How Rocky Colavito saved the Day
The trick was to get up even with the dog before it awoke. If I was even with the dog when it lunged, I could use my momentum to get out front and no dog was going to catch me from behind. If the dog bolted too soon, though, and got up alongside my bike and with its jaws snapping, I’d have 3 options.
Option# 1 would be to lift my feet up onto the handlebars and hope the dog gave up before my bike coasted to a stop.
Number 2 was to give the dog a swift kick in the mouth, a fast kick so he didn’t make off with my sneaker.
Number 3 was some advice my big brother had given me. Stop my bike and get off and shake my finger in the dog’s face and yell at him. Let him know who was the boss. Then turn around and walk, not run, to my bike and ride slowly away. The dog was a coward and I just had to put it in its place. Everybody knew it.
I came up alongside the house and the dog wasn’t in its usual spot, snoozing in the dusty yard, and maybe the dog got hit by a car. It chased those too.
It was August, 1968, and I was on my way to visit my gramps. It was a summer tradition, Sunday afternoons watching baseball with Gramps, out at the old farmstead.
A little way farther along and I arrived at the other dangerous part of the trip - the railroad trestle.
The trestle was 40 yards long. It was curved like a bow and connected the deep woods on either side of the river. Kids weren’t ever supposed to go across the trestle but it was a shortcut too handy to be resisted. A kid, or anyone, on a bike or walking, could save time and effort by going across the trestle instead of going all the way out to the bridge.
I got down off my bike, had to walk it across the trestle, couldn’t ride on the ties, it’d be way too bouncy, and before I started across, I listened for a train, although, really, the thing to do was to feel for a train, not listen for 1. You’d feel it in your feet before you’d hear it. There weren’t many trains, 1 or 2 a day and another 1 sometimes at night and the trains went really slowly, which didn’t mean you wanted to be meeting 1 out around the middle of the trestle.
I listened, and not hearing a train or feeling the ground shaking beneath my feet, went quickly, not running, running would bounce a bike too. With the curve and with the woods, a kid on the trestle or anyone out there, wouldn’t see a train until it burst into sight and was bearing down on them and if a train arrived suddenly out of the woods, I’d have to leap. The leap wouldn’t kill me. It was only about 10 feet down to the water and there wasn't much current. I could easily swim to shore but if my bike got crunched by a big diesel locomotive or went over with me and to the bottom, I’d have to go to Gramps and then home sans bike and Mom would have known where I’d lost it. There was a Schwinn down there underneath the trestle, kind of wedged in along the stone stanchions at the bottom of the river.
On the other side of the trestle, I got back onto my bike and tooled along the dirt path between the stone bed of the tracks and the woods, and came out to the highway and stopped. Here was the most difficult, if not the most dangerous, part of the trip, the part I’d been thinking about all week and that had kept me up at night. I looked both ways and not because there might be cars. It was because I had to decide which way to go. I’d changed my mind about a zillion times over the course of the week and now and once I decided this 1 last time, there’d be no going back. To the left was Gramp’s house, to the right was the beach and Mary-Colleen, a classmate who liked me. I wanted to go right and knew I should go left.
The Sunday before, I’d broken with tradition. My buddies were spending Sunday afternoons at the beach with the girls and letting me know what I was missing and what got back to me - Mary Colleen liked me and so the week before, I’d gone to her, instead of to Gramps.
I got to hold hands with Mary-Colleen and treat her to a soda and fries and we swam out to the raft and made a date for the following Sunday. Yes, bliss, until Dad showed up and it was humiliating, although it would have been infinitely worse had it been Mom and not Dad who found me. I got home and Mom exploded and it was anxiety as much as anger. When I didn’t arrive at Gramps, Gram had called Mom, worried, and Mom panicked. I never missed Sunday afternoons with Gramps and did something happen to me? Mauled by a dog or squashed by a train? What followed was equally disconcerting. Mom was in a snit all week, Gramps and Gram too, when they came for Thursday night spaghetti and meatballs, another tradition. They were standoffish, cool toward me, their favorite grandson, and overly solicitous of older brother and what was it with them? Anger? Disappointment? Pique?
And what did I want now, another blissful afternoon with Mary-Colleen or an interminable afternoon watching boring baseball with Gramps?
My Sunday tradition with Gramps was about 3 years old and was great when it started. I was 11 and ate baseballs for breakfast, lunch and supper and the Yankees were winning pennants and World Series but I wasn’t 11 anymore and the Yankees were an awful baseball team.
I wanted to go to Mary-Colleen and went to the...left, resentfully.
Mary-Colleen would assume I’d ditched her and by the end of the day, and with her long blonde hair and in her bikini, she’d soon enough be holding hands with another boy.
I arrived at the farm and dropped my bike alongside the road, out where Gramps parked his car, and walked up the lawn to the house. On the other side of the house was the farm. Gramps didn’t farm anymore, he was too old; he just rented out the barns and fields to an adjacent farmer. I went up onto the back porch and into the kitchen. Gram was there, at the sink. She said hello and the hello was perfunctory and came without a hug.
I went through the house, to the front parlor. Gramps was ensconced in his big chair, watching the game on the black and white. I took my usual place, on the couch. Terrific, I said, sarcastic, when Gramps told me the score, the Yanks already losing 4 to 0. I said it under my breath so Gramps wouldn’t get how terrific didn’t mean I was feeling lousy for our ball team, down early to the league leaders. It meant stuck here with Gramps when I should have been at the beach with Mary-Colleen. And I couldn’t be hoping the game would end in time for me to get to the beach before Mary-Colleen went home. It was a Sunday doubleheader.
And why was it a Sunday doubleheader? Because the Thursday game had to be replayed, from the start. Our Yankees, confound them, trailing 3 to 1 Thursday night and against these same Tigers, rallied for 2 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the game and what followed was 11 scoreless innings, the game finally ending in a futile 3-3 tie and around 1 A.M. and with hardly anyone still in the stands.
I was miserable, and the worst of it wasn’t the interminable ball game. It wasn’t even jilting Mary-Colleen. It was my feelings toward Gramps. I resented him, pitied him, and hated myself for it.
He sat there in his undershirt without sleeves and his dirty old work pants and with that pungent dairy farm-smell. He was so old, he no longer sat in his chair, he sank into it. His glasses kept sliding down his face and he didn’t even fix them, at least not right away. He wasn’t saying anything and was he asleep or was he mad? I didn’t know, or care.
Gramp’s baseball glove was in its usual place, on the table, alongside his chair. There was a baseball in the glove, or on it, the glove was flat, no pocket, and so small it seemed more like a toy. It was black with age and had cracks and creases, 1 of those small gloves from years ago, when a ballplayer really did need to honor the old adage - "2 hands!"
I asked Gramps did he want to play catch now, instead of later. We always had a game of catch, after the ball game and before supper, and down 4 runs and with Detroit in first place and the Yankees nearer to the bottom of the league than to the top, we weren’t going to win this 1 and might as well get outside. He raised his arm, kind of rotated it in the air, and rubbed the front of his shoulder with his other hand.
"Not today," he said. "Shoulder’s bothering me."
We watched the ball game in silence, me brooding, Gramps sleeping or whatever. The Tigers scored another run, 5 to 0 and had 2 men on base and with only 1 out and something wonderful, something, well, serendipitous, happened.
Gramps saw it coming before I did and he did a kind of leap, not out of his chair but out of his slouch, out of his lethargy, and he was clapping.
"What?" I said, looking from Gramps to the TV and back again.
"Rock’s going to pitch," he said and it was hard to tell who was who on the fuzzy TV and the pitchers in those days rode in on carts, which kind of obscured them, and Gramps’s eyes were failing but he’d seen clear enough who it was - the Rock, Rocky Colavito.
Colavito had been a Yankee nemesis for years, an outstanding ballplayer for the Indians and Tigers, but as a rightfielder, not a pitcher and now and in his final year of ball, Rock was a Yankee, still a rightfielder and what was he doing coming in to pitch? Was it some kind of freak show? Some desperate attempt to give the fans their money’s worth? Well, not really. It actually kind of made sense. The Rock had a cannon for an arm and with that 18 inning game a few nights before and another game 15 minutes after this 1 and down 5 runs against the Tigers, might as well save the real pitchers for Game 2 and use the Rock, a player who maybe wasn’t a pitcher but who could throw darts.
The first batter The Rock faced was Hall of Famer Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger, the Rock’s old teammate. The Rock retired Kaline and up stepped Willie Horton, just about the most feared slugger in the game and Willie almost hit a home run, he hit the ball a long ways but not far enough, side retired. Gramps and I were celebrating and The Rock was still in there the next inning and didn’t give up any runs. He was throwing overhand fastballs, no curveballs or any other fancy stuff, it was just, here it is, if you can hit it, and Gramps and I were hooting so loud, Gram hurried in, thinking we were having a fight. After we explained to her what was going on, she did something she never did – she sat down and watched the ballgame with us. The next inning, Kaline again, and this time he hit a double and here came Willie Horton and he hit a screamer, right into our third baseman’s glove and it was 2 plus innings for the Rock, no runs allowed, and we’d scored a run, but it was still 5 to 1 against the league leaders, no chance, right?
Right, except with 2 outs and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth, the light-hitting Yankees flashed some of their old 5 o’clock lightening - a double, a walk, home run, home run, walk, single, single and unbelievably, we were ahead 6 to 5. Rock was out of the game, the real pitchers were back in there, now we had a lead to protect and could our generally unreliable relievers shut down the Tiger’s vaunted offense for 3 innings, to preserve our victory, the Rock’s victory?
It was excruciating, those last few innings, like the seventh game of the World Series and when our relievers recorded the final out, me and Gramps exploded with joy. Gram, too.
Tigers 202 100 000 5 10 0
Yanks 000 105 00X 6 10 2
Dobson, Patterson(6), McMahon(8); Barber, Colavito(4), Womack(7), McDaniel(8)
WP - Colavito! LP - Patterson
Gramps and I were happy and laughing and he grabbed his glove, no more sore shoulder, and we went outside for a catch and he was fielding ground balls like he was the kid, not me.
We went in for supper, my favorite - fried chicken and those fried potato things and root beer and over supper, they insisted I didn’t have to stay for the second game. I insisted I was staying, and I did, and we won it, with help from a homer by our Game 1 star, the Rock, who in game 2, was in his old place, right field. It was a lost weekend for the first place, Series-bound Tigers but like old times for the Yanks and for Gramps and me. When I finally did put my bike into Gramp’s car, it was nearly dark. I went back inside to say goodbye to Gram and she gave me the hug she’d so wanted to give me when I’d arrived and Mary Colleen? Well, school would be starting up again in a week and Mary-Colleen wouldn’t be the only cutie there.