Peter H. King is a Times senior correspondent

THERE ARE SPRING BASEBALL STORIES AND THERE ARE FALL baseball stories. Spring baseball stories are documents of hope, lilting odes to the rituals of renewal, the freshly cut grass, the first cracks of the bat, the hot prospects for the season ahead. Fall baseball stories are different, cast in the tempered light and long shadows of October. Fall baseball stories are about the end of something, about what could have been.

I suppose the story of the Hawaiian Buffaloes and, in particular, a player named Craig Cacek, is one best told in the fall. Deep down, it is about sorting through the thwarted dreams of boyhood, about making peace with what could have been, but wasn’t.

Cacek himself would sum it up best one Sunday. A pitcher had tried to pick him off second base. One thing about Cacek in his time on the Buffaloes: He wasn’t much for getting his uniform dirty. After scrambling headfirst back to the bag, he stood up, slapped dust off his jersey and, staring hard at the pitcher, deadpanned:


“Don’t you know who I used to think I was?”

He might have been speaking for all of us Buffaloes.


THE FIRST TIME I SAW CACEK WAS AT BALBOA PARK IN THE SAN Fernando Valley in the summer of 1991. Sprinklers were fanning across an adjacent field, and as he ambled up in short pants, T-shirt and sandals, walking a couple of dogs, it appeared as though he was emerging from a mist. We were taking some batting practice in anticipation of a game the next day, and he stopped at the edge of the field to watch.

Now by “we” I mean the Hawaiian Buffaloes, although technically at the time we still were called the Mudsharks. This was our second season in the Los Angeles chapter of the Men’s Senior Baseball League, which we first entered as the Rangers (our catcher was from Texas). By whatever name, we were lousy. Once again, it would be Cacek who delivered the most enduring epigram on the matter of Buffalo talent:

“Hey,” he drolly announced as we cleaned the dugout following yet another loss, “if we were any good, we wouldn’t be here.”

One reason we weren’t any good had to do with actors and their professional comfort with make-believe and self-promotion. Our manager was Nick Newton, a friend of mine from our days playing softball. When we heard about a new baseball league for players 30 and older, we set to work assembling a squad. We believed we had an edge.

Jill Newton, Nick’s wife, worked as casting director for “The Young and the Restless.” In her office were stacks of resumes from fit young male actors, many of whom, she recalled, listed baseball as an outside interest. Nick went through the files and culled out several would-be soap stars with professional baseball experience in the minor leagues. Perhaps because the spouse of a casting director is someone work-hungry actors naturally want to humor, recruiting for a baseball team did not prove difficult.

With great anticipation, we gathered these grizzled veterans of seasons past at the Alemany High School diamond, a weedy bandbox of a ballpark wedged between a football field and the grounds of Holy Cross hospital, way out in the northern folds of the Valley. This was in the early spring; hope, however, would soon be headed for the showers.


During warmups, balls bounced off our thespians from double-A. Errant throws sailed into nearby bushes, dribbled through legs. I remember Nick lobbing a ball to one fresh arrival. The fellow put up his glove but missed, taking the soft toss on his chest. He might as well have been struck by a Nolan Ryan fastball at 20 paces. He dropped to his knees, groaned and clutched at his breast. We had to carry him to the dugout.

Later, after additional reviews of the resumes, Nick and I realized our tactical error: Many young male actors feel obliged to soup up the recreational interest portion of their resumes, seeking to promote themselves as hearty chaps. Almost invariably, it seems, they claim to be a) skydivers, b) martial-arts experts and c) former minor-league ballplayers.

In any case, the initial roster was set, and defeats by double-digit margins became commonplace. We couldn’t field. We couldn’t hit. We tried out new pitchers almost every week--mainly knuckle-ballers whose knuckle balls wouldn’t knuckle and fast-ballers who weren’t. Oh, there were moments of hope. Nick did find one legitimate pitcher, wonderfully named Thor. Thor took the mound against the Phillies--league champions and a team that considered us comic relief--and started hurling unhittable thunderbolts, whap, whap, whap. Alas, after seven straight strikes, he summoned Nick to the mound and announced his shoulder had “went.” He never pitched for us again.

