A Game Played on Grass
Art by Bob AulWillie Mays had the catch. Bobby Thomson had the shot heard 'round the world. Me, I had the greatest two innings of the Pomona Elks Tournament ever played under the influence.
In 1978, I was the centerfielder for Pacific High School of San Bernardino's Pirates. Well, "was" might be the wrong word. Sometimes I was. Most times I wasn't.
Pacific wasn't a sports powerhouse (except in wrestling, where coach Tony Finazzo managed to dig up these little Latino guys who weighed 29 pounds so we'd outscore opponents by virtue of forfeit), but we did excel over other schools when it came to one thing: substance abuse. Rumor has it a campus poll found 80 percent of Pacific students used marijuana; the other 20 percent were probably home sleeping it off when the poll was taken. If Cameron Crowe had visited Pacific when he was writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he would have found more Jeff Spicolis than he could count.
At Pacific, you were either a "soc" (short for social, the in crowd); a "low life" (likely the offspring of Hell's Angels, which was founded in nearby Fontana in 1950!); or one of those weird kids who got good grades, voluntarily went to bed by 10 p.m., and attended church on Sunday and some other day of the week. I fancied myself a soc. They had the best-looking chicks. All the jocks were socs. And I fancied myself a jock.
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After Mays announced his retirement, I became the first Giants fan in history to switch allegiance to the Dodgers. LA had that infectious team in the '70s with Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and the player I admired most: Steve Garvey. The Popeye-forearmed first baseman said he believed his body was his temple, so I did, too. He sprayed singles to the opposite field, so I did, too. He took shit from Don Sutton, so I did, too.
Before the wife-beating allegations, the children fathered out of wedlock and-the worst transgression of them all-the trade to the Padres, Garvey stood for everything good and pure about baseball, America and Brill Cream. Someday, I would live up to the Garvey standard, I reckoned. But for now, Pacific already had someone who seemed to embody those positive characteristics. I would name this buffed, drop-dead-handsome, natural athlete by name, but he would probably sue me, kill me or both. Let's just call him Dirk Storm.
Through one of my friends-the brother of a card-carrying soc-we managed as sophomores to weasel into a mythical soc party. About to join the fraternity of jocks, I excitedly swung open the door. I found total bedlam. The Tubes' "White Punks on Dope" blared on the hi-fi. The starting middle linebacker and the captain of the basketball team were hunched over a coffee table rolling a joint. Our quarterback was setting up to pass a cold beer can across the room to the campus Farrah Fawcett look-alike. And there was our athletic Adonis, Storm, with a smoking bong in one hand as he screamed-puffs of smoke escaping his lungs every time he opened his mouth-along with Fee Waybill into a Radio Shack walkie-talkie: "White punks on dope. White punks on dope. White punks on dope. White punks on dope."
My whole world was turned upside-down. There were no Steve Garveys in this room. More like Steve Howes. And when in Rome . . .
By the time the Pomona Elks Tournament of 1978 rolled around, I was a strong-armed senior with a bat like Bert Campaneris and wheels like Burt Bacharach. The starting centerfielder could hit for more power and run like the wind, but he wanted to be the catcher. The catcher was made for that position, but those guys tend to take a beating, so the starting centerfielder would get innings behind the plate. I'd step into center on those occasions. But a strange thing happened at the tourney: we had a chance to win.
It was spring, before league play began, and a particularly wet year. Perhaps it was the slick fields or travel fatigue from making up so many games or whatever, but the Pirates managed to knock off a few teams in the early going. Our biggest test would come against Edgewood High School. The team from eastern Los Angeles County had won the state 3-A baseball championship the previous year. Pacific was 4-A-technically a bigger school, but in many sports, 3-A programs used us as tune-ups for their real competition. If we could somehow knock off Edgewood, we'd play for the Elks' championship.
Before the big game, our coach let it be known that should our starting centerfielder wind up behind the plate as catcher, he'd put into centerfield a pitcher who could hit the cover off the ball, outrun anyone on the field and throw out baserunners at will. The coach was obviously taking no chances, but I was crushed.
Before getting on the bus for the ride over to Mount San Antonio College for the game, I joined a buddy-who would have been playing second base if not for an injury-in his car for a little "pre-game." We consumed beer and bud, turning his Nova into a smoke-filled chamber of drowned sorrows.
"Fuck, there's no chance in hell I'm gonna play today," I fumed.
"Me, neither," my buddy added. "Is that pipe out?"
I was in no condition to play in the tournament, but I was probably fine for winter ball in the Dominican Republic. My red eyes and I eventually made it into the dugout to catch the day's ballgame. We managed to stay close to Edgewood for six innings-shocking even ourselves. And then the real shocker came.
"Coker," the coach barked. "Next inning. Centerfield."
Holy shit! You know those under-the-breath snickers you hear in classrooms when someone goofs big-time in front of the teacher? Imagine that amplified 10 times, and you've pretty much got the sound the players on the bench made after the coach announced his unexpected defensive move. I think someone actually pointed me toward center.
Mount San Antonio actually had tournament games going on two baseball diamonds facing each other. There was no fence, so a centerfielder would line up practically side by side with the centerfielder facing the other game. If anything got past you, a blind, one-legged batter could easily score.
Edgewood's hitters had been knocking the shit out of the ball all day. My first inning out there, a guy launched one that sent me beyond the other game's centerfielder, yet I made the catch. The next guy hit it further, and I still managed to grab it. In two innings, I made four or five putouts just by running down all these surface-to-air missiles. I contend to this day that it was just good, solid defensive baseball. My teammates would beg to differ. They still tell tales of me being totally blitzed, throwing my arm into the air willy-nilly and the ball somehow plopping into my glove. I also had one of our team's few hits, a chopper that eluded the extended arms of Edgewood's first and second basemen-a Garvey-esque, opposite-field single, I maintained; fucked-up Coker being late on the ball, my cackling teammates shot back.
Screw 'em. All I know is my play kept our team close going into the final inning. But before I could supply any game-winning heroics, the coach yanked me before my turn at bat in the top of the ninth. Perhaps he had gotten wind of my pre-game activities. We wound up losing 3-2 when, with a man on third, the coach called a squeeze play and the runner was tagged out at the plate. We'd never even practiced the squeeze before. Some players bitterly surmised he purposely threw the game because he was tired of making all those trips to rain-soaked Pomona.
Indeed, the Pomona Elks Tournament of 1978 may have begun the unraveling of the mighty Pacific High Pirates. We'd compiled a 5-1 record heading into Pomona. Resentment over the squeeze play, player bickering, and guys up and quitting midseason caused us to finish the season 8-8.
Or could it have been the team's rampant drug use after that tournament?
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