Baseball is a Family
by Linda Kittel | © Washington State University
"Baseball is a family for those who follow it," the game's eternal scribe, Roger Angell, wrote. And so it is for me. When my husband Ron put me on the Greyhound bus for a 77-hour ride from our home in Vermont to find us a new home in his native Idaho, he advised me to talk to any of my seat companions about baseball. "Everyone has something to say about baseball," he told me. "Just get them started and the miles will fly by."
And Ron was right-still is most days. I discovered at the Minneapolis/St. Paul bus station I had a new person in the seat next to me-a priest, it turned out. And as he bowed his head before a plastic-wrapped sandwich, I prayed too, prayed that he might have something to say about the religion of baseball. Of course he did. And as we crossed over the northern plains, he told me he was on his way to Montana where his parish was and that he was the old Orioles' ace Dave McNally's priest. The miles did fly by, full of his kind recollections of seasons past, until we parted in Butte.
Those two notions-baseball as family and "Everyone has something to say about baseball"-led me to structure an honors composition course at Washington State University around our national pastime. Over the years I've found that every student does indeed have something to say-and write-about baseball, from the guys who want to let me know about their fantasy league teams to the young women who wonder whether there will ever be women in the major leagues.
And my baseball family has continued to grow through this course, "Reading, Writing, and Thinking Between the Lines-At Bat in American Culture." We start the composition season off with training in the Avery Microcomputer Lab (AML) when I give each student a baseball card. To a girl from Bellevue, Washington, I might give a John Olerud rookie card and wait until she notices that there are similarities between Olerud's hometown and her own. Or I may hand a Cub fan an Upper Deck Sammy Sosa. They have time then to learn the ropes of the lab, surf the Internet for news of their player, and then write a brief paragraph on him, one that might appear in a baseball program.
Usually the kids begin to make connections with others in the class through this exercise. Someone might not know how to read their card's back, and another student will explain that the "SV" means "saves," and that Mike Marshall was a terrific reliever. Someone's next computer neighbor might want to trade his Rick Burleson for her Bucky Dent. And the season's off to a great start. My baseball family begins getting larger, friendlier, more enthusiastic.
There's always a sweet surprise: Early on this semester, we were talking about Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella's smart novel made into the technicolor tearjerker, Field of Dreams. Ray, the protagonist, has just convinced J.D. Salinger to go in search of Moonlight Graham, and they are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame to do their research. We were talking about halls of fame and why Americans seemed so interested in them. I asked if anyone had been to Cooperstown. No, but one young woman had been to the Washington State Hall of Fame. In fact, she told us, "my father's in there." Heads snapped. "He played baseball here," Molly told us.
"I've got his baseball card in my office," I said. I'd had her brother in class last summer and thought I might see him again, so my husband gave me their dad's card.
And so it was that Joe McIntosh '73, WSU grad, pitcher for the San Diego Padres 1974-75, came as magically to class as Shoeless Joe Jackson came to Ray Kinsella's Iowa.
Today our "baseball English" class is meeting in the Bundy Reading Room. Students have curled up on the plush chairs, some with their morning lattes, others with tea and fruit bread. It's quiet and warm when Molly McIntosh comes beaming through the door with her father-Molly, I've come to notice, always beams when she talks about her father-and we are introduced. Nothing about this bespectacled and balding man in a blue blazer announces his extraordinary background. He reminds me a bit of Burt Lancaster in his role as Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, which the class watched together a few weeks back. But Joe McIntosh carries a brown accordion file instead of a doctor's black leather bag.
I read the class an e-mail from Ron Brey, a Montana fishing buddy of my husband:
"Joe and I played Little League baseball for three years together-albeit on different teams. Joe was on the Monarch Clothes and I was on Security Bank. We played Babe Ruth baseball together for two years on the same team-Meadow Gold Dairy. Joe was a consistent star-I had moments of glory sandwiched between moments of infamy. We did take second in the city [Billings] one year losing the championship game 1-0.
"Joe always and only wore number 7 for the obvious reason [Mickey Mantle's number]. When he didn't pitch, he played shortstop.
"Joe was always going to be a Major League Baseball player-like all of us-only he never outgrew it.
"Joe was always kind, humble and more than a little shy-a very nice person.
"In short, Linda, he was so intent on becoming a ML Baseball player, I don't recall any embarrassing moments for you to capitalize on. I think the most interesting thing about Joe is the systematic way he approached his passion, even as a little kid. He taught himself to hit lefty and his dedication to whiffle and tennis ball batting practice when the real thing was unavailable was legendary amongst his peers."
