In carrying out my duties reporting on the St. Louis Cardinals organization, I'd like to believe that I have done a credible job despite the fact (and perhaps sometimes because) I have followed the team since I was a child. In fact, it is a necessity. Any indication that it isn’t would violate one of the unwritten commandments in the book of sports writing etiquette.
However, today, I am man enough to admit that I may have committed adultery in my heart, to borrow a line from former President Jimmy Carter. Not real adultery, but maybe a bit of the sports writing version, if such a thing exists. Even if so, I don’t care. On Monday, I realized a childhood dream that transcends my role as a writer.
I’ve spoken with lots of people in the game over the years, but this was different. This time, it was personal. Off to the side, on one of the Cardinals’ practice fields that morning; I talked baseball with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson for a full 30 minutes.
To say that I was elated is a massive understatement. For a young boy who grew up in the 1960’s in Gibby’s home town, Omaha, Nebraska, it was a magical moment, one I could have only dreamed about. My family lived eight hours away from St. Louis and did not have the financial means to ever consider a trip to Busch Stadium to see our heroes in person.
Yet, not unlike today, I rarely missed a Cardinals game during the mid-to-late ‘60s and early ‘70’s. However, then it was very different, indeed. In those days, only one game was televised each week, “The Game of the Week” on Saturday afternoon. First, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese in black and white; then Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola in NBC’s “Living Color”. Of course, the Cardinals were only featured now and then. Instead, we followed our favorite team via the radio.
My Mom often listened to Cardinals games with me, either on our trusty transistor radio or through the newfangled AM-8 track stereo in the Mustang convertible that I still have to this very day. It would be a waste of space here to recount Gibson’s many accomplishments on the mound for the Cardinals during that era, as real fans already know all about them. We cheered on the ultimate competitor, Gibson, and did other fans from Nebraska and tens of thousands of other Cardinals fans from all over the Midwest and South.
These days, in my sports writing role, I had seen Gibson around the team on occasion. But honestly, his reputation as an aloof, unapproachable person had been cemented into my consciousness years prior. As a result, I had sort of avoided him. Alright, not sort of; I plain avoided him. Come to think of it, I guess I always have. In fact, when I was a teenager, one night Gibson and his wife came into the Omaha movie theater where I was working, but I was far too scared to say anything.
Thirty years later, that trepidation remained. Yet, here it was; my last day in Florida this spring. The opportunity was there. There would be no better time than now. So, I sheepishly worked up the strength to approach Gibson. I waited patiently until he finished telling a story to eager listeners Adam Wainwright, Ray King and Jeff Suppan.
Like a fool, when Gibson was free, I led with my chin ...er… microphone.
Gibson growled, “You don’t want to interview me. Go talk to them.” He gestured in the general vicinity of 40 red-uniformed players going through drills in front of us. I bravely stayed in the box against the most fearsome pitcher of his, and perhaps any, generation.
I stood arrow-straight, looked the great Bob Gibson directly in the eye and stated clearly and definitively, “I will talk with them later. They’re busy now. I hoped to talk with you.” Gibson said absolutely nothing in response as I put away my recorder, trying to decide whether or not to bail out.
But, my natural stubbornness took over and wouldn’t let this chance pass for what all I know could be another three decades, or more likely, never. For his part, Gibson surely didn’t encourage me. Yet, he had the chance to walk away and didn’t. We stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder silently watching the team for what seemed to be an eternity, until I finally broke the quiet by offering that I, too, am a native Omahan.
For there, we naturally flowed right into a discussion of the Creighton Bluejays, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the College World Series, Rosenblatt Stadium and various local points and topics of interest, including that old movie theater on West Dodge Road. My recorder remained firmly anchored in my shirt pocket. After all, it’s not like I would easily forget what was happening here.
This spring, as in the past ten years, Gibson is a Special Spring Training Instructor with the Cardinals. Gibson leaves his home in the snowy Midwest to spend the month of March in sunny Florida helping out the new version of the Redbirds.
Like he seemingly always had, Gibson has his own idea of what should be done and does it. But, that doesn’t include long bus rides. “I’ve done enough of that over the years,” said Gibson. “When the team isn’t playing here, I’m back at my apartment.”
