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INSIDE STORY

The Boys Of Fall

After Years of Losses and Playing With Something to Prove, the Hawaiian Buffaloes Started to Have a Little Fun. Even the Guy With the Chip on His Shoulder.

October 22, 2000|PETER H. KING | Peter H. King is a Times senior correspondent

THERE ARE SPRING BASEBALL STORIES AND THERE ARE FALL baseball stories. Spring baseball stories are documents of hope, lilting odes to the rituals of renewal, the freshly cut grass, the first cracks of the bat, the hot prospects for the season ahead. Fall baseball stories are different, cast in the tempered light and long shadows of October. Fall baseball stories are about the end of something, about what could have been.

I suppose the story of the Hawaiian Buffaloes and, in particular, a player named Craig Cacek, is one best told in the fall. Deep down, it is about sorting through the thwarted dreams of boyhood, about making peace with what could have been, but wasn't.

Cacek himself would sum it up best one Sunday. A pitcher had tried to pick him off second base. One thing about Cacek in his time on the Buffaloes: He wasn't much for getting his uniform dirty. After scrambling headfirst back to the bag, he stood up, slapped dust off his jersey and, staring hard at the pitcher, deadpanned:

"Don't you know who I used to think I was?"

He might have been speaking for all of us Buffaloes.

*

THE FIRST TIME I SAW CACEK WAS AT BALBOA PARK IN THE SAN Fernando Valley in the summer of 1991. Sprinklers were fanning across an adjacent field, and as he ambled up in short pants, T-shirt and sandals, walking a couple of dogs, it appeared as though he was emerging from a mist. We were taking some batting practice in anticipation of a game the next day, and he stopped at the edge of the field to watch.

Now by "we" I mean the Hawaiian Buffaloes, although technically at the time we still were called the Mudsharks. This was our second season in the Los Angeles chapter of the Men's Senior Baseball League, which we first entered as the Rangers (our catcher was from Texas). By whatever name, we were lousy. Once again, it would be Cacek who delivered the most enduring epigram on the matter of Buffalo talent:

"Hey," he drolly announced as we cleaned the dugout following yet another loss, "if we were any good, we wouldn't be here."

One reason we weren't any good had to do with actors and their professional comfort with make-believe and self-promotion. Our manager was Nick Newton, a friend of mine from our days playing softball. When we heard about a new baseball league for players 30 and older, we set to work assembling a squad. We believed we had an edge.

Jill Newton, Nick's wife, worked as casting director for "The Young and the Restless." In her office were stacks of resumes from fit young male actors, many of whom, she recalled, listed baseball as an outside interest. Nick went through the files and culled out several would-be soap stars with professional baseball experience in the minor leagues. Perhaps because the spouse of a casting director is someone work-hungry actors naturally want to humor, recruiting for a baseball team did not prove difficult.

With great anticipation, we gathered these grizzled veterans of seasons past at the Alemany High School diamond, a weedy bandbox of a ballpark wedged between a football field and the grounds of Holy Cross hospital, way out in the northern folds of the Valley. This was in the early spring; hope, however, would soon be headed for the showers.

During warmups, balls bounced off our thespians from double-A. Errant throws sailed into nearby bushes, dribbled through legs. I remember Nick lobbing a ball to one fresh arrival. The fellow put up his glove but missed, taking the soft toss on his chest. He might as well have been struck by a Nolan Ryan fastball at 20 paces. He dropped to his knees, groaned and clutched at his breast. We had to carry him to the dugout.

Later, after additional reviews of the resumes, Nick and I realized our tactical error: Many young male actors feel obliged to soup up the recreational interest portion of their resumes, seeking to promote themselves as hearty chaps. Almost invariably, it seems, they claim to be a) skydivers, b) martial-arts experts and c) former minor-league ballplayers.

In any case, the initial roster was set, and defeats by double-digit margins became commonplace. We couldn't field. We couldn't hit. We tried out new pitchers almost every week--mainly knuckle-ballers whose knuckle balls wouldn't knuckle and fast-ballers who weren't. Oh, there were moments of hope. Nick did find one legitimate pitcher, wonderfully named Thor. Thor took the mound against the Phillies--league champions and a team that considered us comic relief--and started hurling unhittable thunderbolts, whap, whap, whap. Alas, after seven straight strikes, he summoned Nick to the mound and announced his shoulder had "went." He never pitched for us again.

It was only a few weeks after the seven-pitch Thor era that Cacek appeared. He and Nick talked for quite a while beside the backstop. I was in left field, shagging flies, and even from a distance of 300 feet, this guy with the dogs had the look of a ballplayer. After practice I asked Nick about him.

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