There was a time, not so long ago, when I considered writing what would be my fifth book.
The main reason I decided against it was because even when your writing is mostly a “labor of love,” it’s frustrating getting miniscule royalty checks — not that I envisioned buying a boat or a secluded cabin, but still.
The title was easy: “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.”
No, that’s not a typo, nor a science fiction book.
It was going to be a compilation of my stories about famous baseball players I’d encountered through my years with the media, being baseball hobbyist and a longtime official scorer for the Pacific Coast league games played in Albuquerque.
That “Bird” reference, my own clever play of the movie title, came out of my meeting with baseball’s “Bird,” Mark Fidrych, whom I met at an old-timers ballgame in Las Vegas, Nev., in 1991. Coincidentally, one of the first sports columns I ever wrote was about an encounter with Willie Mays, in Albuquerque at a Zody’s store to sign autographs; he was gruff, never even looking up or smiling at his fans.
What got me thinking again about the book was the Jan. 22 death of baseball’s home run king, Henry Aaron. (No, I won’t consider Barry Bonds’ tainted HR total as the real record.)
After seven of the game’s legends, members of the Hall of Fame, died in 2020, we’re already off to a dreadful start in 2021, having lost three in the first 22 days: Tom Lasorda, Don Sutton and Aaron. Aaron died of natural causes at the age of 86.
In 2020, we lost — in order — Al Kaline (my first baseball hero), Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro.
I had some “close encounters” with that group of 10 in my past, which would have been contained in that book.
- Bob Gibson: October 1988, when he played in the “Legends for Lobo Baseball” game at the Albuquerque Sports Stadium; he pitched and played third base, where he misplayed a ball or two. Seeing him and others at Tanoan Country Club the next day — he was on a golf cart with Gaylord Perry — I complimented him on his pitching and took a little dig at his play at the hot corner. Seeing my media credential, he quipped, “Yeah, and I bet you’ve written some horse-bleep stories.” (Touché, Bob.)
- Whitey Ford: He was a guest signer at a card show in Phoenix one March when I was there to see some Cactus League ballgames. He was signing items for $5!! The baseball he signed is on the wall in the Yankees section of my baseball room.
- Phil Niekro: He was at a card signing at Bubba’s Baseball Bullpen one year, and I was at the end of the line that was forming to have him sign items. Niekro arrived late and as he entered behind me, I told him, “Hey, no cuts.”
- Tom Lasorda: I wrote a Grandstanding column about him right after his passing, but didn’t tell my personal favorite Lasorda story. One year in the pressbox at Isotopes Park, when he was there during a rain delay, and I told him how much I’d enjoyed reading one of his books. He began telling me what a great life in baseball he’d had and, lastly, how he even had an asteroid named after him.
“What a coincidence,” I remarked. “I’ve got a hemorrhoid named after me.” (I don’t think he got it.)
- Henry Aaron: He visited the Sports Stadium one summer day in the 1990s and, knowing he’d be there ahead of time, I had him sign a couple of items for my collection.
As a tribute to Aaron, I watched a handful of Home Run Derby telecasts from 1960, seeing him win a total of $13,500 after beating six stars — Ken Boyer, Jim Lemon, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Duke Snider and Bob Allison — in a row, then losing to Wally Post. The winner of each show won $2,000; the loser pocketed $1,000, and there were bonuses possible, too.
Later, I watched one of a myriad Aaron tributes on MLB Network — and the most-interesting thing I gleaned was hearing Aaron tell how he was such a big fan of the Cleveland Browns that he’d fly from Atlanta to Cleveland for home games, don a mask and sit in the famed Dog Pound … until a fan recognized him.
That never-to-be-written book would also include my interviews, taped on cassette, and brief encounters with a couple other ballplayers who passed away last year — Johnny Antonelli and Mike McCormick, whom I’d chatted with in New Mexico; plus the late HOFers Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Feller and legendary broadcaster Harry Caray. Toss in Pete Rose, Sandy Koufax, Ernie Banks, Bucky Dent, Bill Lee, Orel Hershiser, Maury Wills and Frank Viola — still alive and well — and it might be a neat book for baseball fans to read.
There just aren’t enough book readers anymore.
But, like legendary New York Met Chico Esquela once said, “Baseball’s been ‘berry, berry’ good to me.”
And although many of the greats from my childhood have been passing away the past 13 months, my memories will be with me forever.