In honor of the annual American Legion baseball tournament taking place this weekend at Taylor Field in Corvallis, I offer you my best Mickey Riley story.
It’s also my only Mickey Riley story. (Editor’s note: we are not related.) But after this one, there’s really no reason to have two.
It was 1986 or 1987 (I don’t exactly recall), and, as a former Richey’s Markets player (1983-84), I was playing in the annual alumni game at Taylor Field. Actually, I was pretty much doing my best to tie my cleats before the game and not lose my shit after Mickey Riley walked into the dugout.
Now, this is a pretty huge moment for any young baseball player in Corvallis in the 1970s and 1980s. Because Mickey Riley was a baseball legend in these parts. He was a stud playing for Crescent Valley (my alma mater), he was a stud playing American Legion baseball for Richey’s, he was a stud playing for his dad at Oregon State, and he had played a couple of seasons for the Walla Walla Padres in the Class A Northwest League.
Mickey was only 5-5 1/2 and a buck fifty, tops — but he still hit .269 for the Walla Walla Padres in 1983, his last year of professional baseball. The only thing big about Mickey was his personality and his love for the game of baseball. He was hilarious, he was engaging, and he made the rest of us feel like all-stars as he made his way through the dugout of this alumni game — even though I was only a relief pitcher who pitched in the nonconference games that didn’t meant a whole lot for the Richey’s ballclubs of 1983-84.
Mick didn’t care what your batting average was or how many games you won or how far you got in the postseason. If you wore the yellow and blue of Richey’s Markets, you were part of the club, and that pride is clear as he’s making his way down the bench, shaking hands and introducing himself.
Introducing himself? Mickey Riley? <shaking my head>
Ironically enough, I’d never met the man. I’d only ever read about him and watched him play. But introductions were not necessary as he stood before me, right hand extended.
Me: “Jeff Riley.”
Mickey: “Riley?” he says, stepping back, looking around in amazement.
Then he drops his bat bag and steps forward for a hug, exclaiming “BRO!”
The dugout busts up in laughter.
So I’m up to bat now and Mickey is on third, chattering away at the pitcher, who now is distracted by Mickey — which, of course, was Mickey’s goal. Mickey is dancing off the base, yapping, and this kid on the hill looks like he just wants his mother. He throws over to third a couple times but Mick is back well ahead of the throw, jumping back up and dancing back off the base, yapping louder each time, getting a longer lead each time.
This poor kid on the mound looks as if he doesn’t know whether to pitch or pee.
He opts for the former, and as he begins to deliver the next pitch, I hear screams of “Going!”
Now, I bat right-handed, so my back is to Mickey at third base. But “Going!” means only one thing when there’s only one runner on base and that runner is leading off third.
Yep, Mick is stealing home. Straight up.
No squeeze bunt is on, no nothin. Mick is on the loose.
This is an extremely dangerous plan of Mick’s, because he hasn’t informed me of his intentions. He’s gambling that, as he sprints toward me, I won’t a) swing the bat and strike him with it as he slides home and/or b) pull a screaming line drive off his noggin from point-blank range.
(Granted, I never was one to hit a lot of screaming line drives in my time, but hey, I hear they can happen.)
So I have about a half a second to piece together my options as the ball is delivered toward the plate. We’re taught in this situation to put the bat on the ball somehow, no matter where it’s pitched, even throwing the bat at the ball if we have to, trying desperately to either put it in play or, at minimum, foul it off — so the ball doesn’t just sail into the catcher’s mitt and the catcher tags Mick for an easy out. So I slide my hand up the bat quickly to try to bunt it but I’m halfway between a half-assed swing and a half-assed bunt and just sort of wave at the ball like the half-assed near-sighted relief pitcher that I am.
I missed the ball entirely, of course.
And the ball is caught cleanly by the catcher, who steps forward to try to tag Mickey as Mickey slides across the plate right behind my legs …
… safely ahead of the tag.
“SAFE!” yells the ump.
In fact, it wasn’t even all that close.
I’m still standing in the batter’s box, looking back toward home, and I not only notice how safe Mickey is, I notice he’s picking himself off the dirt on his belly — having slid HEAD FIRST across the plate.
The man crashed home plate head first.
This man is nuts, I’m thinking.
And now he has hopped up, thrusting his right hand into the air as our dugout erupts in cheers. He laughs and bounces toward me, delivering a high-five and “Atta boy, Riles!”
Atta boy? Me? All I did was almost screw up your gorgeous baseball play right there.
I’m just standing there, awestruck. Speechless. Mouth agape. Unable to process what just happened.
The man just completed one of the most daring heads-up plays I’d ever seen, then bounced to his feet and thanked his teammate, of all people — as if I’d had any role whatsoever.
He’s now making his way toward our dugout as they chant, “Mick-EY! Mick-EY! Mick-EY!”
THAT was Mickey Riley.
He played the game hard.
He played the game right.
He played the game with energy and fun and laughter and he played it to win, regardless of the fact this was just some meaningless American Legion alumni game.
Because there were no meaningless games in Mickey Riley’s life.
He played a beautiful game beautifully.
But life sometimes isn’t all that beautiful.
Because Mickey Riley died of ALS, at only 51, in 2011.
Lou Gerhig’s disease is a debilitating, 3-5 year prognosis and, to the surprise of nobody, that scrappy kid from Corvallis extended it to extra innings, enduring 6.
Even so, the barbaric nature of the disease proved a particularly cruel and ironic fate for a man whose physical skills inspired such a profound sense of awe in the rest of us.
When I played for Richey’s in the mid-1980s, this weekend’s holiday tournament was known as the Star Spangled Tournament. Coach McClainalways made sure we, as players, never walked past any of the old veterans from the Post 11 Legion hall who sat in the front row, right outside our dugout, without stopping to shake their hands and thank them not only for their service, but their support of our program. I can remember old men who didn’t look like they had a lot of extra cash getting out their checkbooks and writing Coach McClain checks.
Today, this weekend’s tournament is known as the Mickey Riley Star Spangled Tournament.
This is the beauty of a beautiful game, its beautiful moments, its beautiful lessons, and the beautiful glory of the stars and stripes and of Mickey J. Riley.
So, from nearly 3,000 miles away, here’s a shake of the hand to those old guys sitting along the first base line.
And a tip of my Richey’s cap to that scrappy kid dancing off third.