Next I read a short passage from our class guru, Roger Angell, from a piece in Five Seasons, "The Companions of the Game," dated September 1975 and set in Candlestick Park:
"There was a perfect view of the ballplayers arrayed below us on the Astro Turf, a few hundred scattered fans-most of who seemed to be kids in variously emblazoned windbreakers-and thousands of empty orange-colored seats. The game matched up two good young right-handed fast-ballers-the Giants' John Montefusco and the Padres' Joe McIntosh."
Molly jumps in, "Do you remember that game, Dad?" And he nods. "Did you win?"
I laugh, knowing her dad had gotten knocked out of the game and the Giants had won, and tell her that some questions are better left unasked. But quickly the other students start their questions, and we get to hear something of Joe McIntosh's career: his time at Washington State with Bobo Brayton; how he met his wife in Orton Hall when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore; how in his junior year he traveled with Brayton to Nicaragua to play in the Pan American games; how Brayton managed the U.S. team; and how Roberto Clemente had led his Puerto Rican team to the gold medal, beating the Americans.
Joe explains that this was in November of 1972 and how, soon after, Clemente had died in a plane crash, trying to bring humanitarian relief to a devastated Nicaragua.
The questions continue, and we hear about his time with the Padres; about teammates Dave Winfield, Willie McCovey, and Tito Fuentes; how he'd faced Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench and Pete Rose and Joe Morgan; and how a tear of his rotator cuff had brought an end to his major league career. For each question, Joe McIntosh's answers contain a measure of humility and a heavy dose of love for the game. For each puzzled face, McIntosh takes time to explain-how the rotator cuff works, or doesn't, how surgery doesn't usually work.
When the more-than-exuberant Jesse Geleynse, who has denied himself caffeine to help him contain his enthusiasm, asks, "How much did you make?", McIntosh laughs. "Before I answer this, I should let you know, you never ask a person's salary. $16,000."
Having played in the mid-'70s, McIntosh is more than aware of the changes Major League Baseball has endured-the designated hitter rule, Astro Turf, the advent of free agency.
"It's still 60 feet, six inches from the plate to the pitcher's mound. But owners think fans want higher scores, so they've altered the game." Then he tells about lowering the mound and the effect, too, of the smaller strike zone and moving the outfield fences in.
From Dallas Rawlins-sitting somewhat sullenly in his St. Louis cap on this day after the Red Sox have swept the Series four games to none: "Which major league hitter today would you least like to face?"
McIntosh answers quickly, "Pujols"-the Cardinals' first baseman who hit .333 during his team's World Series collapse.
More questions come, now about the present. Joe tells us about his career as a lawyer. After his shoulder surgery he'd tried to come back, as a player/coach in the minor leagues, first in the Appalachian League and later in the Gulf Coast League, but he'd realized he needed a job and sandwiched in law school, a term at a time, while he was trying to rehabilitate his arm. Now he is a tax lawyer, dealing a lot in contract law also. He has been John Olerud's agent since 1990, when that stellar Coug went straight to the major leagues after signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. "Of course his father played for WSU, and we'd met long ago through baseball and WSU."
"What about Olerud's release from the Mariners? His signing with the Yankees?" Jesse asks, getting a little hyper.
And soon we are listening to what it is like to be John Olerud's agent and to hear from the New York Yankees front office how interested they are in a client.
"So what's your cut?" Jesse prods, but this time gets no answer. But talk of negotiations and contracts brings us around to our next class project, considering the 1971 Flood v. Kuhn case, when the seven-time gold-glover for the St. Louis Cardinals challenged baseball's reserve clause. McIntosh encourages our class to look closely at the contract quoted in the case. "Look, " he tells us, "at the tight contract language." He explains the reserve clause, interstate commerce, and stare decisis to us in simple language "Stare decisis is the first term first-year law students learn-'the decision stands.' Look, everyone wants to write about baseball, even Supreme Court justices."
Our time with Joe McIntosh is over too quickly. Students are reluctant to leave. Jesse pulls out a baggie with a pitifully dilapidated baseball in it. He wants an autograph. When he looks over at me, I give him one of my brand-new baseballs. "I'm just a kid about autographs," I tell Joe and Jesse and the beaming Molly.
"That's what makes baseball great," Joe says, "It keeps us kids."
And he signs one baseball for me, and one for his old Babe Ruth team mate-"Go Meadow Gold. Joe McIntosh."
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