SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake Bees are back at Spring Mobile Ballpark on Friday, hoping to reverse a 2-0 deficit in their Pacific Coast League championship series with Omaha. Winning a minor league title might not be big in some places, but it would be newsy enough around here.
I know this because last time a PCL championship happened in Utah, I was covering the Salt Lake Gulls. There’s not a lot of detail I recall about the 1979 playoffs because by the time September arrived, I was on to covering college football. But what I do remember was one of my weirdest clubhouse/locker room moments. I walked in one June night and almost ended up covering something far more important than any double play or standup triple: my own demise.
By merely entering the clubhouse, I triggered an incident of considerable proportion. I didn’t report what happened at the time, partially on the advice of a couple of veteran writers. They said doing so would have turned me into the story of the day, rather than the team.
Maybe so, but I figure after 34 years the statute of limitations has expired, so I’m telling all. At least the part of that championship season I didn’t forget.
And it had nothing to do with raising a trophy.
* * *
The episode could have ended much worse for me if not for Darrell Darrow, a utility infielder for the Gulls. That’s because Darrow came to my aid before I even knew I needed help.
The Gulls had lost a game that night and pitcher Ralph Botting, a fiery lefty who went on to an 18-game Major League career, had been removed early and was unhappy.
I had gone to the clubhouse for post-game quotes and headed directly to my main resource, the ever-accommodating Darrow. As I started asking questions, I noticed he wasn’t really listening. He was glaring across the room at Botting, who was glaring at me. That was when I realized Botting was saying something about getting the media — a contingent of one, at the moment — out of the clubhouse.
Darrow pointed out it wasn’t my fault that Botting was having a bad night.
The next thing I knew they were moving toward the center of the room and shouting as teammates looked on, some with mild amusement. The argument escalated into one-hand pushes and a lot of expletives that aren’t in the Boy Scout Oath.
That’s when Jimy Williams — who went on to manage the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros — charged out of his office and confronted Botting. They too were shouting. Botting doubled his fist as though preparing a haymaker.
Williams’ response: “If you throw that punch it better be a good one, because it’s the last day you’ll have in baseball!”
The team crowded in and separated the two, leaving me standing alone near the center of the suddenly still locker room.
For reasons I still can’t explain, I went back to get a throwaway quote from Darrow. Clearly he wasn’t paying much attention to the interview, which was fine because neither was I. Even so, Darrow was accommodating.
Botting went on to pitch 56 innings in the majors, 39 of them with the California Angels that season. Ike Hampton hit 30 homers to lead the league and the Gulls swept through the playoffs. Twenty-three players who were in Salt Lake that year played at least briefly in the majors.
Botting quit baseball after the ’82 season, same year I left the Triple-A beat. I seldom thought about that night in the ensuing years, until I started seeing stories that connected this year’s Bees to the ’79 Gulls.
Even if the Bees do win the title, I doubt things will get as dramatic as they were that night at Derks Field. If they do, I doubt the media would let it slide unreported a second time.
I tried to reach Darrow on Thursday to see how he remembers that season, but he didn’t pick up. I suspect he would laugh at the memory. I know I did. As for Botting, I have no idea what he'd say. He'd probably be happy to know that 34 years later, I'm not planning to visit the clubhouse.
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