It barely seemed possible. MVP Books, publisher of Giants Past and Present, also published last year Juan Marichal: My Life From the Dominican Republic to the Hall of Fame. And now they had an offer: Would I like to do a book event with Juan Marichal?
It did not take me long to agree to that. We set it for this past Friday, following the Giants’ home opener – 6 pm at the Barnes and Noble in Emeryville. And there was one more request: Could I give Juan a ride to the event?
The stage was set for a magical afternoon. I immediately bought three tickets for the opener, in the left field upper deck. I needed to figure out how I would connect with Juan. It would have to be in an area accessible to the public, since I do not hold a media credential that would get me to his seats. As it happened, I do have a favorite place to meet people outside AT&T Park, one far less crowded than the Willie Mays statue.
The Juan Marichal statue.
How many living people have statues erected in their honor? I had visions of posing for pictures with 75-year-old Juan Marichal, next to the statue of 25-year-old Juan Marichal. Juan with his feet on the ground, Juan with his leg virtually vertical.
Of course, I knew it couldn’t happen that way, and Juan confirmed it: He said he couldn’t go to the statue after the game, or the crowd would never let him get away from it.
Somehow, I maneuvered my car to the gate next to the statue (making a dubious left turn past a sleeping traffic officer at Parking Lot A), and waited. Juan and his wife, Alma emerged, along with Gaylord Perry and his wife. I was able to escort Juan into the car, and head into what I feared was going to be a traffic nightmare. But fortunately, we made it to the Bay Bridge easily enough and were in Emeryville in short order.
It was amazing how easy it was to talk to Juan. We asked him all kinds of questions, and he just let the stories spill out: About the 16-inning shutout he pitched against Warren Spahn, about his 54 shutouts, about his 244 complete games. About players in the steroid era, about modern five man rotations and deep bullpens and pitch counts.
Before I knew it, we were in Emeryville. About 60 people came to the store, and Juan fielded a wide variety of questions. His answers ranged from inside baseball stories, to poignant life lessons.
Some of the highlights:
• On the 16-inning game: “After nine innings, my manager, Alvin Dark, told me that’s it, you’re done. I said, I am not coming out of this game. After 14 innings, he said, that’s it, now you’re done. I said, ‘Do you see that guy on that mound there?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘That guy is 42 years old. I’m 25 years old. I’m not coming out until he comes out. No one is taking that ball away from me.’ That was really dumb!’”
Finally, after the 15th inning, Marichal said to Willie Mays, “Chico” – because Mays called everybody “Chico,” Marichal called him that as well – “I don’t know how much longer I can go!” Mays told him, “Don’t worry, Chico, I’ll win this for you.” And then, with one out in the 16th inning, Mays blasted a solo home run to win the game, 1-0.
Marichal had thrown 227 pitches. After that game, he said, “That was the only time in my career I did not have to make my next start on three days rest. I got four days.” A few years later, he said, he pitched a 14-inning shutout, only to lose to the Mets on a Tommie Agee home run.
• My friend Susan Hutcher asked a great question, and Marichal gave a tremendous answer. She wanted to know how a pitcher can remain calm, when all eyes are on him. Such pressure must be nerve-wracking. The answer: “Confidence,” Marichal said. And he told this story. “When Barry Bonds played for the Giants, I used to see other managers walk him when there were no outs, or walk him with the bases loaded. They’d rather let one run score than four runs. If a manager ever told me to walk someone with no outs, or with the bases loaded, I’d have given him the ball and said, ‘You do it.’ I’m out there to try to get hitters out.”
• The Giants fans at the bookstore, myself included, had a good time hooting and jeering a Dodger fan who showed up, but Juan calmed the crowd down. “I finished my career with the Dodgers,” he said. When he joined the Dodgers, Johnny Roseboro called a press conference and told everyone to welcome him to the team. He told how he and Roseboro became lifelong friends, and Roseboro came to visit him in the Dominican Republic.
• Marichal thinks teams baby their pitchers today because they pay them so much money. “Justin Verlander signed a contract for $180 million. They want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.” Why didn’t Marichal get hurt? He felt that throwing so many pitches made his arm stronger. In his words: “I threw a lot of rocks as a kid.”
• As a pitcher who claims to have hit .500 — 11 for 22 — with runners in scoring position — Marichal must hate the designated hitter, right? Wrong! “We had Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, and had to trade Orlando because we couldn’t play both of them, and he won the MVP,” Marichal said. “I would have let one of those guys hit for me.”
• When he was called up to the Giants, Marichal had just pitched a great game in Sacramento for AAA Tacoma, and was ready to go to the AAA All-Star Game, where participants would be given a watch. “I was excited to be called up, but sad that I wouldn’t get the watch,” he said. Orlando Cepeda introduced him to his new teammates. He couldn’t believe he was shaking hands with Willie Mays. “It was my privilege to play with the greatest player of all time, Willie Mays,” he said.
• As the event was winding down, and Juan signed the last of the books, a group of young men in green LOMA sweatshirts sidled over. It was the baseball team from Point Loma College in San Diego County. Juan graciously stood and chatted with them for 20 minutes. “Nothing is impossible,” he told them. “I came from Laguna Verde in the Dominican Republic, to Santo Domingo, to Michigan City to Springfield [Mass.] to Tacoma to San Francisco to Cooperstown. If I can do that, anyone can do that. Nothing is impossible.”
If I can somehow find a way to write a book about the Giants, and they win two World Series, and my book goes into a third edition, and I get to spend a day with the greatest San Francisco Giants pitcher of all-time riding around in my car, telling baseball stories and selling books alongside me, then I have to agree with him: Nothing is impossible.