Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Hummm... Baby," The Thrill and One Flap Down... Immediately Followed by "Dude, Where's Our Car?"

WILL "THE THRILL" CLARK never made baseball's Hall of Fame. Neither did Jeffrey Leonard, he of the notorious home run trot, "one flap down."

But those men,  a white southerner and black northerner who openly clashed with each other in 1987 made the San Francisco Giants into a team to be reckoned with.

Humm, baby. Humm, baby? Yes. Humm, baby.

It had been 16 years since the Giants made the post season, a quarter century since their last World Series appearance, a seven-game loss to the New York Yankees.

A mid-summer day's twin-bill.
Despite the presence, at various times, of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, of Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews, of Dave Kingman, of Bobby Bonds then Bobby Murcer, of  John Montefusco and Vida Blue, the Giants had long languished in baseball's shadows.

Across San Francisco Bay, the Oakland A's had a string of five straight playoff appearances and three consecutive championships. Within the National League West, the Giants had been totally eclipsed by the long-time rival Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. In fact, every NL West team had finished first at least once since the San Franciscans had last managed the feat: the Reds in '72, '73, '75, '76 and '79,  the Dodgers in '74, '77, 78, '81,'83 and '85, the Houston Astros in '80 and '86, the Atlanta Braves in '82 and the San Diego Padres in '84.

The title merry-go-round was spinning and the Giants weren't on it.

Change came midway through the disastrous 1985 season when a 62-100 record landed them in the NL West basement. After 144 games, they fired manager Jim Davenport and hired sagacious Roger Craig. The pitching anchor of the original and terrible New York Mets, Craig suffered through back-to-back 20-loss campaigns. He knew about adversity. His approach: stay positive.

Candlestick Park, July 26, 1987. Announced attendance: 41,256

At spring training 1986, he called journeyman catcher Brad Gulden "humm baby," for still giving 110 percent effort in a career nearing its end. According to legend, the phrase was a contraction and corruption of the sandlot shout of encouragement, "C'mon, baby!"

By 1987, the Giants had a team full of humm babies led by the veteran outfielder Leonard, 31, and Clark, 23, who'd starred at Mississippi State and -- as the Giants were bottoming out in '85 -- won the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur ballplayer in America.

Humm, baby indeed.

By July 26, though just one game over .500, the 49-48 Giants trailed the first place Reds by just a single game. On that day's schedule: a double-header with the NL East-leading St. Louis Cardinals at windswept Candlestick Park.

They were about to ignite.

Rallying back from a blown 2-1 lead, the Giants took the opener in 10 innings on a walk-off, three-run homer by The Thrill. Then, though the Cards struck first in game two, they were decked, 5-2, with Clark clubbing his second round-tripper of the afternoon.

From there, the team went 39-24, overtaking the Reds by six games to win the West. Awaiting them in the NL Championship Series: the Cardinals. Now it was Jeffrey Leonard's turn to shine.

The Pride of the Giants, until he wasn't.
Leonard, like Clark, was blunt-spoken. If you liked it, fine. If not? Too bad. The Cardinals were not fans. The St. Louis fans were not fans.

Over the 7-game series, the Giants outfielder torched Cardinals pitchers for four home runs, each punctuated by a somewhat leisurely tour of the bases, his left arm at times deliberately slack at his side. One Flap Down, again and again and again. For the series, Leonard batted .417 with 10 hits in 24 at bats, including those round-trippers. He walked three times, scored five runs and drove in five.

While Leonard's efforts earned him series most valuable player honors, it wasn't enough to carry the Giants past the Cards. They lost in seven games. In mid June of the next season, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for utility man Ernie Riles.

Clark would lead the Giants to the pennant in 1989, where they were swept by the A's in a series mostly remembered for the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that interrupted it. Leonard, by then, had migrated to the Seattle Mariners, but the former teammates' enmity remained.

Long since retired, both men have found other causes for which to fight. Leonard and his wife Karen founded the One Flap Down charity, now known as One Fabulous Day, dedicated to helping single parents battling cancer. Clark and his wife Lisa are combatting autism.

The Giants finally won the series in 2010 and again in 2012 and 2014.

First Person

Where did we park?
That first game of the July 26 twin-bill was the third stop on my 1987 California/ballpark tour. Me and my pal, photographer Chris Stanley, had been running at breakneck speed, seeing everything we could see in between scheduled ballgames. This day was no exception. 

We arrived at the 'stick just before game time and after Will thrilled, we left, only to realize we'd no idea where we'd parked. With most attendees staying put for game two, we roamed the wind-swept asphalt for 45 minutes, searching for our rental car, a gold Chevrolet Corsica. 

