Go Pro Baseball Wise: Minor League Memories

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They've been scouted and drafted, signed a pro contract, and here they go!


"The first minor league season is the chance for rookies to get their feet wet and learn the ropes in professional baseball."
— Dennis Rogers,
minor league manager
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Now I Know How Casey Felt
Memories of a Minor League Season

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ONE: Look Ma, I'm a pro baseball player! (June 23-June 24)

OPENING DAY…WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23

There was excitement in the air that cold but sunny afternoon. The players arrived at the park much earlier than the assigned 4:30 time for the 7:30 game. They were suited up, huddled in the small clubhouse, checking each other out. It had been a long day killing time until game time.

For a while there was a of hustle and bustle around the park: the general manager busily stocked the concession stand; the groundskeeper put some finishing touches on the infield grass and brought out a bucket of balls, a bag of bats, and the pitching screen for batting practice; two young girls scampered along the fences hanging balloons and streamers; and the radio announcer organized his notebooks and paraphernalia up in his booth. All this activity, yet it was noticeably quiet.

Things were livelier inside the clubhouse. "Hey, Phil, are you singing or do you have a serious stomach ache?" players teased Phil Strom.

"Sounds like he's in labor to me," another player chimed in.

"Nah, I'm singing about baseball and how we're gonna bust out tonight," freckle-faced Strom smiled and continued without missing a beat.

"You gotta have hear-r-r-t, " he continued as he reached for a shoe under a nearby bench and used it as a microphone. He then kept singing without missing a note as he wandered up to centerfield Luis Rojas and sang, "The days of wine and Rojas….." and then he then skipped to Bob Bathe and added, "Bibitty-BOB-itty-BATHE!" Suddenly he reverted to the original melody of "You Gotta Have Hear-r-r-t to get yourself on base so I can hit you in…and the Thoma to Glick to Eppard double play combination's gonna knock 'em on their…ah…well we will win!"

"One good thing about a radio is that you can always turn down the volume," others laughed.

"Or turn it off!" a voice in the corner shouted.

That didn't stop him, or even slow him down. "Hey, Doc, " he hollered at the trainer to the tune of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, "I'm about out of tunes here, so did you find my uniform yet?"

"Back off, Strom," the trainer grumbled in a gruff voice, "When I get to it, you'll have it. Oh yeah, listen up all of you," he shouted, "your cleats won't be here till game time."

"Give Strom a break, Doc, he can do something you can't," another kidded.

"And what might that be?" he asked in his stern voice.

"He can read his own handwriting."

For a few seconds Strom thought they were defending him, but then, "Very funny," he mumbled.

"Hey, hey, let's keep the party light to celebrate this most ser-I-ous occasion," Mikki Jackson jumped in. "That's why I'm wearing my best good luck button."

"Oh yeah? What might that be?" several others laughed in unison. Jackson dropped his pants amidst a flurry of cat calls and whistles to reveal his purple and green stripped boxer shorts with a large button pinned to the hem of the left leg that read: 'Spiderman.'"

"SPIDERMAN!" they yelled as they cracked up.

"Sure man," Jackson explained with a forced straight face. "He's my ultimate hero."

Strom stepped in, "Let me know when the guys from Gillette get here 'cause I've got my commercial jingle all prepared. He quickly went down on one knee and sang in Al Jolsen style, "Nobody knows the stubble I've seen…"

Over by the Coke machine, blond, powerful, soft-spoken third baseman was conversing quietly with outfielder Tony Laurenzi. "Argh," he yawned. "I just want to get going with BP and work out these kinks, know what I mean?" He bent over letting his arms dangle loosely.

"Yeah, I know. I'm not waiting in here for somebody to blow a whistle or something," nodded Laurenzi as he stared in the direction of the trainer. "I'm going outside for some fresh air. Betcha a buck once I hit the door this place will be empty inside a minute."

He was right. They saw him, grabbed their gloves, exited the clubhouse, and walked onto the field in their bright gold and green uniforms. Their first professional uniforms. They were the Medford A's. Strom was left inside all by himself still nagging the trainer about his uniform. Funny how it miraculously turned up once the other players had left.

"Either they gave us the wrong numbers or we're playing the wrong sport!" spouted pitcher Mike Gorman, wearing number 76.

"Yeah, get us," agreed Ed Myers in his finest Arkansas accent. "Eppard's got 61, Peterson's 54, Kaiser's 78, and I'm 59. Anyone wanna play football?"

"Aw, you just have to know the right people," said shortstop Ray Thoma, giving them his finest Cheshire cat smile as he turned around revealing the big "1" on his back.

