A Not-So-Fictional Character

mets logoIn 1984, Jean and I flew to New York for my friend Geoff’s wedding. Our U.S. Air flight back to Chicago had a stopover in Pittsburgh. As we arrived at our gate at La Guardia, there was an unusual buzz in the terminal; the gate people were all smiling, and  there were lots of people signing autographs.

Before too long, we figured out that the autograph-signers were members of the New York Mets, gathering at the airport for their next road trip. And when it was time to board the plane, it turned out that they were on our flight, going to Pittsburgh for a series against the Pirates.

I had an aisle seat; across the aisle from me was a guy I didn’t initially recognize, but next to him was Keith Hernandez, who just a year earlier had been dealt from the Cardinals to the Mets in a very controversial trade. During the flight, while the other players were chattering and joking much of the time, Hernandez was for the most part pretty quiet in his seat, doing the crosswords and other puzzles in the paper. Also during the flight, I figured out that the other guy in our row was pitcher Mike Torrez.

Mike Torrez as a Met (photo from Mets360.com)

It just so happens that the Mets had just wrapped up a series with the Cardinals in New York. As I read in my own paper, the previous day was a particularly tough game for the Mets: Torrez pitched a great game, giving up only one run over eight innings, but the Cardinals’ pitcher, Dave LaPoint, did even better, with a nine-inning shutout, and the Mets lost 1-0. (I love the Internet; it took me about 15 seconds to call up the box score for the game.) Even more heartbreaking for Torrez, it dropped him to 0-5 for the season, and it was one of the last games he played in the majors; he ended up being released by the Mets just a few weeks later and his career was all but over.

I didn’t make him feel any better, as you’ll see in a minute.

This was in the days when St. Louisans still liked Hernandez. He’d had a great career with the Cardinals, and was a leader on the team that one the 1982 World Series. We didn’t know, in 1983, why Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog wanted to trade him so badly that he took only two nobodies in return. Early in 1985, however, Hernandez was implicated in a cocaine scandal, and we all found out what it was that Herzog had suspected. All kinds of revelations hit the fan around the time Hernandez was forced to testify in court. One thing that Herzog said I thought was funny; he said that rather than taking a leadership role with the team, Hernandez would sit in the clubhouse and do crossword puzzles.

That’s my Keith!

That was the smallest of the revelations; Hernandez didn’t have much nice to say about Herzog in return, and he quickly went from a tragic hero to Public Enemy No. 1 in St. Louis.

Anyway, back to the plane ride. I was talking with Torrez a little during the flight, about what, I can’t remember. Probably about the rarity of them taking a non-charter flight. When we landed in Pittsburgh, all the Mets got up to get off, and I mentioned to Hernandez that we missed him in St. Louis. “Well, there are some things we can’t do anything about,” he said.

The thing is, Torrez was also a former Cardinal; he came up in the Cardinals organization, in fact. But that had been a long time ago; he bounced around to quite a few teams during what was a pretty successful major league career. If I knew about the Cardinals connection in his past, I didn’t remember it then. So there I was, literally talking right over Torrez—a former Cardinal—and telling Hernandez the Cardinals missed him. That couldn’t have felt good for Torrez, who was already undoubtedly miserable after the previous day’s game.


So why am I writing about this now, almost 29 years later? And what’s the point of that title?

Well, I’m currently reading the book Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. You know this book, even if you’ve never read it. It’s the book that the movie Field of Dreams was based on. I’m loving the book, just like I love the movie, every time I watch it. Say what you will about Kevin Costner, but the guy has made three fantastic baseball movies. (What’s the third one, you ask? For The Love Of The Game. Check it out sometime.) Anyway, Field of Dreams is one of my all-time favorite movies, and although there’s no way I can judge the book objectively, it’s shaping up as one of my favorites also.

The funny thing about the book is how Kinsella uses real people as characters. The reclusive author that Ray “kidnaps” in the movie is a character named Terrence Mann, but in the book, the character is J.D. Salinger. Yes, the J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. And in the book—in the scene I’m reading right now—when Kinsella and Salinger get to Fenway Park to watch a baseball game, the Red Sox pitcher is … you guessed it, my not-so fictional flying buddy, Mike Torrez.

