Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sharpie Scribbles – chapter VIII, Sparky Lyle

-- by Josh Suchon

Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.



My autograph collection is well over a thousand. It’s not worth counting the exact number. But let’s call it an even 1,200 as a nice round number. Out of those autographs, 1,197 were obtained between 1987-91, during my teen-age years when it was clear I had no girlfriend.

Only four of these autographs are displayed in the office of my apartment. They are Willie Mays, Roger Maris, Stephen Strasburg and Sparky Lyle.

Mays and Maris are there for obvious reasons. They’re on the sweet spot of a baseball, and they’re pretty sweet. The Strasburg signature came from a donation to the Aztec Athletic Foundation, and fits with my collection of San Diego State schwag.

Lyle’s signature makes me smile more than any other. It was obtained in the summer of 1996, when I was an intern for a minor league baseball team. My days of collecting Sharpie Scribbles were long over, but I made a special exception for Lyle because I’d spent the previous 24 hours shuttling him around a random city in upstate New York.

The signature states: “To Josh, thanks for putting up with all the shit!”




***

Coming out of college, I knew that I wanted to work in minor league baseball as a play-by-play announcer. What I didn’t know was how to actually do it.

My strategy was to call the play-by-play announcer for the Padres affiliate at Rancho Cucamonga and ask how he got his job. His name was Mike Curto. Great guy. Very helpful.

His advice: buy the Baseball America directory, and call every team to ask if they have an opening for an announcer.

Sounded pretty simple to me. That day, I ordered the directory. It arrived in the mail a few days later. I woke up one morning early – well, early by college student standards -- and started calling every short-season minor league team in baseball whose season started after school ended.

Including independent league teams, it was over 100 calls. When the phone bill arrived, my roommates laughed. I almost had a heart attack.

Five teams had an opening. I sent a tape – yes, a cassette tape – to all five. I got a phone call from one team. It came from a guy named Josh Getzler, the new owner of a team in Watertown, N.Y. Anybody with the name Josh is good people to me.

Josh offered me an internship with the Waterown Indians that would include a whole lot of job titles, not much money ($25 a day), but free rent, free ballpark food, and the chance to broadcast about 20 games live on the radio.

I said yes.

Then I found a map to see where the hell Watertown was located.

The day after walking across the graduation stage at San Diego State, I drove across the country in my car. I left on a Monday. I arrived on a Friday afternoon.

In between, I stopped in Vegas for an all-you-can-eat buffet and somehow managed to avoid the blackjack tables, got a speeding ticket in Utah, drove through snow in the Rocky Mountains, visited my family’s old house in Littleton, Colo. and talked to an old neighbor, met a friend in Kansas City and went to a Royals game, stopped in St. Louis and went to the top of the arch, stopped at an ESPN Zone in Indianapolis to watch the NBA playoffs, and stopped caring about landmarks somewhere around Cleveland.

It was one of those jobs that I would never do again, but I’m so glad that I did it.

The only player left from that team still playing baseball is John McDonald. Just so happens, he was my favorite dude on the team.

A few others who made the majors were Paul Rigdon (who had some good years), Willie Martinez (who made one appearance in the majors), and Sean DePaula (who was in Watertown about two minutes). The best future major leaguer in the New York-Penn League that year was Aramis Ramirez.

Like all minor league teams, we did a lot of promotions. Most of them were goofy and pointless. We had three great ones: Sparky Lyle day, the King and his Court, and an independent wrestling show in the middle of the infield.

***

All the fun started when I was chosen to pickup Sparky Lyle from the airport. It was an hour drive from Watertown to Syracuse (the nearest airport). This meant that for two hours, I didn’t have to distribute free tickets around town, re-paint the outfield fence signs, sweep the concourse, organize the merchandise table, answer phones, or any of the other jobs that I hated.

Plus, it meant that I could talk with a former major leaguer for an hour. He was stuck in the same car with me and couldn’t go anywhere. We must have hit it off right away because Lyle told awesome stories of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. He told even more awesome stories about groupies.

This is how these former ballplayer appearances work in the minors: you pay them whatever their fee is, pay their flight and hotel and food; in exchange, they do whatever ridiculous ideas you concoct.

We didn’t have anything ridiculous. We barely had anything planned. They told me to take Sparky Lyle to a mall to sign autographs and get people to come out to the game that night. There was no advance promotion or preparation. We just showed up. I grabbed a table, made a hand-made sign, and we sat there.

Most people probably thought it was a joke, or an imposter. Sparky Lyle is just hanging out at a mall in Watertown? I think 10 people stopped at the table over the hour we were there.

I know we made another stop somewhere, but can’t for the life of me remember what or where it was. I’m sure it was the same thing. No promotion. Hardly anybody there. Me feeling like an idiot for taking Sparky Lyle someplace where nobody was expecting him. Sparky Lyle feeling like an idiot for being stuck with some idiot kid just out of college who had no clue.
The Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds, our humble ballpark.

Once we were at the ballpark, it was a little better. At least people were expecting him there. Lots of people were wearing Yankees shirts and hats and taking photos. Never mind that we were an Indians affiliate.

The new owners were a family from Manhattan. It was no secret they would move the team as soon as their lease expired. Indeed, they moved the team to Staten Island three years later and became a Yankees affiliate. Baseball has never returned to the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds in Watertown.

The big event, somewhat planned, was that Sparky Lyle would throw batting practice against the local celebrities in town.

