Thursday, February 2, 2012

'It Had To Be A UFO,' v. 2.0

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, my Jeep Cherokee rode again — into Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the kind of place where you can somehow manage to find an October sky in the middle of June.

Once a bustling General Electric hub and now a depressing pool of incest staining the generally picturesque Berkshire County region, Pittsfield is home to my former sportswriting mentor, a crusty New Yorker named Eric Lincoln. Since it was on my way out to Cape Cod for a little-deserved week of vacation in the summer of 2003, I stopped in to have lunch and shoot the shit with my old friend.

We got to talking about minor-league baseball — he had done some venomous exposure pieces on the corruption surrounding the Class A Pittsfield Mets when we tag-teamed the Berkshire Record sports page in the late 1990s, and I was now doing a few independent-league games out in Gary, Indiana.

"Who's the manager?" Lincoln asked.

"Garry Templeton," I responded.

"You've got to be shitting me. I've got a story for you."

And so began a month-long fact-finding expedition that had me cold-calling everyone from Peter Gammons to Leapin' Lanny Poffo in search of clues. (Both, by the way, had exquisite answering-machine greetings.)


It was a similarly overcast and shitty day just a week or so later when I strolled into the visiting clubhouse at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, Illinois, waiting for the visiting Gary SouthShore Railcats to show up so I could talk to Templeton about a minor-league game he had played in nearly 29 years earlier.

When the team arrived, I strode into Templeton's office and said, "I want to talk to you about a ball that disappeared during a game in Key West."

"How the fuck do you know about that?" he shot back, beyond incredulous.

More amazing to me was that he had never been asked about it before.


Had this story taken place in a major-league park — especially in today's world of instant and omnipresent media — then what happened during the August 6, 1974 game between the St. Petersburg Cardinals and the Key West Conchs would have undoubtedly become the stuff of baseball legend, right up there with Ruth's called shot.

Instead, it has been buried among baseball's most obscure X-Files for more than 37 years now, largely because it's almost impossible to believe the few existing eyewitnesses.

But I've spoken to plenty of them — two in person, and several others over the phone. I believe.

A baseball vanished into thin fucking air that night.


It was, at first, a typical Tuesday evening at Wickers Field, a quirky quadrangular bandbox with room for 1,000 spectators. The  Conchs, a Class A Chicago Cubs affiliate with the worst record in professional baseball (32-79) at the time, were hosting St. Petersburg in a Florida State League game. The Cards came in at 55-57, led by a can't-miss shortstop prospect in Templeton. The Conchs managed a 7-4 victory on this night, scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth to secure the win for pitcher Donnie Moore in his final game with the team.

Three decades later, most of the players on the field that day didn't even remember who won the game. But they all remembered Isaac Newton being exposed as a fraud.

Key West is known for its ghost stories, and by the time the first pitch was thrown, twilight and fog had joined in a slow dance above the island, creating a backdrop that St. Pete left fielder Ernie Rosseau still describes as "eerie."

Lincoln, then of the St. Petersburg Times, was the lone reporter in attendance at the game. His account of the play in question — a three-paragraph aside stuffed into a larger piece on native son Ernest Hemingway and the Key West baseball experience — is the only original one known to exist on paper, so here it is. Bottom of the first inning, with Lonny Kruger (that name should ring a bell for a reason) on the mound for the visitors:

...Joe Wallis, the Key West right fielder, hits a high fly ball that seems to be drifting toward the glove of the Cardinal right fielder, John Crider. But the wind is gusting at more than 20 knots and the ball seems to disappear as it falls into its final closing arc.

Crider ducks. He has lost sight of the ball. Jimmy Williams, the Cardinal second baseman, races to his assistance. He ducks, placing both hands over his head for protection. The center fielder, Claudell Crockett, is on the scene with his hands held outward as if to say, 'Well, where the hell is it?'

Templeton, last seen managing minor-league ball in Maui, was playing shortstop for the Cardinals that day. He was among those who drifted toward the play to provide assistance — or try to.

"I took off running for it because I thought I had a shot at it," Templeton said. "It was like a pop-up to right center. Next thing I know, everyone's running around like chickens with their heads cut off."

Wallis, meanwhile, doesn't hear an umpire call the ball foul, and he sees no one make a play, so he tentatively makes his way around the bases. He crosses home plate with nine frantic Cardinals flapping their wings behind him.

Nobody ever saw the ball come down.

"It was a weird feeling," said Kruger — who has had considerably greater success in his current career as a basketball coach (yes, it's that Lon Kruger). "The second baseman's thinking he's going to have a play, the right fielder's thinking he's going to have a play, and the guy winds up getting a home run out of it."
 Home run? [Note: You may replace "Home run?" with the already-played-out "Wait...What?" if you feel obligated to suck.]

