Interview Date: 2/28/16
“I spent my childhood picking cotton and corn, dreaming of two things: a good woman and baseball. I was fortunate enough to find both.”
Close your eyes and picture a fastball screaming toward you. Envision it rolling off of a fingertip, gravity unable to pull it down out of the strike zone. Now make eye contact with the man that threw it. How does it feel? Are you nervous, overmatched, confident, or even amused? Would it change how you feel if I told you that the man that threw the ball was Dave Eilers?
Dave Eilers is not a name that strikes fear in the collective consciousness of baseball fans. Even longtime fans of the game would struggle to even come up with a team that put him on the field. It is time to give Eilers the respect he deserves. He beat some of the best to ever play the game, hung up his shoes, and walked off into the sunset.
“My best year was with the Astros, but my first win came with the Mets. I beat Sandy Koufax. Not a bad way to show the Braves that they had made a mistake in sending me away. Growing up on a farm gave me a lot of strength. The pitching motion wasn’t much different from the motion I used to harvest corn.”
Eilers cradled the phone against his shoulder as he whispered to his wife, Sara. “What was his name? My roommate?” A soft, gentle voice would answer almost inaudibly. “Seaver.”
“Yes! Tom Seaver! My roommate with the Mets was Tom Seaver. We spent a lot of time together back then. One of the greatest parts of playing in the Majors was whom I got to play with. Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Joe Torre, Seaver, um…” and you could hear him whisper to his wife again and listen, “Eddie Mathews! Yogi Berra. I bet you didn’t even know he played for the Mets. The day I was traded to the Mets, Casey Stengel gave his farewell address. I never played for him, but I was there for that speech. It was a very powerful moment.”
For Eilers, his baseball career was not about glory. Naturally, he wanted to win. He wanted to own a World Series ring and be emulated by every boy picking cotton in Texas, but it was all about the experience. He had been to almost every major city in the United States. He partied with legends of baseball. He visited the World’s Fair in New York City. And then he was released. No warning, just unemployed. It was over.
“I went home to my wife. I had no idea what I was going to do. Then the Astros called and asked if I was released because of a medical issue. It was a second chance and I planned to make the most of it.”
And he did. 1967 in Houston was a career-defining year. It was the jumping-off point of a great career. “My favorite year in baseball. I had amazing teammates. Aspromonte, Sonny Jackson, Grady Hatton. Amazing guys. Plus I was close to home. I was able to actually live at home with my wife, which was what I always wished I could do. My childhood friends could come to watch me play. It was a dream come true. There is no baseball city like Houston. New York is so intense. Milwaukee barely tolerated the team. Houston loved baseball.” Eilers looked unstoppable. He was happy. He could pitch. It was all going perfectly.
“Then came that pitch. You need to know one thing about life. It all changes over something little. I threw one bad pitch and pulled a muscle in my back. No big deal. Except it never healed. I couldn’t reach back all the way. It took just a little speed off of my fastball and it was over. To this day there is still a knot. It doesn’t hurt, but it ended my baseball career.”
As he told the story, he would periodically get very quiet and you could hear Sara talking softly next to him. “When it was time for me to walk away, I walked away. I love baseball. I love Houston. But I had to be honest and realize that it was over. I have never been back to even watch a game. Can I ask you a question?”
This was new. Sure. “Why do you care? I get these letters. Two or three a week. For a while, I thought it was kids, but I realized it was more people like you. Adults. Why do you write to me?”
Wow. Let me think how to word this. I think we are all looking for a piece of our childhood. We all love baseball, but more importantly, I think we want to feel a connection with those that play the game we love. We will never be like legends. Who can live up to that? But we can make a very real connection with a man that grew up poor, picking cotton, working every day to survive. If that man can reach his dreams, so can we. I think that is why we do it.
The line was silent.
“It means a lot that people still write to me. Thank you.”
Thank you, Mr. Eilers. Thank you.