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Monday, May 19, 2008
ESPN writers: Favorite stories of legend

Baseball history is full of legendary stories like the ones told in "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends." Some have been embellished over time. Others can never be verified. And still countless more have never been reported, existing mostly in the minds of those who either witnessed them or heard about them from another source.

ESPN's baseball writers have encountered their fair share of legendary stories over the years. So we asked a few of them to share a personal favorite.

Do you have a favorite story to tell? Click here to submit yours.

Most anyone who has ever walked up the stairway leading from the Metrodome visitors dugout to the clubhouse level has heard the stories about Cal Ripken Jr. supposedly climbing it in six strides -- and I imagine most people shake their heads and say, "No way.''

The stairway is not only high, it is long, with four landings and about 30 steps. Looking at it, you would say there is absolutely no way anyone could go up it in six strides. And yet I saw Ripken do it several times and also had him tell me exactly how he went about figuring out how to do it.

The Metrodome opened Ripken's rookie season, and he made it a game to see what was the fewest number of strides he needed to get to the top whenever he went up to the clubhouse. He got it down to seven strides and then eventually six. It not only showed just how great an athlete he was, but also how he so thoughtlessly risked injury simply to challenge himself athletically, streak be damned.

I saw a lot of amazing things in five years as Cincinnati Reds beat reporter -- from Tom Browning's perfect game to a wire-to-wire world champion -- but my favorite tales revolved around owner Marge Schott and her legendary cheapness.

Marge reportedly made general manager Bob Quinn pay his way to the All-Star Game one summer, and sent a bill to manager Lou Piniella after the club donated some bats to his favorite charity. After the Reds beat Oakland in the 1990 World Series, she was too frugal to pay for food, so Series hero Billy Hatcher and some other players were forced to make a late-night run to Carl's Jr. for a victory celebration.

And there was that infamous group sales meeting when the attendants failed to eat all the doughnuts. The next day, supposedly, Marge decreed that the leftover doughnuts would be made available to front-office employees for 35 cents apiece. No word on how well they sold.

George Brett had a badly sprained ankle, which put him on the disabled list. He couldn't play in the Royals' team golf tournament, but he went and greeted all the players as they came through the 18th green.

As he stood on the 18th, on crutches, with a putter in his hand, some teammates figured they'd have a little fun, and hit into the 18th green while others were still putting. From 150 yards away, a ball came screaming at Brett. He dropped his crutches, readied his putter and hit the moving golf ball 150 yards back down the fairway with his putter.

I refused to believe this ridiculous tale. No one has hand-eye cooordination that precise. But Brett confirmed the story.

"Well,'' he said, "it was 1980.''

That was the year he hit .390, and everything he hit, he hit it right on the screws.

Few players, at any level, have reached the legendary status of Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who pitched in the Negro Leagues and in Major League Baseball.

Paige's professional career lasted from the mid-1920 until 1965. In 1971, Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame, even though his accomplishments on the field were more mythical than his age. At the time, the Negro Leagues had no reliable system to compile stats, which leaves us with an inaccurate overview of Paige's record. A journalist from Ebony, nonetheless, estimated that Paige threw in more than 2,500 games and won more than 2,000 of such, including 300 shutouts and 55 no-hitters.

It wasn't because of Paige's statistical feats that I became one of his most loyal fans, while growing up in Dominican Republic, almost three decades after his retirement.

The roots of my admiration for Paige came from scenes in the movie "Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige," released for TV in 1981. The impact of those images was crucial and immediate. When the movie, starring Louis Gossett Jr., was eventually released in the Dominican Republic, I watched it so many times that the tape almost exploded!

The movie features Paige pitching for a Negro League all-star team against a team of white players, a common scenario in an era of racial segregation. Paige, at a crucial point in the story, tells his outfielders to sit in the infield and proceeds to strike out three batters in a row. Now, that's radical dominance.

For an idealistic Dominican kid who couldn't tell the difference between reality and fiction in movies, Paige's story made me believe at the time that his legend was bigger than Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson … put together!

Suddenly, all I had read in regards to Paige's mysterious age and mythical life became a great revelation to me, no matter the intensive research that I eventually processed to separate fact from fiction. Simply put, Paige was the biggest and there was no room for arguments.

There are very few ballparks anymore where baseballs literally disappear, where they fly off into the distance, off to a place where nobody with a beer cup or a ticket stub can run them down.

Wrigley Field remains one of those places. So back on May 5, 1996, something came over me when I watched the classic SportsCenter highlight of Sammy Sosa launching a game-winning home run that whooshed over the left-field bleachers at Wrigley -- and crashed through the window of a building across the street.

I had to know the reaction of the person on the other side of that window. After all, the baseball story of that homer might have ended when that ball cleared the fence, but the real-life story was just getting good.

So I tracked down the fellow who lived in the apartment attached to that window. Took me two days, but I found him -- and called him. Turned out this was no life-long Cubbie fan. This was a guy from France. No kidding. His name was Philippe Guichoux. And he didn't know a curveball from a croissant. Yet he rented an apartment across the street from one of the most famous stadiums on earth.

Which meant he was the most shocked human alive when his window exploded one day and a baseball arrived in his living room. So I asked him whether, when he picked out the apartment, he'd noticed there was a big old ballpark across the street.

"Oh, I knew the apartment was near a field," he said. "I just didn't know baseballs would go out of the field."

You can't make this stuff up, friends.