ST. PETERSBURG — The bus driver was a Dodgers fan. His wife was devoted to the Yankees. As for their seven-year-old son Steve? He was just pleased to be skipping school to watch those Yankees and Dodgers play one spring afternoon on St. Petersburg’s waterfront in 1956.
This is a story of baseball’s Hall of Fame, but it’s not necessarily about Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle. Roy Campanella or Yogi Berra. Jackie Robinson or Whitey Ford.
This is a story about a National League MVP. A 10-time All Star and World Series hero. A player who has appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot 18 times previously, and yet will still be waiting to hear his name called this weekend.
This is a story about the batboy from Tampa.
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Steve Garvey is 70 now, which probably seems more impossible to us than to him. In our minds, he is forever dashing and youthful. The perfect hair. The oversized forearms. All of those All Star and postseason moments.
He never lingered in the big leagues as a coach, and never explored those one-time political ambitions. He held his head high during some late-career scandals, and then just gradually receded from our active thoughts and pursuits.
He is not Lou Piniella. He didn’t come back to Tampa Bay when his playing days ended. He is not Doc Gooden, who is forever identifiable as a Tampa native. Garvey returns to the bay area every so often — he attended the 50th reunion of Chamberlain High’s class of “66 a few years ago — but is mostly pegged as a southern California guy.
In a way, that’s a shame. Because his place in Tampa lore should be as secure as any. He was Tampa’s first headline in a Major League Baseball draft. Piniella and Tony LaRussa had come along a few years earlier before the draft was established in 1965. Garvey, who hit .425, .472 and .465 in his three years on the Chamberlain varsity, was a third-round pick of the Twins in the 1966 draft. He declined to sign, and instead went to Michigan State to play baseball and football.
Two years later, he was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers.
“I’ve always thought I was very blessed to have grown up in Tampa and to have had my first 18 years there,’’ Garvey said recently by phone. “With Lou Piniella and Tony LaRussa, I guess we were part of that initial wave of guys that went into professional baseball. My dad and two other gentlemen actually started the second Little League program in Tampa at Drew Park. Those were the early days of this infusion of exceptional young talent coming out of there.
“I’m not so sure there is another area of that size like ours that has produced so many great players. You could make a pretty good All-Star team with just Tampa guys.’’
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He stood outside the bus at Al Lang Stadium with a handful of baseball cards and the Hav-A-Tampa cigar box he kept them in.
Steve’s father Joe was a driver for Greyhound and had gotten the plum assignment of picking up the world champion Dodgers at the airport and driving them to St. Pete for a spring training game against the Yankees. One by one, the players walked past. Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo.
The last two players off the bus, as the segregated era would dictate, were Robinson and Campanella.
“They actually stopped and said hello to dad and asked me if I was a baseball player,’’ Garvey said. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ At least, I think the words came out. They patted me on the head and kept on going.
“We ended up in Al Lang and the clubhouse man saw me and said, 'Do you want to be a batboy, son?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ So there I am, lining up the bats and balls and helmets when I hear crrrrackkk, crrrrackkk.’ I turn around, and there’s Mickey Mantle in the batting cage, hitting home runs into the Pinellas bay. That was my baptism. I was baptized into the world of baseball with these world champions and all these great players.
“I took all those sights and smells home with me that night, and I dreamt of being a big-league ballplayer.’’
Less than 15 years later, the batboy would wear the same jersey that Robinson and Campanella once did.
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The case for Garvey as a Hall of Famer is complicated. He was one of the game’s most notable players for more than a decade, but his career stats fall just a little short of certainty. He didn’t reach 3,000 hits. He never hit a ton of homers. Modern analytics make his contributions seem even less impressive because he never drew a lot of walks.
But to many who followed baseball in the ’70s and ’80s, the narrative is different. He’s the guy who holds the National League record for consecutive games played at 1,207. He’s the guy who was the first write-in candidate to start an All-Star Game. He is the guy who was in the spotlight at seemingly every big moment.
There are nearly 100 players who have appeared in 50 or more postseason games. Garvey’s .338 batting average is the highest of the bunch. And only Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran can top his .550 slugging percentage. Add in a .393 batting average in 10 All-Star Games, and you know why his legend feels larger than his numbers.
At first blush, he looked like a Hall of Famer. He got 41.6 percent of the vote his first year on the baseball writer’s ballot in 1993. Every player who has ever debuted at 40 percent or better, eventually got in. But Garvey’s candidacy never found momentum. In fact, it eventually went backward.
The clean-cut image of Garvey’s early days took a beating in the ’80s with a nasty divorce, an acknowledgment of two child-producing relationships and some financial problems.
Is it possible voters have held those slips against him?
“I seriously doubt it. My personal life was nothing compared to a lot of other things that have gone on,’’ Garvey said. “I would hope nobody would judge the Hall of Fame based on what was a very odd time in my life.’’
Garvey spent 15 years on the writers’ ballot and this weekend will have his fourth opportunity to be selected by a Hall of Fame committee. With Tommy John, Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Lou Whitaker, Ted Simmons, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and former players association chief Marvin Miller also on the ballot, the odds probably aren’t in his favor.
At this point, Al Lopez, Wade Boggs and LaRussa remain Tampa’s only Hall of Famers. Piniella, Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield still have a shot in the next few years. For Garvey, time is running short, although he says he’s content in how his career will be remembered.
“I do a lot of motivational speaking and where ever I am, I’m introduced as Hall of Famer Steve Garvey,’’ he said. “I don’t want to stop someone and say, 'No, I’m not quite there yet.’ But most people think I’m in the Hall of Fame.
“If you just look at the big numbers, it’s probably not there for me but if you put all these unique things together — the National League consecutive game streak, 193 games without an error, arguably the greatest All-Star (game) career, five NLCS wins and a world champion in “81. All these things add up.’’
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.