SB Nation

Pat Jordan | February 21, 2013

The pain and pleasure of Spring

How I lost my fastball but learned to love Spring Training

I will be 72 on April 22, and still, after 54 years, the most important date every year is not April 22, or Jan. 1, but that day in February when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Ever since I was 18, spring training has always meant for me a fresh start, another chance to pull up that little plastic sheet that wipes the slate clean, all those losses instantly vanished, replaced by a blank slate and the possibility of nothing but victories this year. So every February I escaped the cold, barren New England winter and headed south toward the sun by plane, train or automobile.

Spring training was a Baden-Baden for the body and soul. It had curative powers for whatever ailed you – sore arm, bad marriage, ungrateful children, the death of a parent, financial collapse, ennui. It was like one of those Caribbean cruises, a Ship of Fools for ballplayers, fans, and sportswriters.

It meant an escape for me, a newfound freedom, new experiences

But it was all a fantasy, an illusion. Spring training afforded no miraculous Lourdes-like cures: dead arms suddenly throwing heat, slow bats regaining their quickness, lost steps morphing into youthful speed, a dead marriage resuscitated, ungrateful children suddenly loving, a financial windfall out of the blue. Its hope was always false, but still, for 54 years, the first three as a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves’ organization, and the last 51 as a sportswriter, I still returned to spring training each year, more out of habit than expectation, for as I grew older I no longer believed in miracles. Spring training for me became just a pleasant two weeks in the sun, or maybe not so pleasant as I chased some obnoxious multi-millionaire baseball player across practice fields, waving my notebook, shouting, "JUST ONE MORE QUESTION!" until I caught him, or at my age, didn’t.

But as a young pitcher from 1960 to 1962, spring training had a profound effect on my life. It meant an escape for me, a newfound freedom, new experiences, and before me, like a cornucopia, the infinite possibilities of an adult life.

***

In 1960, dressed in a turtleneck sweater, scarf, gloves, and a fleece-lined jacket, I boarded a commuter prop at the Stratford, Conn., airport, and 40 minutes later switched to an Eastern Airlines jet at LaGuardia for the flight to Tampa, Fla., three hours south. I’d never been to Florida and was shocked when I stepped out of the Tampa airport into the warm sunlight in early February. I got a taxi to Bradenton, the Braves’ major league spring training camp at McKechnie Field. We drove across Tampa Bay, and the blue-green water that looked unreal on both sides of a two-lane blacktop. Big-jawed gulls swooped across our windshield then dove into the sea, emerging with a flapping fish in their big jaws. An hour later, we were driving through sleepy Bradenton toward the Gulf. I saw a teenaged girl, my age, 18, pedaling her bike to the beach. She wore a two-piece bathing suit that I’d never seen on any girl in Bridgeport, Conn. The cabby looked back at me, grinning. "They call it a bikini," he said. "Some French word."

He dropped me off at an old, pink stucco hotel, downtown. The lobby was deserted and silent except for the whirring of a slowly churning overhead fan. My room had a cast iron bed, an armoire, and the toilet was down the hall. A rope hung out the window: "Fire Escape."

They told me I’d be paid $100 when I made the big leagues and my card was distributed throughout the country

Jordancard

I never did, and it never was

Card created by Justin Bopp

I didn’t sleep much that night, what with the racket from the next room through the thin walls. Two old Triple-A ballplayers were drinking and arguing through the night in their Southern drawls about the relative merits of their hound dogs. The next morning when I opened the door I saw them getting into a rickety elevator: Jack Littrell, 32, an unshaven white man nicknamed "Black Jack," and Edwin Charles, 28, as black as a purple plum.

The Braves held spring training at McKechnie Field, an old-fashioned wooden ballpark with a corrugated tin roof and exposed bleachers. Since this was the first day of spring training, it was devoted mostly to lazy calisthenics and photograph sessions with the Topps bubblegum card people. They handed me a piece of paper, told me to sign it and then took my picture. They told me I’d be paid $100 when I made the big leagues and my card was distributed throughout the country. I never did, and it never was. I figure if there are a few of those never-released Pat Jordan Topps cards floating around they must be worth as much as an undiscovered Picasso.

