The Big Yellow Machine’s Perfect Season

Struggling Weekly, July 26, Aug. 2 and 9

 

Part I

            My days as a participant in organized softball are history, I guess. Slowpitch, the preferred pastime of those of my age group inclined towards some form of ball playing, doesn’t interest me.

            Besides, my arm nearly fell off after trying to dunk Mr. Bill at Pleasantville, and an attempt to win a stuffed animal by throwing 75 miles per hour or faster on the midway at the Sauk County Fair recently resulted in pains in the elbow, a measly rating of 62 on the JUGS gun and suspicions that different people calibrated that radar than those hired by the police.

            But a recent conversation with BJ Lund — about an old-timers’ fast-pitch game for those of us on the far side of 35, among other things — brought back memories of my past incarnation as a softballer. (If anybody is interested in such an exhibition, contact either Bjorn or myself.)

            I played five seasons in the Madison fastpitch leagues for the Yellow Cab team. (Actually, the last year was for the Parthenon Gyros, sponsored by the Greek restaurant where many of our drivers cabbies got greased up on the team’s namesakes. After that, the team became the self-sponsoring Iron Gloves — and actually became respectable.)

            Lest you be overwhelmed by the fact that we played in the Capital City program, bear in mind that there were some 35 leagues at that time, named on an alphabetical basis and ranked by strength. We were usually in the Yahara or Wingra leagues, or nearer the bottom, if that is possible.

            Those were five unexceptional seasons; while seldom electrified by the thrill of victory, our teams were seldom concerned about the agony of defeat, either. We were more impressive in the bar during post-game festivities than on the field.

            None of those conglomerations ever posted a winning record. (The only Yellow Cab team ever to not have a losing record was our ’72 basketball team — which finished at .500. A company football team was 1-0 one year — but since its only victory came over a rival Yellow Cab squad, that doesn’t count).

            Our most memorable season was 1973, but not because of our won-loss record, which was lopsided towards the back end. Spring training is always a time of promise, but our prospects seemed auspicious that year: our starting pitcher was supposed to be a legit hurler, and for once we had a coach who actually wanted to be one. In previous years, we had either been guided by committee, or by some unfortunate who had been chosen by default or the process of elimination.

            Most of the enthusiasm originated from our coach, Ken Stone. Keeno was a transplant from suburban Chicago.

             (Ken later tried his hand and voice at guitar, country singing and songwriting, becoming “The Okie from Skokie” to the rest of us, and the front man of a three-piece band called the Heywood Brooks Trio. All members had stage names made up of intersections in Madison.)

            A hyperactive hybrid of grand ideas, fast talk and abrasive effusiveness, he loved to play ball, was willing to put some time into the team and seemed to actually believe that he could do something with our motley crew. Who were we to argue with convictions like that?

            And a motley crew we were. Most teams put together a roster from the best players they can find amongst friends and associates. We started with a work force of about 100, and all players had to come from that group — and while the cab company would hire just about anybody, they either had to make money or depart for greener pastures; for our boss, no hiring jocks just to stock the softball team.

            It was asking a lot to get league fees, uniforms (shirts only) and the (very) occasional beer money after games from him. So we put out on the field, at the mercy of real (or at least serious) teams, a combination of semi- and non-athletes whose ages ranged from old enough to get a cab permit to nearing pension age.

            Earlier Big Yellow Machines had had players like George Johnson, our sometime coach who could barely hit the ball out of the infield and who got us in hassles as the result of his habit of turning and backing into the plate to avoid getting hit, just to get on base; Delmar Tietz, who as an outfielder had a unique way of circulating under a flyball, and as a pitcher couldn’t keep his hand inside his elbow enough to throw a legal pitch; and Bob Buss, who was a good athlete in his time, but insisted on playing third despite being old enough to have kids working for the company.

            But ’73 seemed like a different season. Besides the new coach and pitcher, we had one of the youngest teams ever (the cab business was in a transition period from the days of the veteran “lifer” drivers to the time of the college student/dropout hack).

            Some of the younger additions were honest-to-goodness athletes, and between that fact and the inspirational urgings of Ken the Coach, we entered the season with high hopes for success. What we got was something else entirely.

Part II

            As noted last week, our prospects in the low-rent section of the Madison fastpitch leagues for 1973 seemed reasonably bright. We had a for-real coach (at least one who wanted to lead), our first-ever “windmill” pitcher and more young players who were actual athletes. And our new coach made an actual effort to put together a team, a defensive lineup with the right players at their best positions.

            Besides Bob “Boo” Burchette, the new pitcher, we had Steely Jim Neely at third, Victor “Panic from Detroit” Wightman in center and Coach Ken himself at first or in right. Our veterans had been shuffled, too; Ned Miller was at second after languishing in the outfield, where Nic Ylvisaker now roamed.

            Paul Zmudzinski had found a home at first when Ken wasn’t there, and for reserves we had “Delwood” Tietz, our former starting pitcher and current backup Mark Wenzlaff, who could play just about anywhere, and a couple others.

            The really big changes, though, involved yours truly. The catcher’s spot had always been held down by Craig “Coach” Enge (he had been the unwilling field general the year before), my roommate. But he was too good an athlete to keep kneeling behind the plate, and Keeno wanted him at short.

            Since Zmud had rather limited mobility, but good hands—and didn’t want to go behind the plate—the search turned to, you guessed it, good ole’ SB, who had played pretty much every position except center at some point in his career. But I had never caught, either.

            Despite lacking the proper fireplug shape for a backstop, it wasn’t that dumb a move. I had an above-average arm (hard to believe, considering its condition now), and besides, I had no other natural position except first, where my throwing ability was wasted. I was also eager to play, and loathe to let the team down.

