Tom Grant reflects on Baseball

Tom Grant is arguably the Pacific Northwest’s most renowned musical artist, and his career achievements reflect his unique ability to embrace the full spectrum of contemporary music.

Since 1983, Tom’s records have repeatedly topped the NAC/Smooth Jazz charts. Several, including the popular Mango Tango, Night Charade, In My Wildest Dreams, and The View from Here, enjoyed lengthy stays at Number One. In My Wildest Dreams and The View from Here also made the Top Five on the Billboard Charts. Tom’s music has graced many television shows and commercials, radio shows and movie scores, including a musical guest appearance on The Tonight Show.

But, Tom has a passion for something else in life, and that is baseball. He has been fascinated with the game since a child, and has followed it closely in Portland his entire life. He has sung the National Anthem at many MLB games for the Mariners and for the A’s.

Below is one of the finest baseball essays pertaining to Portland in recent memory. It shows but one of the thousands of memories in Portland and Oregon for baseball.

This essay, more than others it seems, has its finger on the pulse of Portland’s MLB passion.

It has been fashionable to sentimentalize baseball over the last twenty years. After all, it is the great American pastime, and ritually passed down from fathers to sons (and daughters) with a lot of collective emotionalism as it is, it’s as much a part of the great national panoply of powerful symbols as Gettysburg, Mt. Rushmore and the White House. So much so that we’ve had to suffer through Kevin Costner as a smarmy catcher cum pitcher’s mentor in Bull Durham, and a host of other Hollywood glorification pieces on the sport, including Field of Dreams, The Natural, Major League and so on.

In the case of the written word, baseball seems to fare better. David Halberstam, for one, has written brilliantly on the sport. In his book, “The Summer of ‘49” he focuses on a particularly competitive pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and in so doing, reveals the raw emotional energy of the game in a way that would touch the heart of any true fan.

But face it, baseball is one sport that’s easy to love. Remember George Carlin’s monologue on the difference between baseball and football:

spoken in angry, military tones:

“you play football on a ‘gridiron,’ where the object is to ‘penetrate defenses’ and to ‘march downfield,’ etc.”

Now speaking in the soft tones of a kindly uncle:

“whereas baseball is played in a ‘park’ and the object is to ‘go home…..’” and so on.

The late Dr. Timothy Leary described baseball as a “gentle marijuana sport” as opposed to football which he saw as an “angry, amphetamine sport.”

The sport is so unique from any others. For one thing, there are big spaces in between action moments in baseball. For years, baseball’s detractors have pointed to this feature of the game as a source for it’s inherent boredom. But I love the spaces as much as the action. These allow time to contemplate, strategize, eat peanuts, read the program or a favorite book, talk, go to the bathroom or the ATM, or just yell and carry on. Also, it’s the only sport I can think of where the coach (called the manager) wears a uniform just like his players, despite the fact that he lost that sinewy, trim baseball body many years ago, and shamelessly pops out of the dugout, beer belly, flat butt and all to go out to the mound to yank the pitcher.

And arguments with the officials of the game (umpires) are considered part of the game and often have an almost comedic, carnival-esque feeling to them. How many times have we seen the above-mentioned manager going nose to nose with the umpire and then going on a mad rant, kicking dirt and picking up bats and even the bases and throwing them into the wind, while the fans howl with delight at this infantile display. It’s no wonder that the practice of bouncing a beachball throughout the stands seems to only occur in baseball: going to a ball game sometimes feels like a day at the beach.

I truly love baseball. It’s so much a part of my earliest memories that I can still remember the feeling, a sense of wonder at the idea that someone pitches a ball that you must hit with a bat; the whole concept of a strike zone to challenge the pitcher and the batter; and the other rules and endless nuances that make the game so rich. My father and my brother taught me the basics of the game one day (I must have been four years old) before we all piled into the Oldsmobile and drove over to 24th and Vaughn Street in northwest Portland. This was in the pre-television era, so big crowds turned out even if it was just to watch triple-A baseball at Vaughn Street Stadium. The combined smell of cigars, hot dogs, roasted peanuts and turf along with the sound of the organ music, the crack of bats and the slap of the ball against leather made for a kid’s dream world.

