The Westing Game.
It stands to be a quieter day than it was one year ago today, when Texas traded a resurrected Edinson Volquez and 45th-round find Danny Ray Herrera for Josh Hamilton, a player whose beta at the time may have been greater than that of any baseball player in recent memory.
It was a unique trade the day it was made but even more so six months later, as Volquez and Hamilton’s explosions made the deal one of the great win-wins in a generation of trades marked mostly on one end or the other by contractual issues or mid-summer pennant volleys.
With apologies to Garza-Bartlett-Morlan for Young-Harris-Pridie, pretty much gone are the days of the good old-fashioned baseball card-esque trade. Even the three-team deal involving J.J. Putz, Aaron Heilman, and Franklin Gutierrez earlier this month had more filler in it than punch.
I still remember pulling trays of baseball cards off the shelf when I was eight years old the minute I heard this, in December 1977:
The Rangers trade Adrian Devine, Tommy Boggs, and Eddie Miller to the Braves; a player to be named later and Tom Grieve to the Mets; and Bert Blyleven to the Pirates, getting Al Oliver and Nelson Norman from the Pirates and Jon Matlack from the Mets.
(The Braves also sent Willie Montanez to the Mets as part of the trade, and the Mets shipped John Milner to the Pirates, and to make things even more awesome for a kid like me, Montanez and Milner were traded for each other four years later.)
I remember hoping that player to be named wouldn’t be someone like Bump Wills or Len Barker or Claudell Washington. Actually, hope isn’t the right word. I was worried.
And then relieved, when on March 15, 1978, Texas sent inconsequential outfielder Ken Henderson (one of those players whose card seemed to litter almost every pack of Topps I opened) to the Mets to complete the really cool trade.
Two weeks ago I threw myself back to that time in my life, not so much out of intent as out of desperation. I’d signed up months ago to read to Erica’s class on a Friday in early December, an automatic ritual for me for both of our kids since their pre-school days. But Erica’s in third grade now, and she’s reading chapter books. Not only could I not remember how long it’s been since I’ve actually read to her at home, I couldn’t figure out what type of book I could read to her and her friends that would approach keeping their attention for a fraction of the 20-minute block — and just as crucial, I had to come up with something that wouldn’t embarrass her. Not too childish, not too boring, not too uncool.
I polled a couple dads who’d already read to the class this year, and was bummed that I did. The ideas they’d come up with were right on the money, and the eight- and nine-year-olds in the class would never let me get away with recycling them.
So I decided that since I couldn’t come up with an idea that I was sure would entertain the kids, I’d fight through those 20 minutes by at least entertaining myself. I pulled from the shelf at home my favorite book ever — one that I first read when I was Erica’s age. I wasn’t at all sure how Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game” would hold up 31 years later, but I was prepared to give it a shot, unable to come up with a better plan.
It was a home run. After reading parts of Chapters Six and Seven to Erica and her class, six of her friends rushed up to the front at the end of our time together to make sure they had the title right so they could tell their parents they needed to add one more thing to their holiday wish lists.
That was a good day. The first time I read “The Westing Game,” Reggie Cleveland was closing games for Texas, and Mike Hargrove was leading off. Texas had just made that Grieve-Blyleven-Oliver-Matlack trade, and I’m sure the names Samuel W. Westing and Otis Amber and Theo Theodorakis were still as fresh in my mind as the theme song to “The Rockford Files,” or the sound of Darth Vader’s breathing, or the words to “We Will Rock You,” or the image of the 1977 Topps Robin Yount, bunting for a hit. Reading the book again two weeks ago (admittedly, not my first time to pick it back up, but probably the first time in 20 years), just saying the words “Alexander McSouthers, doorman,” and narrating Edgar Jennings Plum’s reading of the rules to the Game from the Westing will, took me way back.
Back to a time when the name “Pulaski” meant painted crutches and Polish shorthand, rather than Sixto Urena, Chris O’Riordan, and Charlie Bilezikjian.
The lull in Rangers activity over the last week or two, to the alarm of some columnists (either forgetting or ignoring the confirmed fact that the Rangers and Reds exchanged more than a dozen different trade proposals over a period of weeks before settling on Volquez and Herrera for Hamilton a year ago), doesn’t bother me, because I know how hard this front office works, how many balls are being juggled at any given time. The general columnists and talk show hosts and anchors who shape more baseball opinions than they should, in a market where the real baseball writers are finding their job security endangered, don’t value patience (or exploit the sense that the casual sports fan doesn’t), but trying to grade an off-season based on what happened or didn’t over four days in Las Vegas is sort of dumb.
Texas didn’t come away with Hamilton at last winter’s Meetings. But they laid groundwork then for the trade that was made on December 21, and unquestionably laid plenty of groundwork at this month’s Meetings, too. Take a look at a list of all of Jon Daniels’s major off-season trades and free agent signings since he became general manager. Almost all of them have happened late in December, or in January. After the Winter Meetings. His restraint and his patience are calculated. Ours should be, too.
Grade this off-season on Valentine’s Day.
Every year when we make our trip to Clear Lake for the holidays, I bring a new book. Aside from the relaxation of being away from home and from work and being with family, these few days come annually at a time when I’ve just finished writing the Bound Edition and shipping hundreds of them out. It’s a break that I really look forward to each year, and reading something that has nothing to do with the practice of law or with baseball is part of my routine.
This year, inspired by those 20 minutes in Erica’s class on December 5, I brought “The Westing Game” to Clear Lake. I read it yesterday, cover to cover. When I read it in 1978, at Erica’s age, the biggest stress point in my life was probably making sure I got home in time from boring back-to-school shopping to catch all of Jon Miller and Frank Glieber’s TV call of that doubleheader sweep in Cleveland (3-2 and 6-5, with Doc Medich and Steve Comer getting the wins). I miss not having anything more important to worry about.
But I also make sure to devote one corner of my brain these days to relative trivialities like Jon Leicester signing with Japan’s Orix Buffaloes, Kevin West signing with the independent Winnipeg Goldeyes, Brian Gordon leading the Venezuelan Winter League in ERA, and Pittsburgh naming Matt Walbeck its new AA manager and P.J. Forbes its new High A manager and Gary Green its new Low A manager.
And to reading a book written for eight-year-olds, before handing it over to my own eight-year-old to read herself, after which she and I can talk about it.
It will take her more than a day. Maybe more than a month. But I’ll be patient.
I might even have a Rangers trade to write about in the meantime. And I might not.
The pace isn’t nearly as important as the result.