As it turned out, their uniforms were issued to them more or less on a first-come, first-serve basis, and
sometimes according to fit. To tell you the truth, they all looked very sharp and ready to take on the world.

One player told me that for those few minutes a bunch of guys from all over the country with nothing much in common except a love of baseball and the dream of a big league career shared the same thoughts. They were wearing bright green and gold uniforms, they ones they'd worked all their lives to wear…professional uniforms.

For some, that numbers thing never did go away and there would be number swapping later in the season due to superstitions and the like. But for most, other numbers - their performance stats - soon became much more important.

This day and for the entire season, their first stop was at the edge of the dugout to check the lineup card. It was easy to tell which players found their names there just by watching their private smiles and extra spark in their strides as they took the field.

Kaiser and Peterson were talking at the end of the dugout bench. "Rogers already told me I'll be starting fourth behind Barry, Gorman and Godwin. I'm alright with that." Gorman was the only right handed starter.

Miles Field came to life with the familiar sounds of batting practice and infield. Pitchers lined up along the left field foul line to run sprints. Position players jammed their hands into their gloves, punched them till the pocket was just right, then made tracks for the field. Some tossed the ball easily in front of the dugout. Others went out to center field to take throws and catches. A few more stood around inserting chew. The first group of hitters found bats and swung them over their heads while the batting cage was being moved into position.

"Ah-h-h-h, feels better already. I needed to get outside. Needed to move around a little and get some fresh air," Bathe sighed as he swung three bats over his head like toothpicks.

Fifteen minutes later Rogers appeared and the formal workouts began with stretching exercises on the left field grass. Assistant coach Tom Colburn slowly walked to the mound to pitch BP while the players took their assigned spots around the field.

Brian Graham was first on the list to take his ten cuts in the cage. He assumed his batting stance. Colburn wound up to throw the first pitch.

Just then Oakland's minor league hitting coach, Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, emerged from the dugout. He was in street clothes, had a cigarette in one hand and a clipboard in the other. He slowly walked over behind the screen and stood there with the players waiting their turns to bat without saying a word.

Graham went through his routine, then ran the bases while Eppard, Bathe, and Thoma took their cuts in order. After running the bases he hustled back to the cage, looked for his bat to await his second five pitches, and was adjusting his batting helmet when Mathews approached him.

"You're Graham from UCLA, aren't you?" as he extended his hand.

Graham shook hands. "Yes, sir."

"Nice swing. Aggressive. Keep it up and I think we can develop you into a fine major league player." He turned and walked away before Brian could say anything else.

After watching a few more hitters, "Strom," Mathews motioned him over.

Phil was like a little kid, grinning from ear to ear as he quickly ran over to where Mathews was standing. They shook hands. Mathews was all business. He had a gruff voice and a stern manner about him.

"Look, I like the way you go up there and swing from the hip. But you're gonna have to learn to be more selective with those pitches. Work on that." He again turned and walked back to the cage.

Mathews watched the second group of hitters intently. When they were finished he signaled to Peterson.

They shook hands. "Listen, kid, he began without looking up from the pages on his clipboard, "everything I've seen of you on paper and in the cage today spells major leaguer. You have a powerful body that can only get better as long as you take care of it, a strong swing, and I like the way you go about your business. But you tend to get impatient at the plate. Experience will help you relax up there. I'm keeping an eye on you. Good luck, Kid." Peterson smiled, thanked him, and ran back with the others.

An hour passed. Rogers shouted, "That's it, be back for infield in twenty minutes."

"That's more like it," Bathe said as he again bent over and dangled his hands to the floor. "You see the ball I hit over the left field wall? Bet it's still soaring."

Five O'clock. "Look, here they come," one infielder whispered loudly to another. Workouts stopped for just a moment as all eyes were on the Eugene Emeralds (Cincinnati Reds farm team) as they entered the park. They were in bright white uniforms and each player carried a red duffel bag stuffed with bats, mitts and other necessary gear. They passed in a long single-file line from left field along the third base line, around behind home plate, and over to their dugout by first base. Each team observed the other with a sense of pride and curiosity.

Later one of the players told me, "It was that moment, watching them come into our park, when we really started to believe we were gonna play in a professional baseball game. Then the butterflies came."

The gates opened to admit the long line of fans already assembled outside the field. The loudspeaker began blasting, "…you can do magic…you can have everything that you desire…" and they all hoped the song would prove prophetic. Miles Field was filled to capacity in short order, then to standing room only by the first pitch.

