Baseball Is A Fun Sport Partly Because `Anything Can Happen''

Nothing dampens spirits more than rain in the desert, and in this desert town of Tempe, spring-training home of the Mariners, we got about 8 billion buckets of the stuff a few days back.

But fortunately, baseball is a game of idling, a game of stories. It's an informal game, unlike football, which is paramilitary in nature. As Fred Moody once commented, NFL football doesn't consider the press to be a necessary evil. It considers the press to be an unnecessary evil.

A few seasons ago, here in Tempe, I spotted a young writer sitting happily alone in Diablo Stadium. I knew him because he once covered the Seattle Seahawks.

I asked him which game he preferred to write about, baseball or football.

He answered as though he expected the question.

``Baseball is much more fun,'' he said. ``In football, you talk to the players by appointment. In baseball . . . well, it's so informal that I can't get over it.

``I sometimes get the feeling that I could walk down on the field right now, hold up my hand, stop the game, and talk to the third-baseman.''

Days of downpour always make me think of baseball's great raconteurs - Hollis (Sloppy) Thurston, Babe Herman, Jo-Jo White and many more - always, and especially, including the late Casey Stengel.

One prayed for rain, in those wonderful days when Casey Stengel brought his Oakland Acorns to Sicks' Stadium. Rain meant no ball game. It also meant that Casey would hold court in his clubhouse, being in no hurry to leave the ark.

Stengel's stories were always convoluted, episodic, laced with double-talk, wandering from the point, and always funny. Brooding in the rain the other day, I recalled one of Casey's more notable discourses.

Back in the 1930s, Casey managed the Brooklyn Dodgers. On this team he had a pitcher named Walter (Boom-Boom) Beck, who later finished up his career in Seattle.

The reason Walter was called Boom-Boom is because so many teams hit line drives off him. Stengel also had on these Dodgers a left-fielder named Hack Wilson, a durable slugger (he once hit 56 home runs for Chicago).

Wilson was squat and muscular, built somewhat on the order of a fire hydrant. Critics say he also fielded like one. Wilson was also a steady, determined night-crawler, and on this afternoon he was playing with a stupendous hangover.

With Walter (Boom-Boom) Beck serving up line drives, Wilson had a busy time. He would field line shots off the Ebbetts Field fence and try to head off runners at second.

At last, Casey Stengel wearied of this cannonading and went to the mound. His purpose was to remove Boom-Boom from the game. A conference ensued and during this delay, Wilson sat down on his haunches, head bowed, and no doubt repented of his sins the night before.

``So here I am on the mound, and Boom-Boom won't gimme the ball,'' Stengel related. ``We got into an argument. Then Boom-Boom got really mad.

``Instead of giving me the ball, he turned and threw it as far as he could toward left field. Wilson has his head down, and he don't see this.

``But he hears that familiar sound of the ball crashing into the fence, jumps up, fields the ball, and makes a perfect throw into second base. Best play he made all season.''

I am happy to report that your youthful, clean-living Mariners do not have anyone like Mr. Wilson. They are bright, alert and dedicated. Some of them are quite rich, and they intend to get even richer by not hanging around saloons.

Still, they could use some advice. The Los Angeles Dodgers, as you know, are managed by Tommy Lasorda, the once corpulent but now slim TV dieter.

According to Roger Angell, the premier baseball writer of the universe, Lasorda tells this story every year in spring training - an object lesson to all young players.

Lasorda, you see, was a 10-year-old kid when he saw his first major league game. Like other youngsters, he sought autographs. Bearing down on him was a hulking, grousing player, and when young Tommy asked for the player's signature, the oaf brushed him aside.

``Outta my way, kid,'' he growled, pushing Tommy against a wall.

Lasorda was shocked, hurt, and outraged. This was the first major-league player he ever encountered. The incident was, in effect, a trauma that stayed with him for years.

He caught the player's number, as Angell puts it, ``like taking the license of a hit-run car.'' The player turned out to be one Buster Maynard.

Eight years passed and Tommy Lasorda became a promising, hard-throwing pitcher in the Dodger organization. And one day he found himself pitching against a Yankee farm team - the Augusta Yankees.

Lasorda retired the first two batters, then up came this familiar-looking figure, now a veteran. ``Batting for the Yankees, Buster Maynard,'' the announcer intoned.

Lasorda's first pitch nearly skulled Maynard. His second pitch, aimed at the legs, upended the veteran. When a third pitch shaved his chin, Maynard charged the mound. A great fight ensued, but was finally cooled.

After the game, Lasorda was dressing when he was informed that he had a visitor. It was Buster Maynard. Maynard did not look truculent, but his face was very puzzled.

``Say, kid,'' he asked, ``have I ever met you before?''

``Not exactly,'' Tommy said.

``Did I bat against you someplace?''


``Then why did you try to tear my head off out there?''

Lasorda spread his hands. ``Because you didn't give me your autograph,'' he said.

And so it is, Angell relates, that Lasorda tells this story every spring to his young players. ``Always give your autograph,'' he says. ``In baseball, anything can happen.''

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.