Although this Newsletter may refer to baseball and the male gender,
it is equally applicable to fastpitch softball.
Remembering Earl Weaver
Many of you have no doubt read about the recent passing of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. Since I had a personal relationship with him it hit me harder than most. Earl was a mediocre minor league second baseman for 13 years before he quit (ostensibly to fulfill his lifelong ambition to become a used car salesman). He got back into baseball and slowly worked his way up the organization ladder year-by-year, ultimately becoming a Hall of Fame manager.The first time I met Earl was in 1965 at the minor league spring training camp of the Baltimore Orioles in Thomasville, Georgia. I had returned from playing on the first United States Olympic Baseball Team (Tokyo, 1964) and signed with the Orioles a few weeks after returning to the States. A couple of days after signing, they sent me to their Winter Instructional League team in Clearwater, Florida. It was there that I had my first taste of professional baseball with new teammates Lou Piniella, Frank Bertaina, Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, and others that made it to the big leagues over the years.An unexpected surprise was the Orioles inviting me the next spring (1965) to their big league spring training camp in Miami. I was there for three weeks (another surprise) where I first met my teammates of the future, Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson, Boog Powell, Luis Aparicio, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Hoyt Wilhelm, et al. One particular thrill was meeting and hitting off Don Larsen in an intrasquad game; yes, the same Don Larsen who pitched the perfect World Series game for the Yankees in 1956. I still remember listening to that game in junior high school in Hartsdale, NY where they piped the World Series games on radio over the school's speaker system between classes. I didn't play in any of the exhibition games that spring but, as Yogi would say, "You can observe a lot by watching."
They sent me by bus to Thomasville via the "red eye" special (I must have really impressed them in Miami) and, without much sleep and no breakfast, was transported from the bus station to the minor league complex (run-down barracks in a rotting army training facility from World War II).
I soon realized that the players there could do things on the playing field that I wasn't sure I could do. Many were physical specimens that could throw baseballs through walls, run like cheetahs, and hit balls over trees. I asked myself what the hell I was even doing there. I was really discouraged; I didn't want to throw my future away as a "career minor leaguer" and started to think about law school again.
During practice a few days later I made up my mind to leave Dodge. I walked into the barracks during on-field practice and began packing. I was outta there. I wasn't going to waste my time. As I was throwing the last of my GQ wardrobe (?) into my tattered duffel bag, I heard the "click-clack-click" of spikes coming down the hallway. There was a pause and then, "What in hell's name are you doing?" This was my first actual encounter with Earl Weaver.
I told him I had seen enough and realized I didn't have the talent to make it to the major leagues. I was leaving. Adios. Sayonara. Good-bye.
"Are you f-----ʾnuts? You're going to throw away the opportunity of a lifetime? There are people who would kill to be in your shoes. I'll bet you the guys here will go into town, eat at a drive-in, fall in love with some 'burger-toting chick on roller skates, get married, and leave baseball. The rest of 'em? They won't work hard enough and go home. It ain't all about talent. They tell me you're damn smart but I think you're a f-----ʾ quitter."
He said that he had been reading my scouting reports and was impressed with what I had accomplished, that one of my strongest suits was perseverance, ability to set and achieve goals, and meet challenges head-on. He finished by saying, "The scouts that put that damn report together ought to be fired for stupidity. Who really are you? No guts? No glory. Go on, get outta here; you're no use to anyone here." And walked out as quickly as he came in.
Hey, wait a minute I said to myself. I'm no quitter. I'd show that feisty, loud-mouthed freakin' midget.
At the end of camp they told me I was being sent to Stockton of the "high A" California League. Ferdy Reed, a second baseman and I drove my VW Bug across the country to begin my professional career (he played there the year before). I wound up being named the California League Rookie-of-the-Year and Player-of-the-Year.
I got another invite (not surprising this time around) to the big league spring training camp the following March (1966) and even got to play a few innings before being sent to Daytona Beach where the Triple A Rochester Red Wings of the International League were having their spring training.
Earl & Mike, 1966. No, Earl isn't sitting in a chair.
Somehow I must have impressed the "feisty freakin' midget" because, as manager of the team, he had a big say in who he wanted on his team. The Orioles' brass didn't like to rush players by skipping leagues, e.g., jumping a player from A ball to AAA, but Earl told the farm director he wanted me to be his first baseman. Toward the end of spring training he allowed that he was taking a big chance; the rest was up to me. Sink or swim. Wow. I'd be playing against veteran guys, some whose careers I had followed since childhood. One step away from the "Show."