I didn’t know most of the Braves – Adcock, Bruton, Crandall, Jay, Pizarro, Aaron, Schoendienst, Matthews – except for Whitlow Wyatt, the pitching coach, and the pitcher Warren Spahn, who remembered me from the previous summer when I signed my bonus contract at Milwaukee County Stadium. Spahnie took me under his wing and had me run wind sprints in the outfield with him and Lew Burdette. When it was his turn to throw in the bullpen, only a few feet from the left field stands, he always told me to sit on the bench, "and watch and learn something, kid." One lazy, sunny afternoon I watched Spahnie throw to Del Crandall. There were a few old retirees watching from the bleachers behind me. They kept up a running conversation with Spahnie and Crandall while they worked.

Spahnie began his motion, lifted his right leg high, turned his head toward me and said, "Slider, low and away," while at the same moment, Crandall propped his catcher’s mitt on his left knee, turned his face towards the fans and said something. The ball popped in Crandall’s glove. And so it went, for 15 minutes, Spahnie throwing, Crandall catching, neither of them looking at the ball that hit Crandall’s glove every time.

What did I learn from watching Spahnie that spring? The same thing I would have learned from Michelangelo 500 years before. "See that block of marble, kid?" Mickey says to me. "See the David inside it? All you gotta do is chip away the excess so David is free." To be Spahnie, all I had to do was throw the ball with the same arm motion every pitch, landing with my feet in the same spot every time. All I had to do was be a machine, a genius, beyond human. To understand to what level Spahnie had elevated his pitching, it is only necessary to know that he won 363 major league games in 24 years, all of those wins after three years spent in World War II where he won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. Spahnie won more than 20 games in a season 13 times, completed an average of more than 20 games a season, and on a night in the late summer of 1963, at the age of 42, Spahnie and the Giants’ Juan Marichal hooked up in the greatest game ever pitched. The game was scoreless after 15 innings, when Marichal’s manager, Alvin Dark, went to the mound to take him out. Marichal said, "See that old man over there?" pointing to Spahn in the dugout. "He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching." Spahnie didn’t come out of the game until it was over, when Willie Mays hit a game winning home run off him in the 16th inning. He would finish the season with a 23-7 record and 22 complete games.

All I had to do was be a machine, a genius, beyond human


Spahncard_medium

After practice, I spent time in the clubhouse watching the players. They didn’t say much to each other in those days, didn’t play cards or listen to music. They treated spring training as just work, their job, and left each day as quickly as possible. Mostly, I was fascinated by Wyatt, a meticulously dressed old Southern gentleman, with a perfect tan and white hair. Wyatt always left the clubhouse looking like an older male model in his colorful Ban-Lon shirts and seersucker blue striped pants. I made a mental note, found the store where Wyatt bought his clothes, and bought three pair of pants and three shirts like his.

I only pitched one inning that spring at the Braves’ major league camp. It was an intra-squad game, the Braves’ starters against the Braves’ second team and Triple-A Louisville players, like me. I started that game, and, throwing heat, fanned the first two batters. Then Hank Aaron came up. He struck me as being small and slight for such a famous home run hitter. But when I threw him a fastball on the outside corner and he ripped it with those quick wrists over third base into foul territory, I understood that with those wrists Hank didn’t need any muscles. I pitched him very carefully after that and walked him. I don’t remember who the next batter was, but whoever he was, he didn’t strike fear into me like Hank did. I threw two fastballs by him, and then to show the Braves what a savvy pitcher I was, already, at 18, I threw him a straight change-up. I can still see the way his eyes lit up as that change-up floated over the plate and he ripped it over the centerfield wall. While I waited for the new ball, I saw the Braves on their bench laughing at the rookie kid throwing a change-up so early in the spring when none of the hitters, except Hank, had their timing down.

That was the story of my brief career. I thought too much, while the guys around me, who made it to the majors, were more elemental in their thinking. If they had a great fastball, they threw it and didn’t outthink themselves like I did.

Later that afternoon, after practice, I wandered the quiet streets of Bradenton, dressed in my powder blue Ban-Lon shirt and gray seersucker pants with the faint blue stripe. I saw, coming toward me, Dotty Johnson, who was famous among the ballplayers for two things: her zaftig body and her absolute inaccessibility. They said she was a nurse who "knew all the parts," but she had no interest in a fling with fly-by-night ballplayers.

I thought too much, while the guys around me, who made it to the majors, were more elemental in their thinking

Hankcard_medium

I was so depressed over my pitching this day that I felt I might as well go down in flames with Dotty, too. When she came up alongside of me I said, "Hello," waited for her to ignore me and keep on walking. But for some strange reason she didn’t. She smiled at me, this big beautiful woman, like Anita Ekberg out of Fellini’s "La Dolce Vita." What did she see in me? I was OK looking, but I was no Marcello Mastroianni. Maybe she felt sorry for me, so obviously inept and ill at ease in my feeble attempt to pick up such an unapproachable woman. Or maybe, that was it. She admired my grit, my willingness to take a risk so that she might laugh at me. But she didn’t. She took me to the Greyhound Track that night where we had dinner and drinks. I wasn’t much of a drinker then, or a gambler. My father had told me once, when I was 14, "There are only three vices in this world, kid – broads, booze and gambling. If you’re gonna do it right, pick one and stick to it." So I never gambled and never really drank.

After a few beers, I was starting to feel full of myself with this big beautiful woman on my arm. People stared at us as we walked out of the track to her car. Dotty drove me straight to her house, no coy coquette was she, and took me upstairs to her bedroom, at which point I was no longer so sure of myself. It was the first time I was ever in bed with a woman and the first time I ever saw a woman naked. But I guess I did all right. Sex was like baseball. You didn’t have to think too much. You just did it, which maybe would have helped me in my career if I’d had the same attitude toward pitching that I had that night toward having sex with Dotty Johnson in her bed.

Sex was like baseball. You didn’t have to think too much.

When I started getting dressed at 2 a.m. to go back to my hotel, Dotty put her hand on my arm and said, "Don’t go. Stay the night. I’ll make breakfast for you in the morning." She was lying in bed naked, her hand propping up her head, her blue eyes fixed on me. I turned my head away from her pendulous breasts and said, "I can’t." I didn’t say why. I was too embarrassed to stay the night. Fumbling in the dark under drawn sheets was one thing, but sleeping with a strange woman and then waking up in daylight with her, well, that was too intimate. I was, after all, just a kid. She must have picked that up immediately. She sat up and stared at me with sudden recognition. "How old are you?" she said. I said, "Eighteen." She said, "Eighteen? Eighteen!" and threw back her head and laughed. When she stopped laughing she said, "I can’t believe it." I couldn’t believe it either. Dotty Johnson was 25 years old that night.

A few days later, the Braves shipped me to their minor league camp in Waycross, Ga. I made the trip on a train through North Florida until I reached Waycross when I saw a big sign that read: "Welcome to Waycross, GA. Home of Bravesville."

Bravesville was nothing more than an old World War II military barracks 10 miles from Waycross in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp. There were five sleeping barracks on one side of the camp, one for the Braves’ coaches, managers, scouts and executives, another for black players, another for Latin players, and two more for the white players. In 1961 most of the Braves’ minor leaguers were Southern white boys who didn’t want to have much to do with blacks. I’d grown up in a city, around blacks and Latinos all my teenaged years. I played basketball and baseball with them, went on double dates with them, considered them my friends. After all, as my Italian mother told me, "How can we be prejudiced against the melanzana, when Hannibal came over the Alps centuries ago and his troops mixed with the Italian girls?"

