WALEWANDER STILL THE REAL THING

Have you ever known someone and not seen him for a while and then suddenly he pops up and you say, “Whoa! What happened to him?”

I had that reaction the other night. Tiger Stadium. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a New York Yankee taking batting practice. He was small for an athlete and he looked kind of familiar, sort of boyish looking, with close-cropped blond hair and pale skin and a sort of vacant expression, like a surfer waiting for a good wave. He was . . .

He was . . .

Omigosh. He was Jim Walewander.

Whoa. Double whoa! The first and only punk rocker in the major leagues? As a Yankee? In pinstripes? Yes, and he was swinging at pitches, looking very serious, his eyes straight ahead, his jaw set, taking turns with the likes of Don Mattingly and Kevin Maas. For a minute, my heart was broken. It was like seeing Peter Pan with a shaving kit.

And then I noticed something.

His number. It was 63.

No. 63?

“They usually give that number to middle linebackers,” he would say later. “I guess all the other Yankee numbers were retired. I told them, ‘How about No. 3? I play good when I wear No. 3.’ I think they said Babe Ruth wore that so I couldn’t have it.”

Same old Walewander.

Milkmen in the dugout

Which was good. In the beefy, macho, tobacco-and-spit world of professional baseball, there is rarely room for an iconoclast. Teammates look at him funny. Call him weird. Only if he is gifted beyond belief — Mark Fidrych, for example — do they swallow and tolerate. Individuality? Most baseball teams don’t even like you breathing your own air. Breathe clubhouse air like the rest of us, damn it!

And then comes Jim Walewander, out of Chicago, with a stop in Detroit, and now in New York. Walewander, with his collection of punk rock albums and the mussed-up hair. Walewander, who for a brief autumn in 1987 was a local hero for the Tigers, racing around the bases like a door mouse. He has been with the Yankees minor league system this season, and last week the Yankees called him up. He drove all night, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. And just before game time, he got stuck in traffic at the George Washington Bridge. Two hours.

“So I turned around and drove home. The next day they said, ‘We figured you got stuck in traffic. Happens all the time.’

“And then they docked me a day’s pay.”

Let me tell you a couple things about Jim Walewander. He is, as far as I know, the only player to ever bring the punk band Dead Milkmen into the dugout to meet Sparky Anderson. You remember:

SPARKY: “Hello, boys.”

MILKMEN: “EAT VOMIT!”

SPARKY: “Well, gotta go, boys.”

He used to have a torn leather jacket held together only by safety pins. He used to wear combat boots. In the off-season he would visit the clubs in Chicago till the wee hours, then sleep on the trains going home. Grown men would sneer and him and say, “Get a job.” A few years ago, he met his girlfriend at the funky St. Andrews Hall. “Where do you work?” she asked.
“Tiger Stadium,” he said. She thought he was a hot dog vendor.

I once got a Christmas card from him. Picture of a cow. Said “Mooory Christmas.”

A rebel in pinstripes

And yet he loves baseball. Go figure. Long before the film “Major League” where Charlie Sheen played a spike-haired pitcher named Wild Thing, there was Walewander, who liked to slam-dance. Real Thing.

So naturally I had to know if playing for the Yankees had changed him. He shrugged. Said he was living in a Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey, if that made a difference. He also said he had gotten to know “Neon” Deion Sanders, the Yankees flashy, all-talk, all-jewelry rookie who is now playing football for the Atlanta Falcons.

“Actually, I ordered some clothes from Deion,” Walewander said, scratching

his head. “I’m still waiting, if he’s reading this.”

I don’t think the Yankees know what they got here. But I do. They have a little rebel. Not a complainer. Not a malcontent. Just a nice guy who likes to do his own thing and not hurt anyone. It would be easier to follow the crowd, chew and spit with the macho types in baseball. But I always felt Walewander was proof that the game moves over for those who love it and can master it. Even those who like The Clash.

So pinstripes or no, I hope he sticks around. I hope he finds a nice punk club in New York and picks out more weird Christmas cards and still forgets to brush his hair. It’s refreshing. Jose Canseco doesn’t sleep on trains. Maybe he should start.

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