Pitchers Ed Myers and Mike Gorman sat back at one end of the dugout and talked quietly. Myers leaned his head back against the wall, stretched his legs out straight and crossed them at the ankles. "Now this is more like it," he grinned. "This could be a good place to play. Look at all the fans and listen to all the noise."

Gorman nodded in agreement as he inserted some dip. "I can feel it, too. But Rogers told us to expect this, especially since last year's team won the championship. Hey, you may even get out there yourself and get some relief action before this one's over."

"Yup," he yawned and stretched in his usual easy manner. "I'm just getting comfortable but I guess we better get back into the clubhouse to see what's going on."

"Did you make it to the minicamp?" Gorman asked. "I didn't get out of school in time."

"Yeah, I was here for the last couple of days. The high school players took it real serious, ya know, all the drills and stuff. They really liked it. The rest of us did our best, but, heck, we'd already done all that for years."

Mike Gorman and Ed Myers seemed as different as any two guys could be yet they struck up a friendship right away. They were both serious about their careers and doing things the right way so they'd improve and progress up that ladder to the show. They went about their business without being flashy or cocky, which earned the respect of their teammates.

Seven O'clock. "Geez, Doc, are you sure our new cleats are gonna be here in time for the game? Wearing our old ones sort of ruins the fashion statement of the uniforms, don't you think?"

"Hold on to your hat," grumbled the trainer. "They came and I just dumped 'em in the locker area. You'll have plenty of time to change."

"Great! One thing I always dreamed of was playing my first pro game in stiff new shoes so I'd have blisters by the end of the first inning, ha-ha-ha," one player hollered.

"Hey, Kaiser, are you gonna get introduced with your cleats in your hand, or what?"

"Haven't decided yet," he grinned, "but when I do, you'll be the second to know." Jeff Kaiser always carried his cleats till the very last minute.

Watching the fans was almost as much fun as watching the action on the field. As they entered the park, it looked like they sought out the seats they'd had last year, deposited their green and gold Medford A's program and other paraphernalia to "save their seats," then began watching the new players that would be their team this season. There was lots of chatter and reunions with friends they probably hadn't seen much over the winter.

The small town of Medford supported its rookie team year after year and took the players to its heart. These fans filled the park to overflow status night after night. Many caravans traveled to some of the closer away games. They were definitely the tenth man on the team.

Medford knew how to make the players welcome. About ten minutes before game time, the ceremonies began with the introduction of each player World Series style: "Now meet your Medford A's!" he shouted. "From UCLA, right fielder Brian Graham. From the University of California, Berkeley, first baseman Jim Eppard. From Western Michigan University, shortstop Ray Thoma. From Cal Fullerton, third baseman, Bob Bathe…" the loud speaker bellowed until the entire team stood along the third base line.

After the National Anthem, Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews, then a minor league batting instructor with Oakland, threw out the first ball. Both teams trotted back to their dugouts ready to get down to business.

"O-o-oh, my feet are killing me," echoed out of the Medford dugout.

PLAY BALL! That night the game itself was an anticlimax. Medford starting pitcher Eric Barry lived up to all his pre-game publicity by giving up only one hit in five innings. Four good innings of relief from Dennis Gonsalves and closer Ed Myers yielded only one more hit. Jim Eppard scored the first run of the season for Medford. In the bottom of the fourth they scored seven more times as the team batted around before the first out was made. Final score: Medford 8 - Eugene 0.

After the final out A's sprouted from everywhere and made their way to the mound to shake hands. As they headed off toward the showers someone shouted, " Pizza. I need pizza and beer."

Things were relaxed at the pizza place. At one crowded table, "Mmmm-m-m-m-m-m, that was sweet," Strom grinned, wiping the foam from his upper lip after chugging the beer in his mug. "Geez, Eddie Mathews came right up to me and shook my hand. Any guy who can hit 500 homers in the major leagues is a winner to me. Just knowing that he knew my name was exciting! That's what got me pumped for the game."

"When he first came up to me I didn't know who he was," Bathe added. "I remember thinking, 'This is the guy who had 1453 RBIs, more than any other third baseman in the majors?' I didn't expect such power from a guy his size."

"His size? You're only an inch or so taller than he is." They laughed.

"So, what are you guys fixin' to have on your pizza?" Myers asked his roommates, Gorman and Eppard.

"Fixin'? " Gorman taunted his pal from Arkansas.

"Let's just get a combo, then everybody's happy," Jim Eppard suggested.

Epp was an interesting fellow. His appearance reminded me of actor Michael Keaton. He had a mellow disk-jockey type voice, but never had much to say. He minded his own business and was always focused on his personal goals. A class act.

However, he is a man who could hit a baseball. From the left side of the plate he sprayed the ball all over the field. He hit for average rather than for power. He would end up with a batting average of .375 that season with only six strikeouts. Since the very first day Oakland tried every trick in the book to get him to work out, get more muscle, and hit homers. He stubbornly decided not to mess with success. He would later play a total of eighty-eight major league games over a four-year period. Is that the "cup of coffee" we always hear about? His inability to hit it out of the yard possibly cost him a real major league career.

THURSDAY, JUNE 24

It was cloudy and drizzly all day. But several hours before the game was postponed, they arrived at the park in small groups hopeful of getting it in before the predicted downpour.

The locker area was quickly littered with open sports pages, soda cans, and assorted candy wrappers. Loud music echoed throughout the entire empty park. There was a lot of chatter about various successes last night in between their imitations of weather forecasters. Many of them knew each other by reputation, but now they were getting acquainted. Last night was the first time they had played together as a team. Although there was a ten-day mini camp prior to the season, many didn't participate because they got out of school too late to make it.

Mikki Jackson, called the usual tall drink of water because he was a very thin 6'7'' tall man, sat by his locker listening to music. "Man, last night was something. But today's another day. And so we plough along, as the fly said to the ox."

"Hey, Thoma, what round were you drafted in?" Graham wondered.

"Sixth. What's your number?" he retorted.

"Four," Graham smiled.

"So, Thoma, what's it like? I mean, how'd you feel when you found out?" asked one of the non-drafted players.

"Well, since you asked," Ray Thoma smiled his Cheshire cat smile, "it's like this. During my sophomore and junior years at Western Michigan the White Sox, Giants, and a few others scouted me. I really thought the Yankees were gonna take me. So, school was over and the draft started. I sat by the phone and finally got a call from my Godfather who said he's made a call to New York and found out that I was drafted, but he didn't know who got me.

"This was about one o'clock in the afternoon on the second day of the draft. So I sat by the phone on pins and needles till seven that night and finally got a call. The guy said Oakland had drafted me in the sixth round. I was so thrilled! He said that one of their scouts would be calling, so I stayed by the phone and continued to wait and wait.

"But the call never came. Instead, I got a Mailgram from Oakland verifying I was drafted. Finally the scout called the next day and told me all kind of stuff he wanted me to remember, but it just went in one ear and out the other because I was so excited. He told me what number to call, what day they were gonna come for contract negotiations, and so on.

"When I hung up the phone, Dad asked me, 'Who was that?' and I told him, 'I don't remember.'

"So I called the guy right back and got all the information again. He made an appointment to meet him at O'Hare Airport near our home in Chicago, but later Dick Wiencek, Oakland's Scouting Director, called and said, ''The other scout's sick and can't meet with you. Sixth round picks get this much money. The Central Bureau said you'd sign for this much and I don't want to dicker with you because the organization knows what you can do and we need you.' He said he needed a decision right then, so I said I'd take it. It felt like a lot of pressure, but it's like a dream come true. And, to make a long story short, here I am."

"Didn't you get that wrong? Didn't you make a short story long?" they all laughed, as Thoma took a bow.

They soon learned that only seven players on the team were not drafted. They all agreed that guys with the best numbers, early round draft picks, probably would get a better chance to play regularly and progress to the major leagues.

"Geez, you can always tell the new guys," Vince Bailey, second year player added, shaking his head. "You're all so quick to put a number on everybody."

"So, what's your number?"

"None, man. Both Hook and I were here last year. This year it's free agent time," outfielder Vince Bailey said.

"So what's up with that?"

"Well, I did get drafted. It was in the 17th round by Milwaukee. I've already played two seasons in A-Ball with them. But after the first season I got hurt, tore some ligaments in my shoulder, and it interfered with my power at the plate. I mean, I went from 17 homers that first year to two the second. After that year, though, they told me I was headed for AA, but I was like the last person released from spring training.

"When they released me they said it wasn't because of my talent because they knew I could play. It was still a real bad feeling. You know, thinking I've failed at baseball. Failed at your dream and all that. Sounds corny, I know. Luckily there were other teams interested in signing me right then, but I didn't want to pursue it any more. I mean, it was good to know they wanted me, but I just didn't want to do it any more."

"Then what are you doing here with us?"