When the Beavers moved over to Multnomah Stadium in 1956, a little something was lost, but not a lot. The smells and sounds were the same. But the venue was bigger, and not really tailored to baseball as was the cozier Vaughn Street. Multnomah Stadium had been a multi-use facility primarily for football, dog racing, concerts, and even the bizarre spectacle of ski jumping. That early version of the park held 27,000 people, which was huge by minor league standards. It had a bit of a coldness to it owing to I’m not sure what, perhaps it had never been properly blessed and cleared by the baseball deities. There was an organ player, and there were bleachers in left field and center. Because of the oblong shape of the thing, the distance to the left field fence (310’) was relatively short and the distance to the right field fence (345’) was a bit long. For anyone to hit a ball out of the stadium in straight away center as I saw Willie McCovey do in 1958, was a prodigious feat. This had to have been one of the bigger parks in minor league baseball.

Minor league heroes with names like George Freese, Luis Marquez, Jimmy Greengrass, Ed Mickelson, Renee Valdez and Sammy Calderone thrilled me and my baseball buddy Will Crist. Beavers’ utility infielder Eddie Basinski, who had two nicknames, “The Fiddler” and “Spider”, was on hand for several seasons. So were Marquez and Freese and another great utitility man, Jack Litrell. There was actually some sense of permanence to these teams as these stars would stay around for several seasons. They may have gotten called up occasionally for their “cup of coffee” in the “bigs” for a half season or so, but ultimately these were stars of the minor leagues. In the summer of 1956, Marquez was 31; Freese was 30 and Basinski (who in 1945 wore “Dodger Blue”) was 34. These guys weren’t going anyway but sideways in baseball; they may have been minor leaguers…but they were OUR minor leaguers.

Behind the plate in the below-field-level press boxes were the Beavers’ radio broadcasting team of Bob Blackburn and Rollie Truitt. Rollie was a loveable old timer who had broadcast Portland pro wrestling back in the 30’s. His sputtering, stammering delivery along with the Rollie Truitt Scrapbook that he published yearly, endeared him to the fans. During the 1956 season, I listened to practically every game I didn’t attend. And sometimes, while listening from the kitchen of our house on NE Siskiyou Street when I was alone in the house, I would act out the game. When the Beavers were in the field I was on the mound, pitching. I had a black glove and a clean white ball, and I would go into the windup as per Bob Blackburn’s description, and deliver the “fastball, called strike on the outside corner.” When the Beavers were up at the plate, I had my bat and the kitchen could just comfortably accommodate my full swing.

And during that season, I became a self-styled weather expert. I got so that I could recognize the kinds of clouds in the morning sky and predict what the weather would be at game time that night. I hated rain outs and didn’t especially like rain delays or games played under the threat of rain.

But when it did rain during or prior to game time, this was the special province of Rocky Benevento. Rocky was the diminutive groundskeeper (they called him “park superintendent”) for the Beavers and another fan favorite. He was all business in his starched white coveralls with the bright red “P” on it, rooting around the infield lovingly maintaining the natural turf that had been brought over from Vaughn Street. Rocky had been a friend of my uncle Smokey (Harry “Smokey” Rodinsky) who’s company, Lewis Bros. Meats, had supplied the franks and burgers to the Beavers. Because of that connection, I had a supply of autographed team baseballs, photos and occasional face to face meetings with team heroes.

In those days, the fans came for the game. They knew the players, their batting averages and the pitchers’ ERA’s. The only non-baseball entertainment at the park was the organ music which played on between innings and during the various lulls which are so much a part of the game; changing pitchers, major rhubarbs (arguments between players/managers and umpires) and rain delays. The organist would playfully follow the ball up and down the angled mesh backstop behind home plate by running up and then down a chromatic scale. There was no tossing of t-shirts into the stands, no screaming scoreboards with trivia questions and fancy graphics, no bat-day promotions, no contrived between-innings games or races around the bases featuring kids and team mascot. In fact, there was no team mascot in those days. It was just baseball, pure and simple.

And, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Television was taking hold and there was plenty of major league baseball on TV in those early days. The networks would broadcast as many as eight big league games a weekend. Minor leagues were starting to suffer from the competition. Where crowds of 6 to 10 thousand faithful were not uncommon at Vaughn Street, Multnomah Stadium was seeing crowds of between 1 and 4 thousand. This minor league game with all it’s integrity and natural charm was losing out to the one-eyed juggernaut.

My own passion for baseball was dimming, or at least on hold as I raced through my teenage years and went to college and began a life. The Beavers never held the same appeal for me as in those seasons from 1956-1960. In 1967, the city of Portland took over management of the stadium and it was renamed Civic Stadium. The Beavers were run by a succession of owners and consortiums, all of whom did little to inspire the kind of interest in minor league ball that had existed in the early part of the 20th century.

