March, 1961, at the old Phoenix Municipal Stadium. I was hanging around the Giants bullpen down the left field line. It was Easter week—for my family, that meant Spring Training. It was the closest we had to religion.
A couple of rookies were stretching: Chuck Hiller and Tom Haller. Haller, we all knew; he was huge, bonus baby, a quarterback at Illinois. Hiller was less-known, but both of them were hitting .400 against Cactus League pitching. Hiller started to do sit-ups.
“Hey,” he said, “you want to help me here?” I vaulted the fence, tossed my glove on the perfect green grass, and knelt at his feet—holding them down to make his exertions worth it. I didn’t yet know the expression “died and gone to heaven,” but that’s how I felt. I was nine (almost ten, I told people). Could there be a better job for a little league second baseman?
We were at the ballpark everyday. In those days, you bumped into players at night at regular restaurants, and at miniature golf courses. Two years before, during a rainy game in Scottsdale, we left early, and there was Orlando Cepeda out in the parking lot, also leaving early. We offered him a ride back to Phoenix and that was the beginning of a family friendship, including meals and parties at his apartment on Irving Street and at our house, too, in the suburbs. At one of my high school reunions, maybe my 30th, I walked up to someone and he turned to his wife and said: “This is the Orlando Cepeda guy!”
I was wearing my home-made Giants uniform, as I did every day that week, laboriously sewed by mom who was not enamored of sewing. But she did it, home-whites, with a black 30 on the back, as Orlando was my favorite player. My mom was the one who had taught me long division as we listened to the scores come in each evening on the old KSFO, and as we updated the National League standings, in pen. We did batting averages, too, of course, and even the complicated E.R.A.
Back in Phoenix, another young baseball rat—a local kid—and I spent the game talking with the bullpen guys, especially the catchers: Haller, and John “The Horse” Orsino. Orsino was the most talkative, and my sister, a few years older than me, had a serious crush on him. My other sister, the oldest of us, had always adored little Hobie Landrith—her teddy bear was named “Hobie”—my sisters, the catcher-lovers.
Late in the game, the regulars long since back at the Adams Hotel, the bases were loaded for Haller. When he crushed a grand slam over the right field fence, my new friend and I hugged and danced as if we had just won the pennant.
Sometime in the early ‘90s, I ran into Orlando—I hadn’t seen him in years. This was after his prison time on the marijuana charges, and before his election to the Hall of Fame, and when we saw each other he asked what’d I’d been doing since I was a kid. I said I’d become a criminal defense lawyer. He smiled—big, big smile—and said, “Too late, man, too late.”