Knowing what an acute analytical mind he has, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Charles Krauthammer is a baseball fan of the first order, or to learn that he is a habitué of Nationals Park, where the Washington Nationals are playing some fine baseball this spring.
Krauthammer is in his regular seat at Nationals most week nights and enjoying his team’s division-leading efforts this year. He stuck with them during a string of forgettable seasons while they were losing lots of games and doing a pretty good impersonation of the old Washington Senators. That team long represented a city that history tells us was first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.
OK, the new Washington team, formerly the Expos of Montreal where Krauthammer was raised and attended McGill University, is a National League team. But it started life in the Capital the way the old Senators finished theirs. Losing a lot. Now Krauthammer’s patience and loyalty, and that of other long-suffering Washington fans, are being rewarded. The team is really good. Moral victories are being replaced by actual ones.
I can relate. I spent an unsupportable number of hours keeping up with and pulling for the Tampa Bay Rays in their first decade (the Devil Rays in those bad old days) when the team threatened to outdo even the St. Louis Browns for baseball futility and consecutive last-place finishes. Now they are very entertaining winners.
In a column last week Krauthammer chronicled some of his favorite Nationals, including 19-year-old rookie phenom Bryce Harper and manager Davey Johnson, a baseball graybeard who has been in the game since Father Time was playing in the Tri-State League. He also spoke of pitcher Henry Rodriguez, who recently lost his job as the Nationals’ closer. Henry can throw 100 mph, but may as well be nicknamed Scud, because he never knows where the missile will come down.
Rodriguez, his stuff and his lack of control, recalls to my baseball-story-clogged mind, one Ryne Duren, a flame-throwing reliever who had a couple of good years with the Yankees in the fifties before losing his stuff and drifting on to short stints on a half dozen other major league teams. (His final team: the Washington Senators.) The Yankees called Duren up in 1958 from their American League farm team, the Kansas City Athletics.
Baseball fans of a certain age will recall that Kansas City was where, in addition to Duren, the Yankees developed such stars as Roger Maris, Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry, et al., and where they stashed Enos Slaughter when they didn’t need him. Being banished to Kansas City in those pre-double-knit days was the baseball equivalent of being cast into outer darkness. In 13 seasons in Kansas City the A’s never played .500 ball. But they did help keep the Yankees dominant by passing their promising talent on to them.
But back to Duren in pin-stripe days. He almost certainly put up triple-digit speed. But this was in the days before speed guns, so we don’t know for sure. A guy who throws this hard is downright scary to hitters, at least the sane ones, and was probably even more so in the pre-batting helmet fifties. Here’s how the ever-eloquent Casey Stengel, Duren’s manager with the Yankees, put it: “I would not admire hitting against Ryne Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head you might be in the past tense.”
Exactly so. A baseball may only weigh five ounces. But it has the approximate density of a rock. And any pitcher with the muzzle velocity Duren had then must be approached, as one would a poisonous snake, with great respect if the encounter can’t be avoided altogether.
Adding to the terror in Duren’s case was the fact that he had the visual acuity of Mr. Magoo and wore Coke bottle lens glasses. Also, he could be wild. He would, intentionally I believe, throw one of his eight warm-up pitches over Yogi Berra’s head. When the batter stepped in, Yogi would say stuff to him like, “Geez, I have to give Ryne signals with my whole hand. He can’t see fingers.”
All this led opposing hitters to think more about self-preservation than about squaring one up. I don’t remember anybody digging in on Duren. The guys in the on-deck circle didn’t take their eyes off him. Sometimes even the home-plate umpire — who in those days wore a thick, outside chest protector big enough to stop shoulder-fired missiles — looked like he was ready to bolt.
Thus endeth my baseball story. But don’t get me started. I have lots more. Baseball, with its rich history and host of slightly off-plumb characters, is a story-teller’s dream.
In our febrile, quick-cut, modern existence, many of us have forgotten that patience is a virtue. Baseball, for those of us with the requisite attention span to attend it, reminds us of this. And teaches that patience is often rewarded for lifetime enthusiasts like Krauthammer, and me. Unlike the many manic pastimes now available, the luxuriously-paced Grand Old Game, with its endless subtleties, remains a feast for the careful and unhurried observer.
Please join me in wishing the best to Krauthammer and his talented young Washington Nationals. And raise a cup to Ryne Duren, who died last year at 81 in the small Central Florida town of Lake Wales, where I began my journalism career 40+ years ago.