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The Big Trade

I’d been trying to talk to Fritz Peterson for a couple of weeks, without much success. In 1970, Peterson won the “Good Guy” award, given to the New York sports figure judged to be the most cooperative with the media. But now, nearing 70, with prostate cancer, after a fitful post-player’s life that included stints as an insurance salesman, blackjack dealer, and hockey play-by-play guy, Peterson was living in “semi-hiding.” Besides, after long opposing a film version of the swap, he had signed on as a consultant to the current Warner Bros. version. Peterson was looking forward to Ben Affleck reenacting his best locker-room jokes but wary of saying anything to jeopardize the movie’s getting made.

Eventually, Peterson did reply to a series of e-mailed questions, writing that “It was different being a Yankee. It just felt special” and that he never had any trouble with Steinbrenner over the family swap. In fact, Steinbrenner was one of his biggest supporters. “He was hoping I’d be the comeback player of the year in 1974.” Meanwhile, his marriage to Susanne has remained solid. “Thirty-eight years and we are still crazy in love.” Peterson was more eager to talk about his recent book, Mickey Mantle Is Going to Heaven. In what has to be one of the stranger sports memoirs, Peterson presents a series of breezy monographs on former teammates like Mantle, Thurman Munson, and his semi-mentor and Ball Four author Jim Bouton. Then, at the end of each chapter, the left-hander, who says he found faith at the end of his baseball career, muses about the individual’s positioning in the afterlife. Some Yankees, like Mantle and Bobby Murcer, by virtue of their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior prior to departing this world, will be “first-round draft choices,” i.e., immediately join God’s elect in heaven. Other people, like Maury Allen, whose book Peterson says contains “43 incorrect facts or statements (mistakes)” about the Trade, will have to take “a dip” or a more prolonged “swim” in hellfire. Peterson’s ad-hoc eschatology has not sat well with all his subjects. Jim Bouton, credited with the best Trade line—“I can see trading your wife, but the dog?”—said, “Oh, Fritz. Did you ask him if I was still going to hell?”

As for the final dispensation of Mike ­Kekich’s soul, Peterson, who says he is working on a new book titled Joe ­DiMaggio Is Going to Hell, takes a measured approach. Noting Kekich’s admirable qualities, including his fearlessness as a sky- and skin diver who once “[chased] down a manta ray as big as a car 25 feet down,” Peterson writes he’s “afraid” that Kekich will be taking “a dip,” or maybe even “a swim” in the “lake of fire.” The immersion could be quite extensive, Peterson writes, because even if everyone will go to heaven eventually, the fact that Kekich was “pretty bullheaded” did not bode well for his ultimate salvation anytime soon.

I wondered what Mike Kekich felt about having his eternal fate arbitrated by his less-than-beloved co-star in baseball’s reigning sixth-most-shocking moment. Several phone calls and e-mails sent to an Albuquerque real-estate office where Kekich was said to be working went unreturned. According to “Page Six,” Kekich was so “panic-stricken” about the upcoming film that he had “moved away and has a new identity.” It sounded like a perfect existential movie moment: Mike Kekich, the failed California phenom, holder of the short straw in the Trade, now on the run from the specter of Matt Damon immortalizing the most humiliating incident of his life.

Your heart went out to the guy. A few years ago, he told an interviewer that his baseball career went into “a black hole” after the Trade. He lived an itinerant life, pitching in Japan, attending medical school in Mexico but never becoming a doctor. The man was obviously a dreamer. Even in the scandal’s aftermath, Kekich wistfully told a Daily News reporter, “I can’t tell you how perfect it would have been if it had worked.”

Up at the stadium, the details of the Fritz Peterson–Mike Kekich family swap are hazily recalled. Everyone says it’ll be a great movie, though it is difficult for fans now to get their minds around how it could have happened. Could two current Yanks pull a Peterson-Kekich?

“Money would come into it,” one writer said. “What wife with a $14 mil player is switching to a $4 mil player?” Still, even if there were votes for the tandem of A. J. Burnett (“His wife has biker tattoos”) and Nick Swisher, most said any present-day trade would have to include the juicy pairing of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

“Got to be A-Rod and Jeter; they’re always sleeping with each other’s chicks anyway,” said one man seated in a $300 seat a few rows behind the guarded “moat” that keeps riffraff like him from invading the $500-plus “Legends” area. “They’re not married, but they’ve got girlfriends. A-Rod gives Cameron Diaz straight up for Minka Kelly [Jeter’s girlfriend]. Cameron’s a great actress, but Minka is way ­better-looking. That’s even value.”