Now that the Major League season is in full swing (and the year’s class of non-roster invitees has been sent down or cut loose), teams in the “bush leagues” are finalizing rosters for their runs at lesser championships. Josh Levitt of The Hardball Times has compiled a list of some former big leaguers still clinging to the dream in the Atlantic League. He’s also promised forthcoming pieces on players in the other independent leagues, so I won’t steal his thunder here. But Levitt’s writing got me thinking – how many other demigods are out there, toiling in our midst in relative anonymity. I love the independent leagues because (at the risk of sounding hackneyed) the game is pure. Unlike an affiliated farm team, an indy league team’s goal is simply to win. The very idea of the indy leagues goes back to the “glory days” of the early twentieth century – small-town nines competing against other towns in the region for the pride of a few hundred friends and neighbors. The players do receive a paycheck, so technically this is the lowest rung of the professional ladder. But really it’s guys stretching and striving just to reach that lowest rung. Many have fallen from higher up on the ladder and are praying to get back on.
As astronomical as the odds are for the players on these clubs, it’s even more unlikely that their managers and coaches will make the climb. These men are no longer chasing personal glory; like humble rabbis they are only trying to help others reach the Promised Land. (That, and they love coming to the ballpark every day and putting on a uniform.) Here are some whose names awoke long-dormant memory cells in me.
Phillie fans who remember Von “Five for One” Hayes need only cross the Ben Franklin Bridge to see him manage the Camden (NJ) Riversharks. Terry McGriff didn’t do much in his big-league career, but he comes from a 7-time All-Star family and certainly brings a wealth of knowledge to the Bridgeport (CT) Bluefish. Former Met Bud Harrelson fought Pete Rose in the 1973 playoffs, but had no problem working with Pete Rose, Jr. as bench coach and part-owner of the Long Island Ducks. The father-son magic will continue when Tim Raines‘s Newark Bears face Sparky Lyle‘s Somerset (NJ) Patriots and outfielder Tim Raines, Jr. Lancaster (PA) native Tom Herr will be joined in the Barnstormers’ dugout by his former Cardinal teammate Danny Cox. Southern Maryland Blue Crabs’ pitching coach Marty Janzen was the main prospect that the Yankees sent to Toronto in ’95 in exchange for David Cone. Ancient Oriole Andy Etchebarren will call the shots for the York (PA) Revolution.
Former Red Sox underdog Brian Daubach leads the Pittsfield (MA) Colonials in their inaugural season (he skippered them last year in Nashua, NH). Fiery former Pirates catcher Ed “Bodyslam” Ott returns to managing with the Sussex (NJ) Skyhawks. Fans in Worcester (MA) have apparently forgiven Tornadoes manager Rich Gedman for letting Bob Stanley’s pitch get by him in ’86.
I remember Fargo-Moorhead (ND) pitching coach Steve Montgomery as the one dependable arm in the 1999 Phillies’ bullpen. And I’ll never forget the sight of current Joliet (IL) Jackhammer coach Bryce Florie lying bleeding on the mound at Fenway after getting drilled in the face by a line drive. Lake County (IL) Fielders owner Kevin Costner interviewed several qualified candidates, but Crash Davis didn’t want to leave Visalia, Shoeless Joe would disintegrate on road trips, and Billy Chapel was too busy chasing that broad.
The Fort Worth (TX) Cats’ 84-year old first base coach Wayne Terwilliger is the oldest in the business. He played with Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. 1990′s journeyman southpaw Butch Henry is back for a fifth season with his hometown El Paso (TX) Diablos, while former teammate Pete Incaviglia leads the Grand Prairie (TX) Air Hogs.
The Calgary Vipers will probably hear the inspirational story of manager Morgan Burkhart, an indy league legend. Longtime LOOGY Ed Vosberg will help the immortal Pete LaCock on the Tucson Toros’ bench. Gary Templeton will be the man to bring in 18-year old female knuckleballer Eri Yoshida for the Chico (CA) Outlaws. Former Indians and Dodgers rifleman Cory Snyder will pilot the Maui Na Koa Ikaika (Hawaiian for “Strong Warriors”). The Orange County (CA) Flyers pitching staff should benefit from the worst 17-game winner in MLB history – Paul Abbott. Proto-sabermetric slugger Darrell Evans will manage the St. George (UT) RoadRunners. One-time Mets phenom Bill Pulsipher will be trusted to keep the Yuma (AZ) Scorpions’ hurlers healthy (in a related story, Sarah Palin is now Secretary of State).
Former Giants shortstop Hal Lanier (.228/.255/.275 in almost 4,000 plate appearances) may think every kid on his Normal (IL) Cornbelters squad is the next Pujols.
United Baseball League & Continental Baseball League
Not a single name jumped out at me in the ranks of these two struggling circuits. The UBL season will open with the entire league in bankruptcy proceedings. Meanwhile, the CBL has gone from six teams down to four. Only two of the four have a permanent home park. This underscores the reality, as true today as it was when Yogi Berra said it, that “if people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ‘em.” Simply paying a ballplayer doesn’t make him better than he was as an amateur, so baseball history is thick with the obituaries of failed professional clubs and leagues. Nevertheless, the baseball gods will be smiling on these hot, dusty fields in Texas and New Mexico this summer, as they do wherever two or three are gathered with a ball and bat.