Across a dirt road on the other side of the camp was the brick rotunda, like a small circular lighthouse, with a widow’s walk on top. The scouts and the managers stood on the widow’s walk and watched the games on each of the four diamonds that spread out from the rotunda like the petals of a flower.

That spring, I was assigned to the Boise club in the Class C Pioneer League. It might not have seemed like much of a jump from my Class D stint in McCook, Neb., the previous year, but Boise was one of the Braves’ elite minor league teams for its top prospects, especially pitchers. The Braves stacked Boise with so many great hitters that it was impossible for Boise pitchers to have losing records, even if their earned run averages were above five per game. The Braves thought that young pitchers needed confidence in their ability to win games and a stint at Boise would give it to them.

When he turned back around, I fired the ball at his head


Torrecard_medium

I threw well that spring, maybe 95-98 mph (there were no radar guns then) with a devastating overhand curveball that my teammates called "the unfair one." I coasted through the first half of spring training with great anticipation for the start of the season, until one day, during a stint pitching batting practice, when my arm felt weak. I knew it was just a spring training sore arm, nothing serious, and it just needed rest, but I was too foolish to tell my manager, a redneck Southerner named Billy Smith. I wasn’t able to put much on the ball during my batting practice and my teammates complained to my catcher, Joe Torre. Torre kept shouting at me to throw harder, but I couldn’t. Finally, after one pitch, he walked halfway out to the mound and fired the ball at me. When he turned back around, I fired the ball at his head. It hit his mask, sent it spinning off his head, and the next instant we were both wrestling in the red dirt until our teammates pulled us apart.

The next morning I was assigned to a Class D team, Quad Cities, in the Midwest League. Billy Smith had told the Braves’ farm director, John Mullen, he didn’t want "no red-ass guinea" on his team. When I heard that, I wondered why I was the "red-ass guinea" and not Torre. One of the Braves’ veteran minor leaguers told me, "Because you ain’t a Golden Boy, like Joe, with a brother, (Frank Torre) in the big leagues."

Quad Cities was the Braves’ organization worst minor league team. It was a refuse dump for catchers who couldn’t catch, shortstops who couldn’t pick up a groundball, and pitchers who couldn’t break a pane of glass with their fastball. Ironically, I had my best season that year, 1960, averaging less than seven hits and more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings, but the best I could manage was a 5 – 12 record for a team that started the season in last place and ended it there.

That winter I began to doubt my ability to win games as a country hardball pitcher, so at home, in a gym, throwing to a high school kid, I changed my delivery. I went from a big, classic, overhand fastball pitcher, not unlike Spahnie, to an off-speed, control pitcher with a more compact, smaller delivery. Instead of throwing a javelin the length of a football field, I was now throwing darts in a crowded bar. It was a decision on my part that would destroy my career.

"Who the fuck can pick up the spin of a curveball or a slider?" The answer was, Teddy Fucking Ballgame.

Williams_card_medium

Shortly before the end of spring training, we had a guest-hitting instructor show up at camp, Ted Williams, who was to hitting what Spahnie was to pitching. He stood at home plate with a bat on his shoulder at Diamond No. 1. The entire camp of more than 300 players, including pitchers, crowded around him, stood on the bleachers, and listened to Teddy Ballgame expound on hitting. He stood at the plate with his long, loose batting stance and told the players to keep their eyes on the pitcher at all times. "Follow the ball out of his hand," Teddy said, "and when you pick up the downward spin of his curveball you force yourself to wait a split second longer, until the ball begins its break, before you attack it." Everyone nodded in agreement. Then Teddy said, standing at bat, "Now, when you see the ball come out of his hand with that little white dot in the center you know it’s a slider so you’ve got to attack it quicker than you do the curve." Everyone nodded again.

