‘It had to be a UFO’

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Reproduction from NWI.com by RYAN O’LEARY

It is not yet known at what point the citizens of Key West opted to repeal the laws of gravity that govern the rest of us.

But it appears the decision was made on or before Aug. 6, 1974.

It was on that day that America’s southernmost community apparently opted to spit in Sir Isaac Newton’s face.
On that serene and surreal evening, the forces of nature (and perhaps some other forces, depending on whom you ask) converged with our national pastime on the corner of the Bermuda Triangle, crafting a moment that, in terms of sheer oddity, may have no peer in baseball lore.

Some eyewitnesses have told the story hundreds of times to thousands of people. Most listeners refuse to believe it. Reporters and baseball historians have never taken it seriously enough to run with it — perhaps in part because one of those present doesn’t recall it even happening.

Can’t really blame any of them. The tale is, in a word, unbelievable. And it’s been buried among baseball’s most obscure X-Files for nearly 29 years.

But apparently, it did happen.

It was, at first, a typical Tuesday evening at Wickers Field, a quirky quadrangular bandbox with room for 1,000 spectators. The Key West Conchs, a Class A Cubs affiliate with the worst record in professional baseball (32-79) at the time, were hosting the St. Petersburg Cardinals in a Florida State League game. The Cards came in at 55-57, led by a can’t-miss prospect by the name of Garry Templeton.

The Conchs managed a 7-4 victory on this night, scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth to secure the win for pitcher Donnie Moore in his final game with the team.

Strangely enough, nobody in attendance can remember that part. Most of the players don’t even remember who won the game.
But they remember Newton being exposed as a Floridian fraud.

By the time the first pitch was thrown, twilight and fog had joined in a slow dance above the islands, creating a backdrop that St. Petersburg left fielder Ernie Rosseau still describes as “eerie.”

Considering the ghost stories that have come out of Key West over the years, eerie may have been par for the course.

Only one reporter was at Wickers that evening — Eric Lincoln of the St. Petersburg Times. Since his account of this event, a three-paragraph aside in a larger piece on the Key West baseball experience, is the only one known to exist, we’ll let him tell the tale.
We join Lincoln in the bottom of the first inning, with Lonny Kruger on the mound for the visitors:

…Joe Wallis, the Key West right fielder, hits a high fly ball that seems to be drifting toward the glove of the Cardinal right fielder, John Crider. But the wind is gusting at more than 20 knots and the ball seems to disappear as it falls into its final closing arc.
Crider ducks. He has lost sight of the ball. Jimmy Williams, the Cardinal second baseman, races to his assistance. He ducks, placing both hands over his head for protection. The center fielder, Claudell Crockett, is on the scene with his hands held outward as if to say, ‘Well, where the hell is it?’

Templeton, now the manager of the Gary SouthShore RailCats, was playing shortstop for St. Petersburg that day. He was among those who drifted toward the play to provide assistance — or try to.

“I took off running for it because I thought I had a shot at it,” Templeton said. “It was like a popup to right center. Next thing I know, everyone’s running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

Wallis, meanwhile, doesn’t hear an umpire call the ball foul, and he sees no one make a play, so he tentatively makes his way around the bases.

He crosses home plate with nine frantic Cardinals flapping their wings behind him.

Nobody ever saw the ball come down.

“It was a weird feeling,” Kruger said. “The second baseman’s thinking he’s going to have a play, the right fielder’s thinking he’s going to have a play, and the guy winds up getting a home run out of it.”

Home run?

The baseball was nowhere to be found — so the umpires convened and handed down their ruling based on what little evidence they had: Wallis circled the bases safely, nobody caught the ball and nobody saw it go foul.

Home run.

While Key West players rolled around their dugout in laughter, according to Rosseau, the Cardinals argued against the call. Despite a lengthy plea, the case was thrown out.

“There was a big argument,” Templeton said. “The players were arguing pretty good and our manager went berserk. … I don’t have a damn clue where it went, but it wasn’t a home run.”

To this day, no one has stepped forward to explain where the ball landed — if it ever did.

Wickers was surrounded by a macadam parking lot, some scrub oak and a few palm trees. Nobody heard a kerplunk, a splat, the rustle of branches or the shattering of glass. People searched the area all evening and found nothing.

