Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Horse That Was a Bird



(Reprinted from PopKrazy)


It’s been a hell of a fertile period for the Grim Reaper, Pop Cult Dept, (in my movie, that part is played by Larry Blyden), with a run that included Alex Chilton, T-Bone Wolk, and Johnny Maestro along with Dixie Carter, Fess Parker, Robert Culp, and John Forsyth, never mind Meinhardt Rabbe, the munchkin crooner from The Wizard of Oz, and Malcolm McLaren, that genuine force of nature. Wow, knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out. Yet, when the brimstone stench dissipated, the semi-celeb’s loss I felt most tenderly was a sports figure from my baseball-crazed pre-adolescence, pitcher Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles.

As an eleven-year old in the summer of 1967, I made the full transformation into rabid Red Sox fan, following the ups down of that “Impossible Dream” season, all the while transfixed by the day-to-day heroics of Carl Yastrzemski, the one and only Yaz. Like most baseball obsessives, I also underwent a quickie education about the sport, reading dusty book after book about the glories of baseball past, and digging into the sports page as soon as my father put the paper down each evening, and even going out and buying the up-to-date baseball guides available at the local newsstands. Eventually familiarizing myself with the starting line-ups of nearly every major league team, I also
learned that it was acceptable, at least for the sophisticated fan, to root for other cool daddy ballplayers that didn’t necessarily play for the home team.

Baltimore was a powerhouse in the late 60’s and early 70’s, with a kooky, colorful manager in Earl Weaver and a team made up of the Robinsons (non-brothers and future Hall of Famers Brooks and Frank), a batch of other intriguing characters (Boog Powell, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson), and quite possibly the best starting pitching staff in the American League, with Mike Cuellar as one of its stalwarts.

Cuellar, Cuban born (Miguel Angel Cuellar Santana), was a crafty lefty, not a typical flame-thrower, known for his screwball and changeup, and given the wonderful moniker, Crazy Horse. He, after starting in the Cinnacinati Reds system, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and then to the Houston Astros (where, in 1967, he did win 16 games and make the All-Star team), before winding up in Baltimore in 1969, and staying until 1976, after which he was traded to the Angels before leaving the game after a fifteen season career.

In his eight years with the Orioles he won 23 games in ’69, 24 in ’70, 20 in ’71, 18 in ‘72 & ‘73, and 22 in 74, made three more All-Star teams, and shared the coveted Cy Young Award in 1969 with the Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain. As a kid, I was fascinated with both his mess-with-your-head array of pitches, his impenetrable pitcher’s stare, and (it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, dig?) his non-white-guy look. Noted tribal leader and kneecap Napoleon Billy Martin said of Cuellar, “His fastball couldn’t blacken my eye, but he owned the batters’ minds.”

As a Red Sox fan, I simply couldn’t root for the Yankees, but as a baseball fan I felt that one had to route for the American League rather than the National League, in both All Star and World Series games, and I found it rather easy to, once the Sox were out of the picture, to get behind the Orioles as they made their way to the play-offs and every year (except for ‘72) from 1969-1974, and onto the Series in ‘69, ‘ 70, and ‘71.

Of course Mike Cuellars’s biggest claim to pop culture longevity was and shall remain, as one of the answers to one of the perennially great baseball trivia questions : Only two teams in baseball have boasted four 20 game winners, one of them being the 1920 Chicago White Sox , and the other being the 1971 Orioles. Name the four pitchers. Don’t even contemplate sitting at the Baseball Elders Table if you can’t snap off that answer: Dave McNally (21-5), Jim Palmer (20-9), Pat Dobson (20-8), and Mr. Crazy Horse himself, Mike Cuellar (20-9). All but Palmer are dead and gone now, co-co-ca-chooing with jilted Joe DiMaggio.