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The Incomparable Jimmy Piersall

The young television producer was hesitant. He stood on the top step of the dugout. He looked down to where Jimmy Piersall was sitting.

"Jimmy, could you spare a couple of minutes?" the producer asked. "We'd like to get your thoughts on the Strawberry incident?" Although the Chicago Cubs were about to open their exhibition season, the big story of the moment had come from the New York Mets' camp.

Over in Florida, right fielder Darryl Strawberry and first baseman Keith Hernandez had gotten into a fight as they lined up for the annual team photograph.

The battle had been captured by television cameras. The fight had been running over and over on cable television for two days.

There were two things the television producer didn't understand about Piersall.

First of all, he'll answer any question without the slightest artifice. Second, after a decade of television and radio experience in which he did his own shows, Piersall has absolutely no fear of the microphone. He's a professional.

I couldn't hear the producer's question because the blustering wind blew his voice away.

But I could hear Piersall. He always speaks up loud and clear.
"One time, when I was playing for the Cleveland Indians, a big guy named Walter Bond took my job," Piersall said. He clearly relished the memory.

"Bond was something like six feet nine, and he was supposed to have great power, but he went 0 for 31. That wasn't enough for me. I was hoping he'd fall down and break a leg.

"Bond accused me to my face of telling the opposition how to pitch to him." Piersall grinned.

"I told him I wish I'd thought of that, because I certainly would have." Piersall hesitated in an obvious attempt to build tension. Then he followed with the kicker.

"A ballplayer who worries about the other guy is crazy. You've got your own problems. When you're in a big league clubhouse, nobody else really cares about you. They really only care about themselves." The television producer thanked Piersall profusely.

"Fine," Piersall said, "anytime." Piersall led the way back to the dugout. We sat down again.

"Where were we?" he asked.

Piersall answered his own question.
"Oh, I remember. Listen, of course there's tension in big league life. You have to produce every day. I never drank or smoked, but the tension was something waiting for you when you got up every morning."

As a player, Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown. He wrote a book about his experiences titled Fear Strikes Out. After nearly 35 years, it's still one of the best looks inside baseball ever written.

Piersall was played in the 1957 movie version of his biography by Anthony Perkins, and Piersall's father was played by Karl Malden.

"I don't know why they ever picked Perkins to play me," Piersall says. "I mean, he threw a baseball like a girl, and he couldn't catch one with a bushel basket. He danced around the outfield like a ballerina, and he was supposed to be depicting me, a major league baseball player. I hated the movie." Tension has never left Piersall. He still takes lithium every day. Despite keeping himself in playing condition into his late fifties, he has undergone two serious heart operations because of blocked arteries.

The first one occurred in 1976 when Piersall was working for the Texas Rangers. The second surgery was in December 1987.

"I wound up this last time with two solidly blocked arteries," Piersall said, "and two smaller ones they didn't think they'd be able to attach properly. The operation took eight hours, but now I feel twenty years younger." Piersall, 59, spends hours each morning running and stretching as he coaches the Cubs' outfielders in spring training. "Do the kids know what you did as a player?" I asked.

"Nah! Sometimes, they hear about me from their grandfathers or even their fathers.

"But I know how to get their attention. `Listen,' I tell 'em, `I lasted nineteen years in the big leagues, and I had a total fielding average of .997, so I must have been doing something right.'" Piersall was the most exciting American League player of his time. He turned base hits into outs with his glove.

Playing alongside Ted Williams at Fenway Park in Boston, Piersall somehow seemed to catch all the balls hit to both center and left fields. He also had some remarkable years in Cleveland where he played the shortest center field in memory and repeatedly sprinted back to catch long balls over his shoulder.

And always, Piersall had a sure sense of zany theatre that rivaled the Marx Brothers.

Even when he played for Casey Stengel and the original (and hapless) New York Mets, Piersall had an almost Chaplinesque sense of the absurd. He always knew baseball is at its best when it's fun.

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Tom Fitzpatrick