Lou's Last Pitch
This is a story about a baseball man. His name is Lou Haneles. He's 82 years old, lives along a canal in Kendale Lakes, and is married to a lovely woman named Evelyn. Back in the old days he possessed strong arms and reflexes so quick he could hit a baseball hurtling toward him at 90 miles per hour. These gifts helped him play baseball in the Eastern League, at that time only a short step below the majors.
And that's as far as he got. Like the careers of most people who've played professional baseball, his ended early, at age 23. His friends back in the Bronx encouraged him to abandon the game to get a real job. He took their advice, but he never took to the real job, working as a construction carpenter. He vowed to stay in his sport.
Within a year, and with only a few dollars to his name, he bluffed his way into owning a minor league team in North Carolina. He and a partner opened some baseball skills camps to teach the fundamentals to suburban kids in New Jersey and Connecticut. The camps prospered in a modest way and enabled him to branch out to other ventures. He bought a few more minor league teams. He opened a few more camps. For a time he owned the Miami Tropics of the second-tier United States Basketball League. He eventually divested himself of that team, and of the baseball teams, too. The sports camps still exist, and they help him live a comfortable-enough life for a man his age. He plays racquetball almost every morning. There's plenty of food in the house, which he has owned for 25 years.
Baseball remains in his blood, though, even at this late stage in life. He talks about the game every day, to almost everyone he meets. Many afternoons, sitting at a wooden table on his back porch, he scrawls vituperative letters to major league players -- bums, he calls them -- he accuses of having forgotten how fortunate they are to earn a living in the game. He counsels young athletes playing basketball or soccer to switch to his preferred sport. He also keeps his eye peeled for talent that may have been overlooked by baseball scouts. That's how he found Raul Hernandez, his latest prospect, his newest purpose.
Hernandez is the owner of a Mobil gas station in Kendall. Haneles likes the man for his gas, sure, especially because he receives an exclusive "baseball" discount on every fillup. Haneles likes him more because, in his mind, at least, Hernandez is the best baseball player on the planet.
Haneles discovered the pitching phenom by chance. Actually, it was Evelyn who first met Hernandez at the Mobil station. She was pumping gas into her car when Hernandez started talking about his favorite sport. He said he was a pitcher. She went home and told her husband. Within minutes Lou Haneles was at the gas station to gauge the quality of Hernandez's stuff.
They walked over to the side of the station, Hernandez wearing his work shirt and blue pants. A grease monkey from the garage agreed to catch. Through warmups, the pop of the ball in the mitt harmonized with the ding-ding of cars pulling up to the pumps. Hernandez threw his slider. He threw his fastball. By not cracking his wrist during delivery, he made a third pitch juke and jive in a screwball.
"I'm telling you, the man has control!" Haneles says of the performance. "He'd tell the catcher to put his glove down near the ground and the ball would land perfectly in the pocket. Raul'd have the glove moved up a foot and to the left and he'd still fire the ball right in there. With control like that, you don't need to be overpowering; you just need to be smart." Haneles stops for a moment. His eyes twinkle as he considers a faraway vision. "I left there that day convinced that Raul Hernandez could be the smartest pitcher, the best pitcher, to ever play the game. Ever."
Something should probably be clarified right now. Raul Hernandez is 59 years old. If this age doesn't immediately set off alarms, consider this context: The oldest player in the major leagues, Dennis Eckersley, is 44. The average age is 29. The pitcher whose motion Hernandez emulates, Gaylord Perry, was known as "the Ancient Mariner" before he retired at age 45.
It is inherently illogical that Hernandez can pitch in the majors, nor at any other level of the pros. When Haneles talks about his prospect -- gushes is a better way to describe it -- he slides farther out on baseball's gadfly fringe. After all, as a failed minor leaguer, he has to know all about the torturously long road to the top. Yet Haneles simply dismisses what seems obvious to everyone else. "Most players don't realize how easy it is to get to the majors," he says. "I'm telling you, it's so much easier than it looks."
