A businessman was trying to coax his son to jump into his arms from the cement deck of the swimming pool in which the man was wading, chest deep. The young boy was frightened — terrified really — because at six years old, he had not yet learned to swim. Wanting desperately to please his father, he approached the water several times only to retreat when he felt the tide of panic well up inside his little chest.
“Son, you will be fine,” his father promised. “Lots of kids your age learn to swim and grow to love jumping into the water. Just try it. I really think you’ll like it.”
“But, Dad, I’m not like those other kids; I haven’t learned to swim yet. Why in the world would I jump in, especially where the water is deep?”
“Because it feels great! Listen, just walk up to the edge confidently, jump as high as you can with both legs and aim right at me. I will be here waiting for you and I’ll catch you before your feet even get wet. How’s that?”
“You’re really going to catch me? And you won’t let my head go under?”
“Really, son. I’m here for you. Besides,” said the businessman, “you have to learn to trust people. And who in this world can you trust more than your own father?”
With that, the boy finally mustered his courage, and from the pool’s edge, bent both knees into a squat position and sprung up and out over the water, directly where his father stood waiting. As the boy descended towards his father’s outstretched arms, the man suddenly withdrew and stepped aside. He watched his son’s eyes flash white with terror, and listened as his shrill scream drowned out only after he crashed through the water’s surface. Like a rock, the boy sunk to the bottom of the pool.
After a full minute spent kicking and grabbing at the water and getting no closer to his next breath, the boy felt one of his random punches connect with the ladder that was mounted on the pool’s sidewall. In a desperate panic, he grabbed the lowest rung and instinctively pulled himself, one hand over the other, above the water where he coughed and sputtered and gasped for air.
Once able to breathe again, the boy turned to his father who was now lazily star-floating on his back in water still unsettled by his son’s thrashes. With tears in his eyes the boy said, “Dad, you promised! You said you were going to catch me, and that you wouldn’t let my head go under the water. You know I can’t swim. You said I could trust you!”
The businessman paddled just enough to adjust his yaw and while sunning his face said, “Let that be a lesson to you, son. Never trust anybody.”
Jim Dunn was an acorn that landed well within the drip line of his father Jack’s oaken canopy. Jack had been a minor league outfielder in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization before becoming a Hall of Fame coach — first at Portland’s Cleveland and Wilson High Schools, and then at Portland State University, where in twenty years he never suffered a losing season. While his older brothers, John and Jeff, played for their father, baby Jim followed along from one ballpark to the next. He watched and studied the play of the older boys, listened as his father instructed the team, and hustled between the dugout and the games he would organize nearby with other kids. He was a baseball rat who lived at the ballpark and scurried after foul balls as if they were hunks of Havarti.
As a college player at Portland State, Jim Dunn was not particularly big or strong, and rarely was he the most physically gifted player on the field. He was, however, fiercely competitive — like all the Dunns — and savvy as a maritime pirate. While playing for his father, Jim finished his three-year college pitching career with an 18-5 record and a 2.53 ERA. During the same span he set a school record with a career batting average of .385. He set another when he stole twenty-six bases as a junior. So impressed were the San Francisco Giants that they picked him in the sixth round of the 1979 amateur draft. For four remarkable years Jim remained the rarest of pro players: a two-way guy who, by the time he was released out of Double-A Shreveport in 1982, had pitched more than 250 innings and taken nearly 600 at-bats.
Perhaps by all but Major League standards, Jim Dunn could really play.
I was fifteen in the fall of 1981, bent over a dozen dirty baseballs that lay scattered on the outfield grass in front of the Bob Jordan Toyota sign that hung in right field at Kiggins Bowl in Vancouver, Washington. Beneath the corporate logo the words, “Good Luck,” had peeled away from a fifteen-year-old sheet of plywood whose corners were warped and curling through the chain link toward the behemoth concrete football stadium that loomed on the other side of the fence. Using the upturned hem of my t-shirt to form a pouch, I loaded the balls inside as a half dozen other kids did the same from other parts of the field — a standard and periodic ritual during batting practice. With my bounty secure, I jogged toward the infield and to the empty bucket that awaited us.
