The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Sunday, August 26, 2001

 

Buried Treasure

I'm here in the land of the polygamists and the arcane liquor laws, the land where I grew up and where my parents still live, Salt Lake City, Utah. Tomorrow I head off to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and then to the wilderness of the Beartooth mountain range for a backpacking trip with my father, so I'll be off the grid for the coming week.

Since I've been here, I've been sifting through a cabinet full of well-preserved sports memorabilia which I've preserved in my old bedroom. Among the items I came across today were a couple of Walla Walla Padres programs from the early eighties. My grandparents live(d) in Walla Walla, and when we were young, my brother and I would spend a couple of weeks every summer up there in a sort of baseball-immersion camp. In the morning my grandfather and I would walk down to the grocery store to get the morning paper, and we'd read the boxscores and game summaries on the way home. After that we'd go to the park and he would pitch to us. We'd stand at home plate facing the backstop, and he'd give us five pitches per turn. We counted our hits based on how high up the backstop they hit--one rung a single, two rungs a double... over the wall a home run. After lunch, we might play some catch, then in the evening we'd probably--unless this was 1981, the year of the strike--watch a game on TV (he was an early adopter of ESPN) or go to a Padres game.

The Walla Walla Padres were part of the Class A Northwest League from 1972 through 1982, coincidentally the last year I spent much time up there. The two programs I have here are from '81 and '82, and covered in autographs of various players, mostly pitchers as the bullpen was very accessible. The '81 Padres featured a couple of very memorable ballplayers who went on to play in the major leagues. One was John Kruk, the pudgy, mulleted slob extraordinaire who gained fame as a member of the 1993 National League Champion Philadephia Phillies. Kruk titled his autobiography after one of the all-time great quotes: "I Ain't an Athlete, Lady, I'm a Ballplayer." I bought a copy for $1 awhile back for some very light reading.

Anyway, the other memorable player on that team was Tony Gwynn, of whom you've probably heard. I was already familiar with Gwynn by this juncture, because he played basketball and was the starting point guard at San Diego State, which was in the same conference as the University of Utah. Imagine Tony Gwynn as a point guard now... Gwynn didn't last long in the Northwest League, hitting .331 and leading the league before being called up to Amarillo (AA). He was in the majors by July of the next season, and the rest is history. Also on the Padres roster that year was Greg Booker, who went on to a major league career and then a stint as the Padres pitching coach. Two other memorable players who never made the show were outfielder Mark Gillaspie, who tore up several leagues worth of pitching but never got the shot Kruk or Gwynn did, and 17-year-old shortstop Lewis Langie, who made something like 42 errors that year (I remember looking it up in a Sporting News Baseball Guide the following year). Still, two outfielders with .300+ lifetime averages in the majors is a pretty good haul for a Class A team.

The Pods' opponent for at least one of the games we saw was the Bellingham Mariners, whose roster featured pitchers Mark Langston, who won 179 games in the big leagues, and Lee Guetterman, who spent eleven years in the show, and outfielders Phil Bradley (whose path I would cross again the next season in Salt Lake City) and Ricky Nelson, not to be confused with the son of Ozzie and Harriet.

The 1982 Padres featured a few who went on to bigger things. Pitcher Jimmy Jones, their first round draft choice, ended up winning 43 games in the big leagues. Pitcher Kevin Towers never made the big leagues as a player but is currently the General Manager of the San Diego Padres. And pitcher Mitch Williams, just 17 during the 1982 season, eventually brought a whole new level of notoriety to the job of being a closer; "Wild Thing" was a teammate of Kruk's on those '93 Phillies, and will forever be remembered for keeping the 9th inning interesting during the postseason. He's currently making a comeback of sorts in the Atlantic League, as a pitching coach and occasional pitcher and pinch-hitter for the Atlantic City Surf.

I have a photo of the '82 team which is signed by Jones, Towers, Williams, and nearly every other member of the team, including the manager and the owner/GM, a woman named Pat Nelly. But where have you gone, Osbe Hoskins, Donald "Duck" Freeman, and Rigo Rodriguez? Lord only knows.

When I get back from the woods, I'll discuss some of the other treasures I found lurking in the cabinet...

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