In telling the story of the wild, weird, wacky Portland Mavericks baseball team, we could start with the outfielder, Reggie Thomas, who once pulled a gun on the manager because he didn’t see his name on the lineup card.
The same manager who put his meagerly paid ballplayers to work tending bar at one of the Portland establishments he owned.
“My bars were our farm system,’’ says Frank Peters.
A compelling new documentary from Netflix, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” — the evocative phrase comes from Jim Bouton’s classic book, “Ball Four” — tells the story of the Mavericks, who existed for a mere five seasons, 1973-77, but live on in legend and lore as the nuttiest baseball team in Northwest history.
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A full-length movie is said to be in the works — “a baseball version of ‘Slap Shot,’ with a dog,’’ surmises Bouton, who was a 36-year-old knuckleball pitcher for the Mavericks.
Yeah, we could start with the team’s mascot dog, a black Labrador puppy that would be turned loose on the field whenever a relief pitcher needed more time to warm up, or a distraction of some sort was called for. The manic pooch would race around the field, eluding umpires and cops, often ending up at home plate to deposit a, uh, present.
“The place went nuts. That dog understood about stagecraft,’’ says Bouton.
Or we could start with the left-handed catcher, Jim Swanson, who later would pitch batting practice to the Mariners and own his own bar, Swannie’s, in Pioneer Square. Swanson doubled as Peters’ bodyguard, charged with protecting him from unruly fans, opponents — even members of his own team.
“He saved my life once,’’ Peters says. “At a team party, one of the players threw a table at me. Swannie said, ‘Frank, duck!’ Earned his salary right there. Shouldn’t be partying with the players, anyway. I did. That’s where the fun was.”
Bouton probably would have written a “Ball Four”-type book about his Mavericks experiences in the mid-’70s if he hadn’t already famously chronicled his season with the Seattle Pilots in 1969.
Bouton once said of the Mavericks, “It was the only team that ever made sense.”
Today, Bouton is 75 and hasn’t changed his opinion a bit, even though making sense of this improbable collection of renegade ballplayers and executives forces one to wrap their mind around a notion of professional baseball that might never exist again.
“Guys on the Mavericks were there for the right reasons,’’ Bouton says in a phone interview. “We wanted to play ball. We were at the end of the line, trying to scramble, put something together and get on the field, against all odds. That’s how badly the game of baseball grips you.”
They were owned by actor Bing Russell, who played Deputy Clem Foster on “Bonanza” and estimates he was killed 123 times in his TV shows and movies. The Class AAA Portland Beavers, tired of playing to a near-empty Civic Stadium, moved to Spokane after the 1972 season. That left the territory open, and actor Kurt Russell urged his dad, Bing, a lifelong baseball fanatic who used to hang out with Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio, to give it a whirl.
Yeah, the same Kurt Russell who was a child Disney star (“Kind of like Hannah Montana,” said Peters) when he was signed by the Angels in 1971, only to have his minor-league career flame out because of a rotator-cuff injury.
Bing liked the idea, shelled out $5,000 to buy the territorial rights, and launched the Mavericks to play in the Class A Northwest League. Kurt, the future Snake Plissken in “Escape From New York,” played second base or DH when he was healthy enough.
While the other teams in the league, in places like Bellingham, Walla Walla, Eugene and Lewiston, were affiliated with major-league teams, the Mavericks were independent, one of the last such ballclubs in the minor leagues. The tone was set when the bright red team bus — painted to match the “streetwalker” red uniforms worn by the Mavericks — was adorned with a sign that mistakenly said, “Portland’s Maverick Baseball Team.”
The apostrophe was perfect. They were a maverick baseball team, all right. Bing loved it, and it stayed.
Ah, the bus. We could have started there, too. It was Swanson who came up with the idea of putting a loudspeaker on it. They’d roll into town and cruise down Main Street, blaring out, “Here come the bad, bad Portland Mavericks. Lock up your daughters … ”
“The bus was a personality all in itself,’’ says Bouton.
