by David Krival
, SoCal MSBL
(This article appeared in abbreviated form in a 2005 issue of HardBall Magazine)
CLICK TO VIEW: Roster: Former Major League Ballplayers
in the MSBL, 1988-2005
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.