Sometimes I wonder about Othyus Jeffers.
Let's be honest: he's a long-shot to even make an NBA team again, so last year's stint with the Jazz may have been it for his NBA career. 14 games, 72 minutes, 37 points, 1 assist, 19 rebounds. He never had a dramatic moment like Sunny G did—really I remember his warmup pants more than anything else.
So what will be his story? What will he tells his kids and grandchildren, years and years from now—when they're young enough to understand a bit of what it means and takes just to make the NBA? What will be the moments he smiles about while reliving?
Or will he talk about it at all? Will anyone know enough to ask?
I'm going to talk baseball a bit, because ... well, you'll see why in a moment.
Slugger Dick Allen played major league baseball from 1963 to 1977. He was Rookie of the Year in 1964 and MVP in 1972. He played in 7 All Star Games, hit over .300 seven seasons, smashed 351 home runs in his career, and struck out 1551 times.
During the 1969 season, he faced a rookie pitcher playing for the Cincinatti Reds a single time. Allen hit a home run. He faced the same pitcher again in 1970, again just a single at bat. This time Allen struck out. They were just two minor blips in a near Hall of Fame career.
But for the pitcher, those two minor blips were rather significant. He played only two seasons, appeared in 13 games, and pitched 25 total innings. He gave up only one home run, and struck out only 10 batters—none of whom were a bigger name than Dick Allen. That home run and strike out may have been the high and low points of his major league pitching career.
That pitcher’s name was John Noriega. He was my next door neighbor.
And he wasn’t the kind of next door neighbor you see but never get to know. He went to church with my family, he was in a book club with my mom, and his youngest son was just a year older than me. There were dozens of times John Noriega was working in his yard and came over to recruit me to help him out.
He was that kind of guy — he believed that everyone needed to work, that hard work could accomplish most anything, and that most of society’s problems were from kids not learning to work. And so he made sure his kids knew how to work. And he made sure his neighbors’ kids learned to work, which usually that meant me.
So I knew John Noriega pretty well. I also loved baseball, and by the time I was 15 I had immersed myself in its history. And I knew John had pitched for the Reds. His wife was my Sunday School teacher for a time, and she brought his jersey, his championship stuff, photos ... all his old stuff.
I wonder now why I never asked him anything. He knew Pete Rose. What did he think about him? I don't know. He played with Rose, Johnny Bench, Dave Conception, Tony Perez, and Hal McRae. I particularly wonder about Johnny Bench. What was it like, pitching with him as the catcher. How did he call pitches? How often did John Noriega wave off a signal?
I went to Baseball-Reference recently, just to look up stuff about my neighbor. Because I had never asked him anything. I had known for years that he had pitched for a Reds championship team. I had always assumed it was the 1975 champs. It wasn't. It was the 1970 National League Champions that lost to the Orioles in the World Series. I can't believe I didn't know that until a few days ago.
John Noriega's World Series dreams had been snuffed up by the Human Vacuum Cleaner at third base, just like the rest of the teams'. What was it like watching Brooks Robinson do his thing—and watching from the Reds dugout or bullpen? I wish I could answer. But I never asked.
There are other stats that interest me. Willie McCovey had three at bats against John Noriega, and he never got a hit. 0 for 3. I wish I could have heard about those at bats. John Noriega came up to bat 4 times. He got one hit. That gives him a .250 lifetime batting average—not bad for a pitcher. What was that hit like? Did it keep a rally alive? Or was it nothing? A two-out single followed by a hitter popping up to first base?
Another thing that fascinates me now. He pitched in 13 games, all of which the Reds lost. He also never recorded either a win or a loss. His record was 0-0. He was thrown into games the Reds were already far behind, just to give the kid a chance to do what he can. Did he ever feel like he had earned the chance to pitch in a game that mattered? One in which the win or loss was still in doubt? What would he have given to pitch in that kind of game?
These are the things I wish I had asked.
I can't ask them now, because John Noriega passed away in 2001.
And still I can't get over that I never asked. We all knew he played in the big leagues. He was proud of it. He loved baseball. His summers were spent catching pitches from his son: teaching, critiquing, enjoying the sound of baseballs striking leather—little cracks of thunder echoing off the fence. Sometimes the pitch would go wild, sailing over the fence into my back yard, like shrapnel ready to kill. You don't know how fast a 95 mph baseball really is until you see it coming at your head.
He would have pitched longer than he did. Even minor league ball. He quit because his wife was done—the minor league lifestyle is particularly hard on families—bouncing around from team to team, long hot bus rides, lousy pay. And so he quit. Of course, it was not John Noriega who told me this—I never asked. It was his wife. She mentioned it once at church, in my Sunday School class, spoken with a mixture of regret and gratitude.
Instead I remember other things. Getting asked over to help cut back the grape vines and haul dead branches to the curb for spring cleanup. The war books he chose to read for the book club. The tales of river rafting trips he took down the Green River each summer. And the one time—just one time—he showed me how to pitch a curve ball. I could never get the hang of it.
* * *
And so we come back to Othyus Jeffers. And all the other guys who just barely make it to the NBA.
If I was a sports reporter or columnist, those are the guys I'd ache to meet, to interview, to ask questions. If last year's stint with the Jazz really is it for OJ's career—what was the highlight? What was the moment he'll always smile and remember? Does he know his warmup pants became legendary among a certain small and overly obsessive group of Jazz fans? What would he think of that? Is there a story behind it? And how many other tiny moments—a particular layup, a free throw, one specific steal, or even a possession in which he never touched the ball—how many moments had an entire story behind them?
After pouring through everything I could find about John Noriega, I created story—the Dick Allen homerun and strikeout—a story to impose as the great story of his pitching career. The only home run he gave up and the biggest name he ever struck out. And as fate would have it, it was the same guy. A pretty well-known guy. A hitter who mattered in MLB for 14 years.
But I don't know if it really was the story. Because I never thought to ask to hear the story until it was too late.