Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bob Feller still has strong pitches

Mar 16, 5:34 PM EDT
AP Sports Writer

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- Even at 88, Bob Feller still brings the heat. On a rain-drenched Friday morning, the Hall of Fame pitcher was sitting under a large umbrella in the picnic area at Chain of Lakes Park, the Cleveland Indians' cozy spring training home.

As black clouds rolled in and the wind picked up off nearby Lake Lulu, Feller was sheltered from drops coming down faster and harder by the second.

"I'll sign anything you want. But we'll go upstairs, where it's dry," Feller told fans standing in a long line snaking through tables.

Feller was dressed in his No. 19 Indians uniform, the one he has worn dutifully each spring training since 1995, the one he still pitches in during winter fantasy camp, and the one he puts on for every Cleveland home game in Florida to sign autographs.

With a steady hand, he carefully wrote "Bob Feller HOF 62" on a baseball's sweet spot or bat's barrel.

After hurriedly packing up an assortment of ballpoint pens, Sharpies and photographs of himself and the U.S.S. Alabama - the battleship he served on during World War II - Feller paused to discuss a variety of topics such as the war in Iraq, Pete Rose and former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who died on Thursday.

As always, Feller didn't refrain from giving a strong opinion on any subject.

-On Rose, who earlier this week admitted betting on the Cincinnati Reds to win every game while he was their manager: "He'll do anything to get his name in the paper or get attention. He's a self-admitted liar. Great hitter, good fielder, pretty fair base runner, but an average manager. He'll never get in the Hall of Fame. He'll never get the votes."

-On Iraq: "We should have gone in there with 450,000 troops - half with guns and half for support. We should have said, 'We're going to take your oil, we're going to give you the going price and we're going to set up martial law. You are going to do what we tell you, like we did in Japan after World War II. And if you don't do what we tell you to do, you may not be around tomorrow.'"

-On President Bush: "We haven't had good leaders in a while. I voted for Bush. He would have been a good president of a college, but that's it. Instead of getting better, he's got worse."

-On Kuhn: "I spoke with him three days ago. The last thing he said to me was that he would see me in Cooperstown this summer. Bowie was a great man, a good friend and a good commissioner."

Feller can be gruff, no doubt. But there's a softer side to him as well.

As Indians fans and those of the visiting Washington Nationals walked up to get his signature, almost every one had a story to tell Feller.

"Remember me?" one fan asked before handing Feller a glossy photo of the right-hander taken a few springs back.

"Sure do," Feller said. "Nice to see you again."

Indians fans have a special fondness for Feller, who won 266 games during a 20-year career that began in 1936 - when the Van Meter, Iowa, native was just 17. Fans want to shake his hand, take a photo with him and listen to his baseball tales.

Arguably the game's best right-handed pitcher, he is unquestionably the greatest Cleveland Indian, immortalized with a bronze statue - his leg kicking high in mid-delivery - outside the gates of Jacobs Field.

"There is no one like him," said Brian Jaskiewicz, a Clevelander now living in Viera. "It's great that he's still around and he can make that connection with the old and new Indians teams."

Jaskiewicz came to the park with his father, Richard, and 19-year-old daughter, Ashley, who didn't know what to make of her father and grandfather's affection for the elderly man sitting a few feet away.

"She didn't have a clue who he was," Jaskiewicz said. "But she knows who Albert Pujols is. I'm not quite sure this generation understands that Ted Williams and Bob Feller took time out of their careers to fight in the war. They didn't do it for money, they did it for their country, which is tremendous."

Jaskiewicz brought a replica No. 19 Feller jersey to have signed. It was a gift from his son.

"I wore it to the game last night, but I don't think I'll ever wear it again," he said. "I'm going to take it home and get it framed."

Marlene Zirin got her own special memento from Feller, who asked her to join him under cover from the downpour.

"Bob?" she said. "You knew my father, Alex Zirin."

"You darn right I did," Feller said, recalling the late Cleveland sports writer. "I remember the time he fell and broke his leg. He was a good writer."

Later, Zirin, who came to the game along with her husband and grandson, was amazed by Feller's memory and his grace.

"I was thrilled," she said. "He was a doll to me. I know he can be tough sometimes."

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