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Ex Pro's in the MSBL: Wise Men Bearing Gifts

by David Krival, SoCal MSBL

(This article appeared in abbreviated form in a 2005 issue of HardBall Magazine)

Jerry Reuss (220 wins in 22 big league seasons) in Arizona with HardBall photographer Dennis Hightower (left) and HardBall Editor David Krival. Photo by Denevi & Jones.

Former big leaguers Jim Barr (left) and Ron Brand, Sacramento's winning battery in three straight MSBL World Series finals (40+ Division). Photo by Jackie Piro.


Jose Cardenal (left) and Bart Zeller at 1991 MSBL World Series. Photo by Greg Williamson.


Juan Eichelberger
Jim Umbarger
John Yandle

CLICK TO VIEW: Roster: Former Major League Ballplayers in the MSBL, 1988-2005

In 1988, the MSBL’s first season, we had a few former minor leaguers in the Southern California MSBL. Chris Goodchild, who had been playing semipro ball since being released at the AA level, was the best pitcher in our league; Sylvester Washington, a top prospect in the White Sox system until injuries derailed his career, was probably our best power-and-average hitter. Those of us returning to the game after a considerable absence felt awkward and tentative compared to the experienced "city” league players who anchored the rosters of most of our teams. We were in awe of the handful of ex-pros sprinkled around the league.

 That first year, if you could walk and chew gum at the same time, you played. The second year, things got more competitive. Some people quit. Some people became even more determined to master the game at a new level, or at least re-learn their old skills. Some things, the crossover step, the crow hop, how to charge a ground ball in the outfield, or block an infield smash with your chest if need be, you never forget. At the deepest level, you’re either a ballplayer or not. The real challenge for most of us 39-year-old comeback players, was learning to hit again.

In 1989, Gary Alexander, a catcher who hit 27 homers with Oakland and Cleveland in 1978, joined the best team in our league. We didn’t have a website then, or a newsletter. I learned about Alexander when our catcher Hazen McIntyre, who had spent fifty years in the minors, spat some chaw and said, ”That’s Gary Alexander, Rook. Hit about 30 one year for Cleveland. Watch him. You might learn something.”

Alexander and Company beat us, 2-1, in ten innings at Mission Viejo High. Goodchild and our starter Ken Roberts, who had also reached the AA level, were both throwing hard and mixing in effective breaking stuff. The fielders made all the routine plays and a few tough ones. It looked a lot like baseball.

The field sits next to a wooded hillside park overlooking a ravine. Slowly, a crowd gathered. Sunday strollers walking off brunch stopped to watch us play. A kid, maybe 14, asked me,” Who are you guys? Is this some kind of pro game?”

That was the first time anybody had ever mistaken me or anybody associated with me for a professional ballplayer. Something was happening to our team and our league. Better players were coming in. New teams were forming. Those of us who answered the original "no-experience necessary” ad either got better, or got used to spending more time on the bench. I liked the change. If I had to sit, I would sit, but nothing could keep me out of the cages, or from working out with whomever I could find.

And I am absolutely certain my reaction was not unique. In the past 15 years I’ve interviewed hundreds of MSBL ballplayers about one thing or another: a championship game, a new league, an impressive achievement (on or off the field), local league projects: charity games, field construction plans, All Star games in big league parks, good ideas for league development, the passing of a beloved teammate.

And as often as not, somehow, the talk rolls around to our early years in the MSBL: how we joined, friends in common, what kept us playing as we grew older, what motivated us to keep improving. I’ve heard our ballplayers talk about this at least a hundred times: the excitement of playing with or against an ex-Big Timer, the desire to improve enough to compete effectively with them, to know we belonged on the same ball field.

False pride is vanity, foolishness, but real pride, the kind that mandates effort and sows the seeds of accomplishment, is a good thing. It separates the ones who stick from the ones who quit. A lot of men stuck with it, got better, and earned that quiet sense of pride.

The Arizona Express

After the 1989 season, teammate Dan Piro, a financial publisher, traveled to Arizona with one of the Southern California MSBL entries in the second MSBL World Series. At the time, he was helping our league become a not-for-profit corporation. At the 1989 Series, Dan and MSBL founder Steve Sigler discussed the idea of a national magazine for the MSBL.

A year later, I found myself sharing the back seat of Dan’s Honda Accord with another ballplayer en route to the 1990 World Series in Phoenix. I had doubts about the viability of the magazine project, mainly my end of the deal, but a minor miracle restored my confidence in the essential goodness of life. After a season of incomparable mediocrity, I launched a pinch-hit home run in my first Series at-bat. If that could happen, so could HardBall Magazine, I reasoned.

High as kite on the endorphins, my brain cranked out to reward me for finally doing something right, I sensed a strange aura emanating from the teams which had a former major leaguer or two. "Lowell Palmer and Don Caritthers are here with Jim Barr and Sacramento,” I heard. "They’re unbeatable.”

