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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

For the Love of the Game

In Cascade, Iowa, the semipro ballclub fits the town like a well-worn glove. This year's edition was 64-1, but box scores don't tell the real story.

September 18, 2004|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

CASCADE, Iowa — The road slips between soft hills striped by cornfields as neat as cemeteries and not much noisier, rolling 20 and 30 miles at a stretch into the deep green August quiet without a town in sight.

The government men in Des Moines, in what is regarded here as not-so-perfect wisdom, have decided commerce would be better served if the steady stream of long-haul Peterbilts and Kenworths didn't have to downshift, much less stop, when they lumbered through here en route to bigger, more important places. U.S. 151, which used to ramble through a half-dozen small towns on its eastern Iowa stretch, has been rerouted to avoid them all so effectively that you can't even tell the towns are there.

When the bypasses opened over the last year, even locals sometimes had a hard time finding their own towns. It's as if they'd been not just bypassed but erased.

Maybe they were -- or this one, anyway -- because something happened in Cascade this summer that, had it happened in some better-known place -- Keokuk, say, or Los Angeles -- it would by now have been emblazoned across the heavens:

The local baseball team, the Cascade Reds, has just finished its season with a 64-1 record. The loss, which occurred in a tournament in July, was by the score of 1-0.

This is baseball, a sport in which the very best teams often lose four of every 10 games; a sport in which so much depends on luck, where the routine out, blessed by a pebble, becomes a bad-hop game-winning hit, where the umpire who had seen better nights could not see the play at third.

The Reds won 25 games before a loss, then the next 39 without another. They won wild slugfests, precise pitchers' duels. They won with a dominating lineup and with banged-up substitutes.

They won despite the fact that some of these boys of summer haven't been boys for a great many seasons of any temperature. The ace pitcher is 38. So's the third baseman. The team's spiritual leader, a slap-and-dash pinch-hitter, part-time first baseman and all-around in-your-face hard-case manager, is two decades past that age and in any event, this spring, in his first visit to a doctor in 35 years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and missed the season.

There were other health issues beyond the usual sore arms and pulled hamstrings: the big slugger got hit by a car while riding a bicycle, not a very sluggerly choice of transport; the pitching ace caught a bat in the sternum before the season started, hit so hard he couldn't talk for minutes, or even breathe for a while; and the team's fastest base runner suffered some sort of mysterious, unnoticed injury to a knee, so serious that by the end of the season he was being pinch-run for by a man 15 years older. Asked by the bat boy what had happened, he could offer nothing more definitive than the sad explanation: "I'm not fast anymore."

Add to this the normal human afflictions -- broken bones and love affairs, the car battery inexplicably gone dead, a shift change at the lumber yard, a National Guard call-up -- and, finally, factoring in the always present danger that what one player referred to as the post-game "beer medicine" might be over-prescribed, it's a wonder how the Reds, who have a core of 12 players, even managed to field a team 65 nights much less win on 64 of them.

If you doubt the general seriousness of purpose of this type of baseball, ask anybody who has ever stood in to hit against the Reds' longtime pitching ace, Yipe Weber, what a happy experience that was. Weber's career-long habit of unsettling opposing batters with high fastballs somewhere in the region between their chins and their mortal souls has earned him respect from teammates and a reputation among opposing fans as a headhunter.

Ask Yipe himself and he'll say he very seldom hits anyone above the neck. He has better control than that, he said, plus he's not that fast anymore. He is nonetheless direct, he said.

"If I get a guy, 0-2, I'd rather throw a fastball up under his chin and see if he swings at that than throw the change-up to fool him."

Yipe's aggressive demeanor is not a late-career affectation. He has been a tough out since anyone can remember. Marty Sutherland, the Reds' second baseman, grew up next door to Yipe, albeit a generation later. When Yipe would come home from college for the summer, Sutherland would bug him to come out and play a two-man pitching-hitting game popular in Cascade. Remember, this was a first-grader calling a 20-year-old. Yipe described the results:

"I was undefeated. I'd just go over there and beat the crap out of him. No way I was gonna lose to a 6-year-old."

Was Marty any good at 6?

"I don't know," Yipe said, "but he sure had a temper."


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