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In early June, 1979, a Philadelphia Phillies player led the National League All-Star voting at every single position, except mine. Bob Boone at catcher. Pete Rose at first. Manny Trillo, second. Larry Bowa, who started the year before, at shortstop. Schmitty, at third, Bull Luzinski, in left, and Garry Maddox, in center. By the middle of July, Dodgers fans had their say, with Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes passing Pete and Trillo. The Cardinals’ Ted Simmons leapfrogged Boone. Then Winfield and Foster gathered more vote momentum. Winnie was having a spectacular season. The All-Star Game was held in Seattle that year. The Mariners made most of the arrangements and from the moment when my cab pulled up and the porter opened the door to the hotel, my spirits lifted, being in a town I’d never seen before.
The Mariners put on a cool event the first night. A ferryboat took all the All-Stars and league executives to this nearby island for a clam and salmon bake. I was standing outside with the slight breeze hitting my face, when Lou Brock came over to chat. We hung out together for most of the boat ride.
“You have someone helping you get commercials?” Lou asked me, as we checked out the still waters of the Puget Sound. “You’re almost at the point where that can happen.” This was Brock’s final season. Most folks looking back now think his last All-Star appearance was the old lifetime achievement thing, but Brock was leading the league in hitting around the break, with a .336 average. He earned that last one.
“Yeah, Tom does a nice job for me.” Tom Reich was my agent back then. That’s a long story for another day.
“Tom’s great, but you need someone who’s in the middle of it all.”
Brock wrote down this phone number on a random business card. “This is my guy in New York. He works with Paul McCartney.”
Brock nodded. “He knows everyone. He’s going to get your name out there. I got to it a little late, but he’s done a nice job for me. Now’s your time.” I didn’t think much of it, except that an aging Hall of Fame–level cat was looking out for me. With both of us being in the NL East, we tried to beat each other during the season, every season, but for these seventy-two hours, we were tight teammates.
The Kingdome, the Seattle Mariners’ ballpark, was 316 feet down the lines, and left and right center alleys were just 357 feet—very inviting dimensions. I remember feeling that I would’ve treated this ballpark like a whack-a- mole carnival game.
This was my second All-Star appearance and the moment I walked into the visiting clubhouse felt just as glorious as my first, at Yankee Stadium in ’77. There was Lefty Carlton. Morgan. Brock. Gaylord Perry. Legends.
“Never get tired of it.” I turned around to see Pete Rose sitting on a stool holding his bats. I smiled back. Of course, Rose was just as much an icon as those other fellas, but he was becoming more and more of a dude I knew from back home whom I’d bump into every so often. We weren’t close, close friends, but the relationship grew with every interaction. A representative from the league handed each of us two tickets. I politely waved my hand when she approached me.
“Keep ’em,” I said. “I came here alone. Please give those to a couple kids who might want ’em.”
Before the game, sitting at my locker, I really took in the moment.
“Grayboy, what the fuck you doin’ here?” I asked Phil, who stepped into the clubhouse. “This is for All-Stars only, son.” Heh-heh, me and Garner had a little back-and-forth thing that started once he landed in Pittsburgh from that trade where we emptied out the farm system in ’77 for a third baseman. Me and ol’ Scrap Iron had our nicknames for each other, but that’s also a story for another day. We could’ve played Vegas with all the riffing we did.
“I can’t wait to see you fall on your fat ass against Nolan Ryan tonight.”
“Check the bubblegum card, motherfucker. Mine’s got a big ol’ star on the side.” Turned out that Garner, who became our team rep for the Players Association, was in town for a union meeting.
“You’re just in the building on a pass. I’m gonna dazzle ’em all. I’m gonna get MVP. You just wait and see.”
Truth? Sure, I mingled with all the stars, and Tanner came as one of the coaches. But I was glad there was one of my Bucco peers in the ballpark.
That night, before game time, as the 1979 All-Stars stood across from each other on the baselines, that girl who played Little Orphan Annie on stage in New York sang the national anthem. A kid singing before a kid’s game. For those three hours, in that spacious baseball building in Seattle, my mind was clear and free of everything but the game with my legendary brothers. I wanted that MVP trophy more than you’ll ever know. It was just my way.
Tommy Lasorda managed the NL stars and batted me second. I came up against Ryan, who struck out Lopes on three pitches. I never faced Ryan before. I wanted to see what he had and he sure let me see it. I was looking for a fastball all the way, and Ryan didn’t disappoint, delivering 100 mph right down the pike for strike one. “Okay, he’s as advertised,” I thought to myself. Let’s see if he does that again. Fastball on the inside corner—strike two. Don’t know why I didn’t swing at that one. Ryan then threw one away from me, thinking I might chase, but I didn’t. It was almost as if he shrugged and decided to give me the gas one more time.
