Friday, June 07, 2013

Hero becomes something better

I've been going on quite a baseball journey for the last few years, one that dates back more than 40 years and includes a pro baseball player and a kid who watched him. It's worth sharing, even though I've told part of the story in a book review, of all places.

When I lived in Elmira in 1965 to 1970, the city had a Double-A team that was mostly affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. You might remember that the Orioles were in the process of building some good teams around then, and some talent passed through Elmira on the way to Baltimore.

Dad's company did the civic-minded thing during those years, buying season tickets to the Elmira Pioneers. Here's the good part from my standpoint - hardly anyone from the company ever wanted to go to games. Therefore, I had a pretty good chance of going almost any time I wanted. First, it was with my Dad, who was always good about taking me. Then later I'd take friends, with my mother dropping us off (it was a 10-minute drive from home, tops) and then listening to the game on the radio so she could arrive in the eighth inning or so to pick us up.

Since I was a pesky 10-to-14-year-old in those years, naturally I bought a program and kept score for every game. It was a good way to learn about the game, even though by that age I had already figured out that the Red Sox would have to get somebody else to play left field for them when Carl Yastrzemski was done because I wasn't nearly good enough. (Note: they found Jim Rice, who was good enough.)

Give a kid a program, a pen or pencil and baseball tickets, and naturally he's going to hound players for autographs. That's what I did, over and over again. I only saved one of them, a 1966 edition which is shown above. I went over Delano Hill's and Jim Hardin's writing in pen, but also there are Darrell Johnson, Jim White, Bob Litchfield, Gary Fancher, George Farson, Hank McGraw (yes, Tug's brother), and Steve Cosgrove in pencil.

The next year, one of those I bothered constantly for autographs was a pitcher named Tim Sommer. He was 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, probably right after lunch. Yes, his nickname was "Slim." I remember him as always friendly and willing to sign, which was appreciated. Sommer stayed in Elmira for parts of the next four seasons, as his records page indicates, which made him a constant part of my summers in Elmira before I moved to Buffalo in 1970.

Fast forward almost 40 years, when I had finished reading a book about life in the minor leagues. Afterward, had a list of suggested books, and it included a memoir by Tim Sommer. That Tim Sommer? That Tim Sommer. I bought the book, read it and found it brought back a lot of good memories. I wrote this review.

I figured it would be worthwhile to get an autographed copy of the book, and managed to connect with Sommer - now living in Arizona. He no doubt was a bit startled to hear from one of those pesky autographed-seeking kids. Sommer explained in an email that the book was simply a way for him to pass on his memories of his baseball days, so I was quickly convinced that maybe my criticism of the writing/editing standards in that context might be a little harsh. In fairness, I didn't know the circumstances at the time.

On the other hand, the message of "if you're going to do something, you might as well do it right" apparently carried a little weight. Because he did have good stories to tell. Sommer made several fixes to the book and printed up some more copies, and sent me one of them nicely autographed.  I think I owe him a copy of my book that's coming out in the fall.

What's more, we still exchange emails almost five years since the initial "conversation." Tim is 70 now, and the book is still attracting interest. He wrote to tell me recently about how he sold almost 100 copies at a recent 50th anniversary reunion of a team in Stockton, California. Sommer also just sent me a letter he had kept from 1971 or so, explaining why he was retiring. It could have been written today, except the "big money guys" who receive preferential treatment from front-office types - even if they don't play like it on the field - make a lot more money now than they did then.

My baseball-loving friends and I all looked up to people like Sommer - literally and figuratively - back in Elmira. We all would have loved to at least been given a chance to play ball, but the odds were long just to get that far. The years have gone by since then, and that tends to level the playing field, to use the obvious sports cliche. Tim has gone from something of a hero in the Sixties to something even better almost 50 years later - a friend.

And to use a phrase from the Sixties, that's pretty neat.

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