By Bruce Baskin
Bruce Baskin of Chehalis is an unrepentant baseball addict who has written a 72-page history of the Seattle Rainiers and will cover summer college baseball’s West Coast League for OurSports Central in 2014.
Mike Hegan passed away on Christmas at age 71. Most people who read this won’t recognize his name.
Hegan had spent 23 years as a Cleveland Indians radio broadcaster after serving a similar role in Milwaukee for 12 seasons. Before that, Hegan was a baseball player, including one season with the lost and lamented Seattle Pilots in 1969.
That’s where my story here begins.
I wasn’t a baseball fan before that summer of 1969 when I turned 10. I remember listening to a 1968 World Series game on a friend’s transistor radio as a fourth-grader during recess at Renton’s Hazelwood Elementary, but the sport itself had a mostly adversarial role with me because the Game of the Week every Saturday meant my favorite cartoons were pre-empted.
Until the Pilots.
I started getting interested in baseball early in the 1969 season until my Grandpa Joe took me to a Pilots-Orioles game at Sicks Stadium, where he’d been head groundskeeper during the glory days of the Rainiers. The moment we walked up the steps and into the seating area with all that green grass in front of us was my epiphany.
The rest of the night was pure magic, even though Baltimore pounded us, 12-3, as Grandpa explained what was going on in front of us. He even demonstrated what a knuckleball does when Jim Bouton came on in relief. I asked him how any batter could hit a ball that does that, and he replied, “They DON’T always do that, and that’s when the batter hits them there” while pointing toward the apartments above the left-field stands.
I went to another Pilots game that season and remember that Mike Hegan was in the lineup. By then I was totally hooked on baseball. Guys like Hegan, Tommy Harper, Don Mincher, Steve Hovley and Diego Segui had become personal heroes.
And then, suddenly, they were gone. All of them.
If 1969 was an epiphany, 1970 was a purgatory. I followed spring training closely on radio as Jimmy Dudley and Bill Schonely called the action from Arizona. Like other fans, I was anticipating the start of the regular season, but the team ended up in the hands of Bud Selig and the moving vans heading north with equipment instead veered east toward Milwaukee, where our Pilots became their Brewers.
In later years I came to understand the whys and hows of what happened that spring, but it was an understanding far beyond a 10-year-old boy left heartbroken from the loss of a team and sport he’d only been learning to embrace. Fifth grade is awfully early to learn just how unfair life can be.
Somehow, life moved on. I endured two years of following Pay ’N’ Pak fastpitch and the Tacoma Cubs to try filling the void, but it wasn’t the same because softball isn’t baseball and Tacoma isn’t Seattle.
Finally, in 1972 the Class A Seattle Rainiers began five years in the Northwest League and the healing could begin. Few people cared about minor-league ball in Seattle, but I rarely missed a game on radio because the Rainiers were a lifeline. Then the Mariners came on the scene in 1977 and, for better or (usually) worse, that’s been the team of preference for me. They’ve never held the same sense of awe the Pilots did or even the same place in my heart the Rainiers did, but at least we’ve had pro baseball in Seattle for the past 42 years. Those who weren’t around when we didn’t may not understand what that was like.
And now Mike Hegan is dead, along with Don Mincher, Ray Oyler, Greg Goossen, Gene Brabender and other ex-Pilots. Whenever I read about the loss of a former Pilot, a part of me is lost, too, because they were heroes from a too-short era of my childhood. Losing someone from our past also brings us eye-to-eye with what awaits all of us in the future. Mortality can only be postponed, like a rain delay in baseball, but it can never be cancelled.
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