It was only a few weeks after the seven-pitch Thor era that Cacek appeared. He and Nick talked for quite a while beside the backstop. I was in left field, shagging flies, and even from a distance of 300 feet, this guy with the dogs had the look of a ballplayer. After practice I asked Nick about him.

He says he might want to play with us, Nick said, but he’s not sure.

He also says he played some minor-league baseball, mostly in the Houston farm system.

Yeah, I said. Right.

The following Monday, I wandered over to The Times’ sports department and borrowed a 1978 Astros media guide. It contained biographies of players on the spring training roster. I flipped to the “C”s and there, staring off the page, was the guy with the dogs.


19--CACEK, Craig Thomas (Craig), INF. Born Los Angeles, Calif., 8/10/54 . . . Home--Sepulveda, Calif. . . . B-R, T-R . . . 6-2, 195. Major League Status: 24 days. 1977 Season: Opened season with Charleston, where he hit .307 as the first baseman . . . Called up by Astros, 6/17. Filled in for injured Bob Watson at first base . . . Returned to Charleston, 7/11, when Astros recalled Terry Puhl. Career: Selected to 1976 International League All-Star team . . . Has posted a .300 or better average in last four years of minor league baseball.


I called Nick. You won’t believe it, I said. This Cacek, he’s for real. I read him some statistics from the media guide entry: 22 homers at Visalia; 20 doubles and 57 runs batted in for Jackson; a .324 batting average in Memphis; 77 RBIs with Charleston. And one big-league hit for the Astros. All of which raised a couple of questions: Why hadn’t he stuck in the big leagues, and why on earth would he want to play with us?


CACEK SHOWED UP THE NEXT SUNDAY, JUST BEFORE THE GAME WAS to begin. He was wearing a Houston Astros warmup jacket. He pulled a pair of red spikes out of a team bag. They were cracked and misshapen in a way that suggested they had been stuffed wet into that bag a long time ago and hadn’t been touched since. He didn’t have much to say to any of us.

With his first swing he sent a line drive screaming past my head in the third-base coach’s box, just foul. I barely saw it. That was all the batting practice he seemed to need. From that point forward, he started driving balls deep; with great regularity he would knock them far beyond the low cyclone fence in left field and into an earthen rise covered with oleander bushes and tall weeds--major-league power.

His batting stance seemed a throwback, like something out of “Casey at the Bat.” He didn’t crouch or cock his bat. Rather, he stood flat-footed, back straight, bat held away from his body and centered, like a samurai would hold a sword. As the pitcher wound up, Cacek would lift his front leg, cock the bat toward his back shoulder and then, with amazing speed and power, rock his entire body into the swing. I could watch him hit all day.

Still, he didn’t seem like he was having a lot of fun. He reminded me of the Pigpen character in “Peanuts,” but instead of clouds of dirt, Cacek was enveloped in clouds of attitude. He would refuse to show up in time for warmups. He didn’t slide, wouldn’t look for signs. He got himself tossed late in one blowout, hotly refusing an umpire’s order to stop wearing his cap wrong-side out.

I also remember Nick sitting the team down once for a pep talk about making it to the field in time for pregame practice. This obviously was directed at Cacek, who sat at the end of the bench and stared straight ahead, tapping an extended middle finger against his thigh. On the bench there was speculation that maybe attitude was what had kept Cacek from a big-league career.

“They had to cut him for some reason,” I remember one of the players saying. “It certainly wasn’t because he couldn’t hit.”

Cacek gave few hints. He said something once about a crucial baserunning error that cost him a spot on the Astros one spring. And on another occasion he volunteered that only 1% of all ballplayers who sign professional contracts ever make it all the way to the big leagues. He didn’t elaborate, but the point seemed to be that at some level talent becomes a given, and luck and politics kick in.

Trying to figure out what made our teammates tick was the sport within the sport being played at Alemany--group therapy in spikes. I remember one player whose dad attended almost every game, coaching his grown son from the stands like a Little League father. My own case was not atypical: I had been cut in high school from the junior varsity midway through my sophomore season, an experience that had left me feeling somehow incomplete.

By the third season, the Buffaloes had evolved into quite a collection of characters. One of our best hitters was a pediatrician who wore his beeper into right field and fielded patient calls by cell phone between at-bats. Our first baseman promoted waterless toilets for a living, and the third baseman was a living monument to the Hollywood dream--a fledgling screenwriter from New Jersey who drove to games in a pearl white, late-model Cadillac convertible, top down.

This was an interesting time in Los Angeles--interesting in the sense of the Chinese proverb that warns against living in just such times. We had one game called on account of riot. A recession set in, and our relief pitcher lost his job as a mechanic at an auto dealership. That emergency helicopters frequently appeared overhead, kicking up infield dust as they lowered onto the adjacent hospital helipad, added an almost cinematic touch to the edgy ambience of the times.

I’d been living in L.A. for almost 10 years by then, but I had only just begun to learn how to live in the city. Hardly anybody tries to live in all of it, all the time. It’s simply too big, too overwhelming. Instead, they take L.A. in smaller bites, sticking to enclaves and creating communities of friends and people with common interests. In this sense, the Buffaloes became a major part of my Los Angeles. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only team member who felt this way.

It was in this third season--Cacek’s second with the team--that the Buffaloes began to win. We had added a hard-throwing former college pitcher and a golden-armed catcher who had come to L.A. to play what he called “power guitar.” And Cacek, who initially insisted on playing only left field, moved to shortstop, improving the middle infield.

The more important transformation, though, could not be found in the score book. The therapy appeared to be taking hold. Game by game, the Buffaloes seemed less driven by a need to prove something--to each other and to old high school coaches, to fathers and maybe even to sons not yet born. It became just about baseball, and it became more fun. We wore fine new custom-made flannel jerseys--and never underestimate the importance of looking good on the ball field. (Our sponsor was Nalu, a surf-wear company with a Hawaiian Buffalo logo.) During rallies, we took to tapping our spikes on the dugout floor, to create the sound of a stampede.

Cacek seemed to be changing, too. At first he had appeared aloof, even angry. We figured that he was ashamed to be seen on the same field with us. We thought that maybe this explained his attitude, and so we had kept our distance. He often wore a sour expression, especially when we got to kicking the ball around on defense. After one particularly bad fielding day on my part, which contributed to another Buffalo slaughter, I made the mistake of mentioning that at least I’d hit a couple of doubles. Cacek shot me an assassin’s stare and, slamming his mitt on the ground, screamed:

“Same old” blankety, blankety, blankety, blankety, Buffalo blank!

Now, though, Cacek began to open up. Every time I stepped up to bat he’d shout, “Stay hot, Pete,” a bit of encouragement that became a shared superstition. When asked, he’d pass along pointers that he had absorbed over the years, subtle tips about baserunning and reading pitchers and so forth. In the dugout, he’d smile a lot more and tell cornball jokes: Bartender to horse, “So, why the long face?” He’d also deliver occasional snippets of authentic baseball humor, one-liners passed down, bench to bench, locker room to locker room, across generations.

An example: One game our center fielder--a player not known for his power--hit a hard line drive right at the second baseman, who speared the ball. Steaming, our would-be hero stalked back to the dugout, slammed his helmet on the cement floor and cursed his bad luck. We smiled. It was obvious that he secretly was pleased with himself for hitting a ball so hard. He just wanted to make sure we had noticed.

Cacek interrupted the tantrum.

“Hey,” he said, “the second baseman’s only been standing there for 100 years. Hit it someplace else next time.”

In turn, we mortals came to accept our phenom on his own terms. Cacek still would not look for signs, but then why would he be asked to bunt? Before taking the field, he would throw the ball maybe five times and then announce: “I’m warm.” Sometimes he cut his arrival too close even for that brief ritual.

In my mind, the Craig Cacek legend was secured one Sunday when he showed up after the game had begun. We were at-bat first. Craig was batting fourth in the order, the clean-up spot, and the third batter had just reached base. At that moment, Craig wheeled into the parking lot in his red sports car.

“You’re up,” we yelled at him.

He didn’t run. He didn’t even trot. He walked slowly from his car and into the dugout. He selected his bat and shuffled to the plate. I seem to remember he took one practice swing, but maybe not: It would have been out of character. He stepped into the box and assumed his old-fashioned stance--designed, he had confided to us finally, to fool pitchers into believing they could sneak a fastball past him. The first pitch was a fastball. Craig drove it 20 feet beyond the left-field fence.


