Chapter 7 - The Railbirds and Graduation
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there's too many places I've got to see ~ Collins / Van Zant
The guy who dubbed us the “railbirds” was Chuck Barrett, the longtime announcer for the baseball team. It didn’t happen right off the bat, though. Even with Norm at the helm, and having gone to the College World Series in 1979, they really hadn’t done much to the old George Cole field. There just wasn’t a huge interest in baseball on the college level in Arkansas. So, one day I had off, which used to be rare, but was happening more and more as I finished the difficult part of the curriculum and headed toward graduation. In fact, I would spend even more time there when I got a job in Fayetteville after graduation. It started out simple enough. I had a little bit of time on my hands, and I grabbed my son and went for a ride. When I saw the game going on, I pulled into the parking lot that used to be past left field. We wandered over to the outfield fence, and we had a beautiful view of the game. I don’t recall if it was then or a game or so later, but I noticed the lamp post had an all weather outlet on it. Since I had a little radio in my car, why not check it out? Sure enough, it worked. From then on, there was play-by-play!
It grew into a trio fairly quickly, as a couple of Lambda Chi’s saw me as they were headed up the hill to their house. They stopped back shortly and hung out for a bit, listening to the radio, watching the game, and maybe even catching a homerun. By then I was bringing my glove to the park, and so they did as well. This started a couple interesting things happening. We would play catch, and then we played an Arkansas version of “wall ball” off the HYPR building. Pretty soon my former brother-in-law would come along and play as well. This brought out some anal retentive work / study guy guarding the door.
“Y’all need to stop throwing the ball against the wall.” Someone stopped mid throw. “I can’t study.”
“Well, who says that you’re supposed to study.” I replied. “Get in there and guard the door!”
“Yeah!” Someone yelled and clanged the ball off the metal siding.
“I’ll call the police!” The student guard oddity shouted.
“Call ‘em.” I said nonchalantly. “I’m using the building made for working out… to exercise. Good luck, Poindexter.”
The police did drive by now and again, but they got to know us. It was fun times.
Remember, this started well back, but it’s kind of a wrap up for me. Baseball crosses over all the sports, because we got to be so close to it. We were there when lightning struck the field, went up through every light standard, and the pitcher’s cleats on the mound! They took the guy to the hospital, but the tough son of a gun came back to close the game.
I all started out, again for some reason, with Baylor. We hadn't joined the SEC yet, and were still playing the old Southwest Conference foes that year. We had just begun to heckle, and we were getting the hang of it pretty well, but everything was part of the learning experience. So we were there on a pretty spring day, giving the left fielder the business. We were working on being funny and annoying at the same time. It's an art, and like all art, it generally doesn't just come naturally, it takes practice. Now, I didn't have to work too hard at being funny, nor was it difficult to be a jackass. But blending them together was something much different story. It took some time to get it right. Their outfielder seemed like a good guy, and dealt with our ribbing well. One inning, when they came out into the field, the left and center fielder tossed the ball around, as players do between inning, but left our guy out.
"Oh man," I yelled. Won't the other guys let you play, too?!" The outfielder turned his head, smiled, and then shrugged.
"Hey!" One of my companions yelled, "We'll play catch with you!" To his credit, he turned to us and held up his glove. So we started tossing the ball back and forth.
This went on for about three inning, he'd come out, we'd warm him up, and he'd toss the ball back to us before the inning would start. Then, of course, we''d give a little bit of heckling. It was really good natured, because he seemed like a good enough fellow. After the Hogs had taken the lead, he was still a reasonably happy guy, but his coach apparently was not. He had run into the dugout with the ball we'd be using, and when he came back out, he came closer to the outfield fence and flipped us the ball.
"Sorry guys," He said to us, "Coach says I can't warm up with you guys anymore."
"What a dick!" One of us said.
"Well, that sucks." I told him. I had caught the last throw and said. "The least you could have signed the ball! What if you get famous in the MLB?"
"Right!" He laughed and then said shouted over his shoulder. "But I'll get you a ball next inning!"
