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

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.

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4 thoughts on “A Not-So-Fictional Character

  1. Great piece John! Love the life, art, sports connections…..Another great book by WP Kinsella is Magic Time. Very light and easy read that I could relate to on many different levels.

  2. Small piece of trivia, Hoover Nation were extras in FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, which is actually a pretty awful movie. But we sat in the stands on the 1st base line while Costner pitched. He threw very nicely. Strike after strike. It was pretty impressive. Freezing cold day, post October. Never forget it.

    • Interesting, I never knew that. I did like the movie, even though it was pretty long. The plot was pretty much cliche, but the baseball scenes were fantastic.
      Did you see yourself in the movie?

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