With a purpose: “We filled up every stadium we went to, just to boo us,’’ said Swanson.
Peters used to say he had no rules, except one: Dope smokers to the back of the bus. Hey, it was the 1970s. The seats had been replaced by mattresses, and players would often flood one side to moon innocent pedestrians.
Against all odds, this team won — four division titles in five years. While other teams were populated with high draft picks — Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Dave Stewart, Mike Scioscia and Pedro Guerrero all faced Portland — the Mavericks had to find players by any means necessary. Most, like Swanson, came via open tryouts.
“There were 300 or 400 people there the first day,’’ said Swanson, who had played outfield at Central Washington University. “I said, ‘What the heck is this?’ ’’
Swanson took a few fly balls until his father motioned him to the stands and told him to get his catcher’s glove.
“Those catchers suck,’’ his dad told him. “You’re better than all of them.”
That had been Swannie’s position growing up, but there were no opportunities at the higher levels for a southpaw catcher. Until now.
“I threw out two or three guys in a scrimmage game …’’ Swanson recalled. “Bing says, ‘That SOB is left-handed … I want him.’ ”
The idea of a left-handed catcher — deemed by the baseball establishment as having a disadvantage throwing out baserunners — appealed to Russell’s maverick sensibilities. The team also featured Larry Colton, who would be later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Rob Nelson, who while shooting the breeze with Bouton and Swanson in the Mavericks’ bullpen came up with the idea of “Big League Chew,’’ a bubble-gum substitute for chewing tobacco they sold to Wrigley.
Even the batboy, Todd Field, has a back story. He went on to become an Academy Award-nominated director for the 2001 film, “In The Bedroom.”
The Mavericks were older than their rookie-laden foes, and they flaunted it. They were known for bar brawls after (and sometimes before) games, and ragging umpires mercilessly during them. Some of the stories might have been embellished over time, but the Mavericks claim to have been barred from staying in just about every city in the Northwest League for various indiscretions.
“One year, we were sleeping in the state park,’’ said Peters.
“We were just cocky, and we didn’t give a (bleep),’’ said Swanson, 61 and working in the greeter’s cottage at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Kittitas County. “We wanted to kick your ass. Other teams tried to intimidate us sometimes, and we’d just laugh at them. We played as hard as we could between the lines. And we played harder outside the lines afterward.”
You were guaranteed a zany time at a Mavericks game. One player, Joe Garza, was given the task of waving a broom atop the dugout — often ablaze as a makeshift torch — whenever the Mavericks won the first two games of a three-game series. A sweep became known as a “joegarza.”
Peters, one of four Mavericks managers in their five years, once got so mad at an ump he uprooted second base at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle, which was in the Northwest League for five seasons between the Pilots and Mariners. He locked himself in the clubhouse with the base, leading to a Mavericks forfeit. Peters returned the base for the second game of the doubleheader, but not before Mavericks players had written profanity all over it.
Fans responded, too. Portland had been drawing a mere 91,907 fans for 74 games at Civic Stadium in 1972. At the same venue, the Mavericks attracted a short-season Class A-record 83,397 fans in 1973 — for just 40 games — and more than 125,000 in their final season.
In fact, they were so successful that Portland decided to bring back AAA baseball in 1978. They offered Russell $26,000 to buy back their territorial rights. He said, stick a zero in there — $206,000 — and you’ve got a deal. The case went to court, and Russell won.
Swanson remembers being shaken by the news that their wild ride was over. Most of the Mavericks players knew they had no baseball future anywhere else.
“We just sat there for an hour in the clubhouse and didn’t move,’’ he said of the last game.
But Bouton — who would make it back to the majors in 1978 for five games — remembers a feeling more like contentment.
“We couldn’t do better,’’ he said. “The games were over, it was time to go. We didn’t want to linger. We wanted to have our best memories.”
The Mavericks never won the Northwest League title, but they came so close in 1977 that Bing Russell ordered championship rings.
Bouton confirms that they were fitted for their middle fingers.