George BrettDecember 16, 2012
(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
Three: Rocky Roe
Beside the Donnie Moore card and the fragment of Mr. October is a 1994 George Brett card featuring an unusual photo (for the genre). The card’s perspective is from behind the plate, its subject, George Brett, following through on a swing that has resulted in the ball bounding toward second base. In the background, the scoreboard is clearly visible, providing plenty of clues to allow the moment to be identified.
In an uncertain world, it’s nice to come upon hard evidence, even if the evidence doesn’t matter. Maybe this is what’s behind my lifelong attraction to meaningless baseball occurrences. Despite the complete lack of societal or personal need for any illumination whatsoever about the photo shown in George Brett’s 1994 baseball card, I found myself researching details about the moment it occurred. The card lent itself well to this wasting of time. That’s probably part of the draw. To waste time. To squander. But sometimes it also feels good to know something, anything.
I found the game (an 8–7 Royals win), and the result of the play (groundout, Brett’s last at-bat of the day; on an earlier pitch in the at-bat, Brett had fouled a pitch off his foot, injuring it), and the identity of the pitcher (Jaime Navarro, now a coach with the Mariners) and catcher (Joe Kmak, now a high school math teacher). The umpire is Rocky Roe. Roe’s prominence in the card, no less than the last card of an inner circle Hall of Famer, is unusual if not unprecedented in terms of baseball card portraiture. Based on the composition of the shot, the card could easily be for Roe, not Brett. But what could possibly go on the back of a card for an umpire? And who would want such a card?
Roe got his start as a major league umpire in 1982, as a replacement for Lou DiMuro. DiMuro had ascended above the general anonymity of his profession a couple of times in his long career, once for being smashed into and injured by the gigantic Cliff Johnson, and once a few years earlier for his role in a famous World Series moment. He was the umpire behind the plate in Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. After ruling that a pitched ball had not hit Cleon Jones in the foot, he changed his ruling when presented with evidence: shoe polish on the ball. This keyed a Mets’ rally, and the Mets won the World Series, arguably the most improbable World Series win ever, evidence to many of miracles, of magic. Thirteen years later, after umpiring a game in Texas, DiMuro was hit and killed by a car. Rocky Roe got a call, filled a void.
Roe was the home plate umpire in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. As far as I can remember or recover through my compulsion to do pointless, time-consuming research, he did not make any controversial calls during the crucial moments of that game. One of his rulings during the fateful ninth inning, when it still seemed the Angels were going to surge into their first World Series, was that Boston batter Rich Gedman had been hit by a pitch thrown by Gary Lucas. It was not a disputed call.
Gary Lucas still feels guilty about the pitch. He was brought in specifically to face Gedman, lefty on lefty. After hitting the Boston catcher, Lucas gave way to Donnie Moore, who gave up a two-run home run to Dave Henderson. All these years later, Lucas still wonders about his role in Donnie Moore’s subsequent suicide. “If I do my job that night,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Crowe in 2010, “perhaps he’s still with us.”
Guilt is one way to create a thread connecting one event to the next. Shouldering the world this way, as a burden, is an excruciating way to live, but the deep vein of guilt running through the collective human narrative suggests that we prefer suffering fictions to the alternative, a world without evidence, beyond our control.