Fifty-seven years go fast.
I was listening to the Mets’ game the other night, when a sturdy young pitcher named Tylor Megill gave up a grand-slam homer to the fourth batter in the first inning. Four up, four in.
Suddenly, the Mets’ broadcaster was talking about first-inning grand-slam homers, and I heard the name of Bill Wakefield, now an email pal, but in 1964 a rookie pitcher out of Stanford, enjoying the heck out of the one year he would have in the major leagues.
That year, Wakefield also gave up a grand-slam -- to Ed Bailey of the Milwaukee Braves.
I told my (long-suffering) wife that a friend of mine just had his name called out on the Mets’ radio broadcast – 57 years after the deed was done.
“What is it like for a ball player to be remembered for something, that long ago?” my wife asked.
Well, I said, there was Ralph Branca, a good guy who gave up a homer to Bobby Thomson,also a good guy, in 1951.
And I thought of other ball players who had one really bad moment that never went away.
But Bailey’s grand-slam off Wakefield was hardly historic – just rare enough to pop up 57 years later.
I shipped off an email to Wakefield, out in the Bay Area.
How did he take being back “in the news” again?
“I'll have a glass of Chardonnay,” he replied, “and/but, yes I remember it well.
“I always admired the guys who answered the tough questions -- and didn't duck out early.
“Sure go ahead,” Wakefield answered in two separate emails. “The only downside to telling the old stories is the rolling of the eyes and the ‘Dad, you think you've milked a modest career about long enough?’” from son Ed, 33, D1 pitcher at Portland Pilots and daughter Laura, 31, softball at Boise State!”
Then Bill Wakefield, just turned 80, successful businessman, frequent e-mail correspondent, pulled out all the details that many athletes store in their competitive brains.(I’ve heard Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova discuss their epic matches, stroke by stroke.)
For Bill Wakefield, it was yesterday:
“ 1964 -- We're flying to Milwaukee last road trip of the year. I'm feeling pretty good for a rookie -- lot of games -- 60++++ - pretty good ERA (low 3's!!!) -- 3 – 4, not bad for Mets of that era. On the plane, Mel Harder comes to me – ‘Hey Billy - I know you've been in a lot of games but....’.”
(Mel Harder, then nearly 55, had pitched 20 seasons with one team, Cleveland, and was a respected pitching coach with the Mets that year.)
“Casey wants to save our starters for the Cardinals in St Louis, ‘cause they‘re in a pennant race," Wakefield recalled Harder telling him. “We're gonna start you on Thursday in Milwaukee! OK?”
“Me ---What am I gonna say -- ‘Hey Mel the arm’s a little on the tired side?’ Tell Casey no?
“So I say, ‘I'll be ready.’”
The game was on Oct. 1, 1964. Wakefield recalls Hot Rod Kanehl, the utility player who shepherded him around the majors for one memorable season, coming up to him: “‘Hey, they're not playing Aaron today.’ So it turns out -- so what !!!! the other guys did pretty well"!!!!
Wakefield added: “Hot Rod sees there are 3,000 people in the stands - at best -- and tells me - "Well kid at least a big crowd won't make you nervous.!"
Ball-player gallows humor.
Nervous or just arm-weary, Wakefield gave up singles to Rico Carty and Lee Maye. Felipe Alou was up next.
“In that era, first inning, no outs, runners on first and second, 99% of the time the guy bunts the runners over to second and third. I'm thinking, cover third base line, field the bunt, throw to Charlie Smith at third and get the force. Get the out.
“Alou hits the first pitch, one-hopper back to me - the obvious play is double play -- throw to second. I throw to third for the force -- Charlie Smith is standing, looking at second with his hands on his hips -- almost hit him between the eyes -- he drops the ball, bases drunk, I'm in trouble!!!
“Rookies get in trouble and they try to throw a fast ball harder and get an out. Veterans throw softer and get a ground ball. Bailey -- first pitch -- I'm thinking two-seam fastball outside, he tries to pull it, ground ball to McMillan, and out of trouble.
“It catches too much of the plate -- he goes to opposite field and hits a home run.”
Wakefield fast-forwarded to the third inning. “Still a rookie. I'm still in there having trouble -- Walk Carty -- Casey comes out - Rookie question from me – ‘You taking me out because I walked Carty?’ Casey kind of has a quizzical look on his face -- and a smile and says ‘No, I'm taking you out because you've given up 7 runs!!!”
Mets lost. “No excuses -- they hit the ball.”
“I'm shaving after the game -- cut my chin - baseball humor -- Jack Fisher: ‘Did you try to cut your throat?’ I laughed." Then Wakefield recalled Joe Gallagher, the Mets’ TV producer, on the Mets’ charter flight that night, to St. Louis: “I said, did you lose some of your audience after the first three innings?”
The Mets scared the Cardinals on that last chilly weekend, and Wakefield’s memories come pouring out:
“On to St Louis -- Chase hotel -- Gaslight Square ( Hot Rod and I didn't know it -- but it would be our last visit to Gaslight Square!!) Hotel swimming pool stories - old classic hotel. Harry Caray's hang-out hotel. Casey late night in the lobby entertaining!! Westrum laughing at Casey's stories. Lou Niss smoking and watching. Whiskey-slick players file into the single lobby elevator!”
My memories jog totally with Wakefield’s. The Chase-Park Plaza was also my favorite hotel on the road.
The games were epic, too. “Give 'em a scare,” Wakefield recalled. The gallant original Met, Alvin Jackson, beat Bob Gibson on Friday, and the Mets won again on Saturday. Wakefield pitched in relief on Sunday and so did Gibson, to save the Cardinals’ season.
The Cardinals went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series. Kanehl and Wakefield, Butch and Sundance, never played in the majors again, and remained pals until Hot Rod’s death in 2004.
“I could have used a few more pitches to be a starter!! Relief -- sinker/slider, OK. Starter needs 4-5 pitches. “
He can pull up the memories of his short career: “The Milwaukee game -- I would paint a different picture if I could. There were 60 other games I would rather recall!! But that's the way it is!”
Then Wakefield added: “As long as we're telling stories from 57 years ago -- who's gonna correct me??? -- make sure you also point out that I got Yogi Berra to ground into a double play in the Mayor' s Trophy Game in front of 55,000. Big deal in the era of no interleague play!!”
As I told my wife, Bill Wakefield pitched a season in the major leagues, and that is something,
My thanks to Marianne Vecsey for jogging some grand old memories.
The grand-slam game, courtesy of the great website, retrosheet.org:
Bill Wakefield’s career, courtesy of the other great website:
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.