It helps that Hernandez agrees. "People seem to believe that a person my age pitching in the major leagues is an impossibility," Hernandez says. He is wearing his blue work shirt, emblazoned with the Mobil logo, two ballpoint pens at the ready in his pocket. His hair is steel gray. "The truth is, I can pitch anywhere, against anybody. It's hard to swallow that a guy nearly 60 years old can pitch so well, but some people are exceptional."
Some men are born into baseball. Their fathers played the game, perhaps, and laid an infielder's glove in the crib. Lou Haneles is a baseball man of the self-made variety. His father showed no interest in the sport, yet Haneles still swooned over its subtle complexity. Once he discovered an aptitude, well, that was it.
"I guess ever since he's been a little boy Lou has dreamed of becoming a major leaguer," says Evelyn. "It's the second love of his life; I'd like to think I'm the first, but that's being a little presumptuous. Really, baseball is the first. Baseball was in his mind before he ever met me. It's always been the love of his life."
He floundered on his team at the Bronx's James Monroe High, the alma mater of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. A fine arm, they said of Haneles, but not very fast and no bat whatsoever. His coach at the City College of New York solved that last problem, pointing out that Haneles gripped the bat in an awkward, cross-handed manner that prevented him from swinging with any power. "All through high school nobody told me this," Haneles recalls bitterly. "I had no guidance." As soon as he uncrossed his hands he unleashed his power. Good power. Good enough to make him a star.
While still in college, Haneles signed with the Boston Braves, reporting to their top minor league team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (To retain his college eligibility, he played under a pseudonym, Lou Barron.) He earned a release from the organization by improbably holding out for more money on his contract, an absolute no-no in organized baseball circa 1938. After he finished college, the New York Giants picked him up, then cut him. He went on to play for a farm team affiliated with the Washington Senators. Looking back, he describes his playing career as a succession of bad breaks, some literal: A busted finger blocked a late-season promotion he'd been expecting from the Senators. What-ifs and almosts still haunt Haneles 60 years later.
What separates him from the legion of other baseball also-rans is his determination to channel his frustrations into quixotic crusades. And these crusades include more than just the championing of 59-year-old pitchers. A few years ago he tried to organize a minor league players' union. No players dared join, in part for fear of offending the major league clubs that control their fate. Last year he endeavored to end what he considers baseball's greatest remaining discrimination: the blacklisting of left-handed catchers.
Not surprisingly, Haneles played catcher left-handed. When injuries felled the two catchers on his CCNY team, Haneles's coach ordered him to abandon first base and crouch behind the plate.
These days almost every catcher throws with his right hand and catches with his left. So few lefties catch that it's almost impossible to find a glove designed for the right hand, which further shrinks the potential pool. But Haneles insists left-handers are better equipped as backstops. Most pitchers, he notes, are right-handed, and their curve ball spins toward a left-hander's mitt rather than away. A lefty also has an easier time throwing to first base, though most catchers in the major leagues (all right-handers) have little problem with this transaction. And if the batter is right-handed (most are), a lefty catcher might be obstructed when throwing to second, which is the most important play a catcher makes.
Haneles doesn't see things this way.
"High School, College, Major and Minor League Managers: I can't believe you're so stupid you cannot see the advantage of a left-handed catcher," he scolded in a homemade press release distributed to sports writers at every major paper in America. "Before I die (as we all must), I want every left-handed thrower in the world who loves to catch to get that chance," he continued. "As my last contribution to baseball, I'd be willing to demonstrate for anybody that the left-handed catcher was made for baseball.... I hope baseball obliterates this shameful left-hander discrimination willingly rather than the way they reluctantly allowed blacks in baseball."
Counting printing and mailing costs, Haneles spent more than $2000 to disseminate his message, he says. For all that cash he didn't exactly let loose the shackles on persecuted left-handers everywhere. A columnist for an Atlanta paper spent three sentences on Haneles's campaign. A reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise in Texas wrote a story that ran on the front page of his sports section, illustrated with a picture of New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who is right-handed. The article quoted scouts and coaches who seem unconcerned that right-handers have a monopoly on the catcher's position. A left-handed athlete with a good arm, goes the conventional wisdom, is more valuable on the mound than behind the plate.
