1981 – A Year Beyond Comprehension

Aug 13, 2013   //   by bwilber   //   Bob on Baseball  //  6 Comments

It’s likely that all of us have one particular year we can look back on as a complete stand-alone example of time compression, where so much happened it now seems inconceivable that it all occurred within the tight confines of January through December. It’s also likely that such a year came along at a very young age when, if you think about it, each year of life was a far greater percentage of the time we’d spent on the planet.  Go to school for the first time, learn to read, have an amazing summer vacation, and then experience going back to school at a higher grade level than ever before, all at the age of five, and you’re talking about a monumental piece of a lifetime.  My amazing and memorable year, though, took place in 1981, when I was 25 years old. Still a youngster compared to now, but old enough not to expect so much out of any 12-month period.

I need to start out by backtracking a bit, though. In 1980 I’d begun my professional scouting career with the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the youngest scout in Major League Baseball at the ripe old washed-out age of 24. It was March when I left my suburban St. Louis home and met up with my new Toronto scouting colleague Don Welke in Carbondale, Ill. to watch the SIU Salukis play an opponent of which I have no memory, its identity lost in the haze of time. Oddly, I even flew down to Carbondale on a small puddle jumper, despite the fact SIU is only a couple of hours south of St. Louis, but that was necessary because I was scheduled to be attached to Don’s hip for the next month or so, riding long distances in his car, battling terrible midwestern spring weather, and learning the ropes from him on a daily basis. Much like the young person who tags along next to your waiter, as they observe and train for a restaurant server’s job, I would be Don’s right hand, his assistant, and his protege for the next few weeks, learning on the job like a waiter in training.

There are, indeed, ropes to be learned as a scout, in addition to the necessary ability to work a stopwatch, keep score, and evaluate talent. Simply plotting out a route of travel over multiple states during a single spring, so that every prospect could be seen while also giving yourself the chance to potentially discover a solid player who had not yet registered on anyone else’s radar was no easy task, especially when bad weather would ruin all of your carefully devised plans. Who knew that logistics were such a critical part of the scouting profession?

I learned from Don how important relationships are, especially with college and high school coaches. You needed to earn their trust and you had to establish, in your own mind, whether they typically undersold their players or oversold them. Like the boy who cried wolf, any coach who swore on a stack of Baseball Almanacs that this kid at shortstop, or that stud on the mound, was a potential first-round pick, year after year, despite the fact his best-ever product never got out of Class-A ball, was a trait that needed to be noted. It’s good to be naturally skeptical.

I traveled with Don, enjoyed his company, and tried to absorb as much as I could while also wrestling with the stark reality that my playing career was over, and now I was part of the legion of scouts who had always been the “old guys” with clipboards, in my eyes. As a matter of true fact, many of the guys I was now sharing bleacher space with were my dad’s contemporaries, and I’d known them and sat next to them since I was a kid. That dichotomy between childhood fun and an adult career only made the transition a little harder. Now, I can look back and realize there’s little doubt I was too young, and the gap between playing ball as a boy and scouting it as a man was a little too great. It was a whirlwind of a transition, but at the time I was just trying to survive.

That summer, my first non-scouting assignment was to head for Utica, N.Y. right after the draft, to help out as a coach in the rookie-level New York-Penn League. Our team in Utica, that year, consisted mostly of players from Latin American countries, so my rudimentary high school espanol got a quick brush-up. After a few weeks there, working with the outfielders, coaching first base, and helping many of the young Latin players order lunch at Burger King, it was back to the midwest to start my first summer of pro coverage.

I was on my own by then, with no more Don Welke to show me the way, and I would be covering the entire Class-A Midwest League and one division of the Triple-A American Association. You might think it’s odd that a rookie scout was given even half of a Triple-A league to cover, but I quickly learned that the higher the level of play, the easier it is to project whether a player might ever make it to the big leagues, much less perform well there. At Triple-A, every player is one step, one phone call, away. If they can’t survive and do well in Louisville or Des Moines, they probably can’t play in the big leagues. In A-ball, the jump from Waterloo or Peoria all the way to Cleveland or Chicago is a much (MUCH) larger leap.