Maybe so, but the San Diego Gems, a club which would later field its share of ex-big leaguers, played them about as close as you can, losing to Barr, 7-6, in the 40+ National final. Two guys with no professional experience named Edmonds and Alonso, batting ninth and tenth for Sacramento, drove in four runs, and scored three on five hits between them.

You see, it wasn’t just a matter of some ex-pros coming into the MSBL and blowing everybody’s socks off. What happened in that Series, and more than a dozen since, is the same thing that was happening to us back home in Southern California: ex-pros were joining us and we were all getting better as a result.

Why so many pitchers?

Ever since, I’ve been curious about the former major leaguers who appeared in our midst. What motivated them? Hadn’t they had enough?

About 100 former Bigtimers have, as far as we can tell, played ball at one time or another in the MSBL. At the National tournament level, most of them have competed in the 38+ [originally 40+] age bracket, which makes sense if you think about it at all.

Last winter, Brian Sigler helped me distribute a brief e-mail survey to our 350-400 League Presidents, hoping to compile comprehensive data on the subject. About fifty responded, some just to answer in the negative, but it wasn’t a waste of effort. About a third of the names of their lists were new to me. I had already pulled about sixty names from my own archives. The Presidents’ responses brought the total to ninety-three. I know there are at least a dozen more names we could add to our lists. Members will read this article and e-mail me, demanding an explanation for the omission of Lefty Rabinowitz, a side show giant with a floor-length beard who pitched to one terrified batter for Bill Veeck’s St. Louis Browns in 1952 and lasted only slightly longer in the East Cairo MSBL in 1988.

For some reason, 60.2 percent (56 of 93) are pitchers. Usually, big league teams carry only eleven or twelve (44-48 percent of a 25-man roster) pitchers. Meditating upon this anomaly, I jumped to the following conclusions: First, it’s a sad truth that pitchers often blow their arms out early in their careers. When organized baseball summarily dumps these kids, they must feel lousy. Keith McWhorter, an articulate ex-pro now in the Boston MSBL, has written about this experience and agrees, whether he admits it or not.

Bill Lee, on the other hand, joined the MSBL because he just loves the game and wants to keep playing it as long as he can. In that respect, Lee sounds like the average MSBL ballplayer. Baseball, it’s safe to say, gets into your blood. When their careers end, the pros miss it.

Jerry Reuss, who worked for hours with me one afternoon in the howling desert wind as we prepared an instructional piece on the art of the curve ball, told me he wanted to play ball, but he didn’t want to pitch anymore. "I love to hit,” Reuss said. "They don’t let you hit enough if you’re a pitcher. That’s why I’m still playing.”

The Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association members who’ve laced up their spikes in the MSBL include three Cy Young Award winners, two stolen base champions and about a dozen guys who can wear Major League World Series championship rings to formal affairs.

Ed Sutko, a backup backstop for the 1990 Reds, has a World Series ring. Like many of the ex-Big Leaguers in our midst, Ed’s career was not particularly memorable. Most of the ex-major leaguers in the MSBL were not stars. Forty-two lasted less than four years and never really made it; thirty-seven were solid journeymen, most with around a decade in the Big Time, pretty good numbers or both. And fourteen had at least a taste of stardom: Bert Campaneris, Jose Cardenal, Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Mel Hall, Jim Barr, Mark Davis, Mark Gubicza, Bill Lee, Mike Marshall (p), J.R. Richard, Jerry Reuss, Bret Saberhagen and Luis Tiant.

With a pitching staff like that, and rabbits like LeFlore, Campaneris and Rudy Law, an imaginary team of MSBL ex-big leaguers would hold its own in any league, even if the position players didn’t all tear the cover off the ball. The important thing, however, is this: short-timers, journeymen, all stars, none of them arrived in the MSBL empty-handed.

Rare and Valuable Gifts

Some, like Bart Zeller, Ron Dunn and Jim Barr, brought leadership and dedication, devoting many years to promoting the growth and development of their local MSBL organizations.

Zeller, a career minor league catcher who did not even get a chance to swing the bat during his half-season with St. Louis, inherited the Chicago North MSBL from founder Mike Pinto in 1989. Zeller dedicated ten years of service Chicago North, which remains one of the best organized leagues in the MSBL, providing playing time and balanced competition at every conceivable age level. Zeller caught and managed, as his teams won 40+ American titles in 1992 and 1994.

Dunn, a third baseman in the Chicago Cub organization, spent a career in the minors—all but two partial seasons— waiting for something to happen to Ron Santo, then Bill Madlock. By the time Madlock left Chicago, Dunn’s knees were a medical nightmare. "The MSBL is like a second chance,” he once told me. "I love it.”