Turned out Captain Kirk was right.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the fourth part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

These Two Kids Drive Up to a Nuclear Missile Base...

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND had a pretty awesome logo. It was a shield featuring an iron-gloved hand clutching three lightening bolts and an olive branch, set against a blue sky with white clouds. Everything about it says "might."

Nothing about it suggests "Welcome."

Naturally, when my buddy Chris and I -- a couple of recently-certified college graduate geniuses -- happened across that symbol of American power affixed to a fieldstone wall near an entrance to the Vandenberg Air Force Base, we had to visit.

It was a sunny July day in 1987. Turning off California's Highway 1 just north of Lompoc, we pulled up to the guardhouse.

"Hi, we're here for the tour," one of us announced cheerfully to a uniformed guard.

"Tour?" came the predicable response (predictable to anyone but me and Chris). "We don't have a tour."

"Oh." Came the reply, "Can we just look around?"

"No," the guard said. "But you can have this map."


Oh clueless innocence. How does one react, 30 years later, to the dawning realization we'd been quickly sized up as rubes too naive to pose any sort of threat to national security? I guess it's better than being surrounded by armed MPs and taken into custody for questioning.

Strategic Air Command -- or SAC, for short -- was the U.S. Air Force Command responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and its strategic bomber fleet. Remember Atari's Missile Command? Remember that cute Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy movie WarGames? This was a combination of those things (minus the WOPR) but real.

Global thermonuclear warfare. The only way to win was not to play. The very existence of SAC -- its effective deterrence -- made that strategy a winning one.

Vandenberg AFB was a key element of SAC and of deterrence, and was used as a testing site for Thor, Atlas and Titan missies, the later two later doing double-duty as launch vehicles for NASA's Project Mercury solo orbital space flights and its two-man Gemini missions.

Vandenberg was also the proving ground for the Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBMs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, target audience for all that might and deterrence prompted a reordering of the U.S. Air Force command structure and, in 1992, SAC was dissolved. Vandenberg remains, now primarily used for military space launches.

Barred from admission that July day, Chris and I took our handout map (I'm guessing we weren't the only ones to get them), took a few snapshots at the gate and went on our way.

Now, perhaps, its time to go back. Apparently they have a tour.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the third part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

--  Follow me on Twitter

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Darkness on the Edge of (Dodger) Town

BASEBALL'S TAJ MAHAL. It's meant to be a compliment.

The Silver Anniversary logo
When it opened in 1962, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was the newest, nicest stadium in Major League Baseball, far outclassing San Francisco's wind-swept Candlestick Park completed just two years earlier. It was the privately-financed crown jewel of baseball's manifest destiny.

Searching for comparators, scribes turned to the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan's edifice on the Yamuna River in India, perhaps forgetting it was a tomb for the Mughal emperor's wife.

Or maybe they didn't forget, for Dodger Stadium too is something of a monument, a grave marker for the poor mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods wiped from existence during a decade-long battle between liberal and conservative forces over what to do with acres upon acres of hilly land north of downtown L.A., a place called Chavez Ravine.

Stadium construction wasn't how that story started, but that's how it ended, with an ironic coup de grace from the team that integrated baseball.

July 21, 1987, St. Louis Cardinals 6, L.A. Dodgers 1
Winning pitcher, Bob Forsch, Loser, Fernando Valenzuela

I knew none of this 30 years ago this week when I made my one and only visit to Dodger Stadium on the second stop of a two-week, six-ballpark road trip. (Read about stop one here.) Though it was the stadium's 25th anniversary season, the commemorative program and yearbook made no mention of what transpired in the years before the ballpark opened. It was a story they had no incentive to publicize or perpetuate and, to be fair, for which they were largely not responsible.

Much has been written since about what came to be known as the Battle of Chavez Ravine, including a new book published just this year. It went something like this:

The Joe Friday ticket stub.
After World War II, the U.S. embarked on a rebuilding spree, in Europe under the Marshall Plan and at home in the form of urban renewal, clearing of slums and blighted areas in favor of public housing for the nation's destitute.

Los Angeles was no exception and it was proposed that the Chavez Ravine area be redeveloped into something called Elysian Park Heights. The project would include two dozen high-rise apartment buildings and more than 160 two-story residences.

