GREAT BEND, Kan. - Practicing law wasn't my first career choice. My first choice was to play first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But even by 4th grade Pee Wee League in Great Bend, I was too slow, couldn't field, was scared of the ball, and warmed the bench. When I got my two front teeth knocked out by an errant bat in 7th grade, I was terrified of the bat and the ball. As a player, baseball was over for me.
I wasn't very good at all. But we all loved the game. Summers were about baseball. And when we weren't playing for the St. Patricks' Crusaders (each school had it's own team then), we spent most afternoons in "pick up games" on local diamonds. A few phone calls and you could have a pick up baseball game going in half an hour.
But where I really got lucky was that my Dad's legal secretary, Marie Petersen, was the Aunt of KC Royals Shortstop Fred Patek. And my first cousin, John Keenan, was a Scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, eventually becoming the Dodgers' Midwest Scouting Director.
My first official major league game was the last year the Royals were in Municipal Stadium. I think it was 1972. They played the Washington Senators, and won. After the game, we waited in the heat for the players to leave the locker room. And when Fred Patek, the shortest player in the Major Leagues at 5'4", appeared from the locker room, My Dad and I got in position to meet him for the first time.
As Patek signed autographs, it suddenly became my turn. As he signed the cast on my left arm, my Dad stood behind me: "Freddy, this is the young man you sent the autographs to in Great Bend." As he signed my cast, he said: "How's your wrist?"
My Dad ended up becoming close friends with Patek, and Patek visited Great Bend many times to hunt geese and ducks with the Keenans, and to see his Aunt. Patek became friends with the Holts, the Keenans, and the Lenny Schneider clan out here. Being a teenager and going hunting with my Dad and Fred Patek was a big deal.
And then on the National League side, my first cousin was the Midwest Scouting Director for the Dodgers. I still remember seeing the Dodgers play an exhibition game at Lawrence Stadium in Wichita one summer. That was 1966 or so. I barely remember it. But my first official game was the game in '72 at Municipal Stadium in KC.
My Dad got a ticket to about every Dodger World Series. He was there when Koufax and Drysdale beat Minneapolis in 1965. My Dad attended Game One in Minneapolis when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch because it was Yom Kippur. In fact, Pops was at Yankee Stadium the night Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one World Series game in '77. My cousin John Keenan always sprang for tickets and would give us an autographed team baseball with autographs of Koufax, Drysdale, Willie Davis, the whole crew.
When Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth's home run record, I wrote Hank Aaron a letter, and enclosed his baseball card, requesting his autograph. A couple of months later, my heart leapt when I saw an envelope from the "Atlanta Braves" in our mailbox.
Aaron had signed the card. It's in my safe deposit box today. And of course, he didn't charge for the autograph.
My cousin, John Keenan, and his maternal grandfather, Bert Wells, signed a lot of good players for the Dodgers. Bill Russell (Pittsburg, Kansas), Davey Lopes (Washburn Univ. player), Hall of Famer Don Sutton. In 1947 my cousin John was just a boy, but he recalls he and his grandfather scouting Loren Doll for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Loren still holds the Kansas High School Record for "Most Hits in One Game" with 6 hits. His son is John Doll of Garden City.
My cousin even signed a local boy: Larned, Kansas standout Mitch Webster. When I moved back to Great Bend in 1988, I got to go hunting with Mitch Webster once, and even got to know former Yankee Pitcher Ralph Terry, the World Series MVP, 1962. Ralph Terry, an Oklahoma native, married a Larned, Kansas girl, and still lives in Larned.
So what I lacked in baseball ability, I made up for by pure luck----my Dad just happened to have hired Fred Patek's aunt, and my cousin just happened to be a heavy for the Dodgers. Of course, I was out of baseball as a player by 7th grade, but I loved the game as much as anyone. When my son Tyler got a Varsity Letter in Baseball at Great Bend High School last year, I puffed up like a blowfish. And I still play slow pitch softball, which is baseball for old guys.
But in terms of watching the Major Leagues, I kind of lost interest. I'm not sure when. I remember on September nights in law school in 1983, sitting in my car, hearing Dodger announcer Vin Scully's voice skip in and out from a radio station thousands of miles away. And I still cared when the Royals won their only World Series in 1985. And then, in 1988, I still cared, jumping up and down as I heard Vin Scully call Kirk Gibson's home run to beat the A's in the World Series.
I think I quit caring when the O'Malley family sold the Dodgers to Rupert Murdoch in 1998. It became a business then, not a game.
The players changed. Money, ego, steroids, agents, the baseball strike. Everything seemed to change. Or maybe I changed.
I still go to one or two Royals games a year. But it's not the same. But growing up in the 60's and 70's, baseball was still "the National Pastime." It was magical. But, as Tennessee Williams would say, the "sweet bird of youth" flies away. Maybe I changed, maybe the game changed, but it's not the same thing. Practicing law is a good fallback position, but I would have much preferred being Wes Parker's replacement at First Base for the Dodgers.