A MOJOR LEAGUE VETERAN
He's been around. The veteran baseball writer has covered every World Series and every All-Star game since 1958. He is so highly regarded by his peers that he has already been inducted into the baseball-writers' wing of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
No one now covering baseball has such longevity. The other writers call him "The Dean." They admire him because of his contacts. He knows everybody who counts in the game. They fear him because of his energy and drive. He never stops working. He refuses to allow himself to get beat on a story.
Ask him about retirement and he mentions Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.
"There's a line," he says, "about a guy dying the death of a salesman, riding in the club car from New York to Boston, smoking a good cigar, on his way to make a last call on a client. That's how I want to go out--on the job."
Early one evening last week, before the start of an Arizona Fall League game, the writer walked in his stately fashion into manager Terry Francona's office at Scottsdale Stadium.
The writer had covered the ten-year major league career of Francona, who now manages the Scottsdale Scorpions. But he had also covered the career of Francona's father, Tito Francona, who preceded him in a career that lasted 15 seasons.
Over the years, the writer has developed a sense of presence. He understands the value of silence. He does not rush into conversations. He has what they call "gravitas." In addition, he has some eccentricities. He has never, for example, considered Michael Jordan to be a great basketball player. He announced from day one that Jordan was not a baseball player.
"I want to be the only writer," he tells Terry Francona, "who comes to Scottsdale and doesn't interview Michael Jordan."
"Fine with me," Francona says. "Who'd you like to see?"
"The people in the Chicago White Sox front office tell me this kid Chris Snopek, your third baseman, is a certain to make the big leagues. How about him?"
Francona nods his assent.
"Snopek can do all the things big-league players do right now," Francona says. "He's got power. He's got a good arm. He's getting closer to the day he's gonna find himself on a big-league roster. You wanna talk to him? He's a good kid. He'll talk your ear off."
Francona led the way out of his office and up the steps to the dugout. It was several more steps up to the playing field. Francona signaled to Snopek, who is six feet one and 195 pounds, a 24-year-old with a very large pair of hands.
"Chris, I want you to meet a famous baseball writer who wants to talk to you." Francona hesitates and smiles and nudges Snopek on the shoulder. "So don't be stupid, okay?"
Snopek and the writer walk to the visiting team's dugout and sit down on the long bench. They are far from the horseplay of the home-team dugout.
As they begin to talk, a television light goes on behind the backstop. Michael Jordan is sitting in a metal folding chair being interviewed by Peter Gammons of ESPN, who sits in an identical folding chair facing Jordan. A producer hovers in the background. The veteran writer takes no judicial notice of Jordan.
"The people who should know tell me you're going to make it," the writer says, devoting all of his attention to Snopek.
"Hope so," Snopek says. "This is my third season in organized ball, and I seem right on track."
The writer nods: "Well, you're old enough to be in the big leagues. Tell me, did you play in college?"
Snopek tells how he played three seasons for Don Kessinger, the onetime great shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, at the University of Mississippi before turning professional.
"I covered Kessinger when he was a rookie with the Cubs back in 1966," the writer says. "Later, I covered him when he became the Chicago White Sox manager. Good man. What did he teach you at Ole Miss?"
"Kessinger taught me a lot," Snopek says. "He helped me with my stance in the field and how to be ready to move to the ball when it's hit."
This explanation, of course, is part of the inner language of baseball. People unfamiliar with the game never quite understand the meaning of such talk. Most, however, manage to live fairly productive lives without solving the riddle of language.
"What's been your best day as a pro?" the writer asks, looking for something his readers can understand.
"I played for Birmingham this past season," Snopek recalls. "There was a double-header we had in Nashville that I got seven hits in nine at-bats. That included a home run, a triple and two doubles. I made out my first two times at bat. So I really got seven hits in a row."
Despite his success to date, Snopek understands that nothing is certain about his future.
"Baseball can get too serious sometimes," he says. "I see some players get intimidated . . . rattled . . . maybe even scared. So I try to keep everything loose. There's a lot of politics and money in the game. That can affect the way you play."
"What do you mean about politics?" the writer asks.
"It's just that you have to know the right people."
"Do you know the right people?" the writer asks.
Snopek shakes his head. He stares down at the dugout floor. He senses this is potentially dangerous ground.
"Right now, I know the right people, because I've been playing good ball," he says. He smiles sheepishly.
Snopek is the property of the Chicago White Sox. His passage to what people call the big club is blocked because Robin Ventura, the current Sox third baseman, is an All-Star performer. The White Sox also have another good prospective third baseman playing in Triple A ball, a level just above Snopek's.
