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My Life in the Times

On the Occasion of My Retirement From Baseball

Today a short but glorious career on the base-paths drew to a close. And with it, the future of instructional league baseball appears hazy.

GREENBROOK, Ill., Aug. 17, 1978—It’s over. The end of a too-brief era.

On Saturday, glove dangling at his side, John Warner walked from the Meadowbrook Middle School West Auxiliary Field no. 3B and into the back of his parents’ Buick LeSabre for the last time.

It’s tough to know where to start in assessing Mr. Warner’s career. In this era of athlete mercenaries, Mr. Warner’s loyalty to a single team sets him apart. Yes, it was only one summer, and he did miss those two weeks for the family trip to see Granny and Gramps in Florida and spend a few days at the Magic Kingdom. And indeed, there was that one Tuesday night when he had a “tummy ache,” forcing him to his couch and an evening of CHiPs reruns, but otherwise, he was a rock in right field during the odd-numbered innings for the Midas Muffler and Brake Rangers.

In this day and age, when players will jump from the Pizza Hut Pirates to the Dunkin’ Donuts Royals for half off on a 40-pack of Munchkins, Mr. Warner’s loyalty is admirable.

His last game was typical, vintage Warner: 0 for 0 with three walks and a hit by pitch, advancing a total of 12 bases on passed balls to score four runs in a hard fought 32-29 defeat in the regulation six innings at the hands of the Zengler Cleaners White Sox.

Warner retires from the game with a career batting average of .000, but a remarkable on-base percentage of .850. Some would attribute Warner’s uncanny ability to draw the base on balls to a fear of swinging, but I don’t see it that way. His eyes were focused, not closed. And let’s not forget those two foul balls. Always savvy at the plate, Warner recognized that 60% of the pitchers at the instructional league level could not throw the ball to the catcher on the fly.

As Warner often related to his Rangers teammates, “Why swing when you know it’s going to bounce?”

Not a gifted fielder, Warner worked diligently to overcome his naturally effeminate throwing motion. After experimenting with a sidearm flail and a moon ball heave, he eventually developed his underhand bowl method for returning the ball to the second baseman. What it lacked in velocity, it almost made up in accuracy.

As dynamic as Mr. Warner was running the bases or prowling the outfield, his true value shined brightest on the bench as one of the Rangers’ co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-captains. An innovator in the area of diamond chatter, Mr. Warner always kept his teammates in stitches and his opponents near tears. His substitution of “butt sniffer” for “belly itcher” in the “He’s not a pitcher…” taunt swept through the league, spawning other variants (“toe-cheese licker,” “penis lifter”), ultimately resulting in a lecture on sportsmanship from the district commissioner. And who can forget the traditional orange wedge snack break at the fourth-inning stretch, when Warner would cram one of the rinds into his mouth and, grinning madly, do his patented monkey dance until Coach Bellow told him to “cut that crap out”?

It is strange to think that Mr. Warner’s entire baseball career was a fluke, coming as it did after he was signed to the Rangers by his mother, who thought she was enrolling him in a Park District summer nature program. Thank goodness checking the wrong box had Mr. Warner chasing fly balls in right field instead of butterflies through the bushes.

He has allergies, you see.

On this kind of occasion, it is easy to gloss over a player’s flaws, but a full picture is a fair one. I do not agree with Mr. Warner’s contention that sitting cross-legged, glove on lap, trying to whistle through a blade of grass trapped between his thumbs is the equivalent of “good fielding position.” He did not look ready to me. And more than once, his tying his own shoes together as he waited on third base during a pitching change likely cost the Rangers a run.

However, in the great baseball ledger book, Warner certainly has more credits than debits. He almost always remembered to bring his glove out to the field, barely complained about the ill-fitting T-shirts that substituted for real uniforms, and blew Coca-Cola out of his nose only once at the post-game pizza party.

Mr. Warner did not leave the field triumphant, shouting into the camera that he was heading for Disneyworld, mostly because he already had been there earlier in the summer, and got sick on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to boot, but make no mistake: Instructional league baseball suffered a loss yesterday.

Though even as the Warner family LeSabre’s brake lights winked once at a stop sign before turning toward home, I knew that as one door closed, another opened. It will be fall soon: soccer season. Thanks to another mis-checked box, Mr. Warner will be not in a youth photography class but stationed at left fullback, watching the fast kids steam past him toward the goal.

No doubt, the Midas Brake and Muffler Rangers’ loss is a gain for Diana’s Clip ‘n’ Curl Strikers.
 

biopic

TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner