A knuckle sandwich and a home run ‘hello’

Two things happened that made a certain two-week stretch one of the best of my feeble and pitiful life.

I knew neither could ever happen again, and they haven’t and they won’t.

One was that St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig got in a fistfight during the fourth inning of an otherwise-nothing Tuesday night game at old Busch Stadium.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re correct: it was awesome. Awesome on steroids.

It was old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, July 17-27, 1986, a Thursday through the next Sunday, the stretch immediately after the All-Star break. The Los Angeles Dodgers were there for four, then San Francisco for three, an off-day, then San Diego for three.

I was there for all 10 games in 11 days. It was my sixth year as a sportswriter but only my second as a sportswriter with a real paycheck and dental. This trip was vacation, but I was able to write some stories about Mansfield’s Vida Blue and the Giants, the big-league club of Shreveport’s Captains, to help cover my gas, which I put in my truck and drove to the condo of my friend Rammer, a St. Louis homeboy and broadcaster.

I’d been there for five games when the second game of the three-game set with the Giants rolled around. Spent most of those games keeping score in the press box, cracking jokes with Ramz, and posting up by the chocolate milk machine, the best ever in my deep chocolate-milk-machine experience. (This piece of equipment did not make it into the new Busch Stadium press box, an oversight I still find hard to comprehend.)

St. Louis would finish 28.5 games back of the Mets that season, San Francisco 13 back of Houston. But on this hot weeknight in mid-July, neither team knew that.

With the Cardinals, built on speed and line drives, on their way to a 10-2 lead thanks to the eight runs they’d scored in this, the Cardinals half of the fourth, the Cards’ speedy outfielder, Vince Coleman, stole second off the Giants’ always unkempt-looking righty Juan Berenguer.

And then he stole third.

Craig started walking toward home plate, upset the home team was stealing with a 10-2 lead, and then Herzog strutted quickly to meet him, and then home plate umpire Bob Davidson saw what was about to happen and got between them, and then both dugouts emptied and it looked like two giant arrowheads pointed at each other at home plate, with Davidson and the suddenly swinging Craig and Herzog going at like they were on the playground at Warren G. Harding Middle School.

I nearly wept, overcome with joy.

After the game Herzog, his sock feet on his desk and a Busch Light in his hand — zero chance of them running out of those in Busch Stadium — said to us writers, “I told him we’d quit stealing bases if he promised not to hit any more home runs.”

The Giants, built on power, had done just that in the second (Bob Brenly) and the eighth (Joel Youngblood), but it wasn’t enough: the Cards won, 10-7, and would sweep both the series and the Padres over the weekend.

“Does he (Craig) think he invented the game?” a sipping Herzog was saying. (You will have to add the cursing, and trust me, you can’t add too much of it.)

And I could have headed back home then because that was the icing on the baseball cake of what had happened during the weekend.

Vin Scully, who as every American knows passed away this week at 94 and was a Dodgers broadcaster for 67 years, had done the Dodgers-Cardinals Game of the Week for TV Saturday. Ramz introduced me to him in the press box after the game. Scully’s partner, Joe Garagiola, was sweating like a hog with typhoid — it was so hot that Saturday that the steel cleats worn by St. Louis’ Willie McGee melted and bent on the centerfield turf (true story) — but Scully looked entirely refreshed, as always, cool and ready to attend Mass, as he did each Sunday, home or away.

Which I’m sure he did the next morning before going to Busch, this time to call the game for his team’s network on radio. And it was during the seventh-inning stretch when I turned to see if I could see him and I did and his eyes caught mine — I’d gone into the stands to sit with some of Rammer’s friends for a couple of innings — and during Take Me Out To The Ballgame, he smiled and waved, not in a TV suit now but in a short-sleeved button-up, and semi-loudly said, “Hey, Teddy!” Like you’d holler at a buddy at, of course, a ballgame.

Can see it now. It was only a moment.

But how did he remember that, “that” being me?

And then it was over and he kept smiling and waving at people looking up at him and then the bottom of the seventh started and he was back sitting, calling the game, telling stories, entertaining and informing and working another half-inning in a life and career unmatched, one filled with humility and grace and kindness, the cherry on the top of all that talent and work ethic and love of life and love of the game.

Contact Teddy at Teddy@LaTech.edu