Opening Day was going to be later this week, but it, like most everything, is being rescheduled. Nonetheless, I'm still thinking about baseball, and I remembered a story Charlie O'Brien shared about catching Dwight Gooden one Opening Day. I thought I would pass it along:
We had one opening day game at Shea Stadium in miserable conditions. Cold and rainy. Not a good day to pitch in, but everybody's excited. Sellout crowd. Our manager, Buddy Harrelson, left Dwight in for the whole game. He threw a ton of pitches, close to 150. That's crazy for any game, much less the first day of the season when pitchers are still getting in to shape. Especially when the conditions were awful for keeping your arm warmed up and loose.
Dwight didn't say a word. Never complained. That didn't surprise me. He wasn't real vocal. But, he was a leader in the sense of "Watch me and how I do my work." He got to the park early. Stayed late. Ran and did his rubber band conditioning exercises. Studied hitters. He was prepared, and he went out to the mound and took the ball every fifth day. And, I guess I think about that game and Dwight going out there inning after inning in the cold and the rain never complaining about it, and he sent a message to the team. That he'd do whatever it took for us to win. He didn't have to tell us this in a clubhouse speech. He spoke through his actions. He was a gamer.
(Excerpt from The Cy Young Catcher, Texas A&M University Press, 2015).
Before being named the National League’s best pitcher in 2012, R.A. Dickey spent parts of seven seasons as an Oklahoma RedHawk. With his lengthy tenure in Oklahoma City and the friendships he developed there among its residents, teammates kidded Dickey that he should run for mayor.
“I loved Oklahoma City,” Dickey says. “Loved the people, loved the laid-back mentality.”
From 1999 to 2006, Dickey saw Oklahoma City grow and develop. He was a part of the second baseball team to call Bricktown home after the RedHawks moved from All Sports Stadium at the fairgrounds to the new Southwestern Bell Bricktown Ballpark. Dickey saw first-hand Bricktown’s renaissance with the addition of the mile-long canal connecting downtown, Bricktown, and the Oklahoma River, and multiple bars and restaurants opening around the new ballpark in an area that was once a largely abandoned warehouse district.
“I loved Bricktown and watching it grow,” he says.
Dickey lived in different parts of Oklahoma City, spending one season with pastor Stan Toler and his family and multiple seasons in northwest Oklahoma City by Quail Springs Mall. Dickey’s wife, Anne, worked at the nearby Border’s Books, and Dickey enjoyed an occasional round of golf at Gaillardia Country Club.
“My wife and I, we grew a lot in Oklahoma City,” Dickey says. “I have a lot of great memories about that place. I was real good friends with the [RedHawks’] general manager and manager. I could walk into a restaurant, and people would know me. Because they would come to games and very rarely would a guy be there for more than a couple years, and I was there for six.
“There was a lot of time to get to know the place.”
And, the knuckleball, as Texas Rangers manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser asked Dickey to return to Oklahoma City in 2005 and concentrate on transitioning from a conventional pitcher to a knuckleballer. Completing the transition and becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the game was gradual, a marathon, not a sprint, but its starting line was Oklahoma City. Indeed, for Dickey, 2005 was the beginning of an amazing journey that ultimately led him not only to win 120 games in fifteen big league seasons but also to baffle and confound hitters during his peak in 2012. Catcher Josh Thole caught most of Dickey’s starts when Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award, and Thole describes Dickey’s pitching as “incredible.”
“He was just dominating,” Thole says. “It felt, literally every time this man stepped on the mound, you knew you were winning that ballgame. Hitters would come into the box and just be like, ‘Wow, this is nasty again today.’ Especially guys in division. They’re going, ‘Jesus! We’ve got to face him again?’ They couldn’t hit him. And, when you get those kind of reactions from some of the elite hitters in baseball, I mean, you know you’re on.”
Quite the journey. And quite the beginning from Bricktown Ballpark where Dickey stood on the mound, a thirty-year-old man, in his ninth season of professional baseball, following the suggestion of Showalter and Hershiser and trusting in this new and unpredictable pitch to see where it would lead him.
Join me Saturday, September 21 at the Oklahoma Book Festival for a panel discussion about baseball books. We'll be in the Ida Sutton Williams tent at 4:00 p.m. to chat. The Festival is in Oklahoma City at the Boathouse District, and it's a jam-packed day starting at 9:00 a.m. with over 100 writers participating. Should be a lot of fun -- stop by!