He blew it right by me. Strike three. We scored twice off Ryan after I struck out, to get an early 2–0 lead, but the AL came right back with three runs. I came up against him again in the second, having more of a clue to what he was offering. The bases were loaded, one out. Ryan started me with another fastball that I just swung through and then he tried to paint the corner but came inside. I was expecting fastball, and he took a taste off. He fooled me, as I swung under it. Flew to Chet Lemon in center, but I got the run in. I flied out and hit an infield single my next two times up. I got five slaps from the All-Stars coming back to the dugout after every at bat, but I thought in my mind that I needed to do something extraordinary to get my hardware.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Jim Rice came to the plate. The one thing we kept hearing about the Kingdome was “Beware of the roof. You can lose a ball up there.” I finally figured out how to play pop flies at the Astrodome—by this point Houston had even painted the roof black—but I didn’t give it much notice until Rice hit a high fly my way. I looked up, saw the ceiling decorated in red, white, and blue ribbon, and lost the ball. Joe Morgan ran out from second base, I called him off, and the next thing I knew, the ball was behind me, bouncing high off the carpet. Just by instinct, I threw it to the Dodgers’ Ron Cey at third, assuming Rice would get a double. I think Rice thought the ball skipped away from me farther than it did. Nailed Rice at third and, yeah, that was satisfying, but as most of you know, it was only the appetizer.
The National League tied the game in the top of the eighth inning when Lee Mazzilli hit an opposite-field dinger against the Rangers’ Jim Kern. The American League tried to get the lead back in the bottom frame. The Angels’ Brian Downing drove a single to left-center and then, after a bunt and intentional walk to Reggie Jackson, found himself on second base. Bobby Grich struck out, which brought the Yankees’ Graig Nettles to the plate. I didn’t know for sure that Nettles was a pull hitter, but I made a strong assumption. I turned to Mazzilli, who was playing center field, just to see if he was trying to tell me otherwise; since both of them were New York guys, he might know better. I just positioned myself closer to the line. Bruce Sutter was on the mound, throwing nothing but split-finger fastballs. Nettles chased one and then watched another fall right in the zone. Two strikes. Sutter tossed a wasted curveball, but Nettles reached his bat across the plate and somehow managed to pull it into right field. I gave Graig the respect he deserved by playing deep, believing I could catch up to any ball hit my way. And that’s what happened. I ran up, grabbed it on a turf hop, Downing rounded third, I launched that mother to Carter on a fly, who expertly reached away from the plate, grabbing my throw while blocking Downing from touching home, and applied the tag, ending the inning. The crowd poured verbal love down on Carter and me as we trotted into the dugout. You can almost point to that play as the moment where the Kid became the best catcher in baseball. Being a backstop himself, man, ol’ Downing should’ve known better.
We came up in the top of the ninth. Morgan drew a one-out walk, and then I was at the plate against Kern for the second time. This was the third inning Kern was pitching in relief in the All-Star Game. He tried to pick off Morgan but was called for a balk. The call was made by an NL ump, but it was a generally accepted pitcher’s move in the American League. They ended up just intentionally walking me, then giving a two-out free pass to Ron Cey as well, when Mazzilli came to the plate. AL manager Bob Lemon brought in Guidry to face Maz, who turned around and batted righty. Many folks don’t remember that Mazzilli missed a bases-clearing double down the third base line by inches. Ol’ Louisiana Lightning went 2-0. I’m standing on second, and I knew that Guidry was coming in the middle of the plate with the next pitch, slightly low. Maz reached and pulled it down the line foul. Guidry then pitched one high and outside. With three balls, everyone in the park thought Guidry was gonna challenge him. Next pitch, exact same location, high and away.
Ball four. We took the lead going into the bottom of the ninth, and Sutter just kept feeding them split-fingers. A Ken Singleton grounder to Morgan, a Jim Rice strikeout, and a Chet Lemon walk followed by a Rick Burleson whiff, and we did it! The National League won again. The team congratulated Sutter for his great late-inning work. I jogged in from right field and greeted the fellas—I even got a hug from the San Diego Chicken, who was on the bench with us. Tanner came over and hugged me in front of the National League dugout, getting my attention.
“Where are you going? You won it.”
“I got MVP?” Tanner nodded and grinned.
The television producers with NBC brought me over to accept the trophy from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. When that man handed me the hardware, ooh, it meant more to me than the batting titles. I carried that thing through the dugout, up the stairs to the clubhouse, out the stadium, back through the doors of my hotel. It sat beside me on the hotel bar while I cooled out with some of the fellas. I might’ve even bought it a drink. I stared at the trophy before I fell asleep. I carried it through Sea-Tac Airport like a damn Cabbage Patch doll. If you’ve ever won something you really wanted and everyone mocked you for holding on to it for days, guess what. I was right there with you, baby. I got home and put it on my mantelpiece. I looked at it, sighed with pride, and then closed my mind on the memory. Me and my Buccos were still stuck in fourth place, but my man Bill Madlock was with us now. Time to focus. One nation under a groove. Indivisible.
Thank you for reading
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