At the time Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton were exchanging teams and destinies, I was probably more aware of a third young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop, U.L. Washington. This idiosyncratic focus stems partly from the fact that I didn’t know as much about the National League in general, especially the teams (besides the Joe Torre Mets) that never got into the playoffs, such as the Cardinals and Padres. By the same token (whatever that means), I knew U.L. Washington in part because his team practically lived in the playoffs, but also because his name was U.L. Washington and U.L. stood for U.L. Of course, the main reason U.L. Washington had imprinted his name and image on my adolescent mind was that U.L. Washington played every inning while chewing on a toothpick.
A major leaguer playing baseball with a toothpick in his mouth is just the kind of thing that fascinates a child. At least this child. And since I was edging my way out of childhood when he came along, U.L. Washington seemed something like a parting gift from the Cardboard Gods to me, the last miniature Krackle bar at the last house the last time trick-or-treating. Fittingly enough, I took my last candy-gathering round as a 12-year-old wearing the laziest of all costumes, a sheet with eyeholes, in 1980, just a couple weeks after watching U.L. Washington gnaw on his toothpick while playing in the World Series. I liked him instantly and rooted for him and, like thousands of other American boys, I walked around with a toothpick in my mouth for a little while.
Unlike his two young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop National League counterparts, U.L. Washington was not traded in his early years. I’m not sure who he could have been traded for, since there weren’t any other young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstops in the American League. Maybe the Royals could have worked out a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for switch-hitting shortstop Alfredo Griffin (who was not African American but who was a young switch-hitting shortstop and who more importantly would have enabled the Kansas City newspaper to print the headline “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Griffin!”) with weak-hitting Danny Ainge as a throw-in who would in turn bring them speedy African American Terry Duerod from the Celtics. When, four years after the Ozzie Smith-Garry Templeton trade, U.L. Washington finally did make his debut on the transaction page, he was swapped for a 27-year-old pitcher, Mike Kinnunen, whose sole brief and ineffective stint in the majors to that point had occurred back when Garry Templeton was still an All-Star for the Cardinals. U.L. Washington was in decline by then, but even so, the question must be asked: Mike Kinnunen? It seems an unnecessarily cruel mirror to hold up to the fading toothpick-gnawing infielder who’d brought so much joy to the youth of America. The Royals, who never once made use of Mike Kinnunen nor ever made it back to the playoffs after parting with U.L. Washington, should be ashamed of themselves, but not as ashamed as the Topps baseball card company should be for this blatantly toothpickless photo. It’s like depicting Paul Bunyan without an axe.