DAYS OF HEAVEN

DAYS OF HEAVEN

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Days of Heaven

When John Stancel told the guys at work what he planned to do, they wanted to know why he would spend that much money to be laughed at.

Stancel, a forty-one-year-old engineer from Pottersville, New Jersey, is a large, gentle family man. Not an ounce of the impulsive or flamboyant runs through his conservative veins. Yet at this moment Big John is rummaging through the garage for his high-school bat, asking his kid to throw a few balls in the backyard and going on long walks in the surrounding hills to get into shape. He is preparing to take his arthritic knees and his bum shoulder to Scottsdale, Arizona, where for $2,195, plus meals, he and sixty-two other men over thirty-five will spend a week in “spring training” with members of the 1969 Chicago Cubs. And on the final day they will play a game against the team that lost the division race to the Miracle Mets. In a stadium. Wearing uniforms. Before a crowd.

“I’ve got to admit,” says Stancel, “that there is a dark side to this fantasy, that deep within me there is the fear of looking real bad.”

For the first few beats of this men-will-be-boys odyssey, it appears that Stancel’s friends were right, that this package put together by Allan Goldin, a Chicago Cub nut who ordinarily runs baseball camps for kids, is going to be one big sitcom with a running laugh track. As lawyers, doctors and commodity brokers whose ages stretch to sixty-three struggle to suit up the first morning, former Cub catcher Randy Hundley makes his first announcement: “The jockstrap goes on under the pants.”

Taking an early look at the batting cages, 1980 Cy Young winner Steve Stone expresses mild concern for the team he will manage in the Big Game: “They say Earl Weaver was a good manager, but he had the players. Me? I got Fefutznick and Plotstein.”

Wandering over to the infield drills, where a network crew is zooming in on a forty-five-year-old psychiatrist flubbing grounders and offering his profound analysis that “You have to be crazy to do this,” Stone asks former Cub coach Bobby Adams if he’s seen anyone with talent. Adams says it’s too early to tell. “Then have you seen anyone who might die before the end of the week?” Stone asks. “You might keep your eye on the guy at first base,” Adams replies.

The laugh track ends when a thirty-eight-year-old real-estate developer pivots to throw, collapses in pain and is carted off for knee surgery. Five minutes later a forty-six-year-old Chicago cop is through for the day with an injured arm, and the question now is whether this gimmick has degenerated from the amusing to the sick joke.

Then, just like that, it all turns around. As opening jitters fade, old skills slowly return. Stancel is scooping them out of the dirt first. Two Long Island, New York, buddies, Bob Margolin, thirty-six, a publisher whose mother made him promise not to slide, and George Altemose, forty, an engineer who designed a circuit that injects jelly into doughnuts, have been playing hard back home, and they’re good. The sixty-three-year-old, a corporate pilot who had once been offered a Yankee contract, can still get them over the plate. And, mirabile dictu, the psychiatrist of limited talents has heads nodding in disbelief as he leaps beyond his ability and hauls in a wicked line drive.

“You won’t believe it,” former Cub Gene Oliver tells Hundley, “but I just saw a fifty-five-year-old with a good arm. I mean a good arm.” The arm in question belongs to Ken Schwab, a Peoria, Illinois, grain farm owner who was offered a minor-league contract by the St. Louis Browns in 1947. Before this week is over he will rendezvous with glory by reaching back for something extra and throwing a swinging third strike past Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

Oliver is not the only Cub with growing enthusiasm. Ron Santo is soon shouting encouragement to infielders. And Billy Williams is grinning with satisfaction because an Iowa attorney has followed his advice to shift his weight to the back foot and is making good contact with the ball. The former pros are, after all, middle-aged men themselves, and they seem delighted to be back in uniform, teaching what they know to men who are hanging on every word.

In the whirlpool and the hotel bar later that afternoon, tired, sore, happy men are showing off calluses and bragging about how long it’s been since they last held a bat. “So far,” says Stancel, “the reality is better than the fantasy.”

In a distant corner of the practice the next day, Ferguson Jenkins, who won twenty-one games for the ’69 Cubs, fourteen for the ’82 Cubs and needs twenty-two more to become a member of the prestigious “300 Club,” is patiently showing a retail executive how to rotate his hip when releasing the ball. Jenkins lets a few fly—by way of demonstration. Squatting the proper 60 feet, 6 inches away, Dennis Ferrazzano, a stocky, bearded attorney and law instructor, catches them. “I don’t believe this,” Ferrazzano says, his grin breaking through his mask. “Ten years from now I’ll take my kids to Cooperstown, where this guy will be in the Hall of Fame, and I’ll be able to tell them that I once caught for him.”

The rest of the week is devoted to intersquad games, and spirits soar as Bob Margolin hits a ball that goes far enough for him to round the bases without having to slide. Ferrazzano is also getting good wood, and Altemose has just belted one that Santo said would have gone out of any major-league park.

Elsewhere, the stock market may be doing whatever and the kid may have a cold, but here, in this wonderful, fragile bubble that has been created, the only truth is that men are lining up early for Harry the trainer to perform miracles on their hamstrings and staying late for him to ice their arms. Reporters are hovering around as though this were the real thing, and everyone is smiling.

“Last night I laid in bed thinking how much I would take to have not been part of this,” Stancel says. “I had just turned down twenty thousand dollars when I fell asleep.”

As the Big Game approaches, its outcome no longer seems to matter. The talk now centers on what this week has meant. There is mention of male bonding, of camaraderie that long ago gave way to marriages and work.

What is it about this game of baseball that lingers on in grown men’s souls? That caused some players to send their deposits Federal Express?

“I don’t know the answer,” Ferrazzano says, “but I’ll tell you this. I’m making ten times more money than I ever thought I would. I’m a respected teacher. But if I could have just one year in the sun . . .” He stops speaking, because, he remembers, real ballplayers don’t cry.

With two days to go, several guys are talking about playing in the Big Game even though they are hurting. It doesn’t seem to bother them. “The pros play with injuries because they know they have the whole winter to recover,” Stancel says. “Me? I’ve got my whole life to recover.”

History will little note nor long remember that on January 21, 1983, in a game attended by four thousand paying fans, the 1969 Chicago Cubs defeated their adoring opponents 23–6 in a game that Steve Stone would say was not as close as the score might indicate.

What sixty-three men will never forget about that day in Scottsdale Stadium is the sound of their cleats running up the concrete ramp, the roar of the crowd as they lined up on the first-base line to hear themselves introduced, the sight of Cub manager Leo Durocher making his first appearance from the dugout, the American flag waving in a gentle breeze during the singing of the national anthem and the call of the umpire: “Play ball!”

What will remain for this sportswriter is the autographed baseball he carried back with him. Between the seams on one side are the names of four immortals. They are Fergie Jenkins, Dennis Ferrazzano, Ernie Banks and John Stancel.

Philip Ross

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