10th of Jun | Story

Straight shooter


OKLAHOMA CITY | Burt Hooton will not knock baseball, not at all, not for a second. He thinks, though, that parts of the game were better back during the decades when he was still on the mound. “From my first game as a player, 40 years ago, you didn’t have the Internet, you didn’t have the media scrutiny, you didn’t have, really, the criticism, day in, day out,” he says, his cap straight, his glasses straight, his words straight. “To me, in some ways, that’s almost invasive of the game of baseball nowadays. Probably taken away some of the purity of it.”

Go ahead and say what you will. The next time Hooton cares about what others say will be the first.

He was once a genuine phenom, after all, nabbed out of the University of Texas by the Chicago Cubs in the secondary phase of the 1971 draft one week and up at Wrigley Field the next. He stumbled in that first start, then spent two dominant months out in Tacoma, Washington — his only stretch in the minors over 15 strong seasons — before he returned to the Cubs. He struck out 15 Mets in his second start and fired a two-hitter against them in his third. The next season, he no-hit the Phillies his first time out.

"I only played two months in Triple-A. I played two months and pitched 102 innings. They look at me like I’m some kind of freak.” — Oklahoma City pitching coach Burt Hooton

There are other highlights, of course. Those three trips to the World Series with the Dodgers stand out. So does the 1981 National League Championship Series, when he pitched 14 2-3 innings and held the Expos without an earned run. And then there was the 1981 World Series, when he pitched 5 1-3 innings and earned the win in Game 6 as the Dodgers finally knocked off the Yankees in New York during their third battle over five postseasons. “The human body,” he says, “can do a whole lot more things than you think it can.”

Hooton is the pitching coach in Oklahoma City now, his eighth season back in Triple-A. He pitched 12 games in the minors. He has coached 17 seasons.

“I didn’t play the minor league years like a lot of guys do,” he says. “I had already signed and gone to the big leagues. They didn’t cut my salary at all. I only played two months in Triple-A. I played two months and pitched 102 innings. They look at me like I’m some kind of freak.”

In the minors, he has coached the Salem Dodgers, the San Antonio Missions, the Albuquerque Dukes, the Round Rock Express and the RedHawks — with parts of four seasons with the Houston Astros mixed in — and everywhere he has been an anachronism, physical proof of a time before pitch counts and innings caps. He prefers silence to unnecessary chatter, refers to radar guns, but only uses them “for the sake of knowledge,” he says, “not for the sake of throwing hard.”

He will not knock baseball, not for a second. He still loves it. Why else would he hang around more than a quarter of a century after his last start? “If you sit down and watch, if you keep your mouth shut and pay attention, you can learn so much just by sitting down and watching,” he says. “I learned so much just by watching Ferguson Jenkins throw a bullpen.” 


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Time for minor league trivia. The RedHawks have played in Oklahoma City every season since 1962, though, like most minor league teams, they have changed their name since that first pitch. Under what nickname did the team play from that inaugural season until 1997? (Keep reading for the answer.)

A night after the New Orleans Zephyrs rallied in the ninth to beat the RedHawks in a game that lasted more than four hours, the teams plugged along at another glacial pace — though the RedHawks picked up the 12-9 win this time and the game ended in a crisp 3 hours, 24 minutes. First baseman Mike Hessman homered in the first and again in the fourth, third baseman Scott Moore homered in the second, and a half-dozen runs in the first two innings provided enough cushion for a RedHawks win. A few hours after the game, the teams boarded the same flight to New Orleans and continued their weeklong home-and-home series down in Louisiana.

For years, the RedHawks were the most popular professional sports team in the city — though, to be honest, they were the only professional sports team in the city for a lot of years. Then the SuperSonics moved from Seattle, branded themselves the Thunder and improved a little bit more every season. In large thanks to forward Kevin Durant, guard Russell Westbrook and coach Scott Brooks, a trip to the NBA Finals proved the next logical step. We arrived in the city with loads of other media, none of them headed for Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. (The Thunder wound up losing the Finals in five games to some team from Florida. Folks in Oklahoma City will probably cheer even more next season.)

Want the answer? Before they played a single game as the RedHawks, the team played thousands as the 89ers — a direct reference to the Land Run of 1889 and the eventual founding of Oklahoma City. The nickname switched after the 1997 season when the team moved to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. (Another team, the Indians, played in Oklahoma City from 1918 until 1957.)

And in random statistical news, the game started one minute early, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter singled to right and a young woman named Taylor Christmon sang the national anthem in 1 minute and 39.6 seconds. We ate well, for a change. Grilled chicken, green beans, potatoes. No hot dogs for us, not in Oklahoma City. We also ate two meals during our time in the city at a local spot called Texadelphia, which features a mad mix of cheesesteaks and Southwestern fare. Sounds weird, tastes delicious, all within walking distance of the park.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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