By John Schulian
THE GAME THAT DEFINED ME
I loved playing baseball beyond reason and certainly beyond my talent level. I was never a natural athlete and I was never the best player on any team I was on, but I was a dogged son of a bitch. I got my teeth on that bone and I wouldn’t let go until I was able to do it on my terms. To be honest, if we had stayed in L.A., I’m not sure I would have been able to play as long as I did. Most likely I would have been bowled over by the competition and either been a benchwarmer or just some dreamer sitting in the stands. But Salt Lake was a different story. There were some wonderful ballplayers there, guys who played pro ball and even one from my era-–the Mets’ George Theodore-–who played in the majors, but there weren’t so many of them that I couldn’t compete.
The question was finding a position to play. All through Little League and Cops League, I’d been a third baseman and an outfielder and, just once, a shortstop who almost killed his amigo the second baseman when we were turning a double play in infield practice. (Did I tell you I had a hell of a throwing arm? If you don’t believe me, ask my amigo about the time I almost threw a ball through him.) When it was time to try out for Babe Ruth League, however, there were lots of third basemen and outfielders who were just as good as I was. Our coach was the first truly hard man I ever met, an ex-minor league catcher who could be irascible, profane, quick to throw a punch even if it cost him a job. But when he sensed how desperately I needed baseball and the identity it gavee me, his better self emerged. He asked if I wanted to try my hand at catching. I said yes, and he proceeded to give me the kind of education at the position that kids today take for granted and kids of my generation almost never got. He taught me how to shift behind the plate, how to block low pitches, how to throw properly, how to flash signs to the pitcher without having them stolen, how to catch pop-ups-–and it was a rare kid catcher in those days who could catch one. He spun me round in circles as he hit me pop-ups that first day and I dropped a bunch of the. After that, I never dropped another.
The coach’s name was Pete Radulovich. He was the first of many people who would give me a break that somehow changed my life for the better. I put him right there with Pat Ryan, who gave me my first assignment at Sports Illustrated, and Steven Bochco, who gave me a shot at Hollywood even though I’d never written a script. Pete’s eldest son, Steve, was the second baseman I almost decapitated in Cops League. We played ball together from the time we were 14 until we were 22, and we still stay in touch. I had dinner with him in Las Vegas, where he lives, a year or so ago, and he said that when his dad was in his final years and they were talking about baseball, his dad said that one of the things that made him proudest was that I’d become such a good catcher. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve had a decent share of success, but that really made me proud. Pete didn’t throw around a lot of compliments.
I did better than all right in high school and American Legion ball and got a baseball scholarship to the University of Utah. The biggest thrill I had was in the state Legion tournament in 1962. We were the Cinderella team and we were playing the juggernaut that had won the high school championship. It was a bad night to run out of pitching, but we did, and we got clobbered. But I had a couple of hits, threw out a couple of runners, and picked another off second base. Afterwards, this guy with a big cigar comes out of the stands and says, “I’m John McGurk of the Boston Red Sox. You caught a big league game tonight. I’m going to keep my eye on you.” Swear to god, this really happened. I didn’t need a ride home after that. I could have floated.
[Painting by Roger Patrick]