            Like a lot of plans, this one looked good on paper, but not so swell in practice—and especially so in a game situation. For one thing, I discovered that my knees did not find kneeling for seven innings agreeable.

            For another, our pitcher, Boo, had speed and a baffling array of risers, sinkers and curves. (He was an intimidating gargoyle of a man, about 5’7” and 225 pounds, a former Golden Gloves boxer— last I heard he was a member of a Madison motorcycle gang—whose heart of gold, alloyed with lots of brass, was belied by a face you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.)

            The problem was that not even Boo could predict where his pitches would sink, rise or curve. My job came to be like that of a hockey goalie — except that goalies get to wear masks and lots of padding; we couldn’t afford a real catcher’s mitt or chest protector, and only my face was protected from the onslaught.

            I didn’t have any more personal padding then than now, less in fact, and between the wild pitches and foul tips, I took a beating. Mostly I grinned and bore it, or bore it and didn’t grin. During one game, though — Boo must have partied hardy the night before — it got to be too much; in the middle of an inning I laid the mask and glove down on the plate and walked to the bench.

            Our practice and game schedule in 1973 would have amazed the serious softballers of this area. We played one league game per week, and no tournaments (we could never qualify for the city tourney at the end of the year).

            We might have a couple practices a week at the start of the season, but with drivers and dispatchers from the day, night and graveyard shifts, it was hard to get even nine players on the field at one time. By mid-season, if we had one practice a week, we thought we were doing very well.

            That kind of training program is a recipe for disaster, at least if you aim at having something other than fun and fun alone. But losing regularly isn’t much fun, and we were unfunnily irregular right from the start. Like the Mets of the Marv Throneberry era, we always found some way to lose, and the season loomed long ahead of us — longer yet than this series, which will continue in next week’s Times.

Part III

            As we worked our way through our 15-game schedule, it became increasingly apparent that only divine intervention, or a forfeit, would provide us with a victory. Our reputation had preceded us through the league and no team was going to pass up the opportunity for a victory at our expense, so getting God in our lineup — or at least on our side — was our only hope.

            When we took the field, Murphy’s Law, rather than that of Abner Doubleday, applied: everything that could go wrong did. Our fielding, more often than not, looked like comic ballet; this was partly caused by nose-diving enthusiasm and the absences resulting therefrom, with our players playing other than their usual positions too often. Our hitting vanished entirely in the few games when our defense and pitching held up.

            My personal low point came when, because of the absences of our starting pitcher and his backup, I had to pitch. I couldn’t throw windmill, but I did have a hard-to-hit spinner that stayed low in the strike zone.

            That evening, after we had built up an eight-run lead, it started going too low, and I proceeded to put about three dozen pitches in the same spot — a foot in front of home plate. The string of walks, followed by the first good hits they got off me (which just happened to be homers), snatched defeat from the jaws of victory — and put an end to my softball pitching career.

            We did eventually win a game, a non-league contest against a slowpitch team from Mendota State Hospital — the employees, not the residents. But even that wasn’t much fun, as we had to claw our way to victory on a muddy, bumpy field.

            Our record as the season ended was a dismal 0-15. Our final post-game celebration loomed as not only anti-climactic, but downright masochistic as well.

            The celebration was held, as usual, at the Plaza Tavern off State Street (home of the Plazaburger, which can now be purchased in La Crosse and Minneapolis, in places lacking the ambience of the home of the original). It was probably held there because no one felt like driving the mile and a half to our alternate post-game home, the Friendly Tap on the east side.

            The Plaza’s management brightened our spirits some by donating several pitchers of beer, in honor of our “perfect record” — although I suspect it was partly in recognition of our contributions to their profit margin. As usual, our sorrows were washed away, replaced by good fellowship.

            Even the cab company’s third in command, an individual universally despised by the employees, was applauded after a (thankfully) brief speech. (It helped that he had brought money for more beer.) And as the evening wound down, it turned out that Ken the Coach had one more surprise for us.

            Standing at the head of the table, he called for our attention. After a few minutes of the obligatory thank yous and you-were-a-great-team comments, he reached into a box beside him and began taking out chrome plastic trophies that couldn’t have cost less than a quarter apiece. Each was presented to a team member, accompanied by a short speech recognizing that player’s contributions or strong points.

            For example, Nick Ylvisaker, the poet laureate of the 602 Club, was honored for the “Best Performance by a Left-Handed Outfielder.” (Need it be noted that Hjalmer was our only southpaw flycatcher?)

            I listened to these accolades, and began to wonder what honor could possibly be bestowed on me. How could Ken find something funny or endearing, much less superlative, about the dismal season I had just suffered through. (In previous years one of the more consistent hitters on the team, I had even failed at that during the 1973 season.)

            The only notable thing I could think of was the record for passed balls that I had likely set, with the help of our starting pitcher. But that didn’t fit the spirit of the other speeches.

            Finally, the Coach got around to me — and brought forth the “Captain Guts” trophy, for contributions above and beyond the call of duty, for bearing up under all the abuse, and for finishing the season at my position behind the plate. I was overwhelmed; I was also drunk. I could have cried in my beer, but I was laughing too hard.

            I still have that trophy, although the chrome has tarnished a little (the plastic underneath hasn’t, at least not where it shows through). It occupies a place of honor on my desk, right there with my trophies from automotive rallying and a hole-in-one.

            I’ve never had the title engraved in the space provided. I guess I never had had the most appropriate means for doing so, a Dymo labeler.

            But the title isn’t important. I know what the trophy stands for — a perfect season, good fellowship in the face of adversity, the ability to laugh at yourself, and proof that winning isn’t everything, and in fact sometimes is nothing at all — and that’s what counts.