The baseball was nowhere to be found -- so the umpires convened and handed down their ruling based on what little evidence they had: Wallis circled the bases safely, nobody caught the ball...and nobody saw it go foul, probably because nobody really saw it go anywhere at all.

Home run.

While Key West players rolled around their dugout in laughter, according to Rosseau, the Cardinals argued against the call. Despite a lengthy plea, their case was thrown out.

"There was a big argument," Templeton recalled. "The players were arguing pretty good and our manager went berserk.

"I don't have a damn clue where it went, but it wasn't a home run."

According to the official scorer, it was. Home run to right field. Based on the book, the recap in the next day's local paper described the Wallis "homer" as clearing the right-field wall. If they only knew.

To this day, no one has been able to step forward and explain where the ball actually landed — or if it ever landed at all.


Wickers was surrounded only by a macadam parking lot, some scrub oak and a few palm trees. Yet nobody heard a kerplunk, a splat, the rustle of branches or the shattering of glass. People searched the area all evening for that ball and found nothing.

"Nobody knows what happened," said Rosseau, the longtime coach at Brevard Community College in Florida. "From the fans to the coaches, one knew. They estimated that it went out of the park, but that's impossible."

"Players don't just go toward a ball, where they think it's going to land, and nothing lands," agreed teammate Tito Landrum, who later won World Series rings with Baltimore and St. Louis.

So where did the ball go? Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter, then pitching for Key West, still had no clue when he talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about it in 2005.

''The stadium wasn't the best," he said, "and the lights weren't the best. Wallis hit the ball by the lights. And nobody ever saw the ball come down. So they gave him a home run. What else are you going to do? It was one of the strangest things I ever saw.''

"Nobody can give me an explanation," Rosseau said.


There may be no legitimate explanation, but everyone has theories.

"It had to be a UFO that got that ball," Templeton said.

Or maybe a ghost? If you believe local residents, that wouldn't be a first.

During the game, Lincoln recalls speaking with Dr. Julian DePoo, an elderly Cuban expatriate and a friend of Key West's favorite son, Ernest Hemingway. DePoo was the Conchs' owner.

"Papa has that ball," the old man told Lincoln, referring to the legendary author. "His spirit is everywhere around here. He took that one home."

Someone — or, more likely, something — took that ball. But what? And where the hell to?

"Obviously, when you think of Key West, you think of the Bermuda Triangle," Rosseau suggested.

And when you think of the Bermuda Triangle, you think of strange disappearances. This would certainly seem to qualify as such.

But with Wickers set almost one mile inland, it's not possible. Is it? None of the eyewitnesses recall a particularly windy evening, but Lincoln's written account has winds gusting at 20 knots (23 miles per hour). His theory is that maybe trade winds took the ball out to sea. Officials at the National Weather Service in Key West, none of whom were willing to put their speculations on the record in 2003, said that Lincoln's thought was a bit far-fetched.

But isn't this whole damn story far-fetched?


If you were at Wickers that night, there's a decent chance that life kept throwing weird shit your way long after that ball sailed off of Joe Wallis' bat and into nothingness. Among the historical footnotes:

1) The Conchs were the worst team in baseball that season, and not a single player on the team was selected for the Florida State League All-Star Game. Yet four of the pitchers on the roster that day — Sutter, Donnie Moore, Mike Krukow and Dennis Lamp — went on to long and fruitful major-league careers. Key West shortstop Julio Gonzalez bounced around with three big-league teams over seven seasons, and Wallis had a five-year stint in The Show as well. Go figure.
 2) For Kruger, the pitcher of record for St. Petersburg, 1974 was his only season of professional baseball. He went to Israel the following winter to play pro basketball, and he wasn't able to get back in time for spring training. Forced to stick with basketball, he's carved out a pretty good living as a coach — Kruger led Florida to its first Final Four in 1994, and he's now in the first year of a rebuilding project at Oklahoma.

3) Landrum wound up befriending a terminally ill child during his major-league career, which included a game-winning home run that sealed the 1983 ALCS for the Baltimore Orioles. When the youngster passed away, he left behind a handcrafted coffee cup that was given to Landrum in a subsequent pre-game ceremony. Landrum was running out a routine pop fly later that same night when the crowd started going crazy. The ball had somehow cleared the outfield wall.

4) Lincoln wound up at the New York Times after leaving Florida, and his other assignments over the years include a climb up Fenway's Green Monster in search of Bucky Dent's famed 1978 home run. He also might be the only person alive who can claim to have spoken with Secretariat over the phone. (The call was part of the most entertaining slow-news-day story idea ever, a story that would, sadly, never work in today's environment).

