The regular sign off on the fictitious Cracker Jack and Pepper Radio Show neatly summarizes the theme of Lane Richins’ new play Near Mint: “Thanks for joining us, and remember, baseball isn’t life, but life’s no good without baseball.”
Along with the radio show, Pepper Crawford helps run her best friend’s baseball card shop. Her love of baseball is matched by her skills as a coach and she is about to make a big break in her beloved sport.
Meanwhile, ‘Cracker’ Jack Patterson, the owner of the card shop who also hosts the popular baseball radio show, is at his own crossroads. He is a retired catcher in the majors, with a World Series ring after the Los Angeles Dodgers won the championship in 1981. He is about to be honored for being the only major leaguer to be in every baseball stadium as a fan and as a player. But, as special as that accolade might sound to the casual fan, the real baseball follower knows that the only reason for this distinction was that Jack was traded so often — sometimes several times in one season. Jack had hoped that his career could approach even near mint status. The closest opportunity came when he was with the Dodgers when they won the World Series, where everyone on the team gets a championship ring.
Set in the 1980s, Near Mint, brimming with the nostalgic vibe reminiscent of sitting in the warm sun during an afternoon at the ballpark, will receive its world premiere in a Pygmalion Theatre Company production. The play, directed by Barb Gandy, opens tomorrow (April 28) and runs through May 13.
This is Richins’ first professionally produced play. His love for baseball propels this lighthearted comedy-drama. Near Mint also parallels his life-changing moments. Richins, who has spent many years as an actor and director and who served on the board of Pygmalion, decided to return to school during the pandemic. After a hiatus of 20 years, he went back to The University of Utah to complete his bachelor’s degree.
But, he also never imagined that it would steer him into a new role as playwright. He enrolled in a course taught by playwright Tim Slover and wrote an adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. While Richins was pleased with his efforts, he felt that it was a bit distant and cold for what he aspired to achieve.
Richins completed his undergraduate degree and went on to the master’s program at University of Idaho, where he planted the seed for Near Mint. Baseball has always been a part of his life. While he was not particularly good at playing the sport, he followed the game intently, collecting baseball cards, going to games and following the achievements of major league stars. His favorite baseball movie is The Natural, the 1984 production directed by Barry Levinson and based on the Bernard Malamud novel of the same title. The film starred Robert Redford and it epitomized baseball in the way that Hoosiers perfectly captured the story of high school basketball in Indiana.
The play’s title is a tidy metaphor for Richins’ narrative and characters. In the parlance of baseball cards, near mint means the card has one or more minor imperfections while mint means the card has no flaws. A card in mint condition can command prices at least triple that for a near mint item.
However, Richins’ most cherished card is not one that commands a price anywhere close to the trading value of mint or rare cards. But, its representation of father and son who have carved out their own legacies in baseball resonates with Richins. It is a 1991 Score brand Seattle Mariners card with a black-and-white image of Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr., both also great baseball legends.
Jack also coaches a little league team called the Arrows. Among the standouts is Sandra, 11, who has a natural gift for the game. Her mother, Kristin, is also at her own crossroads in her life. Sandra thinks that Jack and Kristin, who is widowed, would make a great couple. At one point, Kristin mentions that since her husband’s death, she has been in “a constant state of negotiation. Negotiation with work, negotiation with money, negotiation with Sandra. I mean, everything in life is a negotiation, I get that. My life isn’t any harder than most.”
Some likely will be surprised that Pygmalion Theatre Company, which is a small but mighty powerhouse for female playwrights who have strong female characters at the center of their narrative, would take on a play by a male author where the central character is a retired baseball catcher. But, as Richins explains, “everything that happens in the play is a result of Jack’s relationships, friendships and interactions with women.” And, every female character’s story converges onto epiphanies that affect everyone in significant ways.
As reflected in the script’s genuine nostalgic appreciation for the game, the 1980s was still a marvelous period of Americana for baseball, a time unspoiled by the various scandals involving steroids and the declining public interest in the sport that would shadow the game in the 1990s and beyond. Richins peppers the script with plenty of wonderful bits of baseball history, great names and stats. He weaves through his twin loves of baseball and theater elegantly in the script, which makes it accessible for those actors (and audiences) who might not care for baseball or for any sport in particular.
There is a magical muse in Near Mint whom Jack sees at critical junctures, as he contemplates decisions that could shift the path in his life. Richins had thought about framing the role on Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente but then settled on arguably the greatest pitcher of modern baseball history: Sandy Koufax, who played for the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 1965, he became the eighth pitcher and the first left-hander since 1880 to pitch a perfect game. Koufax, who won the sport’s Cy Young Award three times in the 1960s, is the ideal character model for Richins’ script, especially when one remembers Pepper’s line that “baseball isn’t life, but life’s no good without baseball.”
Even today, baseball historians still discuss Koufax’s famous decision to skip pitching in a World Series game which fell on Yom Kippur because he would not break the obligations of his Jewish faith on the religion’s most important day of the calendar.
In the mid-1960s, when the Dodgers won two World Series within three years, the front office became overconfident. Koufax delivered the results but consistently pitching all nine innings (or extended innings) in a game would exhaust any ace athlete. He regularly pitched more innings in baseball than any other in those seasons during the 1960s.
Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson wrote a marvelous history of the Dodgers, which was published in 2004. As the text indicates, “If 1965 was the season Sandy Koufax became a legend, 1966 was the season he became human again, and it was also the season when the Dodgers pushed a little too far and too hard, just about everywhere they could, from the front office to the playing field.”
Stout wrote that Koufax “would burn like a comet and then be gone.” In Richins’ play, the afterglow of Koufax’s brilliance is still there in the 1980s for Jack, who remembers that historic perfect game in 1965. He says, “It was the greatest day of my life. I tell people that, they think it’s because I was there for Koufax’s perfect game, or because he signed that card. But that’s not why.”
“Koufax was the legend who sought and achieved perfection in one game after another,” Richins says. “There’s a touch of purity in that moment.” When the eternally young image of Koufax appears in the play, Jack says, “Remember? September ninth, nineteen sixty-five. I was eleven years old. My first game, can you believe it? You were my hero! You’re still my hero. It was the most magical day of my life.”
Every character in the play hopes for that magic moment, wondering if they can go beyond near mint status. Near Mint promises to be a thoroughly heart-touching, witty chamber ensemble piece. Other characters include a stranger, a loyal fan of the Cracker Jack and Pepper Radio show and voice-overs including Vin Scully, the legendary sports broadcaster.
The cast includes Cal Beck, Natalie Keezer, Ali Lente, Tom Roche, Sasha Medura and Daisy Blake.
Performances in the Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts run April 28 to May 13, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets and more information are available at the Pygmalion Theatre Company website.