Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Every year about this time I think about two firsts in my sporting life, and both happened while I played in the Chicago Cubs organization: my first win as a professional baseball player on July 5, 1976, and my first and only NASCAR race on July 4, 1977.
During the summer of 1977, I played for the Cubs’ Florida State League, Class A affiliate in Pompano Beach, FL. We were on a road trip over the weekend of the Fourth hitting Daytona and Cocoa Beach. It was 99 degrees that weekend with a humidity reading of 110 percent and some moron scheduled a doubleheader for July 4, a Sunday afternoon.
We didn’t want to play in any Sunday afternoon doubleheader. Mired in a nine-game losing streak we had lost the first two games of a four-game series, badly in fact, the Friday night game erupting in a bench-clearing brawl. I had started the game and lasted three innings, giving up a game-tying grand slam home run to Kenny Phelps, who incidentally, hit the game-tying homer in my first professional win a year earlier.
Phelps went on to play a dozen or so years in the big leagues as a DH with Kansas City and Seattle. When I die and am sent to purgatory for living an impure life, I will endure eternity delivering gopher balls to Kenny Phelps.
After curfew check our clubhouse boy, Kenny, a 16-year high school sophomore who is today either a millionaire several times over, or serving 10-to-20 for securities fraud, knocked on my hotel room door.
With him were Rudy and Flip, the two clubhouse boys for the Islanders.
And they fanned out field passes to the Firecracker 400 like you would a deck of cards.
“Complimentary infield passes,” Rudy said, “You in?”
Sure thing we’re in, and we grabbed at the passes.
“But how are we going to go when we have ball games?”
This is where Kenny revealed his true genius, “We’re going to make it rain.”
The forecast for Sunday called for sunny skies and a high of 99 degrees.
There is no rain in the forecast, we mournfully replied.
“Leave that to me,” said Kenny like Moses.
Because of plausible deniability, if we wanted the infield passes we had to take part in Kenny’s scheme. We arrived at the ballpark after 3 a.m. and found several members of the Royals out there waiting on us. “We’re all in this together,” they said.
I was just a na´ve Indiana country boy who asked the obvious question, “How are we going to make it rain when there is no rain in the forecast?”
That’s when Flip produced a key to the groundskeeper’s shed.
“Sprinkler system,” he said wearing a smug grin.
It took a few “One-Mississippi’s” for it to sink it.
“We’re going to water the grass?”
Flip smiled, “Sure . . . for the next twelve-to-fifteen hours,” and he keyed the switch that fired-up the ballpark’s sprinkler system.
The call came at breakfast the next morning. The doubleheader had been rained out. The baseball field was under six inches of water where someone had broken in as a prank and turn on the sprinkler system. The groundskeeper’s shed had been inadvertently left unlocked.
The police were investigating.
The games would be played instead on Monday. This was fine with us, we didn’t mind. I got to roam the infield at Daytona, meet Richard Petty, Bobby Allison signed my baseball hat and I couldn’t hear for three days.