THIS TRAIN GOES ONLY SO FAR
By John Schulian
I wouldn’t cross paths with McGurk again until I was out of grad school and holding an Army draft notice. By then, his promise to keep an eye on me didn’t matter. I was fully aware of the fact that I wasn’t good enough for pro ball. But that doesn’t mean I stopped loving the game. Of I hadn’t love it anymore, it wouldn’t have hurt so much to make the first truly difficult decision of my life. I was a sophomore at Utah and we were working out in the fieldhouse, an old barn with worse lighting than an abandoned coalmine. It seemed like every day I’d wind up catching this left-handed maniac who eventually signed with the Giants. He had a great fastball, a wicked curve, and absolutely no control. While his pitches bounced off my chest and shins, I started looking at my future in a different light.
In the fall quarter, for the first time in my life, I’d done really well in school. Something like three A’s and a B. And it felt good. Better still, I was starting to think I might want to be a newspaper reporter. But if I played baseball, I was going to miss classes and not have as much time to concentrate on my writing as I needed, and, really, for what? For the chance to sit in the bullpen when the wind was turning Laramie, Wyoming to ice? For the chance to do that for one season and maybe two before I got a decent shot at starting? Baseball wasn’t my future anymore. My brain was, for better or worse. Whatever the future held for me, I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Salt Lake. I needed to get the best grades I could so I could use them as my ticket to ride. So I walked away from my baseball scholarship. Nothing dramatic. No pleas for me to stay. The team would get along fine without me. I cried a lot of tears that nobody ever saw, but I knew I’d done the right thing. And I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, which is something I’ve never made a lot of noise about, mainly because I’ve never fit my idea of what a Phi Beta Kappa should be. A Phi Beta Kappa should be legitimately smart, a true intellectual. I’m just the guy Pete Radulovich turned into a catcher.
I thought that was the end of me and baseball. But come summer Utah Power & Light’s amateur team called and offered me a chance to play. I promptly went out and had the worst year of my life. I’m not sure I hit .250. But they asked me back the next year, when the team added two terrific players from BYU, one of whom happened to be a catcher. I wasn’t sure why UP&L needed me, but I hung around, doing a little catching and wondering if I was wasting time. And then one night I whacked a pinch-hit double over the left fielder’s head, and everything changed. They made a place for me in the lineup, sometimes catching, sometimes at third, but mostly in the outfield because our other catcher’s idea of playing there was to wait until he saw where a fly ball landed before he went after it. I led the team in hitting and he was right behind me.
The next year was even better. I caught full-time and my friend Steve Radulovich, Pete’s son, who’d been drafted by the Yankees and Cincinnati but never signed, played first base. We had a lot of good college players and a couple of former minor leaguers on the team, plus a curve-baller from Utah who went 8-0. We won our league and the state amateur championship, and I hit .397, best year I ever had, even if Radulovich out-hit me by 70 points. (It’s almost embarrassing to remember this stuff, but I do.) One of the guys I played with—we called him Starchy—still says I was the craziest SOB he ever saw, and he’s probably right. After doing nothing but study in school, I had a lot of steam to let off. I hardnosed our pitchers, bitched incessantly at umpires, challenged a lot of opponents who could have kicked my ass, and swore like a stevedore if I hit a weak ground ball. I’ve still got the trophy they gave me as the team’s most valuable player. But the story I want to leave you with has nothing to do with that.
We had a pitcher, one of those kids who’d been a monster all the way through high school and then hurt his arm. I could have caught his best fastball barehanded. But one night he’s throwing a beautiful game — it might even have been three innings of no-hit ball–and he calls me to the mound. Our manager, a big guy with the face of a baby bird, trots out immediately.
“What’s the problem?” our manager says.
“I’m tired,” the pitcher says.
Our manager looks at him for a beat, then slaps him on the back and says, “John will tell you when you’re tired.”
[Painting by Dane Tilghman]