"Well," Bailey adjusted his cap and continued, "when I went home I taught in a little private school and played hardball on Sundays. We played against teams with lots of guys from the minor leagues, so we knew the scouts were out there watching. After a few games, some scouts from Oakland just asked me if I'd like to go to their spring camp with no guarantees. Like they wanted me to show them I could make a team to get a contract. Anyway, they picked me up and here I am, back in rookie ball."

"That was lucky for you, so you really gotta produce here," Tony Laurenzi, another outfielder chimed in, "or you've about had it."

"Man, you don't know how right you are," Bailey smiled. "This year's really gotta count for something or I'm gone…for good this time."

"Okay, okay. So now that we know it isn't you, Bailey, who IS the number one? Who do we have to keep up with around here?"

"Steve Ontiveros, pitcher," a duet by the water faucet shouted.

"Yeah, of course it's a pitcher. They always get picked first and get the best money. Look here in the paper. It says the Padres and the Angels put their number one picks in this league, too, and each one of 'em got REAL good money to sign.

Harmon Killebrew, member, Hall of Fame: "I think the most difficult thing an organization has to do is release a player. But if he can't progress there, if he doesn't fit into the future plans, then it's to his best interest. That doesn't necessarily mean his pro career is over because he may be able to get picked up someplace else as a free agent. It happens all the time."

Some mentioned their signing bonuses because it was considered a sort of status symbol, but most preferred to keep that private. To my recollection, this wasn't discussed much, but everyone knew the guys drafted the earliest, particularly the top ten in the country, got the best money.

They soon learned the entire composition of their team. They told me that all but seven were drafted; only three came from high school, the rest from college; six were returning for their second and final season at this level according to Northwest League rules. They all agreed that guys with the best numbers, early round draft picks, probably would get a better chance to play regularly and progress to the big leagues. Naturally that was reassuring to many and threatening to the rest.

Dallas Green, former ML pitcher; former Manager, GM, Cubs: "I think the organizations generally give the drafted player a harder look for the first ten days or so. But once they get into the season, once they get into the drills and the work, they'll find out that with most organizations they couldn't care less about what round the kid went in or how much money he's made or been signed to, or how much notoriety he got. In professional Baseball each individual is an individual and is looked at and treated as such."

Joe Maddon, former manager, Salem; Bench Coach, Anaheim Angels: "My bonus was exactly zero and I didn't care. I just wanted to play. I didn't know then how much more difficult it would be to play at very high levels of professional baseball when your beginning starts with a contract of nothing. There's a lot of truth that getting a bonus increases job security. You bet there is! Because it usually takes more than one opinion in the first place for the club to invest twenty thousand or more in a player, he's gonna get a pretty good chance. They'll give him every chance in the world to succeed. That's not to say that other players who show us they have the tools don't get the same shot."

Eventually soft-spoken manager Dennis Rogers joined them. "Well, gentlemen," he began, "I just wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your little victory last night." He paused, looked around as if expecting comments. Silence.

"For the first time we've played together as a team, we showed some potential." He glanced at his notes. "Looks like everyone's here now. So, until Oakland gets other ideas, this is our team." He paused and looked around again. The players were perfectly still.

"From the looks of this place, I'd say you've been keeping up with what the press has to say. Remember, though, you don't have to please them. Your job is to impress Oakland." He kicked some newspapers out of his way. "You know, I think we have an excellent team. Good talent. We have more college experience than any other team and we're the oldest team in the league. That's gonna make us tough to beat. But every day's a new day. Every game's a new game. We're picked to win often. And how are we going to deal with that?" He paused and looked around for the third time. "We're gonna be classy."

He never moved, but made some notes to himself in that black book he always had at hand, then pulled out a stack of papers and passed out a list of team rules for each player. "You represent the Oakland A's, and we expect you to be gentlemen at all times." He then referred them to the blackboard inside the clubhouse door, which read, "Bus leaves for Eugene at 10:30 AM."

"Tomorrow's our first road trip and you'd better learn now to be on time," he said softly, "because the bus won't wait for you. Believe me, you don't want to know what happens if you miss that bus." He then told them the game was postponed. The clubhouse was empty and silent quicker than you can snap your fingers.

I remember thinking, "Hmm-m-m, I don't remember a major league player named Dennis Rogers. Did you expect minor league managers to be former major league players with years of experience under their belts? I sure did. Wrong.

Dennis Rogers was a former infielder in the SF Giants organization whose career was cut short after a serious eye injury suffered in college. He played two seasons of minor league baseball, made it to the long season A level, and then hung it up. He was young, close to thirty, a patient teacher for his players, and knowledgeable about the game. His laid-back manner never changed. He was aloof but treated his players with respect. He demanded their attention and respect.
 
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