Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fin to Win

I was five years old when they played the all-star game in Angel Stadium. Both my parents went and were witness to the spectacle, were gifted with the story of Bo Jackson’s legendary MVP performance. At a family friend’s, I didn’t even get to watch the game. Like my left-handed hero, Chuck Finley, I was missing it; the difference being, he was in a bullpen watching what he could see of the game through a sliver of gate in right field, while I settled for Young Guns II and getting babysat.
Every game Dad did take me to, though, I always kept score in a game-day program. Back in ‘89, Angel Stadium didn’t have that fancy centerfield waterfall or, behind that, a player’s lot with ivy-woven fencing. After the games, players would have to walk what fans called “the gauntlet,” a stretch of pathway protected on either side by a tall chain-link fence. There’s still a gauntlet today, but it runs in the reverse of the original: players are first tucked into the safety of their cars and then exit the new lot on a path lined on either side by k-rails.
That All-Star year was the first season after Finley became a starter, and the same one Dad started bringing me to games more often. “Fin-to-Win,” they called him, because that was the one game, of every five, which fans thought the team might win. For almost four straight years he put up Hall of Fame numbers in the prime of his career and the golden years of my childhood. Both of us were in a magical point in our lives. Both of us walked that gauntlet to the lot after every game we were at. Both of us kept the score, me in my program, and him with his twenty-four complete games.
Could have been, I’d seen him a dozen times before—there’s no predicting who gets picked out of a crowd. I didn’t have a ball that day, or even a pen, just a rolled up program, inside out and folded backwards at the scorecard stapled to the middle, with a souvenir pencil tucked inside. Not quite the ideal setup for collecting an autograph, but perfect for trapping a piece of time, tucked away in some synapse for posterity. I slid the program through a link in the fence, calling out to Finley through the chatter of at least three dozen boys and their fathers.
“Mr. Finley, would you sign my program, please?”
At the feet of legends, I’ve learned a little respect goes a long way in this world. His head turned at my polite request, feet moved by the word please amid the catcalls. He took my program through the chain-link and signed it.
“You’re my favorite pitcher,” I said.
“Thanks.” He smiled and passed my program back.
“I’m a lefty, too.”
When I got strong enough, old enough, I’d start throwing balls over that gauntlet fence for autographs and enjoy a quick catch with a ballplayer by extension. My little brown Mizuno, or even my black SSK I still use today, are my own pieces of Cooperstown, artifacts of once-off catches with hall-of-famers, all-stars, backups, and bench players alike.
Today, there isn’t even the chatter, just a sea of bodies with hands floating red laces up toward a buoy in a ball cap. Words drown there, sucked up by the grotesque manhandling of people lusting for their next Ebay auction piece. The innocence fades from the game by decades, players and fans alike contributing to the inescapable smell of tailored suits, ink and toner on minted contracts, and business above all else. Pete Rose once said, “Playing baseball for a living is like having a license to steal.” Two generations later, Pedro Martinez saw, “the ugly face of baseball . . . is the business part of baseball.”
I still have the California Angels pencil I scored all those games with; it sits in a jar of pens and pencils on my desk, the eraser hardened with time. Somewhere, in the many remodels of my childhood room, the program and signature were lost. As an adult, when the All-Star game returned to Anaheim again, I would get to rectify that loss at the All-Star Fan Fest, where Fin-to-Win signed at an official table for all his fans.
Some things change, but the right guys, the real heroes, will always have class.