RIP Tom Veryzer
When I was a kid, the Cleveland Indians ALWAYS won when we went to the ballpark. No, really, always. I don’t remember how many years the magical stretch lasted or how many games it involved, but it seemed pretty remarkable at the time. My Dad favored doubleheaders because my parents have always liked bargains — double-coupon days, buffets, doubleheaders, bat days, refunds, cap days, jacket days, etc. I know we went to at least five consecutive doubleheaders where the Indians swept. I know it.
Well, I don’t “know it.” But I believe it. I went back nervously to Baseball Reference because it seems unlikely that the Indians even swept that many doubleheaders. But it’s easy to forget: Teams played A LOT of doubleheaders in the mid-70s. it turns out the Indians swept 18 home doubleheaders in my childhood years, including two against the Yankees. I remember being at both of those. My childhood delusions live on!
In any case, by 1978 I know our family winning streak was very much a part of our baseball experience. And I vividly remember a Friday night in July, on the way to the ballpark, we talked confidently about how the Indians HAD to win because we were coming. It was July 7, I now know, and I’m pretty sure it was my first night game. My Dad was not much for night games (no bargains there). We only went that night because of a promise. He had taken my brother David and me to the July 4th game against Baltimore*, only we never got there. We got started late, and we got caught up awful traffic, and my Dad couldn’t find a parking spot (the crowd of 36,000 or so seemed like a million). At some point, in frustration, he begged us kids to just go bowling. In return, he promised to take us to the Friday night game. So we went bowling. It was just as well: The Indians lost, further confirming our belief that we were blessed.
*We had gone to the Independence Day game in 1977 (July 3rd against the Royals — a 6-3 victory!) and my Dad liked the bargain of fireworks after the game. It wasn’t QUITE the bargain of a doubleheader or bat day, but it was close.
In any case, we went to the Friday night game. And I remember I was pretty interested to see the Indians new shortstop, a tall, kind of lanky guy named Tom Veryzer. I say “interested” rather than “excited” — I was not too thrilled with Veryzer at the time. He had two strikes against him. One, he was replacing a favored player of mine, the old shortstop Frank Duffy. Two, the Indians had traded another one of my favorites, the great Charlie Spikes, to get him. I was dubious, to say the least.
Well, the reason I was dubious is because I was 11 and had no idea what was going on. Duffy had hit .201/.247/.287 the year before and was done as an every day shortstop. Spikes had once been this extraordinary prospect — the legendary scout Tom Greenwade predicted he would hit 40 homers in a season, and he did hit 20-plus homers two years in a row when he first got to Cleveland. But he had stopped hitting. This might have had something to do with getting hit in the head by a pitch in Puerto Rico. It also might have been because people stop hitting.
Veryzer had also been a prospect — he was the 11th pick out of Islip High in the 1971 draft, chosen ahead of Frank Tanana and Jim Rice among others. Right from the start, he began a lifelong struggle with the bat; but that wasn’t too important because shortstops didn’t hit back then. Veryzer was a good and alert fielder, he played hard, and the Indians took a chance on him. Sugar Bear Blanks actually went into camp as the starting shortstop, but Veryzer’s steadiness and determination won the day. The newspapers had been playing him up as one of those guys who “plays the game the right way.” I was cautiously looking forward to see him play.
As it turns out, that game would be one of the wildest I would see as a kid. I readily admit that I had to go back to Baseball Reference for the details because almost all of it has been lost in the 36 years since. All I really remembered were two vague facts:
1. The Indians somehow won.
2. Tom Veryzer had like a bajillion hits.
As it turns out, the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead in the game. That really should have been the end of the game. Boston was playing INSANELY good baseball at that point; they were on pace to win 111 games. They were scoring runs like crazy, they were pitching great, and the Indians were typically lousy. Mike Torrez was on the mound for Boston; he seemed more than capable of wrapping this thing up. The way the season turned out for Boston — with the playoff game against the Yankees and Bucky Bleepin’ Dent — I suspect this was a game they looked back on with a shaking heads.
The Indians scored one in the third — a single by my hero Duane Kuiper followed by Tom Veryzer’s single, followed by a single from another favorite, Rick Manning. After Boston made it 4-1, the Indians scored twice, again sparked by a Tom Veryzer single. Boston made it 5-3. Cleveland made it 5-4. This was a fun game.
The Indians tied it in the sixth when Veryzer led off the inning with a double and scored on Johnny Grubb’s double. Ah, Johnny Grubb. These names, straight from childhood, fill my heart.
Cleveland blew it open in the seventh — or so my 11-year-old mind thought. The Indians scored four and, once again, Tom Veryzer was in the middle of it. Well, he got hit by a pitch, and that loaded the bases. Manning and Grubb clubbed back-to-back singles, and the Indians led 9-5. Thrilling.
I don’t remember for sure, but I would wager that this was precisely the time when my father asked if we were ready to go home. It was getting late, it was getting cold, traffic was going to be brutal (there were 19,000 people there that night for some reason). But this was my first night game, and I wanted to stay to the bitter end.
Well, of course the Red Sox came back. This is the funny part of memory — I remembered clearly that Tom Veryzer had this great day and I remembered that Cleveland won. But I somehow did not remember at all that I saw Carl Yastrzemski hit a two-run homer to tie the game in the top of the ninth. You would think that bit of awesomeness would have stayed in my memory bank; I saw the great Yaz hit a clutch home run. That’s something to cherish. But, nope, no recollection at all, couldn’t tell you a thing about it. At 11, I was a Cleveland fan, not a baseball fan.
I do remember the bottom of the ninth, though. I remember the crowd, whatever was left of it, seeming crazy loud. I remember the way my shoes stuck to the concrete floor; Lord knows what had been spilled down there. I remember us sitting down the third base line under that creaky old roof at old Municipal Stadium. I remember one of those ever-present steel girders blocking our view of something. With Paul Dade on second and one out, Tom Veryzer stepped to the plate. He cracked a single to center, his fourth hit of the day. Dade scored, and the Indians won another game for me, my brother and my Dad.
That was probably Tom Veryzer’s best game as a big leaguer — he went 4-for-4 with a hit by pitch, scored three runs, drove in one with a walk-off single. But I don’t remember it as his best game; I remember it as my first night game. That’s the beautiful thing about sports, baseball in particular. That game was the first thing I thought about when I heard that Veryzer, at age 61, died on Wednesday from complications of a stroke.
Veryzer’s passing wasn’t big news around the country; he wasn’t a good enough player to make many headlines. But baseball fans remember. Veryzer got to ground balls, and he dug in, and he knocked almost 700 hits, and through sheer will he played almost 1,000 games in the Major Leagues. He affected my life. I’ve probably said his name five hundred times and written it down another hundred or so in scorebooks and blog posts. I’ve thought about that July 7th game many times, and I’ve thought about how happy he made me that night. I never spoke with Tom Veryzer. I’ll miss him, though.