Back in Time, Postscript: The Resistance of Memory

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Photo by Ivan Weiss.

The day I published my Paris Review Daily piece about the most exciting game I ever saw, two other people who were at that game in September 1984 appeared, as if summoned.

Ron Morris was the Durham Bulls beat writer for the Durham Morning Herald in the eighties, and I knew him a little back then. He was friendly with my stepfather. Three years ago, I ran into him at the old Durham Athletic Park, the scene of the crime, so to speak. The Bulls were playing a souvenir game at the old ballpark, and Morris had come up from Columbia, South Carolina, where he covers sports for The State, to do a story about the Bulls’ one-day return to their ancestral home.

Morris and I talked for a while that evening. When I began to delve into the most exciting game I ever saw, I called and left him a couple of messages. I was sure Morris had been at that game in 1984, and while I was waiting for him to return my call, I went to the Durham Public Library and looked up his Durham Morning Herald game story on microfilm. Morris actually wrote two stories about that game: a bare-bones account, probably filed well after his normal deadline (the game ended at 12:32 a.m., his story punctiliously notes); and another, longer piece, published the day after that, September 6, called “Heroes Came Out at Night.” This more lyrical account goes into greater detail and has quotes from the Bulls’ manager at the time, Brian Snitker.

Morris didn’t call me back until the day my story published. He, like everyone else I spoke to, had no memory of the game. We had an amiable chat anyway, talking about the Bulls of old (Morris is working on a book about them), and Morris did remember Tony Neuendorff pretty well. He even wrote a newspaper profile that summer of Neuendorff, the unlikely hero of the most exciting game I ever saw. But the game itself? No. Nothing, sorry. No memory at all.

Later that day, I went down to the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where the Bulls were set to open the playoffs with a game against the Indianapolis Indians. I got to the ballpark early in order to talk to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and pitcher J. D. Martin. I’m working on a story about Martin (coming next week), and I had a few follow-up questions for him. I also wanted to ask Montoyo some questions about the playoff roster.

A few Tampa Bay Rays minor-league staffers were at the ballpark; they had come here to check up on their Triple-A prospects — and, I suspect, to make it known to those prospects that they were still being watched. Playoff production isn’t counted in minor-leaguers’ season stats, and some of them have a tendency to slack off in the post-season. They’re tired and they want to go home and rest. The presence of these bigwigs serves as a prod, whether intended or not.

CubbageOne of those visitors was Mike Cubbage. Cubbage is a Special Assignment Scout for the Tampa Bay Rays. He had a short career as an infielder, mostly a good-fielding third baseman for the Minnesota Twins. My stepfather, who got me the position as “Statistician” that year, 1984, that ended with the most exciting game I ever saw, was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and I remember often hearing about Cubbage from him.

Mike Cubbage was also the manager of the Lynchburg Mets in 1984.

And there he was, standing on the field this past Wednesday, watching batting practice. He was wearing a long, tunic-like white shirt, and a khaki boonie hat with neck flaps. That’s also what he was wearing when he came to the ballpark much earlier this season, before I recalled that he was involved in the most exciting game I ever saw. Cubbage was leaning on the dugout railing, chatting with a couple other Rays guys. This was my chance, so I went over and introduced myself.

In the manner of ballplayers, even retired ones, he did not make eye contact and said little at first, waiting for me to announce my intentions. Ballplayers are accustomed to fans wanting things: autographs, charity appearances, and so on. Or simply being pinned uncomfortably to their spot by some fan’s gushing remembrances. Athletes generally seem uneasy with close attention when they’re in civilian clothes. They’re vulnerable and suspicious, almost as if a prank or scam is forthcoming.

I told Cubbage about the most exciting game I ever saw, and offered a few details, reminding him that he was the manager of the Mets. I added a few other names to jog his memory: Mitch Cook, Stan Jefferson, Joe Redfield. I’ve discovered over the years of covering baseball that the best way to get reticent athletes talking, especially retired ones, is simply to throw some names at them. Every name will trigger some memory, and ballplayers’ memories tend to be surprisingly accurate. Cubbage remembered which Lynchburg Mets were on the team in which year (he managed Lynchburg in 1984 and 1985). He had something to say not only about every player whose name I mentioned, but also about some he remembered himself, without my prompts. Most of the comments were short, and in generic scout-speak (“good player” … “quick bat” … “good glove”…), but he had one for everyone.

Cubbage remembered the game, a little. Didn’t we have a couple of guys thrown out home trying to score wild pitches or passed balls? Not exactly, I said: Todd Lamb, the Bulls pinch-running pitcher, had almost been thrown out on such a play, but his slide into home jarred the ball loose from Lynchburg catcher Barry Lyons’s mitt.

Cubbage did remember that he had his scheduled starting pitcher for the next night’s game (technically, by that hour, the same night’s game) warming up in the bullpen around the time the seventeen-inning game ended. Cubbage had run out of relievers, so he was going to be forced to use the game three starter in relief in the deep extra innings of game two. Who was Cubbage going to use in game three if he’d to use his starter in game two? He didn’t know, and he was glad he didn’t have to figure it out. He was just trying to get through the game. I said it must have been something of a relief when the Bulls scored in the bottom of the seventeenth to end it, keeping Cubbage from having to use that starter.

No, Cubbage said, we won that game, not the Bulls. He told me I should go back and check. I told him that it was funny he remembered it that way, because so did Bulls shortstop Chip Childress, who in fact scored the winning run — for Durham. Cubbage didn’t believe me. I told him that I had gone back and checked, on microfilm at the library, and the Bulls had won, 8-7. The Bulls won? Cubbage said. Yes, the Bulls won. You won the next night, I explained, and the night after that, and won the championship.

Cubbage thought this over for a second or two, and it all seemed to click into place on his face.

He said, You should go back and check.

The Tampa Bay Rays guy on the other side of Cubbage asked him a question, and Cubbage turned away from me to answer him. The conversation was over. I walked away. I looked around for Charlie Montoyo. There he was, on the field, the Bulls’ forty-eight-year-old manager, in his full batting practice uniform, playing catch with one of his coaches. And I thought, These guys never, ever quit, do they?

One Comment on “Back in Time, Postscript: The Resistance of Memory

  1. This story got me curious to test your memory a bit to see if you recall what Mike Yastrzemski’s jersey number was when he played for Durham in 1984?

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