MORGANTOWN — After spending the last couple of months watching the dreary news shows on the health of people and the health of our economy, I was moved to believe that my assignment today is to bring some smiles into your lives.
With that in mind, I begin in a former life, not as a journalist following West Virginia University, but as a baseball writer covering some great teams and, more important, great characters.
What follows is all true and all aimed at making you understand that humor is the best medicine.
In the early 1970s the Cincinnati Reds, looking for a power hitting outfielder, traded away a slap-hitting reserve named Angel Bravo for a wise-cracking New York born and raised home run hitter named Al Ferrara.
They say if you are not a good fielder the ball will always find you and so it was in Ferrara’s first game with the Reds. A fly ball being lofted into shallow left field and Ferrara circled unsteadily in for it, his path looking more like Tavon Austin evading tacklers than an outfielder after a fly ball.
Eventually, though, he got there and made a flopping catch of a rather routine pop up.
Naturally, a gaggle of writers gathered around the good-natured Ferrara to explain his adventures and he did not disappoint with the following observation.
“What did you expect for Angel Bravo?” Ferarra asked. “Willie Mays?”
Another Cincinnati outfielder who was better with the bat than the glove was Alex Johnson, who became a batting champion after going to the California Angels in the American League.
However, there was no defense for defense … at least until this play came along.
The Reds were playing in Atlanta when a long fly ball lofted to deepest left field. Johnson made his to the fence, leaped up in what seemed to be a futile chance to catch the ball, but he surprised all by not even trying to catch it.
He reached up and simply batted it with his glove back into play.
It was a play that at least saved a home run, but it was only the beginning of unbelievable circumstances. Pete Rose as playing centerfield in this game and when Johnson slapped the ball back into play in straight away left field, Rose was standing right there to make the catch.
It was an impossible 7 to 8 putout in the scorebook.
If that play ended the at bat, it did not end the game or the collaboration between Johnson and Rose.
The game went extra innings, one out, runner at third. The outfield was drawn way in so they would have a chance to make a play at the plate on a fly ball.
As noted, the ball always finds you when you aren’t very good and Sonny Jackson, the Atlanta shortstop, slapped a line drive right at Johnson in left field … certainly not deep enough for the runner to score.
The ball hit Johnson in the worst spot, right in the pocket of his glove and dropped at his feet.
Winning run scores, game over, Braves are celebrating and Johnson, he looks over at Rose in centerfield and simply says:
“Where were you?”
Chico Ruiz was one of baseball’s great characters.
A good bench player, he made a career out of riding the pines and became a fan favorite. Knowing he would seldom play, he had himself made a pair of alligator spikes, and he would bring an electric fan into the dugout to keep him cool.
But in this year, Leo Cardenas, the Reds’ starting shortstop, suffered an injury and Ruiz was inserted into the starting lineup.
Immediately, he went into a deep slump, each day going 0-fer until finally, before a game about a week later, Ruiz burst into manager Dave Bristol’s office.
Normally when a reserve player does this he comes in with the demand: “Play me or trade me!”
Not Ruiz.. He looked at Bristola and shouted: “Bench me or trade me!”
Bristol, in the midst of a losing streak, lost it, ripped a pay phone off the wall and threw it through a clubhouse window as Ruiz scurried for cover.
The Reds were playing in Wrigley Field and shortstop Dave Concepcion, a young Venezuelan was dealing with a deep slump. In those days the visiting clubhouse had these huge washing machines and dryers in the clubhouse to do the uniforms.
Concepcion thought, perhaps, it might help him — honest, he did — to climb into the dryer.
“It will make me get hot,” he said, jokingly, as he made to plans to turn it on.
But as he was in their, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan walked up with a bat and thought it might teach Concepcion a lesson to hit the side of the dryer with the bat, thinking the sound might provide quite a scare for him.
Quite a scare it was, for when Morgan hit the dryer it turned on and Concepcion make a couple of tumbles in it before they got the door open and got him out.
As long as we are on Concepcion, who was one of the best fielding shortstops of his era, but in those days there was a lot of competition between the Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies, who had a smooth fielding shortstop of their own in Larry Bowa.
Well, the Reds arrived in Philadelphia for a three-game series and Concepcion was walking by the the Phillies’ dugout when Bowa shouted at him.
“Hey, Elmer! Elmer!”
Concepcion turned and looked toward the dugout.
“Why you call me Elmer?” Concepcion asked.
That’s what Bowa was waiting for.
“Because every day I look in the box score and it say E – Concepcion. I figured your name had to be Elmer.”
E in a box score, of course, stands for error and everyone broke up.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel