In his summer of confusion, it figures that Mickey Hatcher's most memorable game has been one he barely remembers.
It was Sunday, June 25, in Cincinnati. Hatcher had just received a surprise phone call from his wife. Their 4-year-old daughter Amy had been hospitalized in Los Angeles after doctors detected a spot on her lung.
Amy is one of two girls with which Hatcher carries on a torrid affair--her 6-year-old sister Brynn is the other. When he's not in uniform, he's with them. He takes them out to lunch. He takes them fishing. He gives them allowances, and then takes them to the toy store to spend it.
He missed them so much last fall that he skipped the workout between the playoffs and World Series to fly home to Arizona. The media assumed he was injured. Turns out, he was just homesick.
"So in Cincinnati I get this call from home about Amy, and you can't help but think the worst," Hatcher said of that June afternoon. "It's the scariest I've ever felt. It's the worst I've ever felt. I'm thinking cancer."
He called Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda and told him he was leaving the team, flying home to be with his daughter. Lasorda agreed. Then Hatcher checked the plane schedule and realized he couldn't depart before the end of Sunday's game anyway.
"So I figure, what the heck, I might as well go to the ballpark," Hatcher said.
Once there, glancing at the lineup card, he had another shock. With left-hander Tom Browning pitching for the Reds, Hatcher was starting.
"I was thinking only about Amy, I was praying only for this game to end and for me to get home," Hatcher said. "I didn't know how I was going to play."
Here's how: A single in the first inning. An run-scoring single in the third inning. An RBI single, and a stolen base, in the fifth inning. Hatcher went three for three and the Dodgers won, 7-0.
"How about that," Hatcher said. "Three hits and I didn't even know where I was."
Afterward he phoned home and received the news--the spot on Amy's lung was not life-threatening. It will need monitoring but, for now, she simply had a case of valley fever. Hatcher flew home with the team the following day to find Amy released from the hospital and home in her own bed.
"I got home and just watched her," he recounted. "I just watched her."
It has been that kind of season. Through part disillusionment and part despair, Hatcher has played on.
On baseball's worst hitting team, he is batting .303 and leads the club with seven pinch-hit runs batted in. But with Eddie Murray at first base, and Mike Marshall healthy in right field, Hatcher has generally been ignored. He has played in just 57 of the club's 94 games, which puts him on a pace to play just 98 games.
"They are treating me like an old, broken down ballplayer," said Hatcher, 34, a couple of weeks ago. He had just spent an afternoon on the bench while the Dodgers batted against Pittsburgh left-hander John Smiley, the kind of pitcher he usually would face.
"It would be different if we were winning, if we were tearing the cover off the ball," Hatcher said. "But it's so hard to be losing and not be given a chance."
His appearances this year will exceed last year's, when he played in just 87 games. But if Hatcher remembers correctly, wasn't last year's ending special? Didn't he come off the bench in late September to produce a highlight film that gave hope to kids with funny faces and crooked walks everywhere?
He had the game-winning RBI Sept. 26 when the Dodgers clinched the Western Division title in San Diego. He dove into a couple of bases and foul lines to inspire the Dodgers to a League Championship Series win over the New York Mets.
Then, of course, came a World Series performance that so rattled baseball's sensibilities, he was almost named most valuable player for it. He homered in Game 1, sprinting around the bases in the process. He homered in Game 5, running even faster this time. In between he led everyone with high fives and raised fists and dirt. He had a .368 average with five RBIs and became famous.
Hatcher has learned that attention doesn't make him happy. What makes him happy this year is what made him happy last year, when he was known only as that goofy guy who used to play with the Minnesota Twins.
"All I've ever cared about is playing for a winning team--I said that last year and I'm the same person this year," Hatcher said. "That's why this season is so disappointing for me, so disappointing.
"While I love winning, the thing that effects me the worst in my life is losing. I don't expect it, I don't like it. It kills me. It's been a terrible, terrible year."
The Dodgers say Hatcher is best in his current role. After all, he helped them win a world title in that role.
"Mickey has always been able to come off the bench and give us that spark we need, that's how he's best," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said earlier this summer.
But years like this one make Hatcher wonder about what he considers his real role, that of a father. He cherishes the day he can do it full-time. And that day could be sooner than anyone thinks.
"I've fooled 'em for 10 years, and I'll keep fooling them if they'll let me," Hatcher said of his decade of major league baseball. "But when I do retire, I think I'm going to surprise a lot of people. I'll probably leave the game. Forever.
"People say I could be a coach, but for the job they would want me to do at first--as a minor league coach--no way I could deal with that. I couldn't do that to my family, moving them to all those towns again. And I won't do it."
Some people would say he does that father thing pretty well already. After all, when is the last time a major league player noticed his family sitting too close to a second-deck railing during a game and sent up orders that their seats be changed?
"I see 12-year-old kids on skateboards at movie theaters at midnight and it worries me," Hatcher said. "I want to make sure I'm there when my kids grow up. That's much more important that this."
It is in this area that Hatcher has truly become famous. This is where he does most of his off-the-field work. Not just for his daughters, but for the smiles of all sorts of children, the kind who pack the elementary school classrooms where he makes most of his speeches. "I don't care about being famous. I know I'm going to get out of baseball and you won't hear about Mickey Hatcher again," he said. "While I'm here, I'd just like to have an effect on kids. They make me happy."
What does he preach to them? "I make up stuff," he said.
How to they respond? "This second grader once asked, have you ever scored a touchdown?"
At least one former Dodger teammate, recently demoted John Shelby, has seen Hatcher in action. Shelby's young sons attended a party this winter at which Hatcher was playing a clown.
"One of my sons was scared to death of his clown nose," Shelby recalled. "But then we got him to touch it, and the nose honked. My son wasn't scared any more. Today when he sees Mickey, he knows he's a ballplayer but thinks he's supposed to be a clown. He always asks, 'Daddy, where's his nose?' "
It just doesn't fit him well these days. No part of the outfit does.