Ailing Flood remembers pal Pinson


CLEVELAND -- So far, he has tolerated the chemotherapy; the second cycle began Monday. But now Curt Flood is to undergo radiation for throat cancer tomorrow morning, and the doctors say he cannot skip the treatment.

So Curt Flood hopes his friend of 50 years, Vada Pinson, will understand if he is unable to make it to Oakland for Pinson's funeral that day.

"Vada would say, 'You did what? Get out of here,' " Flood said yesterday from his home in Los Angeles, where he looks up from the phone and every day sees the same picture on the wall: Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock on a framed cover of the Sporting News.

"I've seen that handsome face for many years," Flood said. "Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost."

The picture was taken in 1969, when the three were together in the outfield of the St. Louis Cardinals. Flood and Pinson played Little League together, went to the same high school a year apart and excelled on the same fields in the narrow strip of West Oakland that produced a Who's Who of great athletes: Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, basketball's Bill Russell.

But 1969 would be the only season Curt Flood and Vada Pinson played together on the same big-league team.

A year later, Flood was out of baseball and went to court to challenge the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team until that team traded or released him. Flood went all the way to the Supreme Court and lost his case, but he set in motion the revolution that brought free agency and transformed the landscape of American sports.

In 1969, the average salary for a big-league baseball player was $24,909. Now it's more than $1 million.

When Flood went to court, he forever cut his ties with Major League Baseball. But his friendship with Pinson endured, and as commissioner of the fledgling United Baseball League, Flood had spoken often to Pinson in recent months, with plans for Pinson, who was fired as the Marlins' first-base coach last fall, to play a big role with the new league's franchise in New Orleans. That's what they had talked about, the last time they spoke, a couple of weeks before Pinson died.

"I still have a message from Vada on my answering machine," Flood said. "Vada Pinson was lying on the floor of his home in Oakland for three days before somebody found him. Perhaps in those first few minutes or hours, if only someone had known he was there, they might have saved his life.

"We don't leave messages. We don't answer messages. Damn."

Pinson and Flood were two of the most splendid outfielders of their generation. Pinson was 57 when he died Saturday night. Now Flood, 58, is facing a struggle at least as daunting, and just as lonely, as the one he waged a generation ago. That one was for a cause. This one is for his life.

"I am pleased that God made my skin black," Flood once said, "but I wish he had made it thicker."

No one has ever suggested the Lord came up short when he gave Curt Flood his heart.

"The doctors say they caught it in time," Flood said of the cancer. "The prognosis is good. They say it's 90 to 95 percent curable. I haven't been sick."

"Yes, it's scary. It's something God puts on your shoulders: 'Here, handle this.' "

Last winter, when Flood was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame, his presenter was Vada Pinson, who drove all the way from South Florida. The scheduled inductee this winter: Pinson. Of course, you know who Pinson asked to present him.

"I'm going to ask them to honor his last wish," Flood said.

"My lasting image of Vada: I always remember Vada Pinson's smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice."

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