"But I think I might make it up to the White Sox, maybe late this coming season," Snopek says. "They keep telling me that if I show I can help them win games, a spot will be created for me in the lineup."
"Have you ever met Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner?" the writer asks.
"Yeah," Snopek says. "One day this past season, he came down to watch Jordan play, and I walked by as he and Mike were talking."
"What did he say to you?" the writer asks.
"He told me to keep up the good work," Snopek says respectfully.
"Well, that's good stuff," the writer says. "I hope you make it. Should I be waiting for you at the gates when you arrive?"
The writer is joking, but Snopek is not quite sure. He does not wish to offend. "Hey, that would be nice," he says.
There are memories wherever the baseball writer turns during his stay in Scottsdale. He spends his days at the meetings of the big-league general managers at the Phoenician resort and his nights at the ballpark. He knows everyone. More important, they all know him. And trust him. In all his years on the job, he has never betrayed a confidence.
He goes to the same restaurants in Scottsdale and Mesa that he has been going to during spring training for decades. He likes the beef at Scottsdale's Pink Pony and the cheese crisps and huevos rancheros at El Charro restaurant in Mesa. He has taken a dislike to Don and Charlie's, and refuses to go there anymore.
He keeps bumping into old friends.
In the Scottsdale clubhouse, he encounters Tom Egan, a catcher for the White Sox and Angels in a big-league career that lasted ten years.
The writer makes Egan's day. "I was at Sox Park the night you hit that home run up on the roof," he says.
Egan is pleased. This hitting feat belongs to a very few, including Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.
In the home-team dugout, the writer encounters Bill Melton, a White Sox third baseman of 20 years ago. Melton once hit 33 home runs in a single season.
"What do you think of Snopek?" The writer asks Melton.
"I haven't seen him in a while," Melton says. "But when I saw him last year, he was a good one."
There is no place in the ballpark the writer can go without bumping into an old baseball crony.
He encounters Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer who starred with the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, standing in line at a hot dog stand.
They begin talking, and the baseball writer remembers the World Series he covered when Robinson was the Orioles' best hitter.
Robinson remembers, too.
"I remember the opening game of that series against the Dodgers," Robinson says. "Sandy Koufax was the Dodger pitcher. In the first inning, Koufax got our first two batters out on one pitch each. I promised people in the dugout that I'd make certain Koufax didn't retire the side on just three pitches.
"So I took his first pitch for a called strike. I hit the next one into the bleachers for a home run. It won the game for us, 1 to 0."
It is time for the writer to order his food. He calls for two small hot dogs rather than the jumbo-size ones.
Robinson pats him on the back. "You writers like to spend big, don't you?" he says.
Later, the writer encounters Sal Bando, now the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Bando, who starred as a third baseman for Arizona State University and the Oakland A's, played in three straight World Series. The writer covered them all.
Bando recalls for him the opening game of a World Series against the Dodgers that began in Los Angeles.
The visiting team's clubhouse man told Bando before the game that he was nervous because the A's had a bad reputation for fighting among themselves.
Bando grins as he recalls the incident.
"`That's a lot of crap,' I told him. 'Don't believe what you read in the sports pages.' At just that moment, a fight broke out at the other end of the dressing room between two of our pitchers, Blue Moon Odom and Rollie Fingers. The back of Fingers' head was cut so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital for stitches.
"But Fingers came back to pitch in relief that day, and for every game of the four-game series that we swept. He turned out to be our most valuable player."
The writer moves up into the stands behind home plate to watch the game.
Seated two rows in front of him is veteran minor league manager Joe Sparks.
"I wrote a story one time that Joe Sparks had been named the White Sox manager," the writer says. "The story was ready to go to press when I learned that Bill Veeck, the club owner, had given the job to somebody else. I actually ran down to the press room and stopped the presses. But I mailed a copy of the page proof to Joe Sparks so he could read it."
A half-inning later, Sparks approaches his old writer friend. Although he is regarded as one of the best minor league managers, he still has not made it to the big leagues.
The two men shake hands.
"You know," Sparks says, "I still have that headline you sent me about being hired to manage the White Sox that time."
"I should have had that job, too," he says. Some things die hard.
Reggie Jackson climbs up the steps and shouts a greeting to the writer.
"I got some friends I got to see," Reggie says apologetically and moves on.
Two innings later, Reggie is back.
"Do you have one of those cigars you're always carrying?" Reggie asks.
The writer looks at Reggie gravely. He goes into his coat pocket and pulls out a cigar and hands it to him.
"You're a good baseball man," Reggie says, grinning. "I can tell why both of us deserve to be in the Hall of Fame."
"Reggie," says Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune, "you're still remarkable in so many ways. No wonder you're such a star.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.