After Teddy left, the crowd of players broke up. As they walked away, I heard one veteran minor leaguer say, "Who the fuck can pick up the spin of a curveball or a slider?" The answer was, Teddy Fucking Ballgame, a man who was blessed with a fighter pilot’s vision, just as Hank Aaron was blessed with incredibly quick wrists and Spahnie was blessed with phenomenal body control. And which is why none of those three was ever a good coach. They were superhuman and the rest of us were mortals.

***

In January 1961, I bought a car, a white Chrysler 300 with fins like the wings of a jet fighter. It was my first car, and with it, I would make my first trip outside of the southern part of Connecticut. I loaded my bags into the trunk one day in February at midnight, the temperature hovering around 12 degrees, and took off in the darkness towards the Merritt Parkway and then over the George Washington Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike. I had never driven anywhere, really. I didn’t have a map and I had no real sense of where I was going, except south to Bravesville in Waycross. After the New Jersey Turnpike (there was no I- 95 in those days), you had to drive the back roads, through every little town from New Jersey to Georgia, on US Route 301, a two-lane blacktop. What the hell, I thought, driving at 3 a.m. on the turnpike, how hard could it be? I just had to point the big Chrysler south and drive from state to state. I made a list of the states I’d pass through, north to south: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, until I reached the junction of routes 301 and 82. Every so often during that two-day drive I’d glance at that list of states on the seat beside me.

In Maryland, my car’s heater stopped working. Soon my hands and feet were frozen so I pulled off the road and found the lights of a diner. I sat down at a table by the window and felt the heat from a radiator begin to warm my feet and then my legs. I put my hands under the table close to the heat and rubbed them. A waitress stood over me.

"Just a coffee, please," I said. She nodded and walked away. Her big shoulders were rounded and hunched so it looked like she had no neck.

I closed my eyes and rotated my head to ease a cramp. Then I laid my head down on the Formica tabletop. I felt a hand gently pushing my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked up at the waitress.

"I’m sorry," she said. "You been asleep two hours. I let you sleep long as I could." She tossed a head fake toward the open kitchen. "My boss."

I saw a man sweating over a steaming grill, staring at me. "Oh, I’m sorry," I said. "I didn’t realize I was so tired."

"If it was up to me," she said, "On a cold night like this …" she pursed her lips and shrugged. Then she said, "What are you doin’ out in this cold anyway, baby?"

"I’m going south, to Georgia. Spring training. I’m a baseball player."

"I’m going south, to Georgia. Spring training. I’m a baseball player." It sounded so exotic to me then, and does so even now. I’m a baseball player. I guess it sounded exotic to her, too, a baseball player, with all the possibilities those words implied.

"A baseball player, Jeezus! Going to Georgia. I wish I was goin’ with you." She looked past me out the window at the parking lot in darkness. "Is that your car?" she said. "The big white one?" I nodded. "That sure is a nice car. It looks like a baseball player’s car." She smiled at me. "You plannin’ on outrunnin’ the cold in that big car?" I nodded. "Don’t blame ya." She looked out the window again, shook her head once, and said, "Jeezus! Georgia! I wish I was goin’ with ya."

"I better get going." I took a sip of my coffee. It was cold.

"Let me get you a hot cup," she said.

"No. That’s all right."

"You just sit there. I’ll be right back."

I waited until she went into the kitchen and turned her big round-shouldered back to me. Then I put down a 10 dollar bill and left. I got in, started the car, and turned on my lights. They illuminated the waitress through the window. She was standing at my table, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, staring out the window at my headlights. I eased the car forward and turned right, moving slowly past the window where the waitress was standing, watching me go, the coffee in one hand, the ten-dollar bill in the other.