THAT YEAR WE WON OUR DIVISION. The next season we made it to the championship game against the Phillies. We had them beat until the final inning, when they squeezed in a couple of runs. Still, it almost felt more like victory than defeat. At least they weren’t laughing at us anymore. That was the last stand of the Buffaloes as I knew them.

I already had moved to the San Francisco suburbs, commuting down for games. Nick lasted just one more season. After the Northridge earthquake ripped apart his house--and also Alemany High School--he moved his family to Texas. Craig played part of the next season before, as I heard it, heading across the country on his bicycle.

I hooked up with another team in Northern California, but it wasn’t the same. Eventually I quit playing and began to coach my son’s Little League teams, passing along as much Cacek baseball wisdom, and wit, as I could remember. I found myself thinking often about the Buffaloes, though, and about Craig in particular. I always had a hunch something important had happened to him during his Buffalo days. I just never felt comfortable enough to ask him. Maybe my group therapy in spikes thesis was wrong. Maybe to everybody else, Craig included, it all had been simply a fun way to kill Sundays and nothing more.

About a month ago, I reached him by telephone at the private school in Santa Monica where he works as a counselor. I told Craig I was going to write something about the Buffaloes and wanted to pick his brain. We met for dinner at the fish place on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I threw out a first, tentative question: Do you remember what you were thinking that day at Balboa Park when you first saw us?

“I hadn’t played ball in nine years,” he began, “and I never thought I would play again. I was kind of bitter . . . .”

For the next two hours, he told me a baseball story. It was the story of a boy who learned the game from his father, a former semipro ballplayer himself. The boy was a natural, knocking balls over the neighbor’s roof at age 7. Scouted by Casey Stengel, among others, he signed a contract at 17 and set off on an 11-year journey through the minor leagues. He had success: All Star teams, batting awards, the proverbial cup of coffee in the big leagues. Yet in the end, it didn’t happen.

There had been the baserunning mistake, a failure in spring training to tag up on a fly ball that resulted in the third-base coach’s getting booed. There were untimely slumps and clubhouse politics. He described an almost toxic environment--players fighting with all the wrong tools against boredom and fatigue and self-doubt. In the end, the game simply discarded him. He was released from a triple-A club “at the ripe old age of 27,” as he put it. He returned to Los Angeles and started a second career working with troubled schoolchildren. He was convinced he never would play the game again.

And then one Saturday, almost magically, the baseball has-been took a couple of dogs on a walk and happened upon a collection of baseball never-weres. He wondered what it would be like to step in the batter’s box once more. He stood at the edge of the field and asked about the quality of pitching in the league.

“Mediocre,” he was told.

This was the answer he wanted to hear. He wasn’t sure he could handle the good stuff again. He came back to baseball, but warily, on his own terms. He’d had his fill with managers juggling lineups. He didn’t want signs or any of that razzle-dazzle stuff, and no infield practice. He’d had 11 straight years of warming up to play baseball; he was warm.

He found out right away, of course, that he could still hit, better even than he remembered: “I had equated my whole career with failure. There was a part of me that was so far apart from baseball then that I actually wasn’t sure at times that I had had a professional baseball career. It was like that wasn’t me.”

But was it just about pounding fastballs, I asked, or was there something more? Just what had it meant for him out there at Alemany, knocking around in the weeds with the Buffaloes?

“It meant a lot,” he said. “It meant--” he paused. “It meant having fun again, just playing baseball. Baseball had become something else. Out there it was like I was a kid again, playing Wiffle ball in the frontyard . . . .”

And that was his story. In the most unlikely of settings, on that dismal, dusty diamond in the San Fernando Valley, playing in front of crowds that could be counted on one hand, he had come back and made his peace with baseball, and all that it had meant to him and all that it had done to him. The boy of fall had been given another spring.

We stood to leave the restaurant. Craig mentioned he was playing again. He had been coaxed into joining another team in another senior league on the Westside. As with the Buffaloes, he had returned only on his own terms.

“I told them,” he said, “that all I wanted to do was pitch.”

Pitch? I laughed.

“Hey,” Craig said. “I’m developing a pretty decent knuckle ball.”