5) Moore's story, meanwhile, ended tragically. He left Key West for Double-A Midland (Texas) right after that fateful 1974 game and went on to become a top-flight reliever in the majors. He was sixth in the American League MVP balloting after the 1985 season, and in 1986 he was one strike away from sending the California Angels to their first World Series. Instead, he served up a home run to Boston's Dave Henderson, helping the Red Sox eventually take the pennant. Scarred forever by that one regrettable pitch, Moore took his own life on July 18, 1989.


Eyewitness accounts and hypotheses differ slightly — but there is one common thread that ties everyone's slightly faded memories together. Everybody who can remember what happened at Wickers Field that August evening, without exception, still says that it was the most peculiar thing they ever saw in their baseball lives.

"It's hard to top that in terms of weirdness," Kruger said.

"It had to be the strangest thing I've ever seen," Templeton agreed.

"Nothing even comes close," Rosseau stated emphatically.

It was, simply put, unbelievable. Which is probably why this story went nearly 29 years without being printed and still hasn't gotten much traction — no one who wasn't there to see it dares to believe it.

Landrum almost got laughed out of the dugout when he tried telling the story years later in St. Louis.

"No one believed me," he recalled. "And then a voice comes from the other side of the dugout — 'It happened. I was there.'"

Sutter — Landrum's opponent back in 1974 — bailed him out.

Some of the memories have faded over time. Shit, Landrum recalled playing center field that day for the Cards, but both of the box scores in existence (in the St. Petersburg Times and the Key West Citizen) had Landrum in the dugout.

Lowe, who was let go after the 1974 season, claimed he doesn't even remember the incident at all.

The only written documentation in existence before 2003 was in Lincoln's Key West feature, which went to press on August 18, 1974 — nearly two weeks after the game. Even then, it was only mentioned in passing. (More space was devoted to Moore's promotion to Double-A ball.) For something that received such little press, though, Joe Wallis' phantom home run sure has left a lasting impression on those who did — err, didn't — see it.

For the time being, anyway, the tale will remain theirs and theirs alone — baseball's little secret.

"If it had happened in the major leagues," Kruger said, "it would be a very different story."

It's still a very different story.

Taking A Mulligan

Punxsutawney Phil popped out today and hit me with a stunning soul-jarring blow — it has already been eight and a half years since the story that could/would/should have been my meal ticket appeared on the front of the Times of Northwest Indiana sports page.

It received some dap — a couple of national honorable-mention awards and some blog love from the X-Files crowd — but I still can't help but think that it was a golden opportunity lost. I'll always stick at least part of the blame with my editor* for taking the teeth out by forcing me to cluster-bomb the first few paragraphs with the word "apparently" because my most brain-dead source claimed not to remember that the incident in question happened.

(* — Sorry, man...I loved working with you, but that didn't need to be done.)

But at least part of the buck stops here. I should have probably done a better job telling the story. Now, thanks to the lack of constraints on the Internet, I can take a quick stab at a rewrite. So I will.

Be back in a few. In the meantime, take a gander at the original. It still doesn't suck.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Croup...There It Is.

[Skipping the obligatory introductory pleasantries and getting down to business]

Why do parents feel the need to keep bringing their sick-ass kids out into the world to infect others like the fucking Outbreak monkey?

I know that you're trying to save up your sick days at work for that RV trip to the Wisconsin Dells this summer or your college roommate's wedding in Ohio that you got asked to be a bridesmaid for. I know that you don't want your kids cutting into your "me" time, and it's superfucking inconvenient that your day care center has rules about not allowing you to bring little [insert trendy biblical name here] there when he's running a 103 fever and spewing yellow shit out of his nose like it's an eclair.

But I want to go on the trampoline!
But guess what? Part of being a parent is sucking it up and staying the fuck home with your kid when he/she is sick.

Our son, who has been relatively germ-free for the first 18 months of his life, wound up taking an extra trip to the doctor this week because one of the parents in his gymnastics class felt that it was totally kosher to bring her hacking, wheezing daughter/granddaughter (we'll just refer to her as Patient Zero) in to join us last week.

By the end of the week, we'd been contaminated.

Fortunately, Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Cuba Gooding Jr. were all in town just hours later* to save the day, calling Morgan Freeman just in time to prevent the army from firebombing the entire city, and our son will be just fine in a few days now that the antiserum has been discovered.

(* — Okay, so it was just a trip to Walgreens that did it. I like to exaggerate for effect on occasion. You'll learn this.)

Anyway, this whole episode was the result of one of two things, and I'm not sure which is worse...

a) Patient Zero's parent or guardian was just thinking of herself;
b) Patient Zero's parent or guardian was thinking of someone beside herself — and she's just really that stupid.

Neither outcome would shock me.