I’m no Ted Williams.
But I could see the rotating, red seams on the scuffed-up baseball used for batting practice twirling toward me in slow motion. Each strand gyrated, bound for the first row “blue” seats on the lower level of Cincinnati’s old Riverfront Stadium.
Granted, the ball wasn’t coming at a nine-year-old me at the same clip as a 96-mph fastball which Williams may have faced from Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians. It wasn’t dipping like a slider from the palm of Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees. The “Splendid Splinter” was known for such keen eyesight that he could pick up the revolution of the ball approaching the plate.
There’s a reason Williams is the last hitter to crack .400 for a season: .406 in 1941.
But this ball wasn’t a fastball dealt from the pitcher’s mound.
This was a sly, no-look, underhanded toss from the field level AstroTurf to the first row of seats – precisely where the stands cut at a sharp angle to run parallel to the right field line.
And the furtive fling wasn’t even coming from a Major League hurler.
It was coming from Joseph “Stretch” Suba, the longtime (and legendary) bullpen catcher of the Houston Astros.
The day was September 12, 1978. The Reds would go on to defeat the Astros 4-3 that night. The game was best known for Champ Summers (great name) of the Reds touching up Astros’ pitcher Mark Lemongello (greater name) for the first home run by the home team into the right field “red seats” – the mammoth upper deck at Riverfront Stadium.
But to a nine-year-old baseball fan, the Reds victory and Summers’ prodigious jack was an afterthought.
Never before had a foul ball, home run or any Major League ball ever come close to me at Riverfront Stadium. And yet here I was with my best friend Jamie, leaning over the rail, hectoring Suba for a ball.
We weren’t even sure how to say his name. But “SUBA” was emblazoned on the back of the Astros’ radical, orange, red and blue “tequila sunrise” uniform – complete with a number on the right pants leg.
Suba wasn’t in the program. I had never heard of him. But it was September. I wondered if he may have been a late-season call-up from the Astros’ AAA affiliate in Charleston.
They used to fine big leaguers for tossing balls into the stands. Such transgressions probably didn’t put much of a dent in the paycheck of stars like Pete Rose of the Reds or Bob Watson of the Astros. But it was probably a different calculus for a bullpen catcher to cough up a ball to a couple of badgering kids.
And suddenly, at just the right moment, apparently when the “batting practice ball police” weren’t looking, Suba – flipped a ball upwards toward the sounds of our voices.
Suba never glanced our way. He never acknowledged us. He stared toward the plate, a catcher’s mitt folded against his waist as Enos Cabell, Bruce Bochy and Terry Puhl took their cuts in the batting cage.
The ball looked like it was all Jamie’s. Jamie was taller than me and in a better position to make the catch. I remember Jamie pressing the base of his palms together, fingers extended, just waiting to clasp it.
But surely I wasn’t going to allow Jamie to get that ball over me.
I snapped my right arm in front Jamie’s outstretched hands, snagging the ball just above the dark Riverfront Stadium railing. I pulled it in to my chest like a soccer goalkeeper.
I had a Major League ball.
My Dad who took us to the game was a stickler for manners. He made sure I thanked Mr. Suba – and called him “Mr. Suba.” Suba gestured with a nod of his head as batting practice continued.
But we weren’t done.
Hockey may have the hat trick.
But we secured a holy trinity that night. A trifecta of baseballs from batting practice and the game. A trifecta worthy of nearby River Downs.
During the game, the left-handed hitting Jose Cruz of the Astros came to the plate. Cruz hit .315 that season. Cruz would lift his left leg as a pitch approached the plate – uncoiling his bat with the ferocity of a cobra attacking a mongoose. Cruz scalded a shot down the right field line. He stroked the ball with such velocity its hissing cut through the damp September air, veering into foul territory.
My Dad was a good ballplayer in his day. He still played in an over-40 league at that point. He brought with him to the game a MacGregor-brand, Lee May first baseman’s glove. Stitched into the pocket of the glove were the words “The Big Dipper.” But that celestial moniker didn’t do this glove justice. This thing was like a “black hole.” Anything that went into that glove never escaped.
A man walked down the aisle behind us, toting a tray littered with brats smothered relish, a crock of popcorn and two Hudepohl beers. Cruz’s frozen rope was heading directly for this man, ambling down the aisle.
But Dad flashed the Big Dipper, backhanding Cruz’s violent line drive.
He probably saved the man’s life.
And the Hudepohls.
A lazy pop fly came our direction later in the game. It caromed around the seats like a pinball before rolling down the aisle toward us. We scooped up that one, too.
Three fans. Three balls.
Boy, Jamie and I would have stories to tell in Mrs. Turner’s fourth grade class the next morning. We had only been fans for a few short years. But we had never known anyone who got a ball at a game – let alone three.
“Stretch” Suba wasn’t Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench or one of the cogs in the Big Red Machine. But it turns out he was a fabled figure in Astros lore. Suba worked as Houston’s bullpen catcher for an astonishing 36 years.
Just before batting practice was over, I hollered again at Suba. I asked if he would sign the ball. I guess no one was looking at that point. I handed Suba a black ink pen and he signed it. Since he wasn’t listed in the program, I thought he scribbled his name as “Steve” Suba. For years after that, my Dad and I would sometimes spot Suba on Reds TV broadcasts from Houston, warming up Astros pitchers in the bullpen.
“There’s “Steve” Suba, we’d say,” never realizing he signed his name as “Stretch.” We just couldn’t make out his penmanship.
It took us years to figure out Suba’s real name.
Which only added to the lore of our “three ball night.”