Here's a favorite story from the book, and because our Seattle Mariners are on the cusp of making the playoffs for the first time in twenty years, it seems apropos. Al was a guy I worked with in San Diego and one of the most remarkable people I've ever known.
At Cubic Corporation, I met a man who would become one of my best friends for several years. His name was Al Backlund, and he was one of the most remarkable men I've ever met. I think Al was in his forties when we met, and I was in my mid-to-late 20s. He was a scheduler in the planning office at Cubic. He had a great sense of humor and always had a big smile for everyone. Al liked his beer, and we became beer-drinking buddies.
When Al was a small boy, about six, I think, he and his older sister were on their way to the store; doing a little math, this was probably somewhere in the 1930s. His sister was pulling him in a wagon when an out-of-control car jumped the curb and struck both of them.
Al's sister was thrown across the street, breaking both of her legs. Al's right side was wedged between the bumper and the radiator of the old car. The woman driving the car panicked and dragged Al under the car for about a block, breaking nearly every bone on the left side of his body.
Al spent the better part of the next twelve years in and out of Shriner's hospitals, getting numerous operations to repair the damage to his body. When they were finished, Al had at least one steel plate in his head, he was blind in the left eye, two or three fingers on his left hand were stiff, and both his knee and ankle on the left side were pinned in such a way that they wouldn't flex. The fact that he survived in those days with that much damage is miraculous.
Most of us would probably have curled up and waited to die rather than go through all that. Al Backlund didn't; he was about a seven handicap golfer, carried an average in the upper 170's in bowling, and loved to play volleyball at the company picnics, not to mention heading off into the brush with some good looking woman from the front offices.
Al also had the best memory for baseball trivia I have ever encountered. He was a baseball fanatic. During his many years in the hospital, he read, listened to, slept, watched, ate, and breathed baseball. You could ask him who won the National League batting championship in 1948, and he would not only tell you who it was, he would give you the average, the RBIs, strikeouts, and walks. He had a great baseball mind.
My favorite baseball story about Al was in 1969, the year the Mets won it all. I think I made about three hundred dollars in baseball pools that year and $50 from Al. As I said, Al was a baseball pro and a walking baseball encyclopedia, and he was also a big Baltimore Oriole fan.
Like most people, I was tickled with the underdog Mets getting into the World Series. If I mentioned the Mets to Al, he would go ballistic. "They don't even belong on the same fucking field with the Orioles," he would bellow.
The Orioles won the first game of the Series, and Al and I were having a beer after work. I mentioned the game, and Al went bonkers. I couldn't help chiding him a little and suggested that the Mets were going to win the whole thing. Al was so mad at that comment that he was spitting on me when he talked. The madder he got, the cockier I became. I finally declared," Not only are the Mets going to win, but they are going to sweep the next four games and win it in five."
That was more than Al could handle. He was hot, beet-red in the face, hot. He couldn't get his wallet out fast enough as he spat, "Bullshit! I have $50 that says the Mets can't win, let alone sweep the next four games! Those bums don't even belong on the same field as the Orioles."
I wouldn't let up. "I would hate to take your money, Al." and pushed the money back toward him.
I think Al came as close to knocking me on my ass as he ever had since we had been friends. I think he would have tolerated me berating his mother easier than making that kind of statement about his Orioles. The bet was on.
If you know baseball history, you know that the Mets did sweep the next four games and took the Series in five games. I don't think Al ever forgave me for calling that one right; I know he never forgave the Orioles. I’d been totally talking out of my ass about the Mets.
I tried to refuse the money, telling him I was full of crap, that I was just shooting off my mouth, but Al insisted on paying. He said a bet was a bet, and he always paid his bets. I felt terrible for Al because his Orioles had betrayed him; it was like being jilted by a lover for him. He was right, the Orioles were the best team and should have won walking away, but the Mets had hitched a ride on a shooting star that year. Like they say, "On any given day…".