Waterloo, Iowa.  I spent many summer nights in ballparks just like this

Waterloo, Iowa. I spent many summer nights in ballparks just like this

Covering pro leagues, it turned out, was also a lot like playing minor league ball, but without the grass stains and Red Man tobacco. I’d arrive in a town, we’ll say Indianapolis, on the first day of a home-stand, and stick with that club until I’d seen all 25 players, which could often take six or seven consecutive days. Then, once I had written a report on every Indianapolis Indian, I’d follow whichever team they’d been playing to complete my mission with that club, and on and on until the whole division was done. This generally meant spending each week in a roadside Holiday Inn, getting up too late, eating bad food, killing time at the local mall, and finally heading for the ballpark at a ridiculously early hour (often at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon prior to a 7:00 p.m. game) just to end the boredom. After the game, more bad food if it could be found, a few hours to wind down, and back to sleep around 1:00 a.m.  And repeat. All summer. The players had the camaraderie of the clubhouse and the bus rides to make it a magical experience. I had a few other traveling scouts to sit with, although we might be on different schedules and they might be 40 years older than me, and only myself in the car between towns.

In the latter stages of that summer, I was assigned the plum honor of scouting the National Baseball Congress tournament, at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita (yet another ballpark I had been to as my father’s batboy for the Denver Bears).  The NBC tournament features players who are college age or older, so it can be daunting to weed through the 30-year-old guys who had already tried and failed in the minors, in order to find the current college crop who are looking for their first shot. The NBC is historic, well respected, heavily scouted, and enormous. So enormous, with teams coming from all over North America, that the games ran from early morning until late at night, for days on end, and one night of the event would annually stretch right on through until dawn, with special prizes every hour for those fans who made it all the way through. The prize at 8:00 a.m was the morning paper and donuts.  It’s a raucous and unique affair, and in 1980 the weather cooperated, if by “cooperated” you mean it was 105-degrees on a daily basis. One week in Wichita, for the NBC tournament, seemed far more difficult than my entire year up until that point.

I did, however, see a strapping young pitcher by the name of Tom Niedenfuer, throwing bullets for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. To me, he was ready for the big leagues right then and there, but my excited call to Toronto was rebuffed after they checked with the regional scout who had covered him in college, and who had rated him as only as a midlevel prospect. I would imagine it was also rebuffed when the front office considered the source.  The Dodgers, it turned out, had no qualms whatsoever, and they signed him in the spot. He pitched in the World Series one year later.

I also saw a young man who would one day hit a dramatic walk-off home run to end the World Series, winning it for the Blue Jays. Joe Carter was in the tournament, but we all knew he was a gem of a prospect and he was not eligible to sign, so as a group we simply salivated and wrote copious notes. We also saw him hit a home run which traveled approximately 600 feet before it came to rest, after he clobbered it over the scoreboard and onto an asphalt parking lot, where it bounded like a tee-shot on a cart path, until it finally hit the side of a annex building attached to a nearby church.

An overhead visual representation of Joe Carter's blast at the NBC tournament

An overhead visual representation of Joe Carter’s blast at the NBC tournament

Let’s just say that the NBC tournament was quite an experience. Yes, it was that. Also exhausting.

In the fall, there was junior college ball to watch, as well as some four-year college “fall ball” stuff, and then October wrapped up and my first off-season was upon me. Three months of no work whatsoever, staring me right in the face. It’s a very strange lifestyle, that scouting business.  I was settling in for the time off, but then the Blue Jays had a chance to bring Rich Hacker into the organization, as a scout and coach. That was good news for everyone, because Rich was an accomplished baseball man, who had gotten the proverbial cup of coffee as a big leaguer but who had excelled as an instructor and talent evaluator. The only trouble was the fact Rich was a St. Louis area guy, just like me, and he had a family and solid roots there. There wasn’t going to be room for both of us.

Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays’ GM, called me and made the offer: Would I transfer to Central California to make room for Rich in the organization? I did not hesitate before saying yes.

