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YOUTHFUL BLISS RUINED BY INFIELDER

By Mike Hudson

It was a blustery April morning in Cleveland, and 11-year-old boys on both sides of the Cuyahoga trundled off to school along streets flanked by hardened, exhaust-blackened snow banks, beginning to melt in the sun then, inky water flowing in tiny rivulets toward the open sewer grates. There was a certain excitement in the chill spring air, news from far-off California, where it never got cold and the sun was always shining. At bus stops from Mayfield Road to Clifton Boulevard, Gus Gil, the rookie second baseman the Indians picked up during the off season, was the center of our attention.

He'd torn things up the previous night in Kansas City and was now preparing to do the same against the hated California Angels. "Ain't no Angels in California," somebody said, and we all agreed. Gus Gil, with his Latin good looks and a name that rolled like poetry off the tongue. If, as T.S. Eliot wrote, April is the cruelest month, it came that year in the form of Gus Gil, who by the end of the season had broken our hearts and become the most truly awful hitter in Tribe history.

Born on April 19, 1939, in Venezuela, Tomas Gustavo (Guillen) Gil spent his own childhood playing baseball on the mean streets of Caracas. But unlike his countrymen, Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion and Chico Carrasquel, Gil played badly terribly, in fact.

On the final day of 1957, desultory fighting broke out in the capital and the Venezuelan dictator Perez Jimenez fled into exile with the national treasury. To escape the economic destitution and political turmoil that accompanied the overthrow, Gil left his homeland and journeyed northward, where he somehow got into the United States and was picked up by the Cincinnati Redlegs organization as part of the 1959 amateur draft. He languished in the Cincinnati farm system and was well on his way to becoming a career minor leaguer when, on Oct. 15, 1966, luck again intervened and his contract was purchased outright by the Cleveland Indians.

The Tribe had gone 81-81 and finished fifth that year, a feat that was regarded as something of an overachievement by baseball writers of the day. The club was particularly weak in the infield, where third baseman Max Alvis was the best hitter, despite a barely adequate .245 average, with 15 homers and 55 runs batted in. To make matters worse, second baseman Pedro Gonzalez and shortstop Larry Brown had combined for 23 errors. Suddenly, the thought of a 28-year-old rookie who was good with a glove and couldn't speak English seemed attractive.

Tribe manager Joe Adcock, fed up with his error-prone and light-hitting infield, heralded Gil during spring training the next season as "my second basemen this year, no matter what."

They were words Adcock would live to regret.

On Tuesday, April 11, 1967, Gus Gil made his Major League debut at second base in the Tribe's 4-3 loss to the Kansas City Athletics. Batting sixth in the lineup, Gil first reached base in the second on a throwing error by Kansas City third baseman Ed Charles. After advancing to second on a Duke Sims walk, Gil scored on a Larry Brown single to right field.

In the top of the sixth, Gil singled, then scored on a Sims double. Finally, in the eighth, he fell victim to fireman Jack Aker's sidearm sinkerball and struck out on three straight pitches.

The scorecard that day credited Gil with a hit, a walk and two runs scored in three official at bats. He left the game with a batting average of .333 and an OPS of .833. That night, he went out with his new teammates and ordered the best steak Kansas City had to offer. It was to be the high point of his Indians career and a brief shining moment in the lives of countless kids on the street corners of Cleveland.

A couple of days later, as the Tribe lost to the California Angels in Anaheim, Gil went 0-for-4 and his batting average toppled to .143. A flyball to the right fielder was followed by a flyball to the center fielder. Then he grounded into a double play before ending the day with another flyball out to center.

He repeated his 0-for-4 performance the following afternoon, this time striking out twice, and his average sunk to .091. Over the next couple of weeks, Gil rebounded a bit before ending his April by going 0-for-6 in a double header at Comiskey Park against the White Sox. Then things started to go really bad. The highly touted rookie phenom suffered a drought that was to last for the rest of the summer, going hitless in 40 at bats between April 30 and Sept. 8. It was a feat unrivaled in Indians history.

On the East Side, kids began clothes-pinning Gil's baseball card to the front wheels of their bicycles to imitate the noise produced by a motor, something that had never been done to the cards of any Cleveland player. One can only imagine what ghastly fate the cards suffered on the West Side. On the back of the card, it said Gil worked as a draftsman during the off season, but by then our hearts had hardened. We didn't care what he did.

It wasn't long before Cleveland manager Joe Adcock was publicly regretting his decision to replace Pedro Gonzalez with the aging Venezuelan import, and Gil began spending more and more time on the bench. It didn't help. The Tribe finished 17 games out of first in 1967, with only New York and Kansas City trailing in the American League.

In all, Gil appeared in 51 games with the Indians that year, finishing with a .115 average in 96 at bats, with 11 hits and nine bases on balls. The front office shuttled him back down to the minors for further seasoning and, in May, 1968, sent him out to Seattle in return for a reported box of popcorn and three postage stamps. In 1969, Gil would become a fan favorite during the first and only season of Major League baseball played by the woeful Seattle Pilots.

Gil finished out his playing career, if you could call it that, a couple of years later in Milwaukee, under the infamous general manager Frank "Trader" Lane. He was used, astonishingly, as a pinch-hitter, perhaps when the weather turned bad and the beleaguered Brewers fans were anxious to get indoors. Like many other players before and since, old Gus just never got any better.

He later served as a minor league coach with the Orioles, Yankees and Brewers organizations, and today lives in Alexandria, Va., where he works for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization.

He lives on as well in the hearts and minds of a certain breed of men, fifty-somethings who grew up in Cleveland and followed the Tribe, men who learned early on that the promise of spring more often than not holds only the seeds of bitter disappointment.

Thanks a lot for that, Gus. Thanks a whole hell of a lot. For better or worse, you and others like you ruined our childhoods and made us all so much tougher than Yankees fans can even imagine.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 25 2007