Two days earlier, I had mustered the courage to call Curt Daniels to ask if I could join the older players he was coaching in informal workouts during the fall; I was thrilled when he encouraged me to show up. Curt was coming off a professional playing and coaching career in the minor leagues and was highly regarded by baseball people everywhere. The first time I laid eyes on him he was drilling kids in the back with baseballs from in front of the mound — hard — teaching them the finer points of taking one for the team in order to get the tying run on base. The day before, I came to learn, two of his players had dodged inside pitches in a 2-1 loss, leaving a burr that was apparently still irritating the new coach at Columbia River High School. As the boys lined up on the dirt path leading from the dugout to home plate, each awaiting a certain and unpleasant outcome that would leave them bruised in the morning, I happened to notice a bucket full of Whiffle Balls, and another loaded with tennis balls, sitting unused in front of the dugout. No one said a word and every player took his medicine — repeatedly. The man scared the shit out of me.
I hustled to the bucket where Curt was waiting along with Greg Hopkins, the young head coach from Columbia River’s rival high school, Hudson’s Bay, who I had only just met. They were talking to a third man I had not noticed before; one who looked about Hoppy’s age, and was fit, athletic, and wired with an energy he could not contain, like a racehorse pinched between the starting gates.
“Sper,” Hoppy said to me, “I want you to meet Jim Dunn. Jim’s an old teammate from PSU … in the Giants’ organization now … Double-A. I asked him down here to work with you in the infield.” For a kid thrilled just to be fielding a few grounders with the older boys, I felt blessed to be practicing under the experienced eyes of the top two high school coaches in Vancouver. I had heard that Curt had coached Ozzie Smith during the Hall of Fame shortstop’s first and only year in the minors, but the notion that he and Hoppy were connected with professional players who would be interested and willing to give kids like me a few pointers was incomprehensible. I shook Jim’s hand, sensing the energy and passion of an athlete who, even after seven months and 142 games in the Texas League, was back at a ballpark less than a week after his season had ended. Remarkable, some might say. Then again, where else would a baseball rat like Jim Dunn be?
I spent the next forty-five minutes shoulder-to-shoulder with Jim, being tutored by him and trying to emulate his buttery smooth defensive actions: the way he fielded ground balls flawlessly with two hands, and how he relied only on his glove when the ball took an unexpected hop. Curt stood nearby, occasionally adding his own expertise, while Hoppy hit fungos from home plate. It was a memory I have cherished for more than thirty-five years: three former pro players working with me — a punk kid — on a warm September afternoon, below the towering evergreens that surrounded Kiggins Bowl. It was the day I decided that coaching baseball would one day become my vocation. It was also the last day Jim Dunn ever visited Kiggins Bowl. He played one more season at double-A Shreveport before being released by the Giants.
Our paths would cross again.
There was no reason to look at my coach. Terry Pollreisz was standing, I knew, with his hands on his hips in the third base box, wondering how his team captain could be so bold as to attempt a steal of second base without a sign. It just wasn’t done, especially since we were down by two in the eighth with Rick Falkner — who had hit 26 home runs during the college season — at the plate, representing the tying run. Falkner could hit one into the next county, but getting thrown out at second meant I’d likely cost my team an opportunity to finally beat Taylor Electric, the rag-tag bunch of ex-professional misfits that came together to dominate the otherwise collegiate Portland City League once they were unburdened by the pressure of playing for money or their own scholarship.
Taylor Electric was the perennial favorite to win the PCL championship. The veteran team was loaded with successful ex-college players, nearly all of which had toiled in the minors for at least a year or two after graduation. Some had climbed as high as Triple-A. The cast of characters included Kelly Smith, a speedy centerfielder whose competitiveness was tethered to a sharp, brassy tongue; Greg Cusick, a squat-bodied, fun lover who is arguably the best left-handed hitter I ever saw; Jim Coffman, who pitched his way to Triple A; and John Cosby, a catcher so tough I’d swear I saw him catch a baseball game wearing a softball mask once, but only because the umpire required him to wear something. They were the envy of a league otherwise full of college kids hoping to one day fulfill their own dreams of playing pro ball. The Electricians were terrific players who won regularly, even as their willingness to hustle out ground balls collectively waned in their late-twenties; to be sure, they were not always the best example, but they were the best team.
Fortunately — for me, in particular — my head-first slide narrowly beat Cosby’s throw from behind the plate, however my momentum carried me over the bag and threatened to take me beyond its anchor. When I came to a stop, hoping I hadn’t traveled into left field, I turned to find my left foot still in contact with the base as the umpire hollered, “SAFE!” The pain I felt was not from the hard contact I’d made while sliding, but from the hole being burned through my chest by Coach Pollreisz, freshly defied by a player trying desperately to salvage what was left of the worst game he, or anyone he’s ever known — to this day — has ever played.