Ron guided the San Jose MSBL through ten seasons, leaving it with about 24 teams and half that many World Series titles. Ron put together one of the most amazing hitting streaks in Series history, with a home run in his first at-bat in six or seven consecutive 30+ National and 40+ National finals. I’m not going to paw through all those old magazines and box scores to find those games, but I saw four of them and I’ll take his word for the others.

Barr, a talented right-handed starter with the Giants, was the pitching coach at Sacramento State when an old teammate told him about the MSBL. A member of the Sacramento MSBL Board of Directors for about fifteen years, Barr contributed plenty of elbow grease to the project which ultimately produced the Sacramento MSBL’s minor league-caliber, two-field baseball complex. Today, he is the Facility Director for the complex. The first ex-major leaguer to contribute a teaching article to HardBall, Jim has helped dozens of MSBL pitchers develop better mechanics at informal seminars at the World Series.

Special Gifts

Like Barr, many ex-major leaguers have shared something uniquely valuable to MSBL members, the benefit of their years of experience and baseball knowledge. Mike Epstein, Tito Landrum, Ken Rudolph, Jerry Reuss, Rudy Law, Jim Umbarger and the other pros who have helped HardBall Magazine produce instructional material have been—without exception— painstaking, tolerant and, most of all, generous with their time.

This merits some praise, given the fact that so many ballplayers have suffered such miserable treatment by the current pack of hyenas disguised as sports journalists. When it dawned on these men that I wanted nothing more than to help teach MSBL members how to play the game of baseball, their relief was almost palpable. For my part, I took care not to try to impress them with my own vast store of baseball wisdom, and, often, a mutual respect developed between us.

Most of these men, with so much hard-won knowledge in their minds, had not received the training to organize and express complex information in writing and photography. Almost always, they soon became as excited as I was about our mutual projects. Teaming up with ballplayers to create instructional articles, I learned things I could never learned otherwise, and the letters we received confirmed my hunch that these articles had the same effect on many of our readers. When the ballplayers asked me for extra copies of the issue(s) in which their article(s) would appear, they had, without realizing it, delivered another great gift.

Lou Zabbia, who never got paid to play, won a pile of championships for Sacramento, managing teams which included —over the years—about a dozen ex-big timers. If I correctly recall a story he told me, however, his biggest thrill managing a ball club came after a game they lost rather badly. Ron Brand, a journeyman catcher with Houston and Montreal in the late 60’s, saw Lou sitting at the end of the bench, rather glumly beginning to collect the gear and police the dugout. Brand joined him, on their knees in the clay clods, sunflower seeds, pine tar and tobacco juice. "Forget it, Skip,” he said. "We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Memories of Excellence

From the very beginning, former major leaguers have left their mark on the MSBL World Series and Fall Classic. In 1989, Ron Dunn (IF, Chicago-NL, 1974-75), smashed a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win the 30+ National championship at the second World Series for San Jose, 10-9, over the South Dakota Rushmores.

Jim Barr and Ron Brand formed the winning battery for Sacramento in three straight Series finals—1989-1991—and Barr went on to win two more 40+ National championship games for Sacramento in 1995 and 1998.

Bombo Rivera, an infielder with Montreal and Minnesota (1975-82) was recruited by Don Zimmer’s son Tom Zimmer for the St. Pete 39ers, whose pitching staff included Cy Young Award winner Mike Marshall. Rivera smashed a key hit in the 1992 Fall Classic 40+ National championship game; Marshall threw a three-hit shutout in the semifinal.

More important than these bits of MSBL history, however, is the heightened level of skill, class and intensity that former Big Timers bring to the national tournaments.

Always a Competitor

The 1992 40+ National semifinal between San Jose and Lehigh Valley featured two lefties you may have never heard of: Lehigh’s Dennis Kinney (1978-82: Cleveland, San Diego, Detroit, Oakland) and San Jose’s Doug Capilla, a fiery competitor with a wicked curve (1976-81: St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati).

A hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, Capilla was arm-weary after pitching a complete game in the quarterfinal. Starting the semifinal as a DH, he was one of the few San Jose batters to hit Kinney hard. In the top of the ninth or tenth, Capilla inherited a situation with two-out and a runner on third. Not quite loose, he bounced a hard curve, which ricocheted off the catcher’s shinguards and up the first base line. As the catcher scrambled after it, Lehigh’s runner decided he could score. Capilla dashed in to cover the plate and received the catcher’s throw facing away from the runner.

Capilla whirled with the impossible grace and quickness of a toreador, and put the tag on the sliding runner. His body blocked the umpire’s view, but from my seat in the bleachers slightly to the left of the plate, I saw him make the play. It shocked me; I had already "given up on it.” No one, certainly not a forty-year-old man, has reflexes like that. Perhaps the umpire, subconsciously, underwent the same mental process. Moreover, from his vantage point, he could not witness the miracle Capilla had just performed. He spread his arms out from his sides, palms down.

