Bud Smith, a No-Hitter and a Dive Bar in Kirksville, Missouri
Do you remember where you were when Bud Smith made history?
If the answer to that question is "no," don't feel bad. I realize that it's not quite on par with the day JFK got shot. But hey, it is Cardinal history, after all.
On September 3rd, 2001, Bud Smith became only the 18th rookie in the history of baseball to throw a no-hitter.
He did it in San Diego, twirling a repertoire of slow, slower, and slowest as he baffled Padres hitters over 134 pitches. Of course, given the way Smith's career ended up, with labrum troubles forcing him into retirement while still in his twenties, that pitch count has been scrutinized in the years since. Whether throwing that many pitches contributed to his downfall is a question for some other time. I just wanted to share with you my own memory of the night that Bud threw his no-no.
The reason I was in Kirksville was, as most things in life are, because of a girl. She was attending Truman University that autumn, having transferred there after our relationship had gone bad in February. I'll call her Rachel, because that is her name.
In September of 2001, my current girlfriend and I were having problems. It would be a better story, I'm sure, if I could recall the source of our troubles, but for the life of me, I just don't remember anymore. I suppose it doesn't matter all that much at this late date. Anyhow, as is often the case in my life, with things going bad on the home front, I decided that what I really needed was to just get away. I was 21 years old, cared nothing for my job, and was well on my way to becoming a college dropout. If ever there was a time to just get up and go, this was it.
And so I went. Rachel had an off-campus apartment, and I arrived there in the middle of the night on Sunday. I had called her on the way, telling her only that I needed to see her. She didn't even bother trying to refuse; she had long ago realized it was useless. Rachel was always a sucker for strays, and I certainly fit the bill.
Her roommate Kerry answered the door and glared at me through her cat's-eye glasses. Kerry was a bit of a cliché, a girl in her sophomore year of college trying to decide whether she wanted to be straight, gay or just split the difference. She also happened to have a poorly concealed crush on Rachel and wasn't at all happy that the sentiment seemed less than mutual.
I spent the night there. I ate the leftover pizza the two of them had had for dinner and drank the last two beers in the fridge. Rachel and I went to bed and made love, after which she lay there and listened to me recount all my problems with the woman in my life. Never mind that it killed her to do it; Rachel was one of those horribly understanding women who inevitably get used by men like me for most of their lives. She gave me advice; not just advice, but good advice. She told me how to fix my relationship, then never protested when I started kissing her again.
She had class on Monday, and we went out to dinner that night. Sitting in some vulgar chain restaurant, just which one I won't say, my cell phone rang. It was my girlfriend, wanting to know exactly where in the hell I was. I took the call, went outside, and said all the right things. All the things, in fact, that Rachel had told me to say the night before. I was sitting on the hood of my car, still on the phone, when suddenly Rachel walks up, grabs the phone, and hangs it up. It was then I noticed that I had been out there for almost two hours.
Well, we had quite a row in the parking lot, made worse by the fact that my girlfriend kept calling me. Every time the phone would ring, Rachel would start striding off, ready to walk the six blocks from the restaurant back to her apartment. Each time, I would grab her and haul her back, trying to calm her down. Eventually I gave up, shouted something obscene toward her retreating back, and jumped in the car to drive home.
Flipping through the radio stations, I found nothing to suit my fancy, and my CD player was on the fritz. I turned over to the ballgame, into the fourth inning of a no-hit bid. I remember immediately thinking that I had to call and tell Rachel, and I actually started to pick up the phone before I remembered that I was in this car and driving alone because of her.
I had planned to just drive through the night back home, but I changed my plans. Looking for someplace, anyplace, that might have a television, I stumbled on a ramshackle old sports bar over in the older section of town. It was Monday night, deserted, and I found myself one of only two patrons; the other was an older man already well into his cups.
The sixth inning came and went without a hit, and I bought the man a drink for good luck. We watched, enraptured, as the seventh inning passed, still no hits. He bought me one for luck this time. They mentioned Smith's pitch count at the end of the seventh; it was 115 by then. The bartender muttered about how Tony La Russa had better not be taking the kid out when he's going like he was, and both of us on the other side of the bar murmured our agreement. We abided by the code, though, and never mentioned the no-hitter by name, afraid that this bar, 800 miles from San Diego, might just be what ruined it all.
By the time the eighth inning got there, we were downing shots and beer for luck with each successive hitter that went down. Tony Gwynn came in to pinch hit, having been relegated to the bench by twenty years of poundings to his knees. We all held our breath as Gwynn shot a grounder to short; the reputation alone was enough to convince us all that it was a hit. Edgar Renteria ranged slightly to his right, gloved it, and threw across. Another round, barkeep.
In the ninth, the drinks were free, all three of us convinced we were seeing something magical. We might have been lifelong friends, gone to a thousand games just like this one together, instead of three strangers in an empty bar with a chromatically challenged big-screen. We screamed at the ump with each called ball; we cheered with each strike. When Phil Nevin made the final out, on a smash back to Smith himself, we all three went crazy, jumping around the bar, whooping and hugging each other. We had no doubt that we had played an integral part in this particular bit of history.
We stayed for another hour, past closing time, actually, watching the postgame show. We laughed when Smith was interviewed and referred to "Mr. Gwynn" as the only hitter who made him nervous. We drank some more and celebrated some more, and then we drank some more.
It was 1:30 a.m. by the time I walked out of that place, and by then I was too drunk to drive home. I went back to Rachel's, and of course she let me in. I believe I told you before she had a thing for strays.
I spent the night with her one last time, and told her again and again about the no-hitter. She had seen most of it herself, of course, having turned on the game when she got home from our ill-fated date, but she never once complained. She just watched me with shining, gorgeous eyes as I jumped around her bed, recounting every last out. I had temporarily become a child again, and she adored me for it.
I left the next morning, and went back to my life. I made up with my girlfriend, and we staggered along for god only knows how much longer, a death march that neither of us was smart enough to give up. The next time I called Rachel, she said she was getting married. It wasn't true; I suspected it then and found out for sure later, but she had finally wised up and decided she had to defend her heart a little better. I haven't spoken to her again. I figured it was the least I could do.
I don't often think about these sorts of things. I keep them locked away, for fear that exposing them to the light too much might cause them to fade. But any time I hear about Bud Smith and his day in the sun, I can't help but go back to that grimy, empty little bar on the outskirts of a college town.
It really is magic, you know. All of it.