Monday, October 11, 2010
Win Some, Lose Some
LOS ANGELES, October 12, 2010--When that butterfingers committed three errors for the Atlanta Braves the other night, I was reminded of the stories I landed and the ones that got away over the years.
Brooks Conrad, the sad second sacker who found batted balls don't come with handles, is a latter-day Mike Andrews, another middle infielder who had a bad case of dropsy for the Oakland A's in the 1973 World Series. Rick Talley, a fellow horseplayer and a press-box seatmate that day, interrupted his dissertation on the holy ghost betting system when Andrews entered the game in the late innings. "Nice guy, but one of the worst fielders around," Talley said. "Just watch him."
As though they had been listening to Talley, the New York Mets kept hitting balls to Andrews and he kept botching them. After the A's lost, a gaggle of reporters trooped down to the Oakland clubhouse, where a stiff-upper-lip Andrews suffered us gladly.
"Where's Mike Andrews?" Finley said to Vida Blue, the Oakland pitcher who had already showered and dressed.
"Still downstairs," Blue said.
"Take me to the clubhouse," Finley snapped at the elevator operator.
"Wait till I take these reporters to the press box," she said.
"I said, take me to the clubhouse," Finley shouted.
We went down, free of charge, Finley got off and we went back up to write our stories. But the story we missed for more than a day was that Finley had gone to the clubhouse, upbraided Andrews, fired him in the middle of the World Series, and told him not to accompany the team on its red-eye flight to New York. I was the numskull, I thought later; all I had to do was get off that elevator with Finley and I would have had a front-row seat for the execution of Mike Andrews. I mean, why else would Finley have been looking for Andrews? To congratulate him for the great game he played?
I've had better luck stumbling into stories in horse racing. Years ago, a number of high-profile trainers at Santa Anita ran horses that tested positive for cocaine. The racing board hadn't released the names, but I found out somehow that Laz Barrera was on the list.
I called Sacramento and someone in the racing board office--I never did know his name, and didn't want to scare him off by asking--confirmed Barrera's name, as well as those of a few others. Just as I was about to hang up, he said: "Just a minute, I think there's one more. It's hard to make out on this sheet, but I think it's. . . I think it's Lukas."
"Lukas?" I said. "Wayne Lukas?"
"Yes, that's it," he said. "D.W. Lukas."
It was late in the day and I called Lukas at home. He would hear about his horse's positive from a reporter, not a state official. I guessed that there was smoke coming out of both of his ears and that you could have boiled a two-minute egg on his forehead.
At the Kentucky Derby one year, a snitch told Maryjean Wall of the Lexington Herald-Leader that Sam Rubin was going to bring John Henry out of a contented retirement. Wall asked Ron McAnally, who had trained the horse, about the rumor. McAnally, the truth be known, was opposed to the idea and said that all statements would have to come from Rubin.
"I don't have Rubin's number," Wall told me, "but I'll bet you do. You get him to confirm what I have and I'll share the story with you."
Now rival reporters sharing a story is not exactly unheard of, but it's not kosher, either. We both figured, what the hell, the Herald-Leader doesn't sell many papers in Los Angeles, nor was the Los Angeles Times, my paper, very big in Lexington. I called Rubin and he said it would be nice if John Henry ran before his bar mitzvah. He never did, by the way. McAnally and his veterinarian, Jack Robbins, saw to that.
At the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park in 1995, I was kibitzing with the trainer P.G. Johnson on the backstretch. A raconteur of the first order, Johnson was talking about a problem filly who had had a stomach X-ray.
The technician held up the picture for Johnson and said: "Your filly has got an ulcer."
"Bad?" Johnson said.
"No, not bad," the other one said.
"What would a bad one look like?" Johnson said.
"Come over here," the other said, and he showed Johnson an X-ray of another horse from his files.
"What horse is this?" Johnson said.
"Cigar," the other said.
At the barn, Bill Mott, Cigar's trainer, was circumspect about his horse's condition. It turned out that finding and treating the ulcer was just as important to Cigar's turnaround as switching him from grass to dirt.
Cigar would win the Breeders' Cup Classic in a few days and clinch Horse of the Year honors. Before the race, I called Allen Paulson, Cigar's owner, to ask him about the ulcer.
"What have you been giving him?" I asked.
"I dunno," Paulson said. "The same stuff they'd give you or me if we had an ulcer, I guess."