Though the communities there -- Palo Verde, Bishop and La Loma -- had homes, schools and at least one church, they weren't seen as worthy of preservation. The city moved by force of eminent domain to begin clearing those so-called slums of the people and their dwellings. But before Elysian Park Heights construction could begin, in 1953, newly-elected conservative Mayor Norris Poulson -- with a push from a group called Citizens Against Socialized Housing (or CASH) -- canceled the project, leaving a handful of hold-out families living in a largely bulldozed region where they'd remain at loggerheads with L.A. for most of that decade.

In 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers -- after trying and failing to secure a new stadium in their home borough -- won permission to move west with the Giants. They had no home, but Los Angeles had an idea. The city would trade its Chavez Ravine land to the team in exchange for a Dodger-owned downtown minor league ballpark confusingly called Wrigley Field.

Giants' shortstop Jose Uribe
meets Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia
While the Dodgers played the next four seasons at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a gigantic oval built for the 1932 Olympic games, the city forcibly removed the last remaining Chavez Ravine residents to make way for the stadium amid a public referendum and, unsurprisingly, litigation that stopped only at the U.S. Supreme Court door. Among the casualties, the Palo Verde Elementary School, reportedly paved over for a parking lot.

The result: a baseball-only ballpark built into a hillside, facing the distant San Gabriel mountains visible beyond the twin outfield pavilions and scoreboards.

Led by pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, in just their second season there the team swept the American League Champion New York Yankees to win the World Series before about 56,000 home town fans. They'd win the series in '65, '81 and '88 too.

Along the way, the team that gave America Jackie Robinson, its first black superstar, also gave the nation its first Japanese superstar, Hideo Nomo and -- perhaps in a bit of karmic payback -- its first Mexican one, Fernando Valenzuela.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the second part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Baby Goose Cuts Loose

Lance McCullers... Baby Goose Cuts Loose
INTIMIDATION: the innate ability to strike fear in the hearts of opposing hitters. This Rich "Goose" Gossage had in greater abundance than any big league pitcher of his generation. At 6'3", cap pulled low over his glowering, mustachioed countenance, Gossage was a terrifying whirl of arms and legs from which emerged 100 mile-per-hour Hall of Fame-certified heat.

Signed as a free agent by the World Champion New York Yankees in November 1977, he displaced incumbent, Cy Young-award winning closer Sparky Lyle, saved 27 games and helped the Bombers to repeat. While Lyle was traded to the Texas Rangers in November '78 -- famously going from Cy Young to Sayonara -- the Goose continued to roll up saves the old-fashioned three-inning, nine-out way until he too left the Bronx Zoo for one in San Diego.

There he paid immediate dividends, joining ex-Yankee Graig Nettles, ex-Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey and future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn in transforming the Padres from perennial also-rans to National League champs.

By 1987, Gossage -- then 35 -- had become something of an intimidator-emeritus, a role model for a young man audaciously burdened with the nickname "Baby Goose", up-and-coming Padres closer Lance McCullers.

Final score, Padres 7, Cubs 4
Winning pitcher: Lance McCullers, Loser: Bob Tewksbury
A shade shorter than Gossage at 6'1", McCullers was still cut from the same basic template: big, hard-throwing right-handed relief pitcher.

After making his big league debut in 1985, at the tender age of 21, Baby Goose spent one full season as understudy, logging 136 innings to Gossage's 64, saving 5 games to his mentor's 21, then took over as closer in 1987.

He was just 23.

McCullers appeared in 78 games, finishing 41, as San Diego sank to the N.L. West cellar. While he went an unremarkable 8-10, he saved 16 games while whiffing 126 batters in 123 innings, fulfilling some of the weighty promise of his moniker. But it wasn't meant to be.

Baby Goose saved just 10 games in 1988, even as the team rebounded to third place after sophomore manager Larry Bowa was replaced by Jack McKeon. Four days after the Dodgers defeated the Oakland Athletics in the World Series, McCullers, fellow hurler Jimmy Jones and outfielder Stan Jefferson were traded to the Yankees for slugger Jack Clark and pitcher Pat Clement.

San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, July 20, 1987

There he briefly teamed again with the aging Gossage, but in 1990, the Yankees bottomed out, finishing dead last for the first time since 1966. McCullers appeared in just 11 games for New York before being dealt to Detroit, where he pitched in 9 more. He missed the 1991 season before briefly resurfacing with the Rangers in 1992.

They too cut loose the Baby Goose and at the age of 28 -- after 306 games, 526.1 innings pitched, 442 strikeouts and 39 saves -- he was done.

Twenty-three years later, the Houston Astros recalled from the minor leagues pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.  A starter, Grand Baby Goose is now in his third season with the A.L. West leaders where his record is 7-2. His dad is appropriately proud.