We had one local celebrity.

He was the sports anchor for the one local TV station in town. The weekend sports anchor just shot video of the whole thing. I guess he wasn’t a celebrity yet.

Sparky Lyle needed to be warmed up, so I played catch with him. I grabbed the first glove I saw in the dugout. Didn’t realize it was bad luck to put your meat claws into somebody else’s glove.

The glove belonged to an outfielder named Mel Motley. He told me that I better not drop anything with his glove. I dropped a couple throws. Motley never made the majors. Sorry dude. Guess it was my fault.

We must have grabbed a couple other people from the stands, or maybe the weekend sports anchor took a few cuts, just so Sparky Lyle could strike out more than just the same guy over and over. We were all set for batting practice. I was somewhat proud of myself.

Then Sparky Lyle looked at me and said, “Josh, we’re going to take BP with one ball?”

Oh crap! I ran into the dugout and fished out as many balls as I could find. I think I grabbed six. We probably could have done it with one ball. Nobody made contact until Sparky Lyle started lobbing them in there.

I was impressed with Sparky Lyle’s fastball and slider. I asked him if he ever considered a comeback. Keep in mind, he retired in 1982 at age 37. Now it was 1996 and he’s 51 years old. But after seeing him strike out our local TV anchor, I thought Sparky Lyle was ready for a comeback.

“I won’t be able to lift my arm tomorrow,” Lyle told me.

So much for the comeback.

That's me, right by Sparky Lyle's side.
We moved over to an autograph table early in the game. That was about the only thing that went smoothly. We had a table. I made sure we had blue Sharpies for the baseball cards, and blue ball-point pen for baseballs. If there was something I learned after my amateur start to autograph collecting, it was the right pens to use.

Fans waited in line. Yes, there was actually a line. It was the only time that day I didn’t feel like a complete idiot.

I helped the fans get the item ready to be autographed, so they could have some 1-on-1 time with the Sparky Lyle. He was great. Sparky Lyle signed the items, answered questions, chatted them up, posed for photos, and made a bunch of people’s day.

As a kid, I rarely got autographs at baseball card shows. It was pointless paying for something I thought I could get for free at the ballpark.

I made a few exceptions. I got Willie Mays because he’s Willie Mays. I got Jose Canseco because he only scribbled his full name at card shows. I got Robin Ventura because I was obsessed with getting BCF’s for members of the 1988 Olympic team.

At these cards show, I used to mock the guy sitting next to the athlete. What kind of loser has a job where you get an item ready to be autographed by some athlete? Well, now I knew. That was me. I was that loser for the day.

We fed Sparky Lyle the finest ballpark food we had to offer: pizza. The best part of the pizza was the gorgeous girl – the only one in town – who worked that stand.

Once all the autographs were done, I took Sparky Lyle back to his hotel. We put him up at the best hotel in Watertown. 

It was a Ramada Inn.

***

The next morning, I picked up Sparky Lyle at the Ramada Inn, made sure he didn’t have to pay the bill, and drove him back to the Syracuse airport. Another hour drive where he was stuck in the car with me.

I don’t remember what we discussed on this drive. I’d like to think it was more stories about Martin and Steinbrenner and groupies. It was probably about the weather.

I do remember thinking to myself if Sparky Lyle loved or hated these appearances. It was probably both.

It’s easy money. You show up, smile, shake hands, take photos, strike out local TV sports anchors, scribble your name a lot, and just have to put up with some intern like me.

It also probably gets old and annoying. Random cities with random people telling you random stories about your career that probably aren’t even true.

Constantly looking into the past for those totally overrated good-ol' days, when there’s better-new days that are possible, is something that I loathe -- even though I admit that’s totally hypocritical considering the point of this “Sharpie Scribble” feature.
 
I guess it goes back to the table at the mall. It must be pretty humbling for a guy who pitched in World Series games at Yankee Stadium to sit at a mall, with me, and hardly anybody coming over to say hello.

I’m terrified at what Sparky Lyle was really thinking at that moment. Maybe he liked it that way, not having to tell Yankees stories because that’s what everybody expects and wants.

Toward the end of the drive to the airport, I handed Sparky Lyle a baseball and asked if he’d sign one more – for me. I told him to write something funny and true about our day together, something I would always remember.

That’s when he wrote, “thanks for putting up with all the shit.”

I didn't see it until I was on my way back to Watertown.

Gawd, I love Sparky Lyle.

3 comments:

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    1. Great story, Josh - especially the part about the pizza girl - too funny. I have always felt that Sparky knew how to have a good time.

      I have learned over the years that former players, especially those from long ago or those who were never really super stars, absolutely love being recognized and acknowledged for their accomplishments and are usually very willing to sign autographs for you (as long as you are not interfering with their privacy, of course).

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  2. I must have gotten Sparky's autograph outside Memorial Stadium as a kid, 'cause I immediately recognized that signature.

    Somewhere around here I've got Roger Maris and Harmon Killebrew's scribbles on a piece of paper. Grandma gave it to me with the story that my mother had gotten it at the small-town Southern ballpark the sluggers barnstormed through on the way up from spring training in '62 or '63. Mom said she remembered and that Mickey Mantle was supposed to make an appearance too but didn't make it -- boy does that sound likely. Oh and the paper . . . the only paper anyone had around . . . waxy paper for wrapping hot dogs in.

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