“Spring training is just too long,” Gibson volunteered. He replied to the affirmative when I asked him if that was partially because today’s players are better conditioned. But, he must have counted himself among those who come ready to play. “I used to hold out in the spring. Not because I wanted more money. I did it so I could avoid having to come down here so soon. I didn’t need all that time to get ready.”
Having been a former major league coach, Gibson has no interest in returning to that role. The month in Florida each year suits him just fine in terms of satisfying his baseball fix. While I have no idea of his personal situation, I assume he is set for life and doesn’t have a financial dependence on the game. In other words, despite spring training being too long for his tastes, Gibson is there precisely because he wants to be.
Yet, it was difficult for him the first few years. “Early on, I was frustrated. I wanted to help, but wasn’t sure how. Red (Schoendienst) likes to hit fungoes, so he always has something. (Fellow Hall of Famer and Special Spring Training Instructor) Lou (Brock) and I pick our places. Some guys might sit next to me on the bench, but more often than not, it’s the older guys because they know who I am.”
I asked Gibson if the youthful players of today are any different than in his heyday. “No, not at all. Maybe I didn’t think I knew everything, but I sure had my ways of looking at things and had my reasons for doing so, based on what was happening in my life at the time.” I just nodded, pretending it was a knowingly kind of nod. I wanted to ask more, but decided to let that line of discussion go elsewhere. “I was probably the same way and so are my sons.” I swear I almost detected Gibson cracking a grin.
After the fact, I had to take a second look at the Media Guide to make sure Gibson is really 69 years old. He looks fit and in playing-shape trim today. His retirement seems more like it happened yesterday, rather than 30 years ago.
Maybe twenty minutes into our chat, ESPN’s play-by-play man for the day’s nationally-televised game, Gary Thorne, walked up. Thorne, like many in the industry, is a genuinely nice man. He called out to Gibson and after the two exchanged greetings, Thorne joined the conversation.
Neither Gibson nor I could hardly ignore a prominent trickle of blood on Thorne’s jawline. Surprisingly, Gibson spoke up first. Not only did he point it out, but when Thorne missed the mark, Gibson instinctively licked his finger, quickly and efficiently wiping the dried blood off Thorne’s face. “I’m not going to catch anything from you, am I, Gary?” Gibson cracked.
Can you imagine that scene? Big Bad Bob Gibson wiping blood off the face of a maybe 5-foot-8 broadcaster! Perhaps I was wrong about Gibby.
The three of us talked on about the Cardinals team, free agency and a boatload of other topics until inevitably, the subject of steroids arose. Gibson first seemed surprised, then angered, when I told him that his recent comments about steroids had been widely reported. Uh-oh. Now, I’d done it.
First, Gibson asked me what I was talking about. Then he growled that he would find out who wrote that and ensure he never spoke with that writer again. Gibson then turned and gave me a steely, penetrating look, as if to drive the same point home with me. That look was one which I imagined to be the exact same way he glared at countless enemy hitters during his years on the mound.
This was no time to wilt, to back down. Stick to the facts and you’ll be fine. At least that is what I told myself.
I assured Gibson that no one said that he would have used steroids, only that he didn’t know what he would have done if he had been in that situation at the time. I tried to assure him that his honesty was refreshing and was not misinterpreted to imply that he endorsed steroid use. Gibson repeated his view with emphasis to make sure I understood. I did then and I still do now.
As the three of us finally headed back toward the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Gibson apparently wanted to know the time. But, instead of simply asking, he used the opening to take what he probably thought would be an uncontested shot at me. That’s right, Bob Gibson gave me grief!
“Why don’t you have a watch on? I am in uniform, so at least I have an excuse,” he bellowed. I fired right back. “You should be flexible enough to embrace new technology, Bob.” I pulled my Blackberry out of my pocket and showed him the time. It was 10:00.
“Well, then I guess it’s about time for Brock to show up,” Gibson said, deftly moving his friendly jabs on to his next victim. While Lou Brock was not there to defend himself, I was confident that by now he has learned how to deal with Gibson on his own without any help from me.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen Brock that morning, but like Gibson, he has earned the right to do whatever he wants. I was honored in that what Gibson wanted to do for a brief part of his day was to talk with me.
As we parted ways, I thanked Gibson and reminded him that next time, I’d again be ready with that recorder for a real interview. But that simply isn’t true. I learned that day that it won’t ever be needed. Just talking baseball with the great Bob Gibson is more than good enough for me.
I wish I could tell my Mom. She’d be so proud.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.