OCT. 27 ADDENDUM: Game 3 of the World Series, now tied at 1-1. Yu Darvish starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, while McCullers Jr. gets the ball for Houston.

In the Summer of 1987, soon after graduating from college, me and my buddy Chris took a baseball tour of California. Mostly baseball at least, and hell of a good time. This is the first part of a series inspired by those 16 days on the road.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shell Gasoline and the Eternal Mix-Tape

SUMMER TIME, CONVERTIBLES, music and the open road: an irresistible, iconic and quintessentially American formula for fun. Naturally it was celebrated with enduring success by a hybrid British-Dutch oil company.

'Tis true.

In the summer of 1989, the U.S. affiliate of the multinational we now know as Royal Dutch Shell Plc conceived a sure-fire way to get people to stop in and fill up. Think tunes, not tune-ups. Shell stations became music stations, offering Crusin' Classics, a series of three generationally-targeted musical smart bombs, available for $1.99 with a tank of gas.

Bottom row: volumes I, II and III. Top row: volumes VI, V and VI.

So successful was the initial public offering that the next summer, Shell did it again, releasing volumes IV, V and VI (the Roman numerals being their choice, not mine). The six cassettes, released as that linear format was being eclipsed by the compact disc, proved so popular that they exist still as fan-assembled YouTube playlists (again, not mine).

Chronologically, the tapes spanned the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Sonically ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson through the Motown era of the Supremes and Marvin Gaye and all the way to REO Speedwagon and Wham.

Herewith some highlights. Want to hear 'em? Just click the "volume" links.

Volume I, the 60s & 70s box

Adorned with a chrome-trimmed, hand-tuned radio, Vol. I was aimed squarely at baby boomers, opening with the 1966 Billboard chart-topper You Can't Hurry Love by The Supremes and ending with the Byrd's timeless take on Ecclesiastes 3 via Pete Seeger, Turn Turn Turn. In between: Marvin Gaye's R&B smash I Heard it Through the Grapevine; Three Dog Night's Joy to the World and Hot Fun in the Summertime by Sly and the Family Stone.

Volume II, the 70s & 80s box

The next installment spun the wheel forward a decade, in a box decorated with a sly reference to that modern day automotive marvel, the car radio and cassette deck. Inside: Billy Joel's ode to wife-model/model-wife Christie Brinkley, Uptown GirlLove Train by the O'Jays; Loggins & Messina's Your Momma Don't DanceRock 'n Me by the Steve Miller Band and the Allman Brothers' open road ode, Ramblin' Man.

Volume III, the 50s & 60s box

Illustrated with an AM radio, this one was back to basics. From rockabilly to rhythm & blues, Vol. III opened with Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Good, chased by Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire, the Everly Brothers' All I Have To Do is Dream and Rick Nelson's wanderlustful, Travelin' Man before detouring to Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill and the Four Tops' emotive Reach Out, I'll Be There.

Volume IV, The '65 Ford Mustang box

A convertible on the beach, a blonde behind the wheel flirting with some dude holding a surf board. Time for some the Beach Boys or maybe Jan & Dean, but they're not here. Who is? Gladys Knight and the Pips singing Midnight Train to Georgia, the Foundations' Build Me Up, Buttercup, Marvin Gaye's How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and finally a nod to California from the Mommas and Pappas, (though not California Dreamin'), Monday Monday.

Volume V, The '73 Stingray Corvette box

Possibly the most musically consistent installment. The Doobie Brothers' Listen to the Music;  Linda Ronstadt's It's So Easy; Ventura Highway by America; Could it be I'm Falling In Love by the Spinners on Side One, Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Hall and Oates' Kiss On My List and Earth Wind & Fire's September on Side Two. Listen to the music indeed.

Volume VI, The '57 Chevy Bel Air box

Bobby socks, white wall tires, poodle skirts and the drive-in restaurant. Shell's endless summer romance ended here in the 1950s and early '60s under the Marcel's Blue Moon, Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman, Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers' Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Yakety Yak by the Coasters.

Gone Cali.
Cassettes weren't the only thing fading away in the summer of 1990. Gas station service soon followed. Forget about presidential coins, steak knives or collectible glassware, even checking the oil went from routine to relic. Want gas? Get it yourself (unless you're in New Jersey). 

But what if you could turn back time?

Gas? Check! Tunes? Check! Road atlas? Check! Put that GPS down, they don't exist where we're going.

It's time for a road trip! Next stop: San Diego, 1987.

Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cosmos, Dips, Kicks, Bics, Quicksilvers and EarthQuakes: Looking Back at the 1977 North American Soccer League

"I DRINK DR. PEPPER AND I'M PROUD, I'm part of an original crowd..."

It was the Summer of 1977 and pre-An American Werewolf in London David Naughton was the singing, dancing, pitchman for "the most original soft drink ever," Dr. Pepper (not to be confused with it's evil twin, Mr. Pibb).

Steve Pecher, 20, an American-born soccer star
We were young. We were carefree. America was 201 years old, Jimmy Carter was president and disco was still cool. With that catchy, commercial ditty in heavy rotation, we drank.

"Be a Pepper!" Naughton said. So, Peppers we were.

For some, part of being a Pepper meant cutting out a couple of proofs-of-purchase from the plastic six-pack carrier and redeeming them for membership in the Dr. Pepper Rookie Soccer Club.

The most original soft drink had partnered with the most original North American Soccer League and its target audience, the young American fan.

Membership had its privileges, limited privileges, but privileges nonetheless. Among them was an iridescent club logo sticker, a full-color poster of reigning NASL rookie of the year Steve Pecher, plus the pocket-sized 96-page Dr Pepper 1977 Pro Soccer Guide.

This was the NASL (relatively) ascendant. America's Division I soccer league formed in 1967 from the remnants of two other struggling organizations. In 1975 they'd added a bona fide international star, Pele.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele had starred for his native Brazil as a 17-year-old in 1958. Though he retired in 1974, "the lure of a new adventure and a three-year contract estimated at $7 million changed all that in June of 1975 when Pele, despite criticism from the press in his country, signed to play with for the New York Cosmos," according to the Dr. Pepper guide.

96-pages and still pocket-sized
"His impact was felt immediately," it said.

Despite losing two franchises -- the Philadelphia Atoms and Boston Minute Men -- the 1977 season brimmed with continental ambition. Eighteen teams would compete from Vancouver to Fort Lauderdale, from Pecher's Dallas Tornado to the defending champion Toronto Metros-Croatia. There was even a team in Hawaii, called -- perhaps unimaginatively -- Team Hawaii. Hartford had a franchise. Las Vegas too.

The Pepper guide was stuffed with stats, facts, rosters and recaps. It even offered critical instruction on How to Play Soccer. But the real prize, retrospectively, was that Pecher poster.

The 20-year-old was a St. Louis native, a rising star, "the best American center back there is, without question," Tornados coach Al Miller attested.

Plus the poster featured full-color logos of every active NASL team. Suitable for framing. Or not.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 1977 North American Soccer League:
top - Los Angeles Aztecs, Connecticut Bicentennials, The Cosmos, Washington Diplomats
2nd row - San Jose Earthquakes, Team Hawaii, Minnesota Kicks, Rochester Lancers
3rd row --Toronto Metros, Las Vegas Quicksilvers, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Seattle Sounders and
St. Louis Stars
bottom - Chicago Sting, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Portland Timbers, Dallas Tornado and
Vancouver Whitecaps

Pecher had a 22-year pro-soccer career, playing outdoors and in, as well as for the U.S. national team, which he captained from 1978 to '80. The NASL was less fortunate. The signing of Pele and other stars by the Warner Communications-backed Cosmos was part of a league-wide spree to land international stars who would ideally garner publicity, improve the level of play and put more bodies in seats. It didn't last.

The NASL topped out at 24 franchises in 1979 amid both a rising tide of red ink and competition from the Major Indoor Soccer League, which began play in 1978. The NASL tried vainly to fight the upstart MISL on its own astroturf, then folded after the 1984 season.

Footwork and teamwork
The Cosmos won the NASL championship during that Dr. Pepper-infused summer of '77, playing at Giants Stadium in what was truly Pele's last year, where they drew crowds in excess of 70,000.

They also won league titles in 1972, '78, '80 and'82, then lingered on the edge of the public consciousness for decades after their demise.

In 2006, they were the subject of a feature-length documentary, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. For years later, they were revived as part of a new NASL that began play as a Division II league in 2011.

While it failed as a business enterprise, the NASL and Dr. Pepper accomplished their more subliminal, yet more lasting task: imprinting the sport on the minds of American kids. Major League Soccer, a more durable Division I enterprise, began play in 1996. Twenty-one seasons later it features 22 teams, including four bearing the names of their NASL forebears.

Steve Pecher, now 61, coaches girls' soccer in St. Louis.

-- Follow me on twitter @paperboyarchive