My 1981 scouting area was going to roughly follow the contours of the San Joaquin Valley, and with Fresno being located smack-dab in the middle of it that looked like the place to go. I flew out there and found an apartment overlooking a pool, at the corner of Fruit and Ashland, then loaded up the car and headed west, arriving in early February when the Tule Fog blankets the area like a thick cloud. Welcome to Fresno! Am I really not supposed to be able to see 10 yards?

My boss out there was Wayne Morgan, who was the club’s Scouting Director for the western half of the country. Wayne was another great guy, and he did all he could to bring me up to speed on what was another big transition for me. In California, aspiring ballplayers can play year-round. When I was a teen, I was lucky to get 25 to 30 games in per year, whereas a kid in Stockton, Lodi, Modesto, or Fresno could easily play as many as 200 games or more. What that did was create a bit of an illusion for a rookie scout like me, who was accustomed to seeing a lot of rough edges on high school and college players. The California kids were extremely polished, and at first I thought they were ALL prospects (the rumors were true!). Wayne worked hard with me to help me see beyond the slick moves, and concentrate on the skills that can’t be taught. Running speed, bat speed, arm strength. No amount of flashy polish could make up for a lack of any of those attributes. Bottom line, though, was that a lot of these kids could play. The big leagues are dotted with players who grew up in California.

Wayne Morgan, by the way, lived on Morgan Avenue in Morgan Hill, Calif.  Seriously. You can’t make stuff like that up.

Wayne did his best in our short time together, but with so much quality baseball being played it was incumbent upon both of us to hit the road and see as much of it as possible. I got awfully familiar with Route 99, the highway that connects all the central valley cities, running north and south. There are some quality junior colleges in that area, not the least of which was Fresno City College, plus some great four-year schools, and such a plethora of high school prospects it felt like a road race just trying to keep up and see everyone.

At one point, after the college season was over, Wayne called and asked me to come over to the Oakland side of the Bay Area, where we were going to work out a young man who had also played football at his high school in Hayward. We found a field, I brought along a glove and some cleats, and I threw him batting practice while Wayne and one of our national cross-checkers watched him hit.  Here are my recollections:

He was enormously strong.

He was exceedingly well built.

He was getting consistently jammed by my 75 mph fastballs on the inner half. Had the kid been swinging a wooden bat, I would’ve been breaking them with my routine BP stuff.

I made my comments to my colleagues, after the workout ended and the young man departed. They didn’t disagree, but thought he was enough of a physical specimen to draft him that year, in the 22nd round. He declined the Blue Jays’ offer, and instead went to the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. From there, the NFL and a successful coaching career.  I think Jack Del Rio made the right decision when he turned down the baseball gig.

Once that was over, it was time for me to turn to pro coverage once again, this time covering the entire California League. The Cal League has always been considered a solid Class A level, on a par with the Midwest League, and the Fresno Giants were right there in my home town.

Although I was so busy I was rarely home during the late spring, I had noticed the young athletic looking guys around the pool, just below my balcony at the Fresno apartment. It wasn’t until I had a few days off, after the draft, when I finally met them and found out they all played for the Giants, at an old bandbox of a ballpark called Euless Park. Once they found out my background, and the fact I was all of a couple of years older than they were, we hit it off great and became buddies. Kelly Smith was a quick little outfielder, Billy Heimach was a solid middle infielder, and Jeff Trax was, well…  Unique!  Jeff was a right handed pitcher from Oakland Community College in Michigan, but he’d injured his arm and was out for the season. Rather than go home to Michigan and sulk, he decided to stay in Fresno all year with his teammates.

Jeff and I hit it off immediately, and since he was not active and didn’t go on road trips, he’d be there by the pool seven days a week. I joined him whenever I was in town, and a good time was had by all.  Finally, since he was bunking in with the other guys and sharing a bedroom, I invited him to take the spare room in my apartment and we became roomies. Looking back, I suspect we were only violating about a dozen MLB tampering rules, all of which we were blissfully unaware.

I was busy getting ready to do my pro coverage, figuring I’d see a lot of games in Fresno and Visalia (only about 40 minutes away, on Highway 99 to the south), as well as Lodi, Stockton, and Modesto, trying to see as many of the northern teams as I could when they came through the nearby towns. And then June 12 rolled around the the major league players went on strike.

