LAKELAND, Fla. — The good news is, Willie Hernandez has rediscovered the strike zone.
The bad news is he was only standing six inches away and it wasn’t a baseball.
It was a bucket of ice water. A large bucket of ice water. He threw it on my head.
I should explain.
I had just arrived at the Tigers’ spring training camp Wednesday from the Winter Olympics in Calgary. I was talking in the clubhouse with pitcher Frank Tanana. And the next thing I know, I am drenched. All over. And Willie is walking away, saying, “Take that, bleeper-bleeper!”
I kept my cool. That wasn’t hard to do, since ice cubes were running down my neck. But I did have a few questions.
Like: Why did Willie do it? It could be because he heard me talking about the Winter Olympics, and wanted to create the proper atmosphere.
It could be because I was sweating, and a concerned Willie wanted to cool me off.
Or it could be because Willie Hernandez is an immature, hot- headed ball player who is carrying a grudge over a column that is 11 months old and figures he doesn’t have to account for his actions when he’s in the clubhouse.
Any one of those three.
But back to the story.
I continued my conversation with Tanana, who, understandably, had moved a few steps back. And then I left to get a dry shirt. When I returned, several reporters asked me what happened and I told them: I had not said a word to Willie in five months. I had not laid eyes on Willie in five months. Perhaps, this was a new way of saying hello. Quote, booing draw curses
“Is he mad at you?” the question came.
“I don’t know,” I said. I do know that last year, Hernandez was upset with a column that appeared April 20, in which he said: “Bleep the fans. I don’t give a bleep about the fans. . . . I don’t care if you write it. The way they treat me? Bleep them.”
Now. Willie knows he said this. He admits he said it. Besides, I have it on tape. I even asked him three or four times if he was sure he wanted to be quoted that way. He said he didn’t care. When the column came out, suddenly he cared.
Anyhow, in the months that followed, Willie’s pitching went sour. Fans at Tiger Stadium, who already jeered him, began booing his very entrance. By October, he was useless.
And all during that time, I barely wrote a word! Other writers ripped him up and down. Yet, for some reason, he would curse when he saw me, and I would ask him what’s wrong, and he’d curse again, and when I asked if he wanted to talk about it, he would curse again. Then one afternoon, he whacked the stereo system with a baseball bat, and I figured, OK, fine, talking isn’t that important.
And now, suddenly, I had wet underwear.
But wait. Later Wednesday, I am in the clubhouse hall, and Willie walks past me. And I’m thinking, maybe he’ll say: “I’m sorry.” Or: “I lost my head.”
Instead, he said: “I had to do it.” Throwing blame around, too
Now, on the list of all-time apologies, “I had to do it” doesn’t rank real high. Willie then yelled how I was the cause of all his problems last year. Not the home runs he gave up. Not the walks or the mush balls he threw. Me.
“You turned the fans against me!”
“Willie,” I said, “don’t you think your performances had something to do with it?”
“No. You did it! Look at my performances!”
I wanted to tell him I would, but they kept going over the right field wall. But I did not say this. What I did say was, listen, if you have something to say to me, come up and say it, like a man. Dumping a bucket of ice water on my head might get my attention, but then I’d have to leave to get clean clothes.
“I hear another bleep out of you, we’re gonna go at it!” he yelled, threatening me.
“You’ll go at it alone, Willie,” I said. And I meant it. I’ve never seen punches solve a damn thing.
And so Willie took off, cursing. I still don’t know his problem. I still can’t believe one column 11 months ago, for which he has only himself to blame
— after all, those were his words, not mine — can still upset him.
Since this happened, I have been asked many questions. A common one is:
“Why did you keep talking with Tanana?” The answer is, because we hadn’t finished our conversation. I’m not going to let a little shower ruin a nice chat.
“Why didn’t you go after Willie?” Because that would be just as childish.
“What have you learned from this incident?” Well. I would have to say this: 1) Always carry shampoo. 2) Never talk near a sink.
Frankly, I can only feel sorry for Willie. I hope the Tigers will deal with him, as they should, because you can’t have reporters constantly worrying about what’s coming over their shoulders. It’s a clubhouse, not a car wash.
But my biggest concern is not physical harm, nor embarrassment. To be honest, given his history, when I think of Willie tossing that bucket over my head, I have but one worry:
That might be his best pitch all year.