I stopped that first night at a motel in South Carolina. It was warmer now. The girl behind the counter asked if I wanted a single or a double. I said, "A double what?" She said, "Are you with anyone?" I shook my head no. She smiled at me, a girl not much older than myself, with curly, reddish hair, freckles and blue-green eyes. She gave me the key to Room 6. I walked down the walkway to it, went inside and flopped on the bed. I must have fallen asleep immediately, because I didn’t hear the phone ring until the last ring when I picked it up in a daze. It was the girl from the desk. She asked me if I needed anything. I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Ice?" I said, "No." She said, "Anything else?" I couldn’t think of anything except getting back to sleep. I said, "No, nothing," and hung up.

I crossed into Georgia that afternoon. I speeded up, anxious to get to Bravesville and begin my new spring. I drove along the two-lane blacktop bordered by woods and fields and the occasional shack by the side of the road. There was always someone sitting on the front porch of those shacks and they waved to me. After a while, I got it, and began to wave back. Coming up on Ludowici, Ga., an old black man walking toward me on the side of the road, made a gesture to me as if patting something down. I waved to him. I was doing about 65 mph when I came to the "Welcome to Ludowici, Georgia, pop. 1100" sign, and then, almost immediately, another sign that read, "Speed Limit 35 mph." I had no time to slow to 35 mph, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because there was a police car behind the sign and the car was already roaring after me, its siren wailing.

I pulled over to the side of the road. A big, freckled-faced cop wearing a cowboy hat came up to my window. He asked for my license and registration, took them, and told me to follow him. I followed his cruiser through town, which only had one stoplight at Main Street. I saw another cruiser parked behind a car by the side of the road. What I found out later was that Ludowici was already famous as a speed trap for tourists. If the cops didn’t get you at the "Welcome to Ludowici" sign, they got you at the stoplight on Main Street. It seems that one cop waited at the barbershop next to the light with a handheld switch, and as a car approached a green light, he’d flick that switch to turn it red, and another cop in a cruiser would pulled over the latest victim of the Ludowici scam.

I followed the cruiser out of town to a tiny wood frame store. The cop gestured me inside where a skinny bald man wearing a white apron stood behind a candy counter. The cop said, "Say hello to his honor, the Judge." I did as I was told. The Judge said, "How do you plead?" I said, "What if I plead innocent?" The Judge said, "Then you can spend the week in jail until the county Judge stops by to hear your case." I pleaded guilty, was fined twenty dollars cash, no checks, and then the cop escorted me to the end of the Ludowici city limits.

A few hours later, I pulled into the Bravesville parking lot that was filled with the cars of other bonus babies like me: Porsches, Mercedes Gullwing 300SLs, fuelly Corvettes, 409 Chevys, 406 Ford Fairlanes. My big Chrysler, with its ridiculous tail fins, now looked like an old man’s car. I parked and went inside one of the white boy barracks. There were about eight private rooms at the front of the barracks for veteran minor leaguers and then a big open room with bunk beds. I threw my stuff down on one of the bunk beds.

Not only had I lost speed from my fastball, but I had lost any semblance of the control I’d had before.

My new motion that spring was a disaster. Not only had I lost speed from my fastball, but I had lost any semblance of the control I’d had before. I’d never been a "control pitcher," usually walking seven or eight a game, while striking out 10 or 11 and giving up only five or six hits a game. But I had been one of those young pitchers who was always around the plate, just missing here and there, barely an inch or two off, but with the potential one day of throwing strikes. But this spring the plate and the batter might as well have existed on another planet when I was on the mound. In one game I threw a fastball over the home plate screen. It hit high up on the brick rotunda, scattering the scouts and coaches on the widow’s walk. Everyone, players, coaches, managers, looked up for a moment, frozen, as if wondering, "Did he do that on purpose, or as a joke?" Then they all laughed, except for the men on the widow’s walk, who glared down at me.

In another game, I walked so many batters that I began to scream at the umpire at pitches six inches off the plate. Finally, the poor guy had had enough. He told my catcher he wasn’t going to call another strike for me as long as I was on the mound. And he didn’t. He called 20 balls in a row while I stomped and screamed at him from the mound, my face almost purple, like a character out of Dickens, who was about to spontaneously combust. I called my catcher out to the mound, told him to set up a target low and away, and no matter where the ball was, not to put a glove on it. With the umpire looking low over the catcher’s left shoulder, I fired a fastball at his head. But I hit the batter in the knees instead, and I was mercifully taken out of that game.

