ST. LOUIS — The moment came in the bottom of the eighth, and from now until he is an old man, the time, the circumstances, even the words — “bottom of the eighth, World Series, 1987” — will forever tickle a certain fancy. He was sitting on the bench. The manager came over. “Why don’t you bat for. . .
Roy Smalley is too old to be excited by this kind of thing — a pinch hit. For Pete’s sake, the guy played three years with the Yankees. Steinbrenner. Billy Martin. What could he possibly have missed? And that’s not counting the six years with Minnesota before, and the three years since he has been back, plus the stint with the Chicago White Sox, and the minor league years in Pittsfield and Spokane. Excited? Hey. You reach 34 in this game with a career batting average of .257, and you get excited 1) when spring training is over, and 2) when the checks arrive on time.
But the World Series. Ah. Well. Never let anyone tell you this is just baseball in cold weather. The whole thing may come into your living room as a spectacle, huge, glossy, a swirling mega-show of TV lights, cameras, action.
But here is a little story of what it’s really about. An infielder, winding down his career, who only wanted to get in there, one swing, one World Series at-bat. A guy too old to get excited about this sort of thing.
And in the bottom of the eighth. . . . He’s been to the Big One
Consider that the average player never knows whether he’ll even make the big leagues until he does. For him, the dream of a World Series is distant, movie-like. Not so the son of a major league shortstop. Not so the nephew of a major league manager.
Roy Smalley is both. His father, Roy Sr., played in the National League for 11 years. His uncle, Gene Mauch . . . well, you know Gene Mauch. Played for nine years, has managed for 26 — and you know the knock against him: Never Been To The Big One.
So young Smalley knew plenty about the World Series. Knew it was out there, like a mountaintop. And that bad directions seemed to run in the family. In his 13 major league seasons, he, too, had never seen a post-season at-bat.
And here he was, sitting in the dugout Sunday night, watching the moments slip away. He had made it, like the first kid to go to college, he was in a World Series. But he hadn’t played. Not a minute. Once, he was an everyday shortstop. An All-Star. But now, he watched as his Twins were beating the Cardinals, 8-4, and he knew the eighth inning would likely be their last at-bats this game.
“Tom (Kelly) had told me the inning before that I would bat in Randy Bush’s spot if they brought in a right-hander,” he said. But the Cardinals did not bring in a right-hander. And Smalley stayed seated. He watched as Gene Larkin
— who batted for Bush instead — flied to center.
In came right hander Todd Worrell. “Great,” thought Smalley, “now they do it.” He looked over at his friend, Don Baylor, the 38-year-old veteran.
“At least we get to see Worrell,” Baylor said.
“Yeah,” sighed Smalley. “I was kinda hoping I’d see him a little closer up.”
Tom Brunansky grounded to third. Two out. Smalley looked down. And suddenly, Kelly was leaning toward him. “Why don’t you bat for (Steve) Lombardozzi?” said the manager. And Smalley, whose insides went electric, blurted: “Fine with me.” And grabbed a bat.
When he walked out, the crowd exploded. After all, Smalley really grew up in Minnesota as a player. “I felt so good,” he said, “just to get in the game and hear that crowd, I almost didn’t care what I did.”
Almost. He doubled his pleasure
Here is what he did: a fairy tale. Sent the first pitch into the left-center gap, rounded first base, slid into second as the throw reached the fielder’s glove . . . safe! A double. The crowd drenched him with noise. He jogged to the dugout (lifted for a pinch runner) and slapped hands with his teammates.
“That easy, huh?” greeted Baylor. “First at-bat, first pitch. Hit for a double. Hmph.”
In the clubhouse afterward, he was surrounded by reporters. But tonight he will be back on the bench, and the story will be someone else.
So be it. “This might have been my biggest thrill in baseball,” he said.
“I know my dad and uncle were watching. Sixty years of baseball between us, and this was the first. . . . You always dream about the World Series. . . . Well, let me tell ya, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
One at-bat. One hit. Roy Smalley is not a kid anymore, not at 34 and on the bench. But he felt like a kid for a moment. And whenever he blows on these embers — “bottom of the eighth, World Series, 1987” — he will again. That’s the best you can ask of baseball. It really is.