Golden Gate Park
“What the hell happened to you?”
Marino Paretti stood, arms crossed, fixing Conor with a curious stare. Conor had become accustomed to mound visits from coaches and teammates advising him through his struggles. This was a first, though.
Marino managed the other team.
The play at first base had been close, but not that close. Paretti charged from his dugout, alleged his runner beat the throw, kicked a little dirt, and, instead of returning to his own dugout, walked to the mound.
“Um … hi, Marino. I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.”
“I knew my guy was out,” Marino said. “I needed an excuse to talk with you. Last time I saw you pitch, you killed us. Like I said, what the hell happened?”
A baseball legend around the Bay, Marino Paretti had once been Billy Martin’s roommate when he and Martin played for the San Francisco Seals. For as long as Conor could remember, Paretti managed teams made up mostly of players from the University of San Francisco baseball squads during the Golden Gate Park League’s winter season.
On more than one occasion, that league was the salvation of Conor Nash’s pitching career. People called it a Sunday beer league. Indeed, guys gathered below the bridge and shared a beer or two after the game. That image, though, vastly diminished the league’s true stature.
Most area universities teams played there during the winter. In an era before major league teams formed working relationship with Caribbean and Mexican League squads and sent players south of the border for winter ball, professionals kept their skills sharp through the off-season where ever they could.
For Northern California, that place was the Golden Gate Park League.
Conor’s first season there was the winter of his freshman year at Cañada. He pitched for the San Mateo Loggers, easily the league’s worst team. They went 0-22. Conor started every game and took every loss. Rosters of the other teams included names like Dennis Eckersley, Mike Norris, Willie McGee, Ricky Henderson—all local kids who, like Conor, aspired to the majors.
Lloyd Christopher, the Angels scout who signed Conor a year later, attended most of those games. Conor feared Christopher would lose interest. Christopher, though, did not become discouraged. “I saw you grow up that winter,” Christopher told him later. “That experience fostered a maturity I hadn’t seen before. Smart guys learn when they suffer.”
Conor stared into the searching eyes of Marino Paretti, then scuffed at the pitching rubber with his shoe. “It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Well … I had a pitching coach who messed with me and—”
“Which pitching coach?”
“Wilbur Spalding is the minor league pitching coordinator for—”
“Stop,” Paretti said, raising his palm like a traffic cop. “Just stop right there. You don’t need to say anything else.”
“You know Spaldy?” Conor asked.
“Yeah, I know him.”
“I guess you could say he and I had issues.”
“Yeah, you and about a thousand other people on this planet.”
Over Paretti’s shoulder, Conor saw the home plate umpire striding toward them.
During his exchange with Paretti, Conor had shut out the ballpark noise around them. Now, though, he heard the leather-lunged bellows from the stands behind home plate.
“Get off the field, Paretti! Go back where you belong, old man! You don’t know anything, anyway! You’re the worst …”
“Marino, what are you doing here?” the umpire asked.
“I’m having a conversation with Mr. Nash, if it’s any of your business.”
“Conversation’s over,” the umpire ordered. “We got a game going here.”
“Talk to me after,” Paretti said, squeezing Conor’s shoulder for emphasis.
“Get off the field, ya’ bum! Quit bothering the kid! Get off the field!
“Goddam,” Paretti said. “That old broad’s been on my case the whole fuckin’ game.”
“I know,” Conor said. “That’s my Aunti Di. She hates University of San Francisco sports teams. And she doesn’t like you much, either.”
Paretti laughed, turned toward his bench and yelled over his shoulder, “Shut up, you old bag! Get back in the kitchen!”
* * *
“First of all,” Paretti said as the grounds crew raked and watered and players headed for the parking lot, “you’re giving Spalding too much credit. I didn’t like the guy. And I’ve heard stories about his limitations as a pitching coach. But he got in your head because you let him do it. You have to accept your responsibility for this and stop blaming anyone else. Because if you broke it, you can fix it. Now, here’s what I remember about your mechanics and the way you used to throw…”