As part of the research for The Cy Young Catcher, I interviewed Greg Maddux and asked him several questions about what it was like working with Charlie O'Brien as his catcher. As the interview wrapped up, I asked him about pitching in a day game at Wrigley Field. His response:
"Almost like you're a kid again, and you're out playing again for sheer kicks. Just the history in that ballpark and the fact that they didn't get lights there until '88. This is how baseball was a hundred years ago. You come out here, and there's no lights, you've got to play in the game. The weather always played an impact on the game there, whether the wind was blowing in or out, whether it was forty degrees or ninety degrees. The weather plays a role in that ballpark more than any other ballpark that we played in. Just the fans. It was always sold out. Always a lot of fans. Batting practice: fans came early there, so batting practice was always kind of fun. It's always fun to go out there for batting practice when fans are yelling at you and yelling for you, however you want to look at it, and just the atmosphere there was good. They didn't have the Jumbotron, the TVs, and all that stuff. There were no gimmicks. You just went there and played baseball. There was an organ and a PA announcer, and that was it."
On July 8, 2000, Doc Gooden earned his first win at Shea Stadium since 1994. Charlie O'Brien describes what it was like catching Gooden in the early 1990s:
I was excited the first time I caught Dwight. I had worked with Teddy Higuera, our ace in Milwaukee, who had Cy Young Award caliber stuff. One year, I caught Teddy, and he won twenty-one or twenty-two games. He should've won the Cy, but he was hosed out of it. Even so, Dwight was a notch above. He threw real hard. Liked to challenge guys with his fastball, especially those free-swinging power hitter types. His fastball got to the plate in a hurry. He could throw ninety-five, sometimes ninety-eight miles an hour. Electrifying. Threw up and in the zone a bunch. Hitters had a hell of a time catching up with the ball -- his arm was just nasty. Few guys could throw as hard. On top of his fastball, he also threw a good curveball and changeup. Dwight was another high pitch count guy with lots of 2-2 and 3-2 counts. This was because he threw high in the strike zone. Some guys swung and missed, but some guys would take these pitches, and some would be called balls. That meant that Dwight would have to throw more pitches. When I played with him, I wouldn't call him a control pitcher. I think he refined his control once he went over to the Yankees and mastered his mechanics, knowing that he couldn't rely on power alone. Even so, with the Mets, he wasn't a big walk guy.
Excerpt from The Cy Young Catcher (Texas A&M University Press, 2015).
Fathers' Day is around the corner, and The Cy Young Catcher and Baseball in Alabama are great ways to celebrate dads. My dad Stan, pictured above, agrees. Books are available at top-notch stores like Page and Palette, Church Street Books, and Full Circle Books as well as at Amazon. Enjoy!
On Saturday, November 17, I'll be at the Auburn University Bookstore (1360 Haley Center) from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. signing copies of Baseball in Alabama: Tales of Hardball in the Heart of Dixie. You'll have plenty of time to find your seat in Jordan-Hare for the three o'clock kickoff against Liberty. Stop by and chat, and WAR EAGLE!
The Decatur Daily recently reviewed Baseball in Alabama and encouraged folks to check it out. "If you love the game, you'll love this book." https://www.decaturdaily.com/life/books/book-review-baseball-in-alabama-explored-and-explained/article_eae022ce-d2b5-5185-8c8c-8fc4506de4bb.html
Jerry Reuss made my day when he shared a kind word about Baseball in Alabama: Tales of Hardball in the Heart of Dixie:
"I’m about halfway through your book. So far, I’ve loved everything I read. There’s some great background info on many of the former teammates that I didn’t know. It only adds to their stature as people and not ballplayers."
Many thanks! Check out Jerry's website and his top-notch photography, particularly his images of old ballparks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jerryreuss/sets
One of the best books I've read recently is Lou Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone. He writes great stories that pull you in, with vivid characters, some of whom make you laugh and others who make you cringe. I was fired up that Lou read Baseball in Alabama and shared some praise:
“Baseball in Alabama is an engaging look at the rich and colorful history of the sport in a state that has produced some great players and stories.”
I'm grateful for the kind words, and I'm looking forward to checking out Lou's latest book, November Road.