One of the most interesting of these was Joe Buzas, a former major league ballplayer who came to Portland in 1985 after several years of owning the Reading PA Phillies. Joe’s reputation was that he always made money on his baseball teams. And that was because he was as tight fisted as one could possibly be and still run a team. He put no money into promotions or gimmicks. While in Reading, he had offered fans a “certificate of membership in the Foul Ball Club of Reading” if they would turn in balls retrieved from games. He would then take them into his office to try to rub off the scuff marks so they could be re-used. When he tried the same scam in Portland, the fans didn’t respond because Portlanders had a half century tradition of keeping the precious foul balls as souvenirs. Joe even tried to change the name of the team to the Portland Phillies, primarily so he could save money on the uniforms that would be supplied by the parent Philadelphia club. Beaver fans raised such a howl of protest that the idea was abandoned. And when it came to Beaver games on radio, again Joe was a minimalist. In his first years, he got the tiny KVAN in Vancouver to carry a few of the home games and no road games. But again he was bucking a strong, long held Portland tradition of Beaver radio broadcasts and he eventually expanded the menu but stayed with the weak station. Joe may have turned a small profit as a Beavers proprietor owing to his comic frugality. But fans saw Joe Buzas as an eccentric carpetbagger and were tuning out this brand of baseball.

The connection between fans and teams in Portland became tenuous. As the parent major league clubs exerted ever greater control of their farm affiliates, the locals couldn’t get to know their team as they had in the past. The players were barely around town long enough to figure out where they could go to get a decent burger. Gone were the Jack Litrell’s and George Freese’s, journeymen ballplayers who hung out in the minors for years on end.

Joe Buzas relocated his team to Salt Lake City in the early 90’s. Portland, which had become an urban gem envied the world over for it’s clean, beautiful vistas and its people-oriented progressivism, had one major league sports franchise: the basketball Blazers. As for baseball, Portland became home to the Denver farm team owned by Jack and Mary Cain, the Rockies. The Portland Rockies were a single-A short season team, about the lowest rung on the professional baseball ladder. Despite the minor-ness of this minor league team, the Cains succeeded in giving people an entertaining day at the ball park. Crowds were reasonable owing to the Cains’ personal charm and promotional acumen. With the return of the triple A Beavers and the renovation of the stadium in 2000 (renamed PGE Park), there were high hopes to rekindle baseball fever in PDX. But with the $38 million price tag on the remodel, the current Beavers had to do an astounding business to recoup that outlay. And crowds for the 21st century Beavers have been better because of the comfortable attributes of the new park and the various promotions, bat days, and between-inning gimmicks that sometimes unfortunately profane the game. I’d be willing to bet that the average game attendee could not tell you the name of one starting Beaver pitcher.

Portland Oregon is clearly a grown up village. This is not a minor league town any more. As with our growing urbanity in the fields of art, architecture, and political thought, sports sensibilities are sophisticated here as well. Fans packed PGE park on a cold March day in 2002 to see the Seattle Mariners play the San Diego Padres. (I’m embarrassed to say how much I paid a scalper so I could sit in the worst seats I’ve ever had in my home stadium.) Portlanders have always packed the park for big league exhibition games. Several years ago, they jammed into Civic Stadium just to see veteran big leaguer Fernando Valenzuela pitch a couple of innings during his rehab in the minor leagues. I was one of those fans standing six deep out on 18th avenue straining to get a peek through the left field wall at this one-time major league great. I think Oregonians want and will heartily support big time baseball. Imagine the excitement of a Barry Bonds coming up to the plate against a Portland pitcher, or the sight of Yankee pinstripes in our home field. Instead of looking forward to series’ against the likes of the Quad Cities River Bandits and the Savannah Sand Gnats, we’ll be playing THE CHICAGO CUBS, THE NEW YORK METS, AND THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS! Imagine a beautiful little park tucked neatly into some central urban locale where there is a view of our gorgeous skyline looking out toward center field.

Baseball is a sport for dreamers. Now that the possibility of the real thing is looming on our horizon, I can feel a kind of collective giddiness at the prospect of having a big league team in my home town. I honk when I see the bumper sticker that says “bring major league baseball to Portland.” The possibility of this dream becoming reality is a thrill beyond thrills. But what I really want is to see Lou Piniella pick up first base and throw it into the wind while a Portland crowd chants “Lou…Lou…Lou!”