Haneles smiles when reminded of the Beaumont article. His straight teeth meet at an odd angle, making his jaw appear out of joint. "It's something," he says of the writeup. "It's progress." The press release was supposed to be Haneles's final crusade before he died. "MY LAST HURRAH AT 81!" shouts the boldface headline at the top of the release. Thinking about it, he smiles again. Then he laughs. "I just turned 82 last month," he says.
"His father wasn't interested in baseball," Evelyn recalls. "He felt if only he'd had someone to help him and be proud of him he would have been more successful. That's why with his camps he's trying to help young boys realize their ambition. He's always loved the game and always enjoyed working with young boys. He tries to help them."
The camps are held during the summer on college campuses in New Jersey and on Long Island. Prominent major leaguers such as the Yankees' Bernie Williams and the Texas Rangers' Todd Stottlemyer swung through as little leaguers. Haneles no longer handles day-to-day operations at these camps, though he and his wife still travel north every year to help out. In the winter they help manage the Florida Professional Baseball School in Fort Pierce, which is aimed primarily at college teams from outside the state.
Evelyn signed on to the camps and the summers in minor league cities when she married Lou in 1945. She was a legal secretary working for her father when she met Haneles at a neighborhood dance. He was with a date, yet she still worked up the nerve to hand him her telephone number. "I often think about how my whole life would have been very different if I hadn't caught him just before he walked out the door," she muses. Soon they brought two children into the world. The first was a beautiful, bright girl named Ellen, born in 1946. Following her, in 1951, came a son named Jeffrey. There were complications as soon as Jeffrey was delivered.
Early in her second pregnancy, Evelyn came down with bronchitis. "The doctor told me I should probably just stay home and rest," she recollects. "But then he found out I had insurance and he told me to come down to the hospital for some tests." One of those tests was an X-ray. "I told the doctor that I was pregnant," Evelyn continues. "I said that I didn't think I should be X-rayed if I was pregnant. He told me not to worry, that it was no big deal. You know how doctors can be sometimes."
Less than 48 hours after Jeffrey's birth, doctors performed major surgery to correct a problem with the baby's digestive system. Haneles says the physical trauma from the surgery left the infant severely mentally retarded. "He was such a sweet young fella," Evelyn recalls. "He had nice-looking curly strawberry-blonde hair. He was just the sweetest boy."
Jeffrey's condition required enormous amounts of attention. Haneles did what he could to restore his son to health. "I put him on an all-carrot-juice diet to see if that would help," he says. "I had him eating good foods, but that didn't seem to work. I heard about a chiropractor in Denver who might be able to help him out, so I drove all the way out there with Jeffrey. When we got there, I saw these supposed doctors drinking and smoking and eating junk food and I knew they didn't know how to make his body healthy."
The Haneleses raised Jeffrey at home for as long as they could. In the past few years, he lived during the week at a special school 40 miles away. Every weekend his parents picked him up and drove him home. When they went on vacations, he went too. Jeffrey traveled to Missouri, to California, and to Las Vegas. At a minor league baseball game in Pompano Beach, Jeffrey sat in the stands applauding the players on the field. Like his father, he loved baseball.
"I know that if he had been a well person he would have been a ballplayer," Evelyn says. "Lou would have seen to it. That's what makes Lou so depressed. He would have worked with him and tried to help him make it to the major leagues."
Last December, while he rested at home with his parents, Jeffrey died of heart failure brought on by his condition. He was 46 years old. "He died not a year ago," Evelyn says. "It is still very fresh in my mind, so painful. We don't talk about it. Lou doesn't ever mention it and he tries not to bring it up. When I cry I go into my room so he doesn't see me."
When Evelyn mentions Jeffrey's name, Lou attempts to steer the conversation back to baseball, to the World Series or perhaps to a batter's need to plant his weight on his back foot instead of his front. His avoidance is awkward, as is his smile, which seems exaggerated and nervous. He stares at his feet.
"Are you religious?" he asks finally. "I used to be religious. I remember in college I would never swear or take the Lord's name in vain. Now I say goddamn it. So what? No God would have let our son be born that way and Evelyn knows it. And no God would have taken our son away like that. After what we've been through in the past year, I don't know how I can say that there is a God."
