post-game stories.

"I can still name every man on those teams," he said.

When he and the game outgrew the backyard, they moved to a diamond at the old New Windsor High School.

"If you wanted to get a game up, you got on your bike, gathered up your friends and headed for the school," he said. "We adjusted our game to suit the number of players. If there was no right fielder, we didn't hit there."

He played catcher at Francis Scott Key High. After graduating from North Carolina Wesleyan in Rocky Mount, he took a job as media coordinator at North Carolina State in Raleigh. Once his son, Matthew, was old enough to play, he coached Little League and is now an avid rooter at the 17-year-old's high school games.

"Creating games and playing competitively all contribute to the layers that make you a fan," he said.

At 48, Cairns is long past the games of his youth, but he remains forever a fan. He often times his New Windsor visits to coincide with Orioles home games.

"When I saw Oriole Park at Camden Yards, I thought I had died and gone to heaven," he said. "It was built by people who understood and loved baseball."

He traded away his baseball cards years ago, but he is still collecting stories. Recently, he was able to hear the stories behind the stats and attach real voices to the same men, whose faces filled the old "gum cards."

He narrowed his focus to relief pitchers and turned their tales into "Pen Men," a collection of tales from the bullpen.

"I have always been a talker and a lover of stories," he said. "The bullpen has always fascinated me. I decided it would be a great source of baseball stories."

He spent two years interviewing professional players and putting their stories into the book.

"I wanted to collect rather than write," he said. "I wanted the reader to hear the players' voices. The fans can take a look at the inside story."

He wrote to the "famous and the infamous," explaining the premise of the book and asking for an interview. The response was overwhelming.

With a tape recorder in hand, he soon found himself in ballparks across the country or on a back porch swing, chatting with the heroes of the game. He talked with the veterans and the "new kids" and liked them all for different reasons, he said.

The men "opened up" to him. Tug McGraw "designed an out" for Hank Aaron. Goose Gossage told him how to appear "ferocious" on the mound, but was candid about the fear factor he often felt. Moe Drabowsky, the practical joker of the league and a "cult figure" in the bullpen, gave him several scoops.

"For relief pitchers, the bullpen is like sitting in the fire station waiting for a bell to ring," he said. "When it does, there's a crisis."

One psychologist described relief pitchers as being at "Mach 3 with their hair on fire." The only way to relieve the tension is with antics.

"These guys are totally unembarrassable in the bullpen," said Mr. Cairns. "Once they parade their egos across the foul line, though, their persona changes."

Before Mr. Cairns met with anyone, he spent hours researching, calling the "Baseball Encyclopedia" an invaluable resource. He also spent "one solid week" in spring training camp.

"I never went into an interview cold," he said. "I knew the obvious and usually turned over the unexpected. The guys surprised me with great stories."

Most players told him survival in baseball hinges on having a short memory and the ability to turn the page. They have to stay on an "even keel," he said. "A loss is not as devastating and a win is not as exciting for them as it is for the fans," said Mr. Cairns. "Baseball is a 162-game season and the guys go with the flow."

In many ways, he said, the book allowed him to continue playing the game, which he calls his "center."

"The book will be successful if the reader has as much fun reading as I had writing," he said. "I had a great time and if that comes across, it was all worthwhile."

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