As soon as Joe Ferguson arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that bright afternoon on April 8, 1974, he knew it was going to be a special night.
His Los Angeles Dodgers were visiting Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves - the same team that just a season before had trouble drawing more than 11,000 fans a game. But on this night, 53,775 of them packed into the stadium to witness history.
The best seat in the house may have belonged to Ferguson. He was the starting catcher for the Dodgers, sitting squarely behind home plate as Aaron sent his 715th career home run out of the park to break Babe Ruth's all-time record.
In his first at-bat, Aaron walked on five pitches from Dodgers lefty Al Downing. Ferguson said he knew by the way Aaron approached the plate on his next at-bat that history was about to be made.
The count was 1-0. Then came the windup. The pitch. The record. It happened just that fast, recalled Ferguson, as if he was still picturing the ball soaring over the left-center wall.
"To be perfectly honest, I was always happy that it happened against us," Ferguson said. "To be part of something like that is a very, very special thing."
Now, once again, Ferguson feels he is part of something special as he enters his first season as manager of the Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League. Ferguson, who enjoyed 14 years in the majors with the Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and California Angels, said his experience can be beneficial for players who are striving to make it to the highest level of play.
"I take it personal," said the 60-year-old Ferguson. "I feel it's my responsibility to help these guys get to where they want to be. Anything I can do to help them along, I will be more than willing to do as long as they're receptive. And so far all of them have been nothing but receptive."
The Riversharks open their season against the Long Island Ducks in New York tomorrow, before hosting their home opener against York Tuesday night. Ferguson said he expects the Riversharks to be an offensively explosive team capable of producing runs.
Last year the Riversharks finished the season 61-65, and had one of the top pitching units in the league with a team ERA of 3.67.
Ferguson had coaching stints with the Dodgers, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles before managing at the minor league level with Class A High Desert, Double A Bowie and Class A Delmarva. He said he has spent most of spring training getting a feel for his players and the competition of the league.
The value of a keen player-coach relationship is something he has stressed since his hiring in December.
"I think I have pretty good credibility when it comes to the game of baseball," said Ferguson, who keyed the Dodgers' only win in the 1974 World Series when he hit a two-run homer off Oakland's Vida Blue in Game 2.
"It's all about respect and trust. If [the players] respect and trust that you're trying to help them and know that it's genuine, usually you'll be able to have their attention for the entire season."
Ferguson said he sometimes thinks back to the game in which Aaron broke Ruth's record. When he does, he remembers how Aaron endured death threats, hate mail and bigotry from fans who did not want to see a black athlete break a record held by a white man.
Ironically, Ferguson compares what he witnessed 33 years ago to what Barry Bonds is going through today, amid steroid allegations, as he closes in on breaking Aaron's all-time career record of 755 home runs. This weekend, Bonds and the Giants play host to the Phillies in a four-game series.
It baffles Ferguson to see historic events like the home-run record not appreciated when they occur. Ferguson said he wouldn't be surprised if, in another 33 years or so, there is a greater acceptance of Bonds just as there is today of Aaron.
"It's the exact same thing," said Ferguson. "To me, when a person accomplishes something like that . . . I mean, it's the biggest record in baseball. To do something like that, you have to be a very special person with a very special talent. That's what Hank was and that's what Bonds is today. It's unfortunate that we're looking at [Bonds' chase for the record] as negative when it's really not." *