Capilla, exploding like a hand grenade in the umpire’s face, got himself tossed. Somebody came in and got the last out. Trailing by a run, Jan Jose got a runner as far as second or third with two out when they came to Capilla’s spot in the order. The way he had been hitting, you never know what might have happened, but Capilla was in the parking lot, madder than a wet hen, and Kinney easily retired an injured utility infielder, the only man left on the bench.

A Lot of Talent

They staged the 1996 Series 40+ National playoffs at the Chandler Complex: Phoenix vs. San Jose; Sacramento vs. Southern California. All four starters went the distance. John Yandle, a former AAA player who now serves as Barry Bonds’ personal left-handed practice pitcher, threw for San Jose. Phoenix started Jim Umbarger, a left-hander with the Rangers (1975-78). They pitched about as well as it can be done, until an exhausted Phoenix infielder’s error decided the game, 2-1, in the tenth.

Southern Cal’s Mike O’Sullivan never played professionally, but he matched Barr pitch for pitch for seven or eight innings. Sacramento won, 3-0. Ted Learakos, who doubled against Barr in the eighth, said,” I’ll never forget this game.”

Wally Kopp, my high school teammate from Madison, Wisconsin, managed Phoenix. I’d played with and against every man on the SoCal team for eight years by then. Dozens of players from other teams sat on the grass or squatted in the bleachers. No one went anywhere until these games were finished. There was a lot of talent on those fields.

No one resented the fact that some teams had more ex-pros than others. It was just the way things worked out and it gave us a chance to play against men who had really been there. The pros made us all—in our home leagues and in the big tournaments—become better ballplayers. Sometimes they made us look like amateurs, but just as often, they brought out the best in us.

A Final Gift

From 1991-93, Chuck Baker, an infielder who never hit a home run in three najor league seasons, absolutely dominated the power hitting stats in the Southern California MSBL. Lorenzo Gray, who hit .206 with four home runs in 106 at-bats in 1982-83 with the White Sox, was and remains, one of SoCal’s best power-and-average hitters. He has hit over a dozen home runs in MSBL World series competition.

Tom Klawitter, who spent a few unspectacular weeks with Minnesota in 1985, was Kansas City’s winning pitcher in three World Series 40+ National and American Division championship games. Jim Vatcher, an outfielder with three National League teams from 1990-92, pitched a complete game to win the World Series 38+ Federal championship, 11-1, for the Pacific Coast Breakers. "I always had a strong arm,” Vatcher said. "But I didn’t know anything about pitching. About three years ago, I decided to fool around with it in our local MSBL.”

These men were not among the best when they played in the majors. Although some of the former Big Leaguers who have joined the MSBL were stars, many more were mediocre at that level of play. Yet, overweight and out of practice, some of these marginal players have looked like Henry Aaron or Nolan Ryan in the MSBL. I find this truly humbling.

In 16 years, I never heard a one of them rub it in, never heard the word busher, never saw a sneer on an averted face. Just as important, I never saw a former big league pitcher throw at an MSBL batter. I’ve seen more than one weekend warrior with a 29-ounce, vanadium-titanium-aluminum alloy techno-bat pound himself on the back after ripping an ex-big leaguer’s slowed-down express. Often, I wondered, "Will he send the next plate-crowding amateur a subtle little message?”

I never saw it, not from the old professionals. Tom Murphy used to unbutton your jersey a little if you planted your toes too close to his corner of the plate, but it was always the bottom buttons. If the batter had stumbled into the pitch, it wouldn’t have put him in the permanent rutabaga ward. Having thus brought the batter fully to his senses, Murph would delicately slice off the outside corner and another slugger would take a seat, understanding a wee bit more about the fine art of pitching.

When I met Chuck Baker, he was a little out of shape. We were on opposing teams, jogging in the outfield before a game. A three-year veteran of MSBL competition, I generously tried to show the "newcomer" the ropes. "You’ll have to lose some weight if you want to play in this league,” I said.

Chuck never missed a beat. He thanked me for the advice and said he’d work on it. Later, as I watched him trot around the bases for the second time that afternoon, I took the trouble to find out who he was. Naturally, I sought him out and apologized after the game. "You must think I’m a real jerk,” I said.

"No. I’ve known major league jerks. You were just trying to help,” he said. "And you’re right; I’m too heavy,” he said.

These men who joined us had faced Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Catfish Hunter, George Brett, Gaylord Perry—all the truly great players of their era, and, more often than not, they had been humbled. Now the MSBL offered them a chance they never figured on: to play ball for the sheer hell of it with ordinary guys to whom these games meant an awful lot. The last thing our new friends would do would be to rag on us. They took their places on the field and on the bench and became, gracefully, gratefully, one of the boys again.
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