In the book, he gives up two homers and a triple in the first inning.

Torrez was the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball: despite a a 17-year career with 185 wins and a World Series ring, he just never got any respect.

The Next Meal

Last weekend, I took part in the 30-Hour Famine with the Youth Outlet at First Congregational Church of Webster Groves.

The 30-Hour Famine is an event organized by WorldVision, a Christian humanitarian organization that fights poverty and hunger around the world. At our church, they needed a male chaperone, and I volunteered. (A couple* of years ago, I was a kid in the youth programs at the church, and I figured this would be a way of giving a little back. [*”Couple” is defined very, very broadly, in this case.])

The idea of the Famine is to raise awareness among youth about the global food crisis, and to raise donations to help fight hunger.

IMG_1924Our “famine” started at the end of lunch on Friday afternoon. We gathered in the Sample Chapel—formerly the youth chapel when I was a kid—shortly after 5 that evening, and that would be our home base for the next 25 hours. We watched some excellent videos about the food crisis (here are a few to give you an idea), and did a few Famine-related activities, but before long the kids were off, playing games that had them running throughout the whole church. They kept that up until close to midnight or so.

IMG_1942On Saturday morning, the first activity was to paint a wall in one of the Sunday School rooms of the church, which went surprisingly well. The wall was painted “chalkboard black.” On this and all of the activities, the kids had a lot of energy, but when they were given directions on what to do, they did it well and without a single complaint.

IMG_1943Back up to the Sample Chapel for some more activities. We tried our hand at origami. The theme of this year’s famine was “Feed Your 5,000,” a reference to Christ’s miracle of feeding 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. So we made origami fish. (My theory on origami: there’s something in the Y-IMG_1957chromosome that inhibits a male’s ability to do it. All of the females were hugely productive, cranking out dozens of fish. The few males who even tried it soon gave up, including yours truly. I’ve seen more artful wads of paper in the trash can than the couple of fish I attempted.)

More famine activities, more running-around games, and then it was, finally, time to start cleaning up.

The strange thing about the whole experience for me was that I didn’t really get hungry, at least not until the last couple of hours. I was sapped of energy, and even normally simple activities like Suduko—or origami—were more difficult than they should be, undoubtedly due to the lack of nutrition. But we had the luxury of drinking juice and clean water. We could chew bubble gum. We had eaten normally up until the beginning of the Famine. And we knew exactly where and when we’d have our next meal. The people WorldVision strives to help don’t have those luxuries. For them, if they’re lucky, the next meal consists of a paste of ground-up maize mixed with dirty water. And as world food costs have doubled in the last few years, even that is harder to come by.

IMG_1967For us, the next meal would come at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Katrina, the leader of the Youth Outlet, had put on a black bean stew in the morning that cooked all day. At 5 or so, the rest of us went to the church kitchen to prepare the rest of the meal; fruit salad, green salad and cornbread. Again, the industriousness of the kids was impressive. And although the natural temptation, when you’re cooking food and you’re hungry, is to sample from what you’re preparing, we all refrained.

In the last few minutes before 6, Katrina had each of the kids write a “meal ticket,” a one-page reflection on the Famine and how it made them feel. Once again, the kids were impressive, and they wrote some good, thoughtful essays.

At 6 p.m., we broke our fast with Communion, served by Pastor Dave. Over the years, I’ve seen Communion given in a number of churches, and nobody does it like Pastor Dave; “The bread of Heaven, the cup of salvation,” is how he terms the ritual meal. He made some very brief comments to help frame the experience for us, and we prayed, and it was time to eat. Our Famine was over.

The experience, though, will live with me for a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the kids—there were five boys and three girls who were did the entire famine, and a total of four adults. But I am also reminded of how lucky we have it here, to always know where that next meal is coming from, while people in many parts of the world live that famine their whole lives—without the juice, clean water or chewing gum. For us, 30 hours of hunger was manageable, but for them, hunger defines their whole existence.

You can still donate! According to WorldVision, one dollar will feed a child for one day. You can visit the fundraising page by clicking here. Thanks!