Thursday, 18 August 2016

REMEMBERING CHOO CHOO COLEMAN

I noted with some sadness the other day that Choo Choo Coleman had died. Chooch was a catcher on the original New York Mets baseball team which became famous for its ineptitude, a quality magnified by the fact that it was located in America's media hub, and in effect trying to replace the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in the hearts of New Yorkers.

Living in the New York media diaspora, but not a New York fan, I followed this with all the bemusement a 10 or 11 year old could muster, and the keen eye for baseball that was commenplace among kids of our day. Plus, for reasons that remain to this day a mystery to me, my best friend Bruce Bonessi became a die-hard Mets' fan, from the start a true believer, with all the attendant delusions such a fate implies.

Chooch was one of the iconic Mets, who came in two varieties. The first was the assortment of well-known stars recycled at Shea Stadium, mostly New York favouites like Gil Hodges, manager Casey Stengel and Willie Mays, but also the likes of Richie Ashburn. They were past their primes, but they made good copy, especially Casey, whose crazy-smart apohorisms and mangled syntax became, with the hapless Mets instead of the dominant Yankees, like something from a Beckett play. It occurs to me that Beckett might have found the Mets a worthwhile subject for theatre.

 The second group were the Mets' original products, cast-offs from other teams whom they chose to fill out the roster, the most notable of whom had the kind of self-defining (if only in an ironic sense) nicknames that make the best athletes memorable. 'Hot' Rod Kanehl. The immortal 'Marvellous' Marv Throneberry. 'The Glider', Ed Charles. And Clarence 'Choo Choo' Coleman.

The most famous Chooch story, repeated in all his obituaries, happened when the Mets' wonderfully tongue-tied announcer, Ralph Kiner, a kind of Beckettian counterpoint to Stengel, was trying to fill time during a rain delay by interviewing Choo Choo. It went pear-shaped when Kiner asked how Chooch got his nickname and Chooch said 'I dunno'. Flailing for a response, Kiner asked 'Well, what's your wife's name, and what's she like?' Chooch replied: 'Her name Mrs. Coleman, and she like me, Bub.'

Many years later, Choo Choo would explain he got his nickname when he was a kid, because he was fast. Indeed, Casey said he'd never seen a catcher so fast 'chasing passed balls'. Roger Angell wrote that Choo Choo 'handled outside curve balls like a man fighting bees'.

But I got another Chooch story from Bob Miller, one of two Bob Millers who pitched without memorable nicknames for the Mets. I met him at some event while I was working for Major League Baseball, and the topic of those Mets and Choo Choo came up; I may have just read that story above in a baseball book. Miller said he could beat it.

He had come in to pitch relief, with a runner on second. Choo Choo called for a curve, which he threw, and the batter was waiting on it and drove it to the wall. The runner scored; the hitter was now on second with a double. Miller calls time and signals for Chooch to approach the mound. 'Chooch, we have to change the signs,' he says,  'they read that one, he knew the curve was coming'. 'OK Bub', Chooch says (he called everyone Bub, which was easier than recalling individual names, though Miller thought he might actually be saying Bob), and holds up 2 fingers. 'We take the second sign now'. He turns to go back to the playe but Miller calls him back. 'What's wrong Bub?' 'Chooch you just told 15,000 people we're taking the second sign.' Chooch 'thinks' about it for moment. 'Youre right Bub.' He holds up his glove and whispers behind it, 'OK we take the third sign now'.

If you don't know baseball and can't follow this, the runner on second can see the catcher's signs to the pitcher, and signal the batter what kind of pitch is coming. So by flashing three signs (but only using, in this case, the third one) they can disguise what's coming from the opposition.
Chooch goes back behind the plate and squats. He wants a fastball, so he puts down one finger, the universal fastball sign. Then he puts down one finger again. And then one finger for a third time. Miller said he laughed so hard he fell off the mound. He claimed it was called a balk by the umpire, and the runner advanced to third, but that might be apocryphal. After all, three number ones was good enough. RIP Chooch.

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