To his credit, the next time he came out, he threw us a ball than he had signed. Now I was faced with a real conundrum. I was so tempted to wait for him to get to his spot on the field, yell something rude like who the hell would actually want his autograph, and drop the ball over the fence. But he was such a nice guy! I said it before, but this was a learning moment. If you've read this far, you will see from Barnhill to Bud Walton, there were times when we were funny and lighthearted, and times we were funny but very dark. I all depended on the opponent and the importance of the game. This is really where we learned the difference, and along with learning the simple rules I outlined previously, it set us up to be the fans Dale Brown said we were. As for our Baylor friend, well, I couldn't do it. I actually kept that ball for many years before it was lost in one of my many moves around the country still to come. To our chagrin, the next inning they sat the guy on the bench. We assumed the coach saw him throw that last ball to us. So, his replacement would probably have caught our wrath anyway, but he actually started it.
"Need to warm up?" someone asked. "We have a ball!"
"Yeah, man, and we have awesome arms!" He ignored us, and started throwing the ball around with the shortstop.
'C'mon, the shortstop? He's got a noodle arm!" I yelled.
"Screw you assholes!" He said just loud enough for us to hear. "I'm not getting in shit because of you guys."
"Sure!" One of the other 'Birds countered. "You just can't throw this far! Why else were on the bench all game?"
Since he'd cussed at us first, and our fun guys was gone, and the new outfielders comment kind of clued us in on why he was on the bench. He might be able to remain mute, but we knew he could hear us. Particularly because the relief pitchers in our bullpen, which was farther away, were just in stitches. We were just on that day. Later, the pitchers told us they would ask to go warm up so they could listen to us. We loved it.
The other thing we discovered that day was just how noisy that rail we sat on or stood behind could become if used properly. While it ran along a sidewalk that ran past center field, it was only elevated enough to see over the outfield fence in left field. All I remember is there was a deep ball hit to the gap in left center, and we were already on the move just in case it came over the wall, we could try and catch it. I knew it was one of my Lambda Chi pals, because the mug he was carrying had their letters and crest on it. We were just howling at the new fielder, especially since the center fielder got to the ball first. We had jokes about his foot speed, how it was good he hadn't gotten to the ball first because he'd need six bounces to hit the cut off man, and much more. But that wasn't the best part of the play. That mug being pounded on that metal railing was loud. The next time a hit came out to left field, we were ready. Everyone had an implement ready, the best was metal, and man, when we went to town on that rail, it was one hell of a racket. It was so loud, Chuck mentioned it on the radio. He said he had no idea what exactly we were doing, but it was loud in the broadcast booth behind home plate! This would eventually bring out HYPR prick, of course, who bitched about that noise, too.
He got told to pound sand, again, and he said he'd call the cops. The campus police didn't really know us yet, they answered the jerks call, and they stopped and came over to see what was up. We told them what we were doing, and even though we hadn't so much as chipped the paint, they told us to quit. We weren't happy about it, but rather than get a "destruction of public property" ticket, we gave in to their demands. Letting that guy win stuck in my craw, though, and I came up with an idea. After the game I drove over to the farm and ranch store, and I purchased ten of the biggest cowbells they had. They didn't make quite reach the same decibel level as the rail, but it was a very reasonable facsimile. We know this because it didn't take too long for the same two officers to roll up.
"Have y'all been beating on that rail again?" One of them asked.
"No sir!" I relied. "We would never harm school property if we knew better. At least, the sports complexes..."
"So why did we get a complaint about it?" He hadn't seen any of the cowbells.
"It might be these." I held mine up, as I was the only one carrying one. "Cowbells. Those are okay, right?"
"Well, I suppose." The same officer behind the wheel said as he looked at his partner who shrugged. "Yeah, no noise ordinance at sporting events."
"Awesome! Can you guys hang out and watch the game? It's a good one!" They shut off the cruiser and watched an inning.
