RANDOM THOUGHTS: Baseball is about character

From The Bird to The Inspector, the national pastime has seen colorful personalities.

By: Ken Weingartner
   It takes character to play baseball.
   Then again, perhaps it just takes being a character.
   No sport has seen as many colorful personalities as the national pastime. It probably has something to do with all the free time players have on their hands during a game. The mind can wander quite a distance when you’re just sitting around for three hours.
   The Detroit Tigers opened this season by losing their first 11 games. As a Tigers fan, I needed a reason to smile. And recalling the antics of Mark Fidrych brought that grin to my face.
   When I was a kid, Fidrych was the first "flake" in whom I took an interest. I was 9 years old when in 1976 "The Bird" became one of the biggest sensations in the history of the game.
   Fidrych, who got his nickname because of his resemblance to Sesame Street’s Big Bird, was a 21-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. He won 19 games that year and led the American League with a 2.34 earned-run average — but that almost was secondary to his charm and antics.
   He frequently would get down on his hands and knees to smooth and groom the dirt around the pitcher’s mound. And he talked to the baseball while on the mound. He got national exposure on June 28 of that season when he beat the New York Yankees, 5-1, on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. The crowd of 47,000 refused to leave the stadium until Fidrych took a curtain call. Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s commissioner at the time, said Fidrych popularized the curtain call, which now is all too commonplace.
   Arm problems derailed Fidrych’s career, and he never enjoyed another season like 1976.
   A few years later, a similar story played out in Cleveland. Joe Charboneau won the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year Award with the Indians, hitting .289 with 23 home runs and 87 RBI. A back injury sent his career into a slide the following season, and he was out of baseball by 1983.
   "Super Joe," as he was known, easily could’ve been forgotten, except that he was so memorable. He dyed his hair different colors long before it was the thing to do. He took off tattoos with razor blades. He opened beer bottles with his eye socket. He could drink through his nose. Fans and media loved him. A song even was written about him, "Go Joe Charboneau."
   This type of adulation was nothing new in baseball. In the late 1800s, Michael "King" Kelly was one of the game’s first superstars. He played hard, and he partied with equal fervor. His aggressive style on the basepaths inspired the song "Slide, Kelly, Slide," which fans frequently would sing whenever he reached base.
   He reportedly traveled with "a black monkey and a Japanese valet." He also had a quick wit. In Kelly’s day, players could be substituted into a game at any time. Once, when Kelly was on the bench, a foul ball was hit toward his team’s dugout. As the ball descended, he yelled out, "Kelly now catching for Boston," and made the catch for the out.
   Relief pitchers are notorious for being eccentric, to put it politely. Bill Caudill, who pitched from 1979-87, was among the more colorful.
   He was nicknamed "The Inspector" while playing for the Seattle Mariners in the early 1980s. During a losing streak, he donned a deerstalker cap, a la Sherlock Holmes, and examined the Mariners’ bat rack with a magnifying glass — looking for missing hits.
   Whenever Caudill entered a game, the organist would play the "Pink Panther" theme. Caudill also had a habit of handcuffing people for various offenses. Manager Rene Lachemann’s son, Britt, for example, got ‘cuffed to a Nautilus machine for calling Caudill "blimpy."
   Once, during a one-sided game, Caudill emerged from the dugout between innings with half his beard shaved off.
   The list of colorful players could fill volumes, but here’s a brief look at some others:
   Casey Stengel, a player and successful manager, was famous for his unique double-talk, known as "Stengelese." He also is remembered for an incident during his playing days in which he doffed his cap and a sparrow flew out from underneath.
   Speaking of speaking, no one was more colorful with a quip than Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees. Berra once said "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." His more famous remarks included, "It’s deja vu all over again," and "It ain’t over til it’s over."
   He also was a philosopher, espousing, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it," and that "You can observe a lot by watching."
   Then again, as Berra pointed out, "I really didn’t say everything I said."
   Jimmy Piersall, who played in the 1950s and 1960s, was immortalized in the book, and later movie, "Fear Strikes Out," which recounted his battle with mental illness. But he probably would have been remembered anyway for a stunt he pulled in 1963.
   When Duke Snider, a future Hall of Famer, hit his 400th home run while a member of the fledgling New York Mets (managed by Stengel), mention of the milestone received little attention. Piersall, who had 99 homers at the time, told Snider that when he hit his 100th home run it would get a lot more publicity.
   Piersall hit No. 100 on June 23, and celebrated by circling the bases running backward. Photos of Piersall’s antics made the front page of several New York newspapers.
   Finally, not all antics are major league. Dave Bresnahan, aka Mr. Potato Head, was a minor league catcher playing in Williamsport, Pa., in 1987. One afternoon, he realized that a peeled potato would resemble a baseball.
   During a meaningless late-season game against the Reading Phillies, Bresnahan used a peeled spud to trick a runner on third base into thinking that the catcher had made an errant throw into the outfield. In reality, it was the potato; Bresnahan had the baseball hidden in his glove. When the runner tried to score, Bresnahan tagged him out.
   After several minutes of bedlam, the runner was called safe. Bresnahan lost his job after the game and was fined $50. Instead of leaving cash, he left 50 potatoes on the manager’s desk.
   I feel better now. Sure, it might have something to do with the Tigers finally winning some games, but I’m pretty sure it’s the thoughts of The Bird that have given flight to my spirit.
Ken Weingartner is the managing editor of The Messenger-Press.