I spent much of the summer before my 14th birthday watching the 1969 Phillies, an unremarkable team which didn’t lose 100 games, but came darn close.
They lost 99 and won only 63, which begs the question of why I kept going back to Connie Mack Stadium to watch them when few others did.
Because they were there, I guess, if not for long. Because it empowered me, I guess, riding the subway through the stops I saw only above ground once I had my driver’s license — Logan, Wyoming, Allegheny, Erie. I exited at Lehigh with the crowd — smaller and smaller as summer went on — and walked seven blocks to 21st and Lehigh, feeling more independent with every step.
(The Phillies played their final game at Connie Mack in 1970. For years I had a tuft of grass and a broken, red seat taken on the occasion of that game. I don’t remember running on the field to tear up the grass, though I must have, but I do remember ripping the seat off its moorings. I needed help, probably in more ways than one.)
Even with my presence, the ’69 Phillies drew little more than half a million people for 81 home games; today they would draw just about that many in a long homestand.
The ’69 Phillies had Dick Allen, who hit 32 home runs at bat and in the field wrote messages in the dirt, as if he were a castaway sticking notes in a bottle. He wanted to be rescued, and who could blame him?
They had two 22-year old rookies who offered the only kind of hope the Phillies provided in those days: false hope. Don Money hit .229 and was moved off shortstop the next year for Larry Bowa, then moved out of town when Mike Schmidt arrived in 1973 (with the Brewers, Money became an All-Star).
Larry Hisle hit 22 home runs, stole 18 bases and was fourth in the 1969 Rookie of the Year voting, but he didn’t last as long as Money. After three seasons with the Phillies, Hisle was traded for Tommy Hutton, who as a player, was a pretty good broadcaster to be, unless the pitcher was Tom Seaver. Hutton hit .320 against Seaver, .248 vs. everyone else (with the Twins Hisle hit .302 and knocked in 119 runs; reunited with Money on the ’78 Brewers, Hisle hit 34 home runs).
The ’69 Phillies had a pitcher named Billy Champion, who didn’t pitch like one (5-10, 5.01 ERA), and another named John Boozer, who we can only hope wasn’t one, even if playing for the team made it more likely.
When Neil Armstrong died recently, I remembered where I was when Apollo 11 landed on the moon: at Connie Mack Stadium, watching the Phillies score one run and lose a doubleheader to the Cubs. They would have needed to hit in the moon’s atmosphere that day to generate any offense.
Two weeks later I was at Connie Mack to witness what is still, 43 years later, the most remarkable game I have ever attended: the Phillies had 21 hits and hit three home runs, scored nine runs in the first three innings and seven runs in the sixth, got five RBIs from leadoff batter Tony Taylor, a pinch-hit-bases-loaded triple from Cookie Rojas and five hits from Deron Johnson. They scored 17 runs in a nine-inning game.
And, yes, they lost 19-17 to the Reds, who were held to 10 runs in the fifth inning by three Phillies pitchers, one of whom was the unfortunate and aforementioned Boozer (Champion started and lasted two innings and a batter in the third, fortunately for him).
I mention those Phillies because I’ve spent parts of this summer reading and re-reading my friend Mike Lowenstein’s book: The Nineteenth Year, in parts about the team he watched as a young teen. It’s a story about Pittsburgh and the Pirates, about family, and about what it’s like to be 14 years old and rooting for the best baseball team in the world. If you like any of those things, you’ll like this book.
Mike was supposed to be at camp, where I first met him and where I waited for him, that summer of 1971. But he broke his arm and stayed home — some guys will do anything to get out of diving into a freezing lake in the Poconos first thing in the morning (I wish I had thought of it). Instead, he kept dry and spent much of that summer watching the Pirates.
“Life works in strange ways. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was only because I did a stupid kid thing and broke my arm. Forty years later, it is one of the treasures of my life. In the summer of 1971, at the exact moment of his apotheosis, I watched the great Roberto Clemente play baseball.”
Me? I got to see Cookie Rojas at the nadir of his career. I won’t be writing a book about the ’69 Phillies any time soon, if only because I’m not sure if it would be comedy or tragedy.
The ’71 Pirates were a remarkable team in a lot of ways: they had Clemente and Willie Stargell and Al Oliver and Dock Ellis and Steve Blass, who before wildness was named for him, was a pitcher of guile and guts and stuff. Clemente homered and Blass won Game 7 on what has to still rank as one of the most taut World Series weekends ever (the Orioles won Game 6, 3-2, in 10 on Saturday on Frank Robinson’s daring baserunning; the Pirates won Game 7, 2-1, on Sunday on Clemente’s homer, Jose Pagan’s eighth-inning double and Blass’ four-hitter).
The ’71 Pirates were the first team to start an all-minority lineup, and they started six pitchers (in order, Ellis, Bob Johnson, Blass, Luke Walker, Nelson Briles and Bob Moose) in the first six games of a World Series, rallying from 2-0 down to beat a Baltimore team with four 20-game winners.
Imagine being 14 and in love with the baseball team that did that.
A year later, Mike hosted me when the Reds played the Pirates in the 1972 NLCS — I think I still owe him for the ticket, but if I ever accept his offer to attend a game again in Pittsburgh, I’ll get the first round of concessions, and I think we’ll be even, including the interest — and he came east to watch college basketball at the Palestra. Almost 40 years later, he recited the nickname we had called one of the players, an old high school-mate of mine.
We lost touch thereafter. Our camp closed, and we went on to college and careers, and who wrote letters even before email? Not quite 40 years after Mike’s summer with the Pirates, I got an email with my old camp nickname as the subject line. Old campers can learn new tricks.
Mike’s passion for the Pirates had been tempered by all the losing and by time and adult responsibilities, but in 2011 he committed to attend 40 games at the beautiful stadium he can see from the window of his law office. What better way to salute the ’71 Pirates?
The 2011 Pirates were a lot like the 2012 Pirates, only not as good, but Mike’s story of the season is better than the 70-92 record the team finished with (they were above .500 and in contention in early August, before 12 games in 13 losses fired their descent).
The Nineteenth Year is about the day-to-day beat of the season, and the memories it invokes, and the generations they were shared with. The book is subtitled A Sweet Summer with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that’s not just from watching Andrew McCutchen. Likewise, the sad moments in the book have nothing to do with lost baseball games.
But thinking of the Pirates and the last 20 years and The Nineteenth Year is why I grimace this September every time I see the Pirates are losing. I’ve rooted for a lot of teams over the last 50 years — the Phillies, the Koufax Dodgers, the Phillies, the Big Red Machine, the Phillies, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the Yankees.
But Mike is a one-team man, as loyal as the Pirates fans who gather every Oct. 13 at the site of what was once Forbes Field to listen to the replay of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and Bill Mazeroski’s home run (and, yes, The Nineteenth Year has a wonderful chapter on the 1960 Pirates as well, and even better, Don Hoak and City Slickers. Want to get into an argument with a Pirate fan? Tell them Bobby Thomson’s home run was the greatest ever. And good luck).
At 3:36 p.m. every Oct. 13, it always ends the same. Maz homers. The Pirates win.
Here’s hoping the 2012 Pirates’ season has a happy ending.