Saturday, February 18, 2012

Field of Dreams from the Farm News

By Fred Owens

This being Oscar week and the awards coming Sunday, February 26, and this being the Farm News, it is time to nominate the two greatest farm movies of all times, those two being Field of Dreams with Kevin Kline, and the Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda.

Now it could be said that, as good as Kevin Kline is, he is only half as good as Henry Fonda, half as tough, half as deep, and half as good-looking.

Can anyone, man or woman, match the sparkling blue eyes of Henry Fonda? And we know that the Grapes of Wrath is the greater movie, and one of the greatest movies ever made, and yet we can also ask, is it a better movie than Field of Dreams?

It is not a better movie, because the Field of Dreams is not just about farming, it's about baseball.

And so I form these words, connecting the farm with baseball, because it's spring, because life is real and life is good, and it's time to play ball on the Field of Dreams.
TRAGIC INTERLUDE. I was watching a replay of Game Six of the 1986 World Series when the Red Sox lost to the Mets. It was like dying all over again..... I first heard this game on the radio in 1986 when I was driving from Anahuac, Texas to Venice, California in a 1978 Buick Electra 225..... The Red Sox lost and my whole life changed..... The weird thing is that, at the time, I wasn't even a Red Sox fan. But it was so real, and majestic, and tragic...... Four years later, I moved to Boston because it was my destiny to be there. I became a Red Sox fan.
The Red Sox loss in 1986 was the ultimate sports tragedy, the cosmic choke of all time, a soul-searing collapse ---- Fate! --- The Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, but by then it didn't mean that much to me, and that's when I let the Red Sox go....... Now I live near Los Angeles, and I would LIKE to be a Dodgers fan, if they weren't so screwed up. But no more will I follow a tragic team, I know it's easier, but I want to be with a winner.
The Old Ball Player
He wore a World Series ring with Real Diamonds
I worked for the Wilson County News, a newspaper in South Texas. I was the farm and ranch editor, which was a really cool assignment, going around to ranches and livestock auctions and so forth, talking to people about cows and the price of hay, and the weather, which was always a drought.
But it was a small newspaper and the editor let me write any kind of story I wanted to, so that spring I started driving into San Antonio, to Wolff Stadium, seating 5,000 fans under the starry skies of Texas on warm spring evenings, to watch the San Antonio Missions play their Texas League opponents in Double A ball competition – teams from El Paso, Corpus Christi, Austin, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City.
The young Double A ball players had all the athletic skills of major leaguers – they could throw, hit, run and catch as good as any star player -- but what they lacked and what they needed to learn, if they were ever going to make it to the major leagues, was a kind of baseball maturity – meaning focus, judgment and sustained concentration, which is to say, “you got to keep your eye on the ball if you want to make it to the Show.”

But it was fun watching the kids play. I had a pass to the press box that season, it was like being in baseball heaven, sitting in cushioned seats in air-conditioned comfort with catered fried chicken dinners and all your coke and iced tea and potato salad.
Gathered around the press box most evenings were major leagues scouts and retired ball players talking inside baseball. They were as gods to me, talking about the game at a level that I could not even begin to understand. These men – their whole lives were about baseball. That’s how they lived.
I said nothing, I only listened, but I loved it. One man, older and quieter than the rest, often sat near me and we would exchange greetings and little more.
Then one evening, I noticed his hands, and looking closer, I could see the big ring he wore, a World Series ring, with real diamonds.
I was astounded. Here was a man, like me, or like you, and yet, by evidence of his ring, he had played in the World Series. You can only imagine the respect I had for him. So I asked him his name and that night when I got home, I looked him up on the Internet – Joel Horlen, who won 19 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1967 and pitched a no-hitter – that was the best of his 10 years in the major leagues.
The next time I saw him I asked for an interview. This is the story I wrote:

San Antonio native Joel Horlen began his baseball career in sandlots and summer leagues.

He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State University and then was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1959.

They brought him up from the minor leagues in 1961 to Comiskey Park on the south side of town, a magical place run by owner Bill Veeck, who invented the exploding scoreboard.

Horlen, a 6-footer, 24 years old, and righthanded, took the mound to face awesome hitters such as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs that year. It took a lot of confidence for a rookie like Horlen to face down Maris and Mantle.

Horlen didn’t do so well. His record was 1-3 that first year, his ERA a dismal 6.63.

But he must have shown promise, because they kept sending him out there. In 1962, he won seven and lost six.

He got better and stronger every year with the White Sox until his best year, 1967, when he won 19 games. His ERA was 2.06, the lowest in the American League. He pitched a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers. He was a cinch to win the Cy Young award, but Jim Lonborg of the Boston Red Sox received more votes for that prize because the Red Sox won the pennant.

They called him Hard Luck Horlen after that, but he was playing for a hard-luck team -- the White Sox came in second place behind the Yankees year after year in the 1960s. They were good, but just not good enough.

Horlen stayed with the White Sox until 1971, when he was 34. His speed was off. They traded him to the Oakland Athletics, and that next year was his last one in the majors.

The A’s didn’t use him much. He won three games and lost four. But that year was the beginning of the mighty A’s dynasty -- the team with Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson.

The A’s won the pennant, and Hard Luck Horlen got a chance to pitch in the World Series -- a long way from the sandlots of San Antonio.

Having the grace of a gifted athlete, Horlen decided to retire after that. He quit while he was ahead, because he had seen other players play beyond their years trying to hold on to a career meant only for young men. His lifetime record was 116-117, a respectable and durable achievement.

He went back to San Antonio with his wife and children and started a construction business. “I thought about continuing as a coach, but I had a family to raise, and I had to make a living,” he said.

Major league players did not earn million-dollar salaries in those years.

After 15 years in construction, Horlen returned to baseball as a minor league coach for the San Francisco Giants.

He returned home for good 12 years later, a respected baseball elder.

In that capacity, he often visits the press box at Wolff Stadium to watch the San Antonio Missions play. He listens to the other old-timers talk about baseball, but he doesn’t say much himself.

Horlen was famous for that reticence as a pitcher. Reporters liked his game, but he was no talker. “I probably wasn’t a very good interview,” he admits. “I thought my actions on the field would speak for themselves. I’m still that way today.”

Asked about the enormous salaries of current players, Horlen said, “They deserve what they can get. I was just glad I got to play.”

He did wonder, however, about how often current players get injured. “I played 12 years. I was on the disabled list only two times because of my knees, but my arm never gave me any trouble,” he said.

During his career, the best advice for a pitcher in the off-season was to stay away from the training room.

“I wouldn’t pick up a ball from September until January. All I did was hunt and play golf, and I think that was better.”

Looking over the Missions’ roster this year, Horlen was not willing to choose the rising stars -- the ones who will make it to the major leagues like he did.

“It’s hard to say which ones might make it, but they all have a chance, you know,” he said, a fine sentiment from a man of few words.

Today, he still wears a special ring with a sparkling diamond in the center. Around the stone it says “World Series, 1972, Oakland Athletics.”

No comments: