Friday, October 28, 2005

Mickey & Me: Clubhouse Celebration

The 1990 champion Rochester Red Wings were a colorful team. A guy named Curtis Schilling was on the roster.

The champagne that gets sprayed around championship locker rooms stings your eyes. I learned this on a late September night in 1990.

Watching the Chicago White Sox celebrate their World Championship brought me back to a mad dash to Columbus, Ohio to both catch the Clippers and Rochester Red Wings determine the International League crown and find the perfect ending to a story I’d been working on for a good slice of the summer.

It was my first year working for the Flint Journal, and I convinced my editors to allow me to tell the story of Mickey Weston, a pitcher from a Flint suburbs who had toiled in the minors for years before getting a shot with the Baltimore Orioles – then got hurt and was sent back down to Triple-A.

A photographer and I spent a weekend in Rochester, N.Y. with Weston near the end of the season. I learned more about baseball in those few days than I had in the previous 26 years of my life.

We’re not supposed to have opinions about the people we write about, but I couldn’t help but pull for Weston, a devout Christian dedicated to being an example both on and off the field. He's one of those players who would post spectacular numbers in the minors, then have things not quite click when reaching the show. And since soft-tossers are kept on a short leash, his stays were typically brief before being asked to prove himself at Triple-A all over again. Think Crash Davis without the cussing and skirt-chasing.

Writing about Mickey over the years led to baseball adventures from interviewing to Hall-of-Famers on the field of Tiger Stadium to sitting inside the Mets clubhouse to helping the Famous Chicken with his act. You’ll hear about them all in time.

The main Sunday package was about the ups and downs in the life of a minor league ballplayer. But the story just didn’t seem complete. Weston was having a phenomenal year, and I continued to follow the progress of the team as it wrapped up the season and progress through the playoffs.

The Red Wings ended up facing the Clippers for the championship, and who should draw the assignment for the deciding game but Weston. The perfect ending!

Will suggested we sprint down for the game. A Columbus native, he knew the 5-hour trip by heart and had witnessed dozens of games at the stadium while growing up.

We picked up out credentials and walked out on the field. I was horrified to see how few people were in the stands – and Will laughed. It was the day of the first home Ohio State football game, and he explained that the Clippers take a very distant back seat to the Buckeyes.

Walking to the press box, we spied the prized Governor's Cup in the shed where the groundskeeping equipment is stored. It's not quite as glamorous as the World Series trophy, but we enjoyed the opportunity to see it up close.

We took our seat, and found that the Rochester newspaper had sent its reporter along. I tried making some small talk with her while we were guests of the Red Wings, but found her rather unfriendly. And her disposition had apparently not improved much on the way to Columbus. The rest of the Clippers staff was a little confused why the Flint newspaper was sending two reporters, but didn't seem to mind.

Weston did his part to help the story, giving me the ending I had hoped for.

He went the distance, holding the Clippers scoreless until the seventh inning. A 5-1 victory gave the Red Wings the championship.

We hustled back down to the field and entered the clubhouse through the bullpens. Inside was already bedlam. Players were showering each other with champagne, though it didn't seem to be as plentiful as in a World Series celebration.

You have to watch for the corks, which are projectiles. A couple landed near me, and I have one as a souvenir, among the stranger things on display in the baseball room.

Once they ran out of beverages to spray, third baseman Leo Gomez brought a hose in from the bullpen and soaked everything and everyone -- including us. Did we mind? Heck no!

I also remember Jeff McKnight, a future Met, attacking the post-game spread of fried chicken, then standing on a table and reading out some kind of poem. I couldn't quite understand what he was saying, but then I don't think it mattered.

Mickey came over, gave us bear hugs and said he thought the game and the season proved that he belonged in the big leagues, then jumped back into the celebration.

Will and I continued to just sit back with eyes wide. It wasn't our championship so we couldn't participate, but it sure was fun to watch.

After all the comotion had calmed down, who appeared but the Rochester reporter, who had changed her clothes and was wearing a towel around her neck. She was so concerned about staying dry that she missed all the excitement.

We got back home to Flint very late that night -- early the next morning, actually. But what fun night.

And Mickey got the call-up he deserved, a few days later he was pitching for the Orioles.

1 comment:

G-Fafif said...

Great reminiscence. Mickey Weston made the April 1 edition of the Ten Greatest Mets of the First Forty Years.

Nice pumpkin too.