No one knew how long it would last, and at first everything was normal in a scouting sense. But as the days dragged on, they finally pulled us all off the road to cut expenses, and Pat Gillick called and asked me to do my best to cover the whole Cal League while only going to games in Fresno and Visalia, home of the Twins’ farm club the Visalia Oaks. There was no way I could see everyone that way, but I knew right then that I’d sure be seeing a lot of the Giants and the Oaks!

With no overnight travel, I had nothing to do all day but to hang at the pool with Jeff, or with Kelly and Billy when the team was in town. We became fast friends, playing tennis in the scorching Fresno heat, making up games to play in the water, and basically reverting to life as 12-year-olds. Seriously, we were 12-year-olds. When you’re biggest worry, all day, is who can make the best diving catch of the Frisbee while flying horizontally across the water before belly flopping into the deep end, you’re pretty much not living a normal adult life. Of course, this only went on all summer.

For me, therefore, at the age of 25 it was a summer straight from childhood. I had nothing to do but “play” all day, and then I’d go to a ballgame at night. Okay, we consumed a few beers along the way, after the games each night, so there was that.

Euless Park was falling down, literally. I just looked it up on Google and what I found was an old description of the place, since no old photos seem to have survived. It was demolished in 1988 after termite damage had made it unstable and unsafe. I’m pretty sure it was both of those things when I was spending half my summer nights there, in 1981, and I’m equally sure it didn’t take a lot of heavy demolition equipment to knock it down.

The Giants club was good, but it featured two players who were actually pretty great. Frank Williams was a tough right-handed side-armer, who threw one of the heaviest sinkers I’d ever seen. I wrote him up as a major league front-line prospect. Rob Deer was a monster of a young man, who could hit them out of sight and often did. I wrote him up as a potential MLB home run leader.  I was right on both accounts.

Side note about Rob Deer…  He didn’t live in the same apartment complex, so I never got to know him that summer. I saw him play on a nightly basis and kept adjusting my adjectives to better reflect his enormous power, but I didn’t know him at all.  Many years later, around 2001, I saw Rob at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix. I was there as the Team Manager for Del Worsham, a great Funny Car driver I worked for from 1997 to 2008. Rob was driving a very cool “sportsman” level car, meaning he was not a professional drag racer but a “weekend warrior” who came out to our big race to perform alongside the likes of John Force, Kenny Bernstein, and my boss. NHRA races are like that. Imagine going to see the L.A. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium one weekend, only to find out that the entire Dodger farm system was there, too. You could watch the Class A teams in the morning, the Double A team in the afternoon, and the Triple A team later in the day, and yet twice per day the Dodgers themselves would take the field to play the big league game.

Anyway, I approached Rob in the staging lanes and said hello, telling him about my year in Fresno and connecting the dots with names like Heimach, Smith, and Trax. He was an ex-big leaguer by then, but the names brought a smile to his face. We hit it off, and a year later he came to the same race with a buddy of his. He brought his friend straight to my pit area, saying “Where’s my old baseball friend?” to the crew. None of my guys recognized his buddy. Drag racers can be like that, in their own little world…  I recognized Robin Yount immediately.

For Rob Deer, his major league career was pretty much described by the term “all or nothing”.  He clubbed 230 home runs during his 11-year career, but he also struck out 1,409 times.  That year in Fresno, though…  How about a .286 average, 107 RBI, and 33 mammoth home runs. Not too shabby.

As for Frank Williams, he went 14-9 with a 3.37 ERA in Fresno, along with 14 complete games and 170 strikeouts. He went on to pitch six years in the big show, compiling 24 wins and striking out 314 Major League batters.

When Fresno was away from home I’d venture south to Visalia and marvel at their hulking first-baseman who hit it just as far as Deer, but with greater contact and far fewer strikeouts. This guy reminded me of the kid we see in every Little League World Series, you know the one. The 12-year-old who matured early and is shaving already, while his catcher is lost within his equipment and barely tips the scales at 80 pounds. The Oaks’ first baseman was a man among boys.