I’d made my first error when Taylor’s leadoff man hit a routine three-hopper to me at shortstop, which caromed off my glove and left me unable to recover. By the third inning I’d added two more, the last one a ground ball that went between my legs, untouched, and into left field. Remarkably, my bat was as cold as my glove. In the sixth, Jim Coffman struck me out for the third time with a fastball over the middle of the plate. Against a team I had been determined to impress, I had shit the bed instead — three errors and three strikeouts. I had neither put the ball in play, nor caught it cleanly through the first seven innings. A poorer performance was simply inconceivable; it was the worst game I could ever imagine.
Unfortunately, it was not over.
In the eighth, I found myself at bat with a 3-2 count, facing Coffman once again. He threw a breaking ball that froze me as it curled over the outside corner of the plate. I could not remember striking out four times in a single game and was unsure if I was supposed to throw the bat or attempt to snap it over my head as a frustrated Bo Jackson would do in 1989 after grounding out to the pitcher. I waited for the humiliation of the umpire’s strike call. When it didn’t come, I looked back to make sure gut-wrenching laughter hadn’t rendered him speechless. Mercifully, he said, “That’s ball four, son.” Shocked and relieved, I hustled to first base, attempting to reconcile the fact that I had finally done something right, albeit due to a blown call by an umpire making fifty bucks a game.
With Falkner coming off one of the best college seasons on record, I knew my team was one swing away from tying the game and giving us a chance to finally beat Taylor Electric. I dutifully looked across the diamond at Coach Pollreisz for a sign, only to find him staring at me with his arms crossed in front of his chest, clearly communicating that this was not a time to risk getting thrown out trying to steal. We would instead be taking our chances on the mighty bat of arguably the best hitter in the Northwest.
The strategy made perfect sense to me. I’d been driven in from first many times on balls Falkner hit out of the park. But, hell, I had just struck out three times and misplayed the only three balls hit in my direction. If I was going to save a shred of personal dignity, I felt I had to do something positive to show the seasoned ex-pros that I belonged on the same field. It was the very definition of pressing. And it is the reason that with one strike on Falkner, I ran without permission.
The voice I heard was only vaguely familiar — recognizable from somewhere, but not the angry bark I expected from Coach Pollreisz, who was 120 feet away spitting tobacco and pacing angrily in the third base coaches box, like John Wayne in a baseball uniform. This voice was calm, upbeat, and coming from directly behind me. As the second baseman who had covered the bag on the play retreated to his position, the shortstop had moved in behind me. I pushed myself up off the ground, my jersey covered in hot summer loam, and saw Jim Dunn for the first time in six years. He hadn’t started the game, I knew, because I made it a habit to identify my positional counterpart in every game I ever played. Dunn must have arrived late and was now in the game to help protect Taylor Electric’s two-run lead.
“Sper, how you doin’, man?” he said, swatting me on the fanny with his glove. “You remember me?”
Remember you, I thought to myself, how the hell do you remember me? My mind raced back to the day Jim had spent teaching me the finer points of infield play before I remembered I was in the midst of my worst performance ever — one still unfolding in front of someone I would have loved to impress. “Hey, Jim,” I managed to say before hanging my head in the direction of the base that my slide had partially buried in dirt.
“Hey, listen,” he said, “I know you’re not playing your best today. Don’t worry about it. We’ve all been there, man. Besides, look at this field.” He gestured to the infield with a nod of his head. “Looks like they just cleared the cows off before the game. There’re no good hops out here. Hell, I’m scared of taking one in the teeth myself. You’re gonna be fine.” he assured me. “And your swing? Looks awesome. If you woulda connected with the one-oh pitch in your first at-bat, the ball would have gone out of the park. Seriously, man, keep your head up. I like what you’re doing.”
The beauty in having mentors — players and coaches you can look up to — is that they have a way of rescuing you from your depths. They know just what to say to remind you of your value and get you back on the right track. Curt Daniels and Greg Hopkins had helped me through many tough times as a player, but I hadn’t considered that Jim Dunn — the pro player they had introduced me to six years earlier — could serve the same role after so many years, and after spending maybe an hour with me on the only day we ever spent together. For Chrissakes, the guy remembered my name!