"You guys enjoy!" He said as they drove off. "And keep it up, this team can use all the loud fans they can get!" Just like that, we had new friends.
One game, when The Shockers were in town, I was doing my usual. For some reason we’d come to dislike Wichita State. That day we played them hard, and when we finally broke through and hit a ball to the wall, I clanged that bell so hard I snapped the clapper clean off and sent it flying. I decided to retire it for good. It had made a darned good run.
So this one weekend Texas came to town. By now I had learned to hate them. We were in our usual railbird spot, and with the power outlet available, someone brought a blender. It was margaritas all around! Their fans had taken up a big spot in the bleachers and planted a Longhorn flag on top of the bleachers. It didn’t sit too well with a group in a big truck full of people and beer. They told us anyone who could go get that flag, so they could fly it upside down, could drink all the beer from the truck they wanted. Not one to leave a challenge go, I told them I’d try! One of them gave me a ticket, and the idea was to pretend to be a Horn fan. No easy task, that…
The first idea was to climb up into the stairs, get near the flag, and bail over the top rail. One peek over the side, and that wasn’t an option. What looked small from 400 feet away was taller than it seemed, and ever after beer I wasn’t going to jump 30 feet of the back of the bleachers! But, if I could just grab it and run. Then I turned back away from the rail and I noticed I was the center of attention. Abort mission! This wouldn’t end well in the stands, so I got down to the main level, and lo and behold, I’m right next the the Shorties dugout. I hounded them until the took a big cup of water and doused me.
“That’s right!” I yelled. “Hose me down. I’m on fire!”
I razzed on them for a bit more, then decided it was beer time. Even though I didn’t get the flag, I got all the beer I could drink, which wasn’t much more. It would have been very cool to have hung that flag upside down from the rail. But there was the difference. Friendly rivals and bitter enemies were different. A lesson we learned well.
If you think drinking is a theme in this, it isn’t. Sometimes the fun stories just happen to involve those moments. This one is the worst.
We did have some libations back then. If it was warm, we had the blender, if it was cold we had the cooler. We could drop it down over the rail into the three foot deep and two foot wide drainage ditch. But what was fun was after we had a little snow, and it did happen. We were all down watching a game, and someone had decided to bring some 101 proof peppermint schnapps. Since we had a big snowbank, we just made a hole and put it in the snow. If anyone came by, we just covered it up. On this day, he buried the booze and left. I couldn’t blame him, because it was cold as a well digger’s ass. I stayed, and even though I was bundled up, that schnapps was antifreeze! Well, by the time I was warm and toasty, I was also pretty well toasted. Unless you brought your own chair, the most comfortable spot was on the rail in front of the light pole. I had my boots in the snowbank and my back against the pole, and I had just closed my eyes and dozed off for a couple seconds… bing!
I knew what that was, and my eyes popped open. There was a little bit of trouble tracking the ball, if you know what I mean, but I got a bead on it. Sort of, but it was certainly headed my way.
Barrett says, “That balls got a chance!” It’s his signature home run call.
I thought, “That’s heading right for me. I wish I had my glove.”
Chuck was about to call it, and I was thinking, “That damn ball is going to hit me.” I moved my head to one side about a foot.
The announcer said something, but I couldn’t hear it. I was deaf in both ears from that noise assault, as it rang off the pole next to me. One ear came back in a couple minutes, but the other was out for days. At least I could ignore people, because a few people heard it on the radio, I guess. They spread it around, and at first they thought it hit me! The saddest part was that it was hit so hard and on a line, it bounced back on the field. I never got that ball.
I was still around when they opened Baum Stadium in 1996. It really was, and still is, a fantastic venue. It was good to see there was some real attention being focused on baseball. It was good to hear they also paid some attention to track and field, because they had a little bit of success, as McDonnell put it once. We moved over with it, but even though I still knew plenty of the people who were still students, I had graduated two years prior.