By the end of spring training, I was an oddity. I became known as a mental case, "the bonus baby who forgot how to pitch."

Braves_medium

By the end of spring training, I was an oddity. I became known as a mental case, "the bonus baby who forgot how to pitch." That season, first in Eau Claire, Wis., then in Palatka, Fla., I didn’t remember. My throwing motion looked like I was a cripple. When my father flew down to Palatka to see me pitch I met him for dinner after the game. He was crying.

It took me 36 years to remember how to pitch again. When I was 56, I pitched one inning for the Waterbury Spirit of the Northeast Independent league. I was an old man with a white beard then, but I didn’t throw like one. I had a nice fastball on that August day in 1997, and a major league slider. I gave up a walk, two routine groundballs, and struck out the clean-up hitter on a slider I can still see today. It was all so easy once I’d distanced myself from my youth.

In the spring of 1962, I drove south again in my big white Chrysler, now chipped and dented, to what even I knew would be my last spring training with the Braves. I drove without hope, with only dread, for the horrors awaiting me that spring. When I reached Waycross, I looked for that narrow road that led out to the swamps and Bravesville. I must have taken a wrong turn because I soon found myself in "Black Town." Black men stared at the big white car with the 19-year-old white boy behind the wheel. I came up slowly alongside a beautiful black girl walking home from school with her books cradled in her arms. I slowed beside her, lowered my window and said, "Can I give you a lift, honey?" She stopped, looked around quickly, then leaned over, her head at my window. She pointed down the street as if giving me directions and said, "Where you from, boy?" I told her. She said, "Well, you sho-nuff not from Waycross, Georgia. You tryin’ to get me killed?" I was dumbfounded, speechless. All I could do was shake my head, no. "Well, you gonna, if you don’t get your white ass outta Black Town." She stood up, smiled at me, still pointing down the street, and walked off in that slow, sauntering way of Southern women. I drove off, too embarrassed to glance at her as I passed.

That spring, as a four-year minor league veteran, I was given my own room in the barracks. It was a good place to hide while the other players went into town to eat at Ma Carter’s Family Kitchen, where, served by old black women wearing white aprons, a long "all you could eat," boarding house table groaned under the weight of platters of fried chicken, okra, candied sweet potatoes, homemade biscuits, glasses of sweet tea. Instead, I got my food from the cafeteria in camp and ate in my room. I was under no delusion that my private room was an honor bestowed; it was a quarantine. The Braves isolated me as if I was infectious, so I wouldn’t contaminate any other pitchers. Besides, by then I no longer knew anyone in camp. All the guys I’d played with over the last three years – Phil Niekro, Torre, Ron Hunt – were at the Braves’ major league camp in Bradenton. I wondered if they were chasing Dotty Johnson.

Mercifully, the Braves released me early that spring. I drove back home, 22 hours straight, without stopping, except for gas and food. In South Carolina, I wondered what I’d be now, without pitching. In North Carolina, I realized I’d be nothing. In Virginia, I felt a slight pang of loss, not for my career, for that pain was too great to even contemplate, but for the loss of the hope found in spring training. I’d never go again, I thought.

But I was wrong.

About the Author

photo

Pat Jordan's work has appeared in the "Best American Sports Writing" anthology seven times. He has written 11 books, including his memoir "A False Spring", which was ranked the 37th best sports book of all-time by Sports Illustrated.

Previous SB Nation Longform from Pat Jordan: A Big Game


Editorial Team

About the Author

Jordanpat

Pat Jordan's work has appeared in the "Best American Sports Writing" anthology seven times. He has written 11 books, including his memoir "A False Spring", which was ranked the 37th best sports book of all-time by Sports Illustrated.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.