I lifted my head and could feel the air pumping back into my chest, returning to me the confidence that had been lost in the previous seven innings. Dunn glove-swatted me again and said, “Attaboy, Sper, keep your head up. Now dust yourself off and lemme clean that base off for you.”
Today, most of the details of my fifty years are either covered with fuzz, or have been forgotten entirely. There are, however, a few moments recalled from cerebral etchings so deep they cannot be rubbed away. I remember, for example, the game against Taylor Electric as my worst ever, but I cannot recall who pitched for us that day. I will never forget, however, the way Jim Dunn built my confidence back up, and how in the midst of doing so, was kind enough to offer to clean off second base while I dusted my jersey clean.
The third glove-swat unexpectedly hit my ass more forcefully than the others, like a boxer’s jab to the jaw, before Dunn and his second baseman ran off the field together, giggling and shaking their heads. Forsaken a foot off of second base, still wiping the dirt off my chest, I heard the umpire — the same one who a moment earlier had called me safe on the steal — holler, “You’re out!” The inning was over and I immediately knew I’d been stung, fallen prey to a baseball prank executed perfectly by a veteran shortstop and a second baseman that had inconspicuously dropped the ball from his own glove and into Dunn’s while I was laying face down in the dirt. While I’ve witnessed a handful of players at various levels who have suffered three strikeouts in a single game — a so-called hat trick — I know of no one else who did so in a game in which they also made three errors and capped off their day the victim of the hidden ball trick.
In the ninth, Falkner led off by hitting the first pitch he saw over the trees beyond the left field fence.
We lost 4-3.
When the game ended, I forced my roommate, center fielder Randy Moore, to stop by the ballpark on our college campus before heading home to our apartment. “Why?” he asked. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just stop by the fucking field.” Using the key entrusted to the team captain in the spring, we entered the field where I found a five-gallon bucket of rubber baseballs sitting in the third base dugout. Behind home plate, the chain link backstop had two small sections removed, replaced with half-inch Plexiglas to protect the clear view of local television news cameras that filmed our college games. With Randy looking on in disgusted amusement, I rifled more than a hundred balls as hard as I could into the durable plastic windows until the bucket had been emptied twice and the plastic finally shattered. The next day, while looking at the destruction along with athletic director Joe Etzel, we shook our heads together and cursed the neighborhood punks that must have done the damage.
A year later I had surgery to repair my shoulder.
I was asked to speak at the Portland Old-Timers annual banquet at the Multnomah Athletic Club in January of 2011. Prior to my introduction, master of ceremonies Rich Burke recognized several key people sitting among the crowd of 400, including Jim Dunn. Upon seeing my one-time-mentor-turned-nemesis for the first time in twenty-five years, I was compelled to share the story of my most miserable game and the incautious wandering away from second base that still haunts me today. Dunn delighted in laughter — once again at my expense — even while suffering the back blows from numerous former teammates seated within reach of him, each recalling the long line of victims that, like me, were humiliated by Dunn’s hidden ball trick; there was no solace in the knowledge that I had been one of many.
Jim Dunn went on to a successful business career in Southern California where he remained active in the game by coaching his son, Ryan, who I recruited briefly while he was playing second base at Orange Coast College. In a recurring nightmare, I can see Jim laying peacefully in a swimming pool, his arms and legs outstretched, his body buoyant atop the water’s surface. He is smiling and his eyes are twinkling from behind his Ray-Bans. I am drowning. And on the pool deck, I can see a crowd of onlookers wearing green Taylor Electric jerseys above their long, knee-length swim trunks. They are drinking beer and spitting Copenhagen as they laugh at my helpless struggle ten feet below the water. Somehow I find my way to the pool’s edge and pull myself to the surface. Gasping, I turn to find Dunn — wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey — floating peacefully. At once, I am transported back to Kiggins Bowl where Jim Dunn coached and mentored me as a boy one sunny afternoon in 1981. But things are fuzzy, very fuzzy.
The cob webs clear from my head when I hear Jim say, “Hey, Sper, let that be a lesson to you. Never trust anybody.”
Authors note: Mentioned in this essay are several people who appear in the hero image at the top of the page, a team photo of the 1979 Portland State Vikings. They include Greg Hopkins (standing, far left), Jim Dunn (standing, wearing white t-shirt), Jim Coffman (standing, right of Jim Dunn), Coach Jack Dunn (standing, far right), and John Cosby (front row, second from left).
© Chris Sperry, Baseball/Life, LLC