It’s a quote that was supposed to be cleverly relevant to the “aging in baseball” chapter of my first book Stealing Greatness.
“We play the game because of the smell of the resin, or the horsehide the ball was made of, or the click of the bat, or running down a fly, throwing as far as you could, just the sheer pleasure of the game. I could still smell all that.”
I wrote this quote down in early 2009 and noted—for reasons that are now very mysterious to me—that they were spoken by pitcher Steve Carlton sometime during the weekend of his Hall of Fame induction in 1994. For me, Carlton uttering these words was a perfect explanation as to how this baseball legend hung around the game at least a year and a half too long, performing like a Triple-A pitcher as he searched for a fastball that had long left the ballpark. I was so cozy with it that I didn’t even think to wonder how peculiar it was for Carlton to utter something so verbose and eloquent after spending most of his career known as “Silent Steve.”
With my manuscript deep into the editing stage, I was just finishing up my bibliography when I realized I couldn’t locate the source of the quote anywhere! I was like that guy who couldn’t find his winning lottery ticket. I searched in vain through the hundreds of articles I had gathered throughout my book research. I paged through my entire bookshelf. Googling even parts of the phrase came up empty. I listened to Carlton’s HOF speech at baseballhalloffame.org, as well as several other induction-related interviews. No smell of resin anywhere.
I sent out a flare to the SABR crew (Society for American Baseball Research), relying on their email forum that’s used for exchanging research ideas and information. I was banking that the words might ring a bell with some of the game’s most respected historians. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Phil Collins, there was no reply at all. (Sorry, but this whole ‘citing sources’ issue has me paranoid.)
I found Carlton’s own website, with an “E-Mail Steve” link at the top. So I did, asking him, “Did you say this?”
“I may have,” he replied. He said it sounded familiar. I paid no attention to the part of my brain that reasoned that for all I knew, the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.
Then, being the rookie book writer that I am, I got a little anxious to put this matter to bed: I asked Super Steve if I could use the quote in his name.
“No, you may not,” he responded, reminding me that it was hardly an exact recollection on his part.
Ouch. The terseness of his electronically-generated words made me feel like I just got rapped on the knuckles with a yardstick by Sister Carmel Rose. What was I thinking? I can’t just tag someone’s name onto a quote if I wasn’t completely sure how it came about. Embarrassingly, it took a four-time Cy Young award winner (or a Peruvian woman, one or the other) to hammer home one of the first rules of publishing: verify your source!
Next, I pinged Philly sportswriter Bill Conlin. Surely the man most responsible for journalistically removing Carlton’s vocal cords back in the mid-’70s would remember such a sentimental, 49-word sound bite if it indeed came from the most dominant pitcher he had ever covered. He didn’t. Conlin was surprised to hear that Carlton answered my email. “Of course,” he reminded me, “For all you know the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.” I know Mr. Conlin, I know.
I thought I hit pay dirt after approaching the don of baseball statistics, Bill James. I posed my question on his “Hey Bill” Q&A forum. “It sounds like Field of Dreams,” he answered. It sure does! It’s got that sense of baseball nostalgia; I thought he nailed it. I immediately went to IMDB.com, dialed up the movie, clicked on “memorable quotes,” and found morsels like this one from the Shoeless Joe Jackson character: “I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet…Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game…The sounds, the smells. Did you ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?”
But there was no match for my orphan passage. So I cut it from the book, and stitched the remaining words back together. I’m happy with my ‘fix,’ but sure would like to find out the quote’s rightful owner.
If you have any inkling as to who might have said it—and I don’t care if it was Steven Norman Carlton or some Peruvian woman on a donkey—I’d be happy to hear from you.
- John Cappello