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Mike Downey

A Peach of a Guy Gets His Shot at Becoming a Real Hometown Hero

December 07, 1987|Mike Downey

One winter's day, after watching a television report about the evils of tobacco chewing and snuff dipping, I decided to get in touch with a couple of users I knew, to ask them how they got hooked on the stuff, and why they still used it, and whether or not they had any interest whatsoever in breaking the filthy habit.

So, I called up Dan Petry. He was back at his off-season family digs outside Anaheim, not far from the baseball diamonds of his boyhood, and he was resting up from a season in which he had just won 18 games and a sparkling jewel-studded ring, emblematic of Detroit's having captured the World Series.

There were two reasons I chose to phone Petry. One was that he was known to be one of Copenhagen's most valued customers. Or perhaps it was some other brand he favored, I forget. Matter of fact, at the moment I cannot even seem to remember whether Danny was a dipper or a chewer. Doesn't matter.

The other reason I rang him up was that talking to this particular ballplayer was not something I had come to think of as an occupational hazard. Talking to Dan Petry was not a duty; it was a pleasure. Without being some goody-goody or publicity seeker, he always came across as a considerate, articulate man of manners, just a plain old decent guy, who left you hoping that success would always come his way.

So, the guy whose teammates called him "Peaches" came to the phone that day and admitted that yes, he did go down to the corner drugstore more often that he undoubtedly should, and in fact he even timed these visits to coincide with the arrival of a new shipment, because the kids in his neighborhood were a bunch of tobacco junkies, too, and if he didn't hustle down there before them, they would clean out the whole shelf.

And mostly I remember him saying that he hoped those kids were aware of the carcinogenic risks involved, because I smiled when he said that. Not because there was anything funny about the health dangers of using tobacco, but because if you said the word "carcinogenic" to a lot of the baseball players I know, they would probably respond: "Carson O. Genic? Who's he--the general manager?"

I am thinking about Dan Petry today because he is coming my way again, coming home. He got caught in the Santa Ana trade winds Saturday, getting airmailed to his childhood favorites, the Angels, in a one-for-one transaction that sent center fielder Gary Pettis to Detroit. Chili Davis is going to play right field next season at the Big A, so Pettis was, as they say, expendable.

The lucky Tigers get themselves a good fellow who can catch any baseball that is hit anyplace between second base and the fence. If they can figure out some way to get Gary Pettis to cut down that wild swing of his and make contact, they could have another Willie Wilson on their hands, a base-stealing, shoestring-stabbing outfielder who can put zip in your lineup, compensating for all those zip-for-4s he puts in your box scores.

In return, the Angels get a guy who, going into the 1987 season, ranked as one of the 10 winningest pitchers of this decade.

The thought of the Dan Petry I knew from Detroit days joining the California organization, well, it has me positively giddy. I like the guy that much. And the thought of Petry joining the Angel rotation, plus Davis out there in the outfield, well, that could very well give a season ticket-holder something tasty to get him through the winter. Yum, yum. Peaches and Chili.

What I know is what sort of person the Angels are going to get. What I do not know is what sort of pitcher they are going to get. The old Dan Petry, the one I schmoozed with at spring camp and watched with admiration all summer long, was a guy to whom Sparky Anderson handed over the baseball and then sat back with a wad of Bazooka bubble gum wrapped around a plug of tobacco and enjoyed for nine solid innings. That Dan Petry did damn good work.

He won 15 games one season, then 19, then 18, then 15, and, clear as a bell, I can remember Sparky singing in the dugout, "Danny Petry's got the ball today. Ring this one up right now." The manager thought the world of this pitcher. He relied on him through thick and thin, and he bled for him when Petry wasn't able to win a game in either the American League playoffs or World Series of 1984, after having done so much to get the Tigers that far.

"Dan Petry is a team player, so I'm sure it don't matter to him," Sparky said. "But him not getting a win in the playoffs is a dirty shame."

Naturally, we went over to Peaches and checked out how he felt about it, and he said as long as his team won the championship, nothing else mattered to him. It made you wonder, though, why some greater power couldn't have seen fit to give this guy one lousy victory in the postseason, seeing as how he got three shots at it, and the Tigers only lost once in eight games.

They told me Dan Petry had a wicked temper when he first got to the ballclub, and that anytime he didn't win a game, the locker room was going to look as though a tornado had just touched down. I never saw that Petry during my time in Detroit. All I saw was a classy guy who epitomized hard work and decency, and in that vein all I can do is hope that the arm trouble that has given him fits for two full seasons now will be magically cured.

I hadn't seen Peaches for a couple of years when I spotted him one night last season across a crowded clubhouse in Anaheim. I waved, and started to leave. He yelled, "Hey! Wait a minute!" and walked the length of the room.

"What?" I asked, suspiciously, never comfortable when I see an athlete coming toward me.

"I just wanted to say hello," he said.

The guy's an angel.

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