Sunday, May 3, 2009

The guy next door who also happened to manage the Tribe

I could write once again about how the Tribe's bullpen stinks and about how the season may once again be sabotaged by morale-deflating, late-inning losses night after night.

Or, I could go on ad nauseum about the Friday night overhaul and where those four new players are going to play (quick summary - La Porta and Valbuena are not on this team to sit on the bench).

But others in the blogosphere have touched those bases, most thoroughly at The DiaTribe, and with quite a bit of negativity at MVN.

My main thought is that it's a good thing the Tribe brass isn't watching with the same rose-colored glasses they seem to have donned last year - doing virtually nothing to shake things up or repair the holes before the air was out of the season.

Bottom line though, until they do something about the bullpen in the 7th or 8th inning, I don't think the changes will matter much. They may have to make a trade for a real, proven set-up man.

In the meantime (and they obviously can't do this every night, but they have to consider it at least a time or two per week) maybe they can go back to the old Sparky Lyle days and ask their closer to get 4 to 6 outs instead of just 3. No point in spending $10 million on the man so he can watch save opportunity after save opportunity disappear as he remains squarely on his backside on the bullpen lounge chair.

So let's go where I'd like to go today.

If the Tribe is going to continue to play like it's the early '80's, we might as well take a fond look back at the period, and the man who led the Tribe at the time.

He was the friendly older guy next door, and he was the Cleveland Indians manager.

I'm talking about Dave Garcia.

The New York Times today had a profile on Garcia, a guy the writer of the piece calls one of baseball's tribal elders.

Garcia - now 88 - has been in baseball since signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1937, when Rogers Hornsby was a player-manager for the team that is now - and has been for decades - the Baltimore Orioles.

Oddly, Garcia still works as a part-time scout for the Cubs although he can barely see these days due to the eye condition know as macular degeneration.

“I can’t see the ball leave the pitcher’s hand,” he told the Times. “I can’t see where the pitch is when it was hit. But for some reason, when it is hit, I can pick it up.”

Despite that seemingly major hurdle, Cubs front office official Gary Hughes tells the Times Garcia still has it when it comes to assessing opposing players.

“I just pick his brain, really. We talk about comparisons. He’s way more of a source than he thinks he is.”

Garcia lives in San Diego and goes to almost every Padres home game, checking out the players who come to town. According to the Times story he still gets to the park at 4:30 for every night game. Just like the days when he managed the Tribe - from 1979 through 1982.

That's where Garcia and I intersect.

Back in 1979, when Garcia took over the helm from Jeff Torborg about 100 games into the season, I was a young radio reporter who did news as my "real job" during the day and then covered the Tribe at night for my radio station in Painesville.

(Mostly I did it because I loved the game, loved the Tribe and could get a free meal in the press room and a free seat in the press box.)

Garcia had a grandfatherly way about him, patient with his players (many of questionable ability) and with young reporters who tend - on occasion- to ask stupid questions.

He also had a way with words, kind of like Yogi Berra without all the notoriety.

Back in Garcia's day, the mainstays on the club were Rick Manning, Duane Kuiper, Mike Hargrove and Andre Thornton. But his clubs over the years also had names like Ron Pruitt, Paul Dade, Mike Fischlin and Larry Milbourne - not to mention Bill Nohorodny.

The Orioles and Yankees were the class of the A.L. East during Garcia's tenure, and although the Tribe skipper kept his questionable team near .500 through his tenure (247-244 overall), he just couldn't keep up with the big boys.

At the end of the 1980 season (79-81) I happened into Garcia's tiny office at the old Cleveland Stadium after the last home game of the year. The usually chipper Garcia looked warn out and ready for an off-season rest back on the West Coast. No other reporters were in the office and we chatted a bit about the year.

In his best - unwitting - Yogi imitation, Garcia sighed, turned to me and - just as inadvertently - made a comment that sounded like a critique of his managing rather than the regrets about the state of the franchise at the time (which he had intend).

"You know," he said, "Here I am trying to match wits with Earl Weaver and Billy Martin - and I don't have anything to match them with."

I tried to suppress my smile, but it snuck to the surface anyway. It took a second, but Garcia realized the meaning of what he had just said, and we had a good laugh.

Garcia's post-game eating habits were a bit legendary with the young group of media types who covered the Tribe at the time.

He would often greet reporters with a sausage or hot dog in a bun, with ketsup, in one hand. And another - no bun and mustard - in the other hand. Not to mention the Fritos dipped in ketsup. Best of all, he'd chomp on one sausage or the other throughout the post-game interview, rendering most of his comments (at least for the radio guys) pretty much useless.

Garcia was then, and apparently still is, a man of simple tastes. Just like the older guy that lives next door.

I called him at his San Diego home late in the winter following his "matching wits" comment - to get an interview on the upcoming season.

His wife Carmen, in a friendly, older-lady-who-lives-next-door voice - explained,
"He's not here right now. He's at the grocery store. He should be home soon, he just went to get a few things." Sure enough about a half hour later- finished with his wife's "honey do" list - Garcia called back to talk about his favorite topic - baseball.

Dave still has his baseball (though it's more than a little fuzzy for him with his eye condition), but - as the Times report mentions - his wife Carmen has been gone a long time now.

But, as you might expect from Garcia, he told the Times he keeps his wife with him every day.

“In my home, I have 18 pictures of my wife, in every room except the bathroom. And I kiss that picture, 18 of them, every morning when I get up and every night when I go to bed. And I tell her something that happened that day."

That is the warm, friendly man I remember running the Tribe back when I was cutting my teeth as a journalist.

As I finish this post, the Tribe has struck out 9 times in 4 innings against Justin Verlander. Wasn't this pleasant memory of the Tribe's past better than going on about the troubles of the present?


Anonymous said...

nice story - hope you can find more stories to keep us interested for the next 6 months. No hits in four innnigs against ex-indian talbet - or whatever his name is.

wedge shaved his beard maybe that will help


Ron Vallo said...

actually it's only five more months now

JackBuehrer said...

Ron, great story! I had no idea you had such a history back home. Jack from Brooklyn here (formerly of mvn). did you make it to any of the tribe games at the new stadium? my company got me to the sunday game. saturday woulda been nice...

Ron Vallo said...

Hey Jack:

Spent my first 27 years in Cleveland, and have visited at least twice a year since.

I did make it to the Sunday game also. Our timing was one day off, I guess.

I went with two other Tribe fans in yankeeland, on their company's dime. Great seats if you are a millionaire.

Good to hear from you.

Keep checking back