It’s That Time Again—Play Ball!
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. There are those who say baseball is boring—only recently though, because you never heard that when many of us were kids, not if you go back a few years, before attention spans fell victim to video games, movies that rely on explosions and special effects rather than plots, and before the whole smart phone and texting addiction took hold. We’ve written here before about attention span and its demise—those who don’t have it, don’t get it. If you have it, baseball is tops; if you don’t, it’s your loss.
Baseball, what’s more, can be played and enjoyed on so many levels that, really, it is only those who don’t understand the game that find it less than fascinating. Think of it as chess played on a diamond, and you might get the idea.
Recently, I spent ten days or so with a great retired baseball player, Tim Lewis, who played in the New York Yankee organization back in the days of Reggie Jackson, and who was familiar with Jackson, having been brought up from Triple A to travel with the Yankees during the 1977 post season, the same post season when Jackson emerged from a terrible batting slump, so triumph-antly and with such perfectly timed clutch hitting and home runs, one after another, that he earned the title Mr. October.
Tim never talked about those times all that much before, although I knew he was there, throwing batting practice during the playoffs and World Series (he’s my older brother). Lately, though, having reflected upon his life, he decided it was appropriate to recognize that he played at least some part in baseball history, in Reggie Jackson having become Mr. October. And here’s how that happened, as we crank up the wayback machine.
The story began when, at the prep school we attended outside Philadelphia, the legendary Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, while driving by our school ballfield one day (he lived close by) happened to notice a lanky 15-year-old left hander. He saw something in the lad’s motion, a potential, that led Mr. Roberts, as we called him, to become Germantown Academy’s baseball coach. Mr. Roberts had sons of his own, mind you, ballplayers, but infielders, and it’s not as if just anybody can pitch, not well anyway.
It was seeing my brother Tim pitch, though (Mr. Roberts revealed in a TV interview), that inspired him to get back in the game, coaching young men, after he had retired as one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, having earned his place in the Hall of Fame.
Robin Roberts worked with Tim through his remaining high school years, teaching him the famous Robin Roberts curve (or trying to). He actually threw three kinds—a slow curve, a slower curve, and an even slower curve that dropped off the table like a stone. Mr. Roberts, by the way, was known for taking people under his wing, encouraging them, teaching them the value of “belief in yourself” as he liked to say (including struggling professional ballplayers who were down on themselves, as he helped others recognize and affirm their own talents and strengths, especially in times of adversity. I can attest to this personally, having been hospitalized for months as the result of an automobile accident in 1976. I was in traction, then a body cast, my face riddle with over 100 stitches, and who do you think showed up in my hosptial room, unannounced, to brighten up my day? It was Robin Roberts, standing there like Jimmy Stewart or somebody, and I was both amazed and humbled. Because he believed in himself, he was a man who understood the value of his presence, of an encouraging word at the right time. A man of uncommon graciousness, he translated his fame and prestige into personal gestures that made of him an even greater man off the field than on—even though on the field he set outstanding records, having won 20 games or more in six consecutive seasons, that is, having won in his prime, in his best six years, more games than any pitcher in modern times, more than Sandy Kofax in his best six consecutive seasons (basball loves arcane statistics). And while Mr. Roberts played with the famous Whiz Kids who won the 1950 National League pennant, most of the time he was playing, and winning games, pitching for a less than outstanding ball club (the Phillies did not have the depth of talent of other teams, talent that wins games for a pitcher, yet Robin Roberts still won games and set records, and he was voted by fans in 1969 as the greatest Phillies player of all time).
That’s only part of the reason though that a ten-foot bronze statue of the man stands outside Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia. Yes, a statue. His legacy, more over, is not just about statistics, but about the man, a man you had no trouble looking up to when he walked onto the field, or into your hospital room.
Blessed with natural talent, my brother Tim learned to pitch from one of the greats. He went on to become the most winningest pitcher ever at the University of South Carolina, played in the Pam Am Games in Venezuela, and signed with the New York Yankees where he played Triple A ball until his knee gave out several years later. That’s Triple A with the New York Yankees, the greatest baseball franchise of all time, under contract, and so Tim was certainly qualified to play elsewhere in the pros.
