.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Dave Jarecki
I want to ask Larry Colton how it felt to breathe Big League air, what it’s like to know his first dance was his last, if the name Moonlight Graham means anything to him.
First, there is the matter of talking writing, as we sit in the downtown Portland office of Community of Writers – Larry’s creation – which Colton calls home. He is a self-professed “accidental writer,” a flunky of “bonehead English” at Cal Berkeley. “Only 10% of incoming freshman had to take that class. I took it twice.”
Larry was a rookie prospect for the 1968 Phillies, a 14 game winner at AAA the year before, the last player cut in Spring Training, after a strong showing in winter ball. “They traded Jim Bunning after the ’67 season. Sports Illustrated goes and says I’m supposed to help take his place.”
Colton asks me, “Who do you pitch for?” He’s a writer after all. He’s big, listed at 6’3,” 200 pounds during his lone appearance on the hill in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, a lumbering right-hander with a 108 mile-per-hour fastball. “Maybe 110,” he grins.
“When I do interviews I just let the thing roll.” He nods at my recorder. “Just talk.” Colton knows—three books to his credit, a number of features on everything from sports to satire. Counting Coup, his most recent book, earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and an E-book of the Year Award in 2000.
I ask Colton how it felt, pitching in the majors, just that once, May 6, 1968. “It didn’t last long. A capacity crowd of about 4000,” he laughs. There to watch the team that would become the Big Red Machine—parts like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez already in place—play the team that would trade Dick Allen when the season was over.
“My first batter was Pete Rose, got a double. But, he didn’t score.”
The Phils were losing 6-1 when Colton came on in the sixth for his first and final appearance. Career stats read the same as the box score—two innings, three hits, one run, two Ks. “Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and me,” he says. “We all average a K an inning for our career. I’d make $15 million this year. Instead I made $8,000.” Larry laughs. “If I’d stuck around, I would have been Sam Malone from Cheers. Mediocre career; would have opened a bar.”
“What happened?” I ask, another way of saying, how did you go from being featured on a 1968 Topps Rookie Stars card to owning two innings of major league service? “Gene Mauch was on his way out,” Colton says. “Plus, Philadelphia hadn’t recovered from ’64. Mauch wasn’t going to take a chance on a rookie.”
Larry spent the rest of May and early June in the bullpen, got a few “scares” – warm-ups that went nowhere. Then—
“We went to San Francisco and L.A.” He says, “June 4th,” and waits as the date rattles around. “The night Bobby Kennedy got shot.” Out past curfew with a buddy and a Swedish stewardess. Larry winks.
“I got up to use the restroom. When I came back…” His friend had found trouble, or trouble had found him. They left. Larry and the stewardess stood outside when trouble found them again. “Three guys I hadn’t seen before. My buddy pulls the car around and I hear one of them say, ‘That’s him.’”
The next couple of minutes exist in the ether between dream and memory. Trouble took a swing at his friend. Larry grabbed him. Trouble knocked Larry in the head. Larry fell, his weight fully on his left palm. Ripped most of his shoulder out. “We’d been watching the news at the bar about Kennedy. This was just after King was shot. Riots. Vietnam. I remember thinking, ‘Has the whole world gone mad?’ But, the greatest tragedy? Not that Kennedy got shot, not that my career was over; it was that I never saw the stewardess again.”
Colton rehabbed too quickly. He could pitch but couldn’t lift his glove to catch the return throw. “If anyone hit one back at me I was dead. My mechanics went out of whack.”
Colton spent 1969 in the Pacific Coast League, winning 11 games for Eugene. That winter he was the player to be named later in a deal that sent Johnny Callison to the Cubs for Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma.
“The Phillies were tired of me. I’d grown my hair long. I was the only player with a peace sticker on his car.”
In June of 1970, Larry got the feeling the Cubs were going to call him up from AAA Tacoma. Six wins at the time, an ERA of just over 2.00, when they flew to Honolulu to play an unaffiliated squad.
“Pitched against Juan Pizarro, who’d had a good career by then. I lost 3-2. Pizarro hit two home runs against me. Cubs purchased his contract the next day. That was that.”
Colton’s interest in pro ball had waned by then. “Now you had the Kent State shootings on top of everything else. I said one day, ‘there’s got to be more than this.’”
He settled in Portland, started teaching, let his hair grow longer and washed windows in the summer. Then came another shot, with the Portland Mavericks, a single-A Northwest League team owned by Bing Russell, from Bonanza. Larry figured it was better than cleaning windows.
“Every washed-up ball player came to tryouts figuring this was it.” The team could carry one player with higher than single-A experience. Colton made it, despite what he calls his “Charlie Manson look” at the time. “Russell said to me at tryouts, ‘You sure can pitch, but you’re probably a druggie.’”
After a couple of rough outings, the Mavericks moved him to designated hitter. “I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll get back as a hitter…Until we took a road trip to Walla Walla. The coach called me in and said, ‘We’re letting you go.’ They were signing another ex-pro…Jim Bouton. Ball Four basically got him blacklisted from baseball. Here he was making a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher.”
The experience helped start Colton’s writing career. He wrote a narrative about the tryouts, and got local front page billing. Later he biked along the Oregon coast with Bill Walton, an experience he recounts in his first book, Idol Time. Went on to write for Esquire, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Put together a series of pieces on old-timer’s games. “I played in more old-timer’s games than real games. It would be me and a bunch of Hall of Famers. They’d look around like, ‘Who’s this guy?’”
Today, Colton is busy with Community of Writers, the Portland-area non-profit he started, which matches writers up with local schools for age and grade-appropriate workshops. The annual Wordstock Festival keeps him busy as well. Wordstock has featured more than 450 writers in its first two years, from Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer to “Spaceman” Bill Lee and Jim Bouton.
Jim Bouton? “Funny coincidence,” says Colton.
As for his own writing, Colton says: “Here’s your golden line.” I don’t have to mention Moonlight Graham after all. “In the movie, Costner asks Burt Lancaster if it eats at his soul that he only played one game, that he heard the crowd, the crack of the bat, felt the grass beneath him, the sun, the smell of the leather. And Lancaster says something like, ‘I would feel bad if I’d only been a doctor one day.’”
This is how Colton feels. “June 4th re-designed my life. People say, ‘That’s too bad.’ In reality, it was a good thing. I became a writer. And – I'm still averaging a strikeout an inning.”
Dave Jarecki is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. Email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk writing, baseball, or how the twain meet.
from a leading
Copyright © 2005 by BaseballSavvy.com