The greatest undiscovered pitcher in the game of baseball warms up on the sidelines of Flamingo Field in Miami Beach. The pastel pink and yellow crowns of Art Deco hotels peak over the trees ringing the park. Raul Hernandez sees only the leather mitt of his catcher, who is squatting on a patch of grass some 60 feet away. He wipes his forehead with his wrist, then digs his cleats into the turf. Winding through a motion that was more common in the major leagues twenty years ago, he rears back and kicks his left leg high. He thrusts his arms down behind his right leg, hiding the ball. The release comes in a smooth movement as he shifts his weight onto his left leg. When he lands on the leg this afternoon, though, he winces. Not good.
Haneles watches the warmup from a perch near the field's chainlink backstop. Standing in the sun, he looks the part of a Miami Beach retiree. Khaki socks match khaki shorts. His sneakers are generic black. His eyes are protected by a pair of all-eclipsing sunglasses that extend nearly to his hairline. Shading his whole face is the brim of a battered black cap advertising his New Jersey camp. When Hernandez winces, Haneles winces too.
Today was going to be Hernandez's coming-out party, his media debut. Haneles's previous attempts to draw attention from the Miami Herald or from the general managers of major league clubs have all failed. Most discouragingly, perfunctory letters came from a certain local club that lost more than 108 games this year, the teal team of former world champions now known officially as the worst organization in baseball.
"I wrote one letter to Jim Leyland [former Florida Marlins manager]. He never wrote me back," Haneles grumbles. "I've written letters to David Dombrowski [the club's general manager] for more than three years, where I told him he'd be stupid not to bring Raul onto his team. I mean, Raul is the smartest man in the game of baseball."
Dombrowski, who has his own reputation for intelligence, doesn't necessarily disagree. In his correspondence with Haneles, though, he tends to focus on Hernandez's advancing age:
May 19, 1998
Thank you once again for your recent letter in regards to Raul Hernandez.
Lou, as previously mentioned to you, our organization has tried to build with younger players that will be with us in 2002. Unfortunately, Raul does not fit this description, so our organization is not interested in trying to sign him. However, we appreciate your continued interest in bringing his name to our attention, and if we have any change in thought, we will be in contact with you.
"They told me he's too old," Haneles says. "Okay, granted, that makes sense. But they got twelve pitchers on the team. You mean to tell me they couldn't use Raul in one of their twelve positions? Not only is he probably the best pitcher throwing today, he also would be a great draw. Come on, the guy's from Cuba. Think about it!"
Today Hernandez's own club is the one that needs him. His Yankees are suffering a rout at the hands of the Braves, another team in the over-30 Miami Senior Baseball League. Simple popups into shallow right field are dropping between three confused Yankee fielders. The Braves knocked the Yankees' starting pitcher out in the first inning. The reliever has fared little better. Line drives are landing all over the place, allowing Braves to score seemingly at will.
Hernandez is usually on the mound. He'd be there now except that a couple of days ago, as he tried to move a heavy air conditioner, he slipped and injured his leg. Nothing broken, fortunately, but he's walking with a limp. His resolve to sit out the game, his first missed start in months, disappeared about the time the Braves scored their sixth run.
"My advice to him is not to push it," Haneles cautions. "Otherwise he'll hurt his arm. It's just like Dizzy Dean when he played for the Cubs. He hurt a toe on his right foot, yet he still tried to pitch. He overcompensated by turning his shoulder too much and threw out his arm. I don't want that to happen to Raul."
After a few more weak overhand tosses, Hernandez realizes the wisdom of Haneles's advice. Stepping gingerly on his gimpy leg, he pulls off his glove and tosses it into the dugout. He looks over at Haneles and wags his index finger back and forth. He can't take the mound. Potentially the best pitcher in the history of the game takes a seat on the bench.
Haneles stands behind the backstop, staring out at the field. He is silent as the sounds of the game come to him: cleats scuffing infield dirt, the ping of an aluminum bat. His posture speaks of disappointment but his words are encouraging. There is a chance Hernandez could be ready next week for a game in Homestead. If not that Sunday, then in two weeks for sure. There will still be an opportunity for him to display his talents, Haneles says, smiling. He still has faith.
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