“But the Bulldog in him came out when, after the Athletics were disposed of, he walked down the hallway to the interview room in the Oakland Coliseum and an A's fan yelled, “You were lucky, Hershiser.” A couple of dozen steps later, Hershiser blurted out, “Oh yeah – grab a bat.” He wasn't smiling.
-- Final paragraph of the article "A Case Of Orel Surgery" by Peter Gammons in the Oct. 31, 1988, edition of Sports Illustrated.
• • •
Orel Hershiser was back in Los Angeles recently as the Dodgers honored him with a bobblehead, so it’s a good time to retell a story from my childhood that makes me feel equal parts stupid and proud.
First, the background. I grew up in Pleasanton, Calif., a suburb 20 miles east of Oakland, and was a rabid fan of the Oakland Athletics. I practically grew up at the Coliseum in those years.
My dad annually bought 20 games from a friend who had season tickets for all 81 games. The seats are amazing and I don’t need a seating chart to list the location -- Section 123, Row 2, Seats 12 and 13 -- on the aisle, just to the left of the A’s dugout.
Even when we didn’t have those choice seats, I’d go to games with my friends. We’d take the bus to the Hayward BART station, ride it for three stops to the Coliseum and walk across that bridge. We’d leave right after school, arriving to get autographs in the parking lot; wed chase down batting practice home runs, watch the game, and stay late for more autographs. We’d buy bleacher seats and third-deck seats, and think of creative ways to annoy the ushers by sneaking into seats that didn’t belong to us.
In 1987, I attended 41 games. In 1988, I attended 53 games. I know those numbers precisely. I’d save the ticket stubs from each game and keep them in my wallet, chronologically. If somebody at school didn’t believe me, I’d show the ticket stubs for proof. If there was a day game, we’d usually skip school to attend. (Sometimes our parents knew. Usually they didn’t.)
When the ’88 playoffs rolled around, my dad and I shared “the good seats” with his friends. We ended up with Game 5 of the World Series.
For Game 3, I sneaked into the Coliseum, without a ticket. It was actually miserable not having a seat and walking around the whole game looking for an empty seat. I barely saw Mark McGwire’s game-winning home run off Jay Howell. I watched Game 4 at home, when the A’s fell behind three games to one, and was dreading the elimination game.
As usual, I took public transportation to the game with friends (who had seats elsewhere) and met my dad at “the good seats.” I remember getting Bobby McFerrin’s autograph before the game; he wrote, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Still, I was very worried and knew this night would end miserably for my beloved A’s.
Sometime around the seventh inning, when the end was inevitable, my dad was losing his patience. Can’t remember exactly what he yelled, but it must have been awesome and totally inappropriate because I vividly recall Mary Hart hearing it and turning around to see who would say such a thing.
In the ninth inning, my dad had seen enough. He wasn’t going to watch the Dodgers celebrate on “our” field. He was leaving. I wanted to stay, just in case. I didn’t want to miss the greatest comeback ever. The conversation went something like this:
Dad: “I’m leaving. If you want to stay, find your own way home.”
Me: “Fine. I will.”
Honestly, I didn’t really think he’d leave. But he did. This wasn’t poor parenting. Remember, I went to games without adult supervision routinely. We were experts at taking public transportation. Plus, one of my friends worked in the visitors clubhouse, and he had a car, so there was a ride home available.
Hershiser finished off the A's in the ninth inning. I watched the inning with red eyes. When I saw the Dodgers celebrating on the field, tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I’d turned 15 years old a few months earlier.
Eventually, I’d wipe the tears off my face and wander around the stadium in a daze of sorts. Instinctively, I walked toward the hallway that leads to the clubhouses and ran into my friend Corey Kell. His favorite player was Tony Phillips, who struck out to end the game, and I remember Corey telling me that he gave “TP” a standing ovation for his likely last at-bat with the A’s before free agency would take him away.
I remember thinking everything about life sucked at that moment. The A’s had lost the World Series to the Dodgers. I was going to be ridiculed at school for all the boasting I’d done. I owed a ton of money to kids from bets that I made. And oh yeah, I had to find my own way home.
Worst of all, baseball season was over. No more games to attend. No more school to cut. No more autographs to obtain. No more BP home runs to chase. No more fun.
As these thoughts swirled in my head, I was just about to start crying again. Then I heard a commotion. Security guards were clearing the way. Somebody was behind them.