I would say that the last season, ninety-five, was kind of the end of my tenure. I could still get student tickets, and we would go to the NCAA Championship Game, but would lose to UCLA. Not many of us could find the means to make it to Seattle, but Freshman went. I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me for all that. But the last baseball hurrah was the 1995 Wichita Regional. We had really gotten to know the team, and Freshman said he’d drive to Wichita. So we grabbed some great tickets at the box office before we left, and headed out. No plans on where to stay or anything, we just went. Stanford beats us handily 10-3, and it wasn’t much fun. Heckling is difficult away from home and when you’re losing. We almost decided to head back home, but we were chatting with the team, and they wanted us around, and just told us we should crash with them. It’s how a 32 year old man ended up sacked out on the floor of some kid playing ball for the Hogs and chasing around the Diamond Dolls most of the night.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason we lost the next day to Texas Tech. They were probably just better that year, and we had some fun with their players and fans. Nothing too crazy, it wasn’t like the old SWC days, but there were some good natured barbs from both sides! None of us thought we had a real shot that year, but it was fun supporting the team. I think Freshman wanted to go get some lunch, but I was broke as usual, and stayed at the park awhile. Maybe I could give Stanford the business for giving us a loss. Well, Forrest Gump had come out the year before and people were still talking about it. It just so happened that I did a very passable impression of the Tom Hank’s character. There were very few fans to see Lamar or Stanford, so I grabbed a spot right behind the plate. I waited for Lamar to come to bat, and a borderline call.
“My name’s Forrest… Forrest Ump.” I said loudly. “My calls are like like a box of chocolates. Never know what you get.”
The crowd heard it and started laughing. The umpire called another strike.
“My momma said… these was my magic views!”
They laughed harder. He called a batter out on strikes.
“And that’s all I have to say about that…” Now they were rolling.
Up came the next batter and I started in again. Now that poor kid at the plate had listened to the whole thing while he was on deck. The problem was that neither of them could stop laughing. Even the pitcher was getting most of it. The batter stepped out of the box and walked over to talk to the third base coach. The infielders headed in to the mound, because they couldn’t really hear it clearly and wanted the scoop. So they all had gathered together.
“And just like that… we was like peas and carrots again.” Everyone lost it.
The home plate umpire took off his mask and headed right back toward the screen where I was sitting. When he got close it looked like he was angry and ready to bust a gut at the same time. He crooked a finger at me.
“For the love of Pete,” He started. “Would you give it a rest?”
“Sir?” I replied.
“Don’t ‘sir’ me. We all know who’s doing it.” He was a little exasperated. “We’ve got a game to play.”
“I’m not stopping anyone from playing!” I defended myself.
“Yes, you are.” He was being quiet. “I’ve never tossed anyone out of a game for making people laugh, but you could be a first.”
“Really? Just for that?” I saw the Freshmobile pulling into the stadium lot.
“Uh huh.” He eyed me.
“Oh, okay.” I said with resignation. “My ride's here anyway.”
“Hey,” He called after me. “That wasn’t half bad. You should do stand-up.”
I laughed and headed to the parking lot. I have often considered the same thing, I thought. Freshman didn’t believe me about the whole thing until I did my impression for him. Then he shook his head. He was kind of like that.
The whole reason I ended here is because baseball was such a constant throughout my time at Arkansas. But even though I went to games in ninety-six and beyond, I was truly an alumni. One who was now expected to sit in the other sections and leave the work to the students. I was okay with that. I always hoped we left a good legacy to follow. Even now, almost two and a half decades later, they are still the trough, and I hear some of the cheers started way back when.
I never realized people outside of the sports world had any clue about my passion for the Hogs, so I was quite surprised at my graduation. I was in a particular school, so I walked in Old Main instead of Barnhill. When my name came up, the dean of the school, who I didn’t think knew me from Adam, said, “This year, the Razorbacks are losing one of their biggest fans.” Then he called my name. It was a very nice moment.
“There’s always grad school.” I said to him with a smile as I accepted my diploma.
He repeated it to the crowd and laughed. And just like that, I was a University of Arkansas graduate. I can prove it, my name is on the etched in the sidewalk!