While Reggie Jackson was in a batting slump going into the 1977 post season, Tim was called up to pitch batting practice and travel with the team. Not being accustomed to this assignment, he threw hard, not 100 percent, but hard, and mixed up his repertoire, catching flack from some of the hitters who were expecting big fat pitches (and not Robin Roberts style breaking balls) that they could hit deep into the outfield or out of the park. Tim pitched a lot to Reggie Jackson at that time, over a period of weeks, as Jackson strove to get his groove back and reinstate himself as the slugger he was.
In some measure, then, Tim Lewis played a role in Jackson emerging from his slump and becoming Mr. October, as it was my brother’s pitching (and that of others) that helped Jackson focus and work through his issues. Not that Tim makes such claims, though he recently admitted that he at least played a role in that historic process.
That though, was a mere anecdote as we watched the playoffs last October in New Jersey—the Red Sox, the Dodgers, the Braves, the Tigers. Those of you who remember and appreciated Joe Morgan’s super informative announcing will understand, because to watch ball games with Tim is to appreciate baseball at the level of a professional ballplayer, more than a few of whom that, having been on TV as we watched, he knew or could tell stories about (mostly coaches these days, while in the past various active players), all this in between explanations of the several different ways of holding and throwing breaking balls (it’s all about the seams) and various other details and subtleties about the game of chess played on a diamond.
Another anecdote was this, told to my brother by Robin Roberts himself and involving the great Jackie Robinson, one of Mr. Roberts contemporaries. An amazing story, it went like this.
It was a brief event in Jackie Robinson’s onfield life that never made it into the movie 42, but should have. Robinson was a daring and highly energized base runner. He practised a taunting style while on base that drove pitchers crazy, as he took a big lead, feigned a steal, or moved back and forth like a nervous cat, enough to distract a pitcher, for concentration is everything in pitching. His was a base running style from the Negro Leagues, and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey insisted Robinson continue running bases in that fashion as a deliberate tactic. Anyway, Robinson was on first. Robin Roberts was on the mound. However it happened, Robinson got caught in a run down between first and second, probably owing to his aggressive base running. Robin Roberts had the ball in hand (after perhaps fielding a hit and run, or with Robinson getting caught trying to steal second). The defensive play is to chase the runner in a run down back to the base he came from, which in this case would mean first throwing the ball to the second baseman. But as Robinson got caught half way to second, Robin Roberts did something else. He stared Robinson in the eyes, held the ball forward in his right hand like a hypnotist holding a charm, his arm at eye level and slightly extended, then walked straight at the runner from the pitchers mound. As he did, Robinson froze like a deer in the headlights (with nowhere to go) until Roberts arrived in the base path and tagged him out, the inevitability of which he had telegraphed to Robinson with body language and force of will.
Two greats of baseball, two great human beings.
Under Robin Roberts, by the way, I did not make the varsity cut. My brother’s relationship with the coach was obviously not a factor. Brad Tanner, a young pitcher in our school who threw 95 mph fastballs (having been clocked at a Veteran’s Stadium pitchometer contest) had something to do with it, at least in my mind. I stood at the plate, trying out for varsity, and Tanner was on the mound. It was enough to make a fellow turn wet his pants. I did not, I stood there, as pitch after pitch rocketed by. That kind of speed is utterly intimidating, frighteneing if you’re not used to it. I couldn’t get my bat around quickly enough, let alone hit the ball, which was literally in the catchers mit while I was swinging. It was humiliating at the time, amusing looking back. Having my brother insist I catch for him in our yard, before he went back to South Carolina, was also terrifying—no catchers mit, just a glove, no mask or chest pad, and major league fastballs though he said he was throwing three quarter speed. After a while I refused. Tim was way out of my league.
Baseball, our national pasttime, is a uniquely American game, the only one in which the defense holds the ball, and serves it up to the offense, but in an artful way that makes it difficult to hit. A dance of opposites, a harmony of rivals. It is a game that requires great versatility of athletic skill, and seems to yield a great many life skills, those of character, finesse, good judgement, good natured interaction with rivals, patience, and teamwork.
Just as people like Jackie Robinson and Robin Roberts were much more than athletes, baseball is much more than a game.