“Nobody knows what happened,” said Rosseau, now the baseball coach at Brevard Community College in Florida. “From the fans to the coaches, umps. … No one knew.

“They estimated that it went out of the park, but that’s impossible.”

“Players don’t just go toward a ball, where they think it’s going to land, and nothing lands,” agreed teammate Tito Landrum, who later won back-to-back World Series rings with St. Louis and Baltimore.

So where did the ball go?

“It went up and never came down,” Rosseau said. “Nobody can give me an explanation.”

There may be no legitimate explanation, but everyone has theories.

It had to be a UFO that got that ball,” Templeton said.

Or maybe a ghost? If you believe local residents, that wouldn’t be a first.

During the game, Lincoln recalls speaking with Dr. Julian DePoo, an elderly Cuban expatriate and a friend of Key West’s favorite son, Ernest Hemingway. DePoo was the Conchs’ owner.

“Papa has that ball,” the old man told Lincoln, referring to the legendary author. “His spirit is everywhere around here. He took that one home.”

Someone — or, more likely, something — took that ball. But who, or what? And where did they take it?

“Obviously, when you think of Key West, you think of the Bermuda Triangle,” Rosseau said.
And when you think of the Bermuda Triangle, you think of strange disappearances. This would certainly seem to qualify as such.
But with Wickers set almost one mile inland, it’s not possible.

Or is it?

None of the eyewitnesses recall a particularly windy evening — but keep in mind that these folks are half a lifetime removed from that night. The mind tends to collect dust over the long haul. So when Lincoln’s account, which ran a mere 12 days after the fact, says that winds were gusting at 20 knots, it’s fair to assume that this is close to the truth.

One of the writer’s theories was that trade winds took the ball out to sea. Officials at the National Weather Service in Key West, none of whom were willing to put their speculations on the record, said that Lincoln’s thought was a bit far-fetched.

Then again, it’s no more of a stretch than any other possibility.

Eyewitness accounts and hypotheses differ — but there is one common thread that ties everyone’s memories together.

Everybody who remembers what happened at Wickers Field that August evening, without exception, still says that it was the most peculiar thing they ever saw in their baseball lives.

“It’s hard to top that in terms of weirdness,” Kruger said.
“It had to be the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” Templeton agreed.

“Nothing even comes close,” Rosseau added.

Which might be why this story has gone nearly 29 years without being printed — no one else believes it.

Unless they were there to see it, that is.

“I was mentioning the story once in the dugout in St. Louis,” Landrum said. “No one believed me. And then a voice comes from the other side of the dugout. ‘It happened. I was there.'”

Landrum’s Cardinal teammate, Bruce Sutter, verified the story. Sutter was in the Key West dugout when it happened.

Had he not spoken up, Landrum may have been hauled out of St. Louis in a straitjacket.

Oddly enough, Lincoln’s Key West feature devoted more time to Moore’s departure than it did to Wallis’ eternal popup.

But in a way, that makes sense. The story, much like the ball itself, has essentially remained hidden for the better part of three decades, and a lot of memories have faded over time.

Landrum recalls playing center field that day for the Cards. But both of the box scores in existence — from the St. Petersburg Times and the Key West Citizen — have Landrum in the dugout. Crockett was in center. Key West manager Q.V. Lowe doesn’t even remember the incident at all.

Some pieces of the puzzle were forgotten immediately.

The Citizen’s game story on August 7 said that Wallis’ homer cleared the right-field wall, but according to everyone else involved, the ball never got there.

Key West’s story has no byline — again, the only reporter in attendance was Lincoln — so the best guess is that the Citizen made one assumption too many from reading a press release.

The Times ran a very brief account of the game on Aug. 8, with no mention of the disappearing ball. Only in Lincoln’s Key West feature, which didn’t go to press until Aug. 18, is the story documented.

And it hasn’t been told in full until now.

“Obviously, not too many people saw it,” Kruger said. “If it had happened in the major leagues, it would be a very different story.”
Instead, it happened at a Florida State League game in front of fewer than 1,000 people.

But it’s still a very different story

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