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Grip on Sports: Steve Garvey’s return to Spokane spurred memories

Sun., July 13, 2014

Former Spokane Indian Steve Garvey’s return afforded many a trip down memory lane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Former Spokane Indian Steve Garvey’s return afforded many a trip down memory lane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Thursday: Steve Garvey threw out the first pitch at the Spokane Indians game last night, wearing a 2014 Indians jersey even though his eldest son, Ryan, was in the visitors dugout, a member of the Tri-City Dust Devils. And if that doesn’t make you feel ancient, then you must be under 30.

Garvey’s smiling mug, which was all over the television news and the newspaper this morning, made me feel ancient. And also reminded me of Dorian Gray. You know, the Oscar Wilde character who never aged, though the portrait in his home did. Garvey looks almost the same as he did when he manned first base for the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series. Or the 1977 Series. Or even the 1978 and 1981 ones. That’s how I remember him.

Yes, Garvey was part of the greatest minor league baseball team ever, the 1970 Spokane Indians. (In 1993, Baseball America characterized the team as the best minor league team in the second half of the 20th century.) Garvey hit .319 that year, belting 15 home runs and driving in 87 in 95 games. He played third base and had 26 errors, most of them coming on throws that might have ended up in Hillyard for all I know.

See, Garvey had an arm that could be only described as scattershot. That’s why, when he came up to the Dodgers in 1971, the word around my neighborhood was, if you wanted a major league baseball, sit behind first base. Lower deck, upper deck, it didn’t matter. Garvey might throw you one. It’s also why Garvey, listed at 5-foot-10, was moved to first base by Tommy Lasorda.

It ensured a lineup spot for Ron Cey, sure, but it also got Garvey’s bat in the lineup and eased the former Michigan State defensive back’s mind a bit. And Garvey became a heck of a first baseman, even coming up with a way to add a couple inches on his height. I learned his little secret in 1982, when I made a September road trip with the Dodgers to Cincinnati and Atlanta, covering the team for the Orange County Register.

It was my one and only experience on the road with a major league baseball team and I made sure to live it to the fullest. I ate Italian food at 1 in the morning in Cincy with Lasorda at a hole-in-the-block restaurant that stayed open just for him. I drank until the sun came up in Atlanta with another reporter and a couple umpires, including Joe West, in an after-hours club that West held membership in. I locked myself out of my Atlanta hotel room in only my underwear and Pedro Guerrero helped me get a key.

I talked Legion baseball in the bowels of Fulton County Stadium with Atlanta reliever Al Hrabosky. The Mad Hungarian had attended Anaheim’s Savanna High, whose Legion team I had coached the past two summers. And I spent the entire flight back from Atlanta chatting with Garvey, who explained to me he put his heels on the bag at first when he set up to catch a throw. That added 2 inches to his height and made him a bigger target.

It must have worked, because, despite his height, Garvey, the 1974 National League MVP, won four consecutive Golden Gloves in the mid-’70s. By the way, that road trip was one of Garvey’s last with the Dodgers. At the end of 1982, he became a free agent and moved down the road to San Diego. He helped the Padres to the 1984 World Series and is one of a select number of baseball players who has had his number retired by two teams.

But what I really remember about Steve Garvey was how nice he was to my wife at L.A. International that long-ago September day. As we got off the plane, Kim was at the gate to meet us (see, it was a long time ago). And I introduced her to her favorite Dodger. Garvey made her feel like the most important person in the world. She hasn’t forgotten. When I said last night I was going to write about my interactions with him this morning, Kim immediately said, “Don’t forget to mention I held his coat,” while we waited for our luggage. Yes, she did. As I recall, I had to hold my own.

It seems like a million years ago.

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