That Summer of '82 A slumping sportswriter, a hotheaded manager and a near-miracle on 33rd street

September 27, 1992|By Patrick A. McGuire

The score book lay at the very bottom of the cardboard carton, flattened beneath a crush of old press handouts and baseball media guides. I was down in the basement and the box felt damp, almost limp, smelling sourly of mildew and summer. I glanced at one of the handouts, headlined "News from the Orioles" and dated June 30, 1982. The O's, it said, had won six of their last nine games. It said Dennis Martinez would face Len Barker in the game against Cleveland tomorrow night. Len Barker? Talk about mildew. It then rattled off current stats of other long-moldering names like Ross Grimsley and Benny Ayala and Gary Roenicke.

I noticed a small blue notebook stuck between the handouts and media guides. Eagerly, I pulled it free and recognized it as the daily journal I'd kept during my brief tenure that summer as a sportswriter. As I turned its pages, and spied the continual references to Earl Weaver, the long-rusted turnstiles to my memory of that big-league season 10 summers past began to creak open.

As I sat there in the basement, I began to see it all again: the moment that summer when The Sun's sports department posted an opening for a columnist. I saw myself, almost on the spot, springing from my seat in the newsroom, tracking down the managing editor, arguing my case for a chance to try out.

True, I'd said, I had never written sports in my life. But I'd been a reporter then for 14 years and had covered politics and government and crime -- the perfect background, I glibly assured him, for sports. I talked enthusiastically about sports metaphysics, about "the meaningless home run" and "the loneliness of the right fielder."

In a matter of days I was officially transferred to the custody of Ed Brandt, The Sun's veteran sports editor who had covered the Orioles for the paper in the '60s. As I explained my mission, his face took on the pained look of an umpire hearing a slugger try to talk him out of a third strike. But The Experiment was on, and Ed sent me off to New York in the care of Kent Baker, The Sun's regular baseball writer, for a trial by fire. I had with me a crisp new score book, a store-bought diary and an Orioles media guide -- so I would be sure to know who was who.

Friday, 6/18:

Took the train to New York with the Orioles. Kent introduced me to several of the players and then we had a couple of beers in the hotel bar. "Just let your work speak for yourself," he said. I had a splitting headache after the beer. When I got off the team bus at Yankee Stadium, a group of fans mistook me for a player and asked for my autograph. I felt keenly embarrassed and kept saying, "Sorry, I'm just a sportswriter."

Sunday, 6/20:

The Orioles won in 11 innings today. After the game I went into Earl Weaver's office, crowded with about a dozen reporters and radio and TV people. Earl, still in his uniform, was chewing out a New York writer for asking a "dumb question." Naively, I plunged in, asking if he'd thought of removing Tippy Martinez from the game in the bottom of the 11th when Graig Nettles came to bat.

Earl stopped pacing and the room got very quiet. He shot me a murderous look.

"There you go again with another question I just don't understand," he said. "I just got through saying Nettles was 3 for 21 against Tippy. I don't understand your question at all."

All eyes in the room turned on me. I felt lightheaded, my face seemed as if it were on fire. I tried to talk my way out of it, but the words caught in my throat and Earl waved me off with utter contempt.

"I brought him in to pitch to one man, to Nettles," he snarled.

I wrote the words down, pretending it was all in a day's work, but my hand shook.

Later, on the plane to Cleveland, Earl stormed up the aisle because the captain put on the "no smoking" sign. He returned within a minute grumbling "apparently the captain doesn't smoke."

Tuesday, 6/22, Cleveland:

Last night Kent handed over the reins and I finally wrote my first game story. It went badly. Even though I had a full hour I didn't get it finished in time to make all editions and still ended up writing a story full of cliches.

Afterward I went out with Kent. We ate a massive spaghetti and sausage dinner at 3:30 in the morning. I spent a bad several hours alone in the hotel room, with the Pepto-Bismol bottle. Today, I feel lonely. The ballplayers are distant and Kent says they always will be. "You never get close to them because you don't really want to," he says. "And you can't afford to anyway."

Wednesday, 6/23, Cleveland:

Ed Brandt phoned me in the press box last night and very politely told me my story on Monday wasn't very good. "It was adequate, you understand? Adequate. You're writing the way you think a sportswriter writes. You're tight. Be more relaxed. Write like yourself."

I felt so deflated it took me to the sixth inning to write the "Oriole notes." I realized then, to my complete horror, that I had somehow lost track of the game. I had to ask somebody the score.

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