Lefty and the batboy

The big lefthander dropped his baseball socks, the white ones ballplayers wear from ankle to only knee, visible when the player pulls up the stirrups, or outer socks. The white ones are like the underwear of baseball socks, to be picked up and washed by the batboy.

Then the big lefthander left his muddy cleats beside the socks, for the batboy to clean off the mud, then shine brightly enough to reflect the player’s smile — if he smiles.

The big lefthander, Lefty (that’s what they call left-handed pitchers), shouted for the batboy whenever he needed something, because that was the batboy’s job, as a lowly valet for professional ballplayers on their way to the majors.

This was minor-league baseball in the sixties. Lefty was Steve Carlton, on his way to the St. Louis Cardinals. In his rookie professional season, he stepped onto the bottom rung of the organizational ladder with the Northern League’s Winnipeg Goldeyes. He didn’t smile much and he didn’t talk much, characteristics that would make him legendary.

I was the batboy…or one of them. The truth is I can’t be absolutely sure I picked up his socks or shined his shoes but it’s a fairly safe bet since Carlton pitched 12 times that season for the Goldeyes, about the same number of times I pinch-hit for the regular batboy, whose name was Ricky. For this Distant Replay, let’s assume it happened.

A little more than a year later, Carlton had rocketed through the minors to join the Cardinals. Three years later, he was winning a World Series and was headed for All-Stardom. Meanwhile, the “batboy” became a sports writer, and one of his early assignments for the Winnipeg Tribune was a story on Carlton, the Goldeyes pitcher who made it big.

I phoned and left a message. He never called. Strike one.

In succeeding years, Carlton moved on and became a great pitcher on a dreadful team, Philadelphia, one season winning 27 of the Phillies’ 59 victories (45.6 per cent). His career would include two Cy Young Awards, a statue all his own, Hall of Fame induction, a retired number (32) and World Series celebrations with three teams. Only one left-hander (Warren Spahn) ever won more games. Only one southpaw (Randy Johnson) ever struck out more hitters.

Carlton was also an All-Star at silence, refusing to be interviewed for most of his 24-year career. One night in Philadelphia, standing at his locker after he’d beaten the Montreal Expos, I asked questions I knew he wouldn’t answer. And he didn’t. Strike two.

Then came the day he was matched against the Expos ace, Steve Rogers, in a winner-take-all playoff game to advance to the National League Championship Series. Carlton was excellent, Rogers was better and the 3-0 victory sent the Expos to the only NLCS in their history. I’d be lying if I didn’t find it just a little satisfying that Carlton was beaten that day. I didn’t bother going to ask him why (that would’ve been strike three), nor did I notice who picked up his socks and shined his shoes.

The point is, even “batboys” have their day.

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