Our first series was against Jacksonville which featured Tom Seaver as their opening-night pitcher. Jeez, this guy was good---even better under those oil-burning lanterns they called electric lights in those days. I found out it's tough to hit what you can't see...Seaver or no Seaver.
Over the winter, the Orioles had given me permission to take a week off after spring training to fly back to Stockton, California to marry the girl I had fallen in love with the year before. (We're still going strong after nearly 47 years!) Seven days later, a Sunday afternoon, Barbara and I got off the plane in Rochester, New York. It was May 1, snow still on the ground, and the temperature a balmy 38 degrees. We took a cab to a downtown hotel. The cab driver was listening to the Red Wings' game on the radio. I leaned forward from the back seat and asked him how the team was doing and he told us not too good. They have a kid who went to the West Coast to get married and he's supposed to help when he returns for tomorrow night's game. But I've never seen a first-year player--especially one who's only been playing professionally for one year--who didn't struggle; this is a tough league. I'm sure he'll get sent down pretty quick." Barb and I looked at each other and smiled.
But the damn cabbie was right! I really struggled the first month. Better pitching, faster game, veteran players, brutally cold weather, and of course, married life. Batting an anemic .180 with little power through the month of May, we returned from Richmond to open a ten-game home stand.
The next day, I had just finished putting on my uniform when Earl stormed out of his office and yelled across the clubhouse, "Epstein, get in here! I want to talk to you." When I entered his office he motioned for me to sit down in a nearby chair. I asked him why he wanted me to sit down and he blurted out, "So I can look you in the eyes." (Read: both of us would be at the same eye level.)
He started out by asking me softly if knew what he did before he got back into baseball. I shook my head; no, I didn't. Again softly, he said he worked as a used car salesman. "You know, striped pants, checkered sport coat, polka dot tie." Now he became animated and he screamed, "So let me tell you right now to your face, I ain't gonna do that ever again. (and I thought that was the reason he quite baseball in the first place). And you ain't gonna be the one who makes it happen. Get it?" His voice softening once again, he said, "You can really help me by stepping up the plate like a man and hitting like you can. I think I'm a pretty good judge of talent and I think you can be my impact hitter. If you don't want it, I've got Altobelli ready to step in." (Joe, who became the Orioles' major league manager after Earl retired.) Now, voice raising once again, "If you don't get untracked, you're outta here! Get it? I don't have time for non-producers. Get it? Now get the f--- outta my office." End discussion.
A wordsmith? Nah; Earl was Earl. (A typical Weaver dressing-down that I actually cleaned up for you. Think I'm making his persona up? Watch this video, but please heed my warning concerning the use of profanity! It's not for children or the faint of heart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpS-XFXxJvE)
Uhhhh, would you buy a used car from Earl??
Sink or swim staring me squarely in my line of sight, that night I hit two home runs off "Sad Sam" Jones, a former major league pitcher with a great curve who had pitched a no-hitter in the big leagues a couple of years earlier. I never told my wife about my "little chat" with Earl; she just figured it was her good cooking....
Me and Barb, left, Tom and Nancy Seaver at the International League awards banquet, Jacksonville, Fla, spring 1967. (Tom was the "Pitcher of the Year in 1966.)
I got untracked beginning that night, and went on to be selected the International League Rookie and Player of the Year and also won the prestigious Minor League Player of the Year award. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the "freakin midget," his firebrand personality, and his ability to "needle" his players to get the most out of their abilities. I'm positive I'm not the only one who was lucky to have played for him. It was a great season for us as a team and me, individually, for sure.
In 1969, I had twenty home runs by the All-Star break and having a terrific year with the Washington Senators. Two weeks before the break, we played the Orioles in Baltimore. I was standing by the batting cage and Earl motioned to me to come over and talk to him by the Baltimore dugout. He told me he wanted to tell me face-to-face that I wasn't going to make the American League all-star team (that he was managing that year). Not because I didn't deserve it--and he didn't want to select me--but because I had "forced" the Orioles to trade me (1967) and the "brass" didn't want him to pick me. It was redemption time for them. He told me he owed me a lot and how much I helped him get to the big leagues, but his hands were tied. I believed him; he was always the quintessential "company man," one of the most loyal people I knew.
I suppose people would say I was pretty fortunate to have played for four Hall of Famers: Weaver, Dick Williams, Whitey Herzog, and Ted Williams. All had their strong points and all had impacts on me. The game has changed radically since my era, when managers would get into your face and tell you whatever they wanted and whichever way they wanted to let you know what they meant. There was little room in those days for hurt feelings. It was what it was--and Earl fit in nicely. He was a real pistol.
Ah, memories. What would life be without them?
Good luck, continued success, and "Get a good pitch to hit!