Fred Dickey

Fred Dickey is a writer living in Cardiff, CA, USA

RECALLING UTILITY PLAYER’S CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, WITH SOME RHUBARB ON THE SIDE

 by Fred Dickey

It’s the second game of the World Series, fifth inning. Right-hander Dan Petry is on the mound for the Detroit Tigers, protecting a 3-2 lead with one out and two Padres on base. A right-handed batter is up. Petry is known for a wicked slider, a pitch that breaks down and away from a right-handed hitter, a hybrid of a curve and fastball.

He throws the first pitch, a slider, for ball one. The second pitch is also a slider for strike one. The third pitch is again a slider, and it’s high in the strike zone. The batter swings and connects, although he gets under it a bit. He sees that the ball’s flight is high and deep to left field. It’s either a home run or a long out. He begins to fast-jog down the line, watching …

The home-run hitter, Kurt Bevacqua, is 37 years old, a journeyman nearing career’s end and batting as a designated hitter. He’s a utility player widely acclaimed in the game as a great bench jockey, skilled at throwing opponents off stride with his mouth.

Just a couple of steps from first base, he sees the ball fall into the left field stands. He slows to a trot, throwing a fist in the air as thousands cheer, but he doesn’t hear them. His mind goes numb until he sees third-base coach Ozzie Virgil cheering him on home. Then it occurs to him: This is the World Series and I’m a hero.

He lasted in the majors for 15 seasons as a versatile fill-in who could play five positions and with a Pete Rose élan for the game. It’s an unusually long career for any player, least of all a utility player. As it might be said, he did not reach his potential, he exceeded it.

So long as memory serves, Bevacqua will relive that moment. So long as he lives in Carlsbad, Padres fans will remind him.

That moment and a crude encounter with Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda two years earlier have enshrined him in Padres folklore. That was when he called Lasorda a fat little Italian, and the pugnacious Dodger — no mean man himself with a needle — responded with what has become a classic baseball video on YouTube. The one where he says, “BeVACqua? That (a bleep with muscle) couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. If I was pitching [against him] I’d send a limousine to make sure that that (bleeps to the fourth power) got to the ballpark on time.”

That war of the two hall of fame taunters was epic — Godzilla meets King Kong. Your teenage kids may have already seen the video, but you may not want your grandmother to.

Bevacqua was and is a throwback kind of guy. Today, he’s a homebody of 65 who could comfortably pass for 55, with a five-child family and dealings in the aftermarket car business. Interviewing him, I wait and overhear while he takes a couple of business calls. He’s a straight-ahead guy. Boom, boom, boom. It’s push ahead and get the deal done. He probably doesn’t catch a lot of Jane Austen movies.

It was Bevacqua’s gift for agitation that made him a prime mover in one of baseball’s entertainment highlights earlier in that championship ’84 season.

•••

It’s Aug. 12. The Padres, in the midst of their pennant fight, are playing the Braves in Atlanta.

Alan Wiggins, who vexed the Braves with multiple hits last night, is the leadoff hitter. On the mound is Pascual Perez, a pretty good pitcher known for being rail skinny and behavior so bizarre he would have been kicked out of Jerry Springer’s green room. Perez’s intent is to punish Wiggins for his earlier success. Bevacqua is on the bench.

The first pitch hits Wiggins in the back. He glares theatrically at the mound and the Padres bench comes to the dugout steps, muttering with palpable menace. Then in that same half-inning, sitting in the dugout and plotting revenge are Padres catcher Terry Kennedy and pitcher Ed Whitson. In baseball, tit-for-tat is a commandment written in fire across the sky.

Kennedy and Whitson are planning a reprisal hit on Braves leadoff hitter Jerry Royster. As they talk, edging into the conversation is the ever-helpful Bevacqua, who points out that Royster is an innocent. The one to nail is Perez. Upon further reflection, that makes sense to Kennedy and Whitson.

Move to the third inning: Perez is batting for the first time. Whitson throws at him and Perez pirouettes out of the way. The umpire then warns both managers of expulsion for them and their pitchers if the bean balls continue.

Back on the bench, Bevacqua, knowing that during a game manager Dick Williams has the snarl of two dogs with one bone, plays Iago to his boss’s Othello and whispers in his ear of the evil ways of Braves pitchers and their conspiring teammates.

Williams, fuming, and anticipating his own ejection, names about three coaches as his successors, assuming that each, in turn, will join him and his pitchers in the showers. Then he stomps out and gestures to relief pitchers to start warming up: It’s on.

Over the next five innings Padres pitchers play Perez for a piñata, but an elusive one. He comes to the plate the way a matador approaches the bull. Getting hit with a 90-mph fastball is less appealing than a root canal. Perez’s objective is not to get a hit, but rather not to get hit. He looks out at the Padres pitcher who is fingering the ball and looking back at him with an expression that is either grim-faced or grinning. Both mean the same thing.

Several times the dugouts empty and stare-downs and brawls erupt around the field. Typically, a baseball melee is one of two things: a dance contest or a big pile with every player using his hands to cover his head. This is different: The swings are real, and guys who might normally get together with beers and groupies after the game are slugging one another. Braves outfielder Gerald Perry lands a nasty sucker punch on Tim Flannery. I’m sure it occurs to Flannery: Hey, this is supposed to be a baseball fight!

After several brawls and numerous ejections, the umpires finally restore order — for a while. Bevacqua tells what happened at the end: “So, in his fourth at bat, we finally hit Perez in the eighth inning and we’re thinking everything’s done. But in the top of the ninth, we’re at bat. They’re changing pitchers. [Braves reliever] Donnie Moore is coming into the game, and Graig Nettles is the leadoff hitter. He sees Moore coming in, so he comes back to the dugout and says, ‘You guys better get ready.’

“He says, ‘I nailed Moore during the fight, and he knows it was me.’ Sure enough, the first pitch hits Nettles right in the back, and here we go again.”

In the last brawl, Bevacqua is seen on tape swinging wildly, stirring a breeze in the warm Georgia air.

In this final round, Bevacqua confesses to an error in judgment. He says someone in the stands poured beer on him and he impulsively jumped the railing to go after him. Whereupon, “I went into the stands after the last fight, and that was kind of a mistake because I got it handed to me by four rednecks. My spikes slipped out from under me and I fell, and they were on top of me like snow in an avalanche. I got ejected then.”

For the night’s fun, 13 were ejected and five fans arrested.

As do all fun things, the bean brawl finally ended and left lots of fans with something to chortle about. It also left Bevacqua with a baseball story for the ages and, as all baseball stories do, one that will undoubtedly improve with age.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].

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