Homer at the Bat, Casey in the Dugout

by Jason Epstein

On February 20, 1992, the National Pastime was king. More accurately, cartoon baseball ruled. Even more succintly, The Simpsons episode, “Homer At The Bat,” aired on FOX and America gave it more love than either The Cosby Show on NBC or the Winter Olympics on CBS. Erik Malinowski of Deadspin looks back at this historic episode’s plot, how it came to fruition despite several obstacles, and the show’s influence on the national stage in the early 90s.

Among Malinowski’s observations:

Aside from the logistics of recording nine separate guest roles, plot lines had to be rewritten on the fly. Jose Canseco’s scene originally called for him and Mrs. Krabappel to engage in Bull Durham-inspired extramarital shenanigans. Canseco’s wife rejected the scene, and the staff had to do a last-minute Saturday afternoon rewrite when Oakland came south on a mid-August road trip.

Instead of Lothario, Canseco got to play hero, rushing into a woman’s burning house to rescue her baby, then cat, followed by a player piano, washer, dryer, couch and recliner combo, high chair, TV, rug, kitchen table and chairs, lamp, and grandfather clock. Requesting the new sequence turned out to be the wiser move. Canseco and his wife had nearly divorced earlier that year before reconciling, and a week before “Homer at the Bat” aired, Canseco was arrested by Miami police for chasing down and ramming his wife’s BMW twice with his red Porsche at 4:30 a.m. After the chase ended, he allegedly got out of his car, came over to his wife’s driver-side window, and spit on it. . . .

And for all the “very special episode” feel of “Homer at the Bat,” it certainly doesn’t go easy on its targets. This wasn’t Mel Allen doing bloopers on This Week in Baseball. Nor was this the game “designed to break your heart.” This was a far more bemused look at the putative national pastime. Coaches’ inspirational talk is often clichéd gibberish? You bet. Ballplayers sometimes drink too much and get into barroom trouble? Hell yeah, they do. Acute radiation poisoning, cranial gigantism, and pits of eternal darkness? Meet your 2011 Red Sox. And because there were actual, living ballplayers in the show, every manic twist carried the added fillip that we were looking in on something we weren’t supposed to see, something funny and unauthorized. This was Ball Four’s demented stepson. . . .

“Homer at the Bat” was proof you could see baseball in all its silliness and still love the game. Even the stars who were both target and participant in the spoof remember the episode fondly. Ozzie Smith is generally regarded as the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history. He has played in three World Series, and he’s earned election to the Hall of Fame—and yet he still gets questions from fans about The Simpsons whenever he does a card show or some other event. He can’t escape it, but with no hesitation, he reckons his tumble into the Springfield Mystery Spot to be one of the highlights of his career.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte remembers going to cover the Mets’ inaugural spring training in 1962. This must-read about the soon-to-be lovable losers includes fun quotes from manager Casey Stengel, a promising young pitcher named Jay Hook, and former Phillie great Richie Ashburn.

Lipsyte’s anecdotes include these gems:

. . . Actually, this fit with the more relaxed mood of that day. The news media had almost total access to the clubhouse and to Miller Huggins Field. Eavesdropping on players took no skill at all. I remember how a light-hitting utility infielder named Ted Lepcio, who had played 10 years for five clubs, liked to rank on Richie Ashburn. He followed him around the field one day, saying, “Tell them how I was your bat boy in Utica, Richie.”

At first, Ashburn pretended not to hear him, but Lepcio wouldn’t let up. He raised his voice. “Bunch of cocky rookies in Utica in 1945, and I was the bat boy.”

Ashburn, a most amiable man, must have suddenly felt his age because he wheeled on Lepcio and snapped, “You were a lousy bat boy.”

Lepcio was released before the season began. Ashburn hit .306 for the Mets that season, then went on to a brilliant broadcasting career and the Hall of Fame. . . .

Hook told me he expected to do well with the Mets because he would finally have a chance to play. The previous season, his last with Cincinnati, he caught the mumps and mononucleosis and sat out the pennant drive and a World Series loss to the Yankees.

This time, Hook got his playing time. He started and lost the Mets’ first spring training game, at Al Lang Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. There were portents. A historian from the Hall of Fame locked himself in the press box bathroom and missed most of the game. When he emerged, he said, “Now I’ve seen everything.” When the game was over, a fan uttered the mantra of the next seven years: “Same old Mets.”

More here. (Thanks to Sheldon Green and Gil Kapen for the tip.)

EDIT: For those of you who missed yesterday afternoon’s news — okay, I was probably the only one in the dark, being seven time zones away at the moment — Manny Ramirez has signed a minor league deal with the A’s. MLB Trade Rumors has the basics here, including the reminder that Manny will first need to serve his 50-game suspension for having tested positive for performance enhancing narcotics, meaning that he will not see big league action until June at the earliest.

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