It was Hershiser.
Before I even realized what was happening, I yelled out, “YOU WERE LUCKY, HERSHISER” as he walked by, trailed by reporters as he was taken to the interview room.
• • •
I’m guessing it was about a week later when Corey Kell called me after school. The conversation went something like this:
Corey: “You get the new Sports Illustrated in the mail today?”
Corey: “Did you read it?”
Me: “Hell no. Why would I want to read about Hershiser beating us?”
Corey: “You should read the final paragraph on Page 37.”
There’s only one person on the planet who would know that I was the idiot who told Hershiser -- after 59 consecutive scoreless innings, and after dismantling the Mets and A’s in the playoffs -- that he was lucky.
It was Corey Kell. It just so happened that Corey had a subscription to Sports Illustrated. And unlike me, he decided to read the magazine. If it wasn’t for Corey, I’d have probably thrown the issue in the trash.
At least my name wasn’t used. But the only thing worse than knowing that my words were in the most famous sports magazine in the world, saying something utterly stupid, was that Hershiser taunted me by saying, “grab a bat.”
I never heard the “grab a bat” line. We were walking in opposite directions and he was past me in a second. I’m sure security tossed me out of the way as well.
• • •
Seven years later, in 1995, I was doing a summer internship at ESPN in Bristol, Conn. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was in the cafeteria when I spotted Peter Gammons. We were the only two people in there. I was about to turn 22 years old. If the place was full of people, I’d never have approached him.
But I had to tell him about his article and ask if he remembered some kid yelling that.
Gammons remembered it well. We spent the next 30 minutes talking about Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, that series, the 1989 World Series, the earthquake, and how Gammons will always remember Dave Stewart going down to the site of the collapsed freeways to bring coffee and doughnuts to workers as they searched for bodies.
Six years later, in 2001, it was my second year as the San Francisco Giants beat writer for the Oakland Tribune. I was now 28. I’d told the story to a couple of my colleagues and they thought it was hilarious. One of them was Jeff Fletcher, who worked at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa at the time and sat next to me in the press box.
One day during batting practice, Fletcher told me that he was here. Who?
The conversation went something like this:
Fletch: “You have to tell him the story, Soooosh.”
Josh: “Really? Do I really have to tell him?”
Hershiser was there as a TV analyst for ESPN. Bashfully, with my heart racing, I went over and introduced myself -- first, as a reporter. Then I told him that I was the kid who told him he was lucky. Hershiser was more excited than I was to hear this story.
His response was something like this: “No way! This is awesome! We need a bat! Who’s got a bat? We need a picture. My wife would love this! We need a photo for my wife. This is awesome!”
Hershiser went on to say he regretted saying “grab a bat.” He was reminded of the famous Coke commercial in which Mean Joe Greene threw a jersey to the kid. He wanted to throw something toward me. But it was too late. He was whisked away, and I was gone.
Honestly, I thought it was a bunch of crap. But I appreciated Hershiser being so kind and saying something nice.
We never grabbed a bat. We never got the photo. I ended up writing the Sunday baseball column for the Trib about the whole thing a few days later. If I was better at saving my own work, or my old newspaper’s website was worth a damn, I’d link to the article.
In 2006, I was the A’s beat reporter at the Trib and Hershiser was one of the candidates to be their new manager. We talked on the phone a few days before his job interview, and we both laughed at how hysterical it would be if he got the job and one of the reporters covering him was the kid who called him lucky.
Deep down, we both knew Bob Geren was going to get the job – and he did. A few months later, I decided it was time to switch careers. I left the newspaper business and became a minor league play-by-play announcer for the Modesto Nuts.
• • •
It’s strange how often life comes full circle.
A year after leaving the majors for the minors, I was back in the majors, this time as the reporter for the Dodgers Radio Network and the co-host of “Post Game Dodger Talk” after every game on 790 KABC in Los Angeles.
Over and over, I ran into Hershiser at the ballpark the last four years.
Whenever possible, I don’t say hello. I just walk past him and say, “You were lucky, Hershiser,” without stopping. It always makes us laugh. We’ll end up talking later, and invariably tell the story again to whoever is around us.
Unless he recently deleted me from the contacts in his cellphone, Hershiser has “You Were Lucky” listed under my name as my company.
Among my life's bucket list items are these two things:
One, broadcast a game with Hershiser as my analyst.
Two, grab a bat and get that photo.