Whenever I'm charged with cleaning out the garage or the attic or some other cobwebbed and possibly tarantula-infested cranny of our home, I always seem to stumble upon a terrible sports book such as this relatively recent discovery that has been lost, generally with good reason.
I'm never sure why I bought them, beyond the usual obssession-with-sports thing that led me to purchase and read other literary gems such as "Nails," in which Lenny Dykstra proved it is possible to "write" more books than you've read. But I always remember where I bought them. They came from an old discount bookstore at Cook's Corner in Brunswick, Maine. Though the name of the place eludes me (Nonesuch Books, perhaps?), I loved the place and usually stopped in a time or two to load up every trip home from college. Most books weren't always worth the buck or two they cost -- Obsession: Timberwolves Stalk the NBA, anyone? -- but for an aspiring sports writer they were a joy to mine, and every now and then one proved to be solid gold.
On my desk here is one of those bargains amid the bargains: "No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Life of Hardball, by Dick Williams and Bill Plaschke. (Nope, it's not written in one-sentence paragraphs.) It's memoir of one of the superior managers in modern baseball history, a Hall of Famer who won a pair of championships with the Oakland A's in the early '70s, managed some supremely talented Montreal Expos teams later in the decade, and even took the San Diego Padres to the '84 World Series. (This morning, Chris Jaffe at the Hardball Times has a thorough look at Williams's career highlights.)
Of course, in this corner of the baseball universe, only one line -- one year, one season -- on his impressive résumé matters. As the dugout mastermind of the 1967 Red Sox, the irascible Williams was more responsible than anyone, Yaz included, for shaking off the lethargy and cronyism of the Tom Yawkey ownership and making the Impossible Dream season a reality. You're damn right they would win more than they lose. Like the Big, Bad Bruins, the '67 Sox are the forever enduring darlings of Boston sports fans of a certain generation, the team who made all of this happen. Williams's death last Thursday at age 82 was a somber reminder of how long ago that was, and yet it also brought reminiscences of a summer at Fenway never to be forgotten.
Later Thursday night, I pulled Williams's book, published in 1990, from a shelf in my home office and began skimming through it. It's a remarkably entertaining memoir for anyone, let alone a sports figure Williams comes across as a charming, funny, stubborn, politically incorrect, brilliant, unapologetic grump. Pretty much how he was always perceived, in other words. But it's his candor about the famous players he managed -- and almost to a man, feuded with at one time or another -- that makes the book such a fun read.
He has nothing but praise and admiration for Nolan Ryan, who played for him with the Angels, or Tony Gwynn, who came up with the Padres during Williams's reign. Many of his other players weren't so lucky. So consider this a special edition of Nine Innings, featuring nine comments from Williams's book about those who played for him. I could list about 90. And if you ever see a copy or run across it on Amazon, buy it. It's way better than "Nails."
1. On taking away Carl Yastrzemski's captaincy upon taking over as manager: "Maybe I could have done it more gracefully. Maybe Yaz and I could have gotten off to a better start if I'd called him into my office and asked him to resign as captain. Yeah, and maybe I should have asked everyone on the team how many games they wanted to play. And maybe I would have lasted in Boston about six months. And had my [expletive] living room repossessed. The hell with grace. I wanted wins. . . . Yaz didn't have the outgoing and enthusiastic makeup to be a chief anyway, but he could be one hell of an Indian. And I needed that Indian."
2. On Jim Lonborg, the eventual AL Cy Young winner in 1967, proving his toughness to Williams during a July 21 game against the Yankees by hitting Thad Tillotson, who had beaned the Red Sox' Joe Foy earlier in the game: "For Lonborg, the season of his life was just getting started. In that one incident, he had proved to me and to the rest of the league that he wasn't just going to be another frightened kid with talent. He was going to be a scary kid with talent. All by not being afraid to pitch inside."
3. On a certain infamous comment about slugging first baseman George Scott: "Scott was a likable guy with a weight problem -- in both his belly and his head. I once said, 'Talking to him is like talking to a block of cement.' Everybody thought I was joking, and even Yaz told somebody it was a rather cruel joke. But it was no joke. I meant it."
4. On Tony C. "In the end he did come back [from his tragic beaning in 1967] and I was very happy for him, just as I was deeply troubled by his heart attack several years ago and his death in early 1990. Say what you will, the guy was a fighter. Between the lines there was nobody who played harder, as his great comeback years witness. He was a fighter and so am I, and that's probably why we got into so many verbal scrapes. I'm never sure who got the better of who, but I know that by having Tony Conigliaro in there fighting every day, the game of baseball was the winner."
5. On the 1975 Angels, who hit just 55 home runs all season: "These Angels were cursed with several things, beginning with what obviously bored reporters called an incubator infield. Indeed, we were young: first baseman Bruce Bochte was in his second season; second baseman Jerry Remy was a rookie; shortstop Orlando Ramirez was in his second season; third baseman Dave Chalk was in his second full season. It wouldn't have bothered me that their combined total of home runs was just seven, or that none of them batted better than .285 or knocked in more than 82 runs. I could have lived with that had I seen promise of improvement in the near future. The problem was, only one of them, Remy, really got much better. It was obvious that my Angels were the Peter Pans of baseball -- nice, cute kids who would never grow up."
6. On Reggie Jackson and the early '70s Oakland A's, who won three straight World Series, two under Williams: "The clubhouse had three leaders. Reggie, [Sal] Bando, and Catfish [Hunter]. Reggie was the guy with the lungs, the vocal one. His constant talking gave his teammates something to both laugh at and rally behind, and the best thing about it was that it was an act. I knew, because I used to be the same kind of actor myself. Reggie was really just a talented but very sensitive and insecure person. In other words, get through his bull and you found a guy who'd play his [expletive] off for you."
7. On the Montreal Expos superb young late '70s outfield of Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, and Ellis Valentine: "I'll always mention Dawson first, because he was everyone else's third choice. Of the three, he was always the slow learner, the who'd need the most work and wouldn't go nearly as far. Our scouts would sit around and collect foam at the corners of their mouths while talking about Valentine's natural all-around ability and Cromartie's incredible bat. 'And,' they always would say, 'we've always got Dawson.' As if Dawson didn't even belong in the same speech. You know what happened. You could have never left the beer garden and still know what would happen. Dawson, working every day . . . became a future Gold Glove and Most Valuable Player and one of baseball's leading citizens."
8. On Mark Langston, who Williams accused of asking out of games when he managed him in Seattle: "I perceived Langston as I feel much of baseball finally perceived him when he cost the Montreal Expos the pennanty in the late summer of 1989 by choking on his next few starts. Gutless. Anybody can pitch for a loser, which Langston did very well for the Mariners before I arrived. But let's see you pitch for a winner. That's the sign of a true competitor, which Langston is not. . . . C'mon Langston. Let's see you pitch for a winner. Let's see you be a winner."
9. On Bill Lee, whom Williams managed as a rookie with the Red Sox and later in Montreal: "Once when I needed Lee to pitch, he showed up at the clubhouse with bruises and cuts, looking like he'd just left a 10-rounder. He told me he'd been hin by taxicab while jogging. How had he gotten to the clubhouse? I asked. The guilty cabbie had driven him. Lee said he'd even tipped him. I tried not to faint before telling him to sit out the game. Later that season, on a trip, I spotted him jogging along a marina and shouted to him, "Be careful, you don't want any boats to jump out and hit you!"
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.