He made the jump straight to the big leagues later that summer, after compiling these obscene stats in the California League:  121 games played. 535 plate appearances, 25 doubles, 5 triples, 27 home runs, 111 RBI.

Kent Hrbek did okay after that, and if you want to meet the man just hang around behind home plate at Target Field in Minneapolis. He is woven into the fabric of Minnesota Twins culture, and is still a man of the people. Also still larger than life. That summer in Visalia, he was a man among boys.

The strike finally ended, my pro coverage wrapped up, and frankly it was sad to see my buddies on the Giants scatter to go back home. We capped off the season with a trip down to Zuma Beach in Malibu, and all shook hands and gave each other hugs there. I have never seen Jeff, Kelly, or Billy since, although Billy Heimach and I are now connected on LinkedIn.com (where he’s William Heimach).  And, I’m relatively sure the statute of limitations has run out on the whole “Giants pitcher rooming with and hanging out with Blue Jays scout” thing.  At least I hope so.

The Major League players strike was ended in early August and by October the pairing was set for the World Series. It was a classic duel, between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the first two games set for Dodger Stadium. Much to my complete surprise, the Toronto front office called and invited me down for all the festivities, parties, and ball games. I was pleasantly stunned to be joining Pat Gillick, Peter Bavasi (team president), Elliot Wahle (director of player personnel), and our newly minted manager, Bobby Cox, who would be the Jays’ skipper beginning in 1982. I suspected a group shot of us might have included the caption “One of these things is not like the others” in reference to the young scout hanging around with upper management.

We stayed at the Wilshire Hyatt, and just checking in there was a wide-eyed experience, as the lobby was filled with baseball legends, Hall of Famers, and other recognizable faces. And the Yankees, who were also staying there, weren’t even there yet!

On the night before Game 1, we all got in our rental car, which was inexplicably a station wagon, and headed to Dodger Stadium.  In the Stadium Club restaurant, both teams gathered, along with representatives from other clubs (that group, of course, included us) and we enjoyed a wonderful meal, a few speeches, and  the shared excitement of a World Series about to begin.

As we departed the stadium, one member of the Yankees’ staff asked if he could hop in for a ride back to the hotel. He and I sat in the back seat, and I turned to him and said “Yogi, I’m Bob Wilber. I’m sure you know my father Del.”  For the next 20 minutes, I had the unbelievable pleasure of listening to Yogi Berra tell hilarious stories about my dad. It doesn’t really get much better than that.

Once back at the Hyatt, the Yankee club was in the lobby in full force, and I think that’s something we just wouldn’t see today. The entire roster was just milling around, chatting with other baseball folks and, no doubt, fans. Our entourage headed up to the outdoor poolside lounge and grabbed a table, ordering a round of drinks as other guests filtered by and chatted with Pat, Peter, and Bobby. One such guest made a beeline for us, and took a seat at our table, partaking in a jovial session of banter and conversation.  I clearly remember thinking to myself “Okay, this is pretty cool. I’m sitting at a table at the Hyatt talking to Reggie Jackson…”   That pretty well encapsulates the surreal nature of my World Series trip, but it wasn’t over yet.

The next day, our Blue Jays group got in the rental car and headed for the stadium. We had seats, but surprisingly they really weren’t that good, out in the right field corner, and what was also surprising was the fact we didn’t have a parking pass.  I don’t remember who was driving, but it was one of our senior executive guys, and instead of pulling into the general parking lot he drove straight to the VIP reserved lot by the office entrance, where there were only a handful of slots. As we approached, a guard walked toward us with his hand up, asking us to stop, and our driver flashed the headlights twice. The guard asked to see our pass, but our driver simply said “Mr. Campanis told us to flash the lights and you’d let us in,” referring to Dodger executive Al Campanis. The guard gave us a little quizzical look, but said “Okay” and waved us in. Someone in the car asked if that statement had been legit, and our driver simply laughed and said “Heck no, but it works every time.”  At that point, I realized the distance between college pranks and Major League Baseball really wasn’t as far as I’d thought. I also have a pretty good notion as to who was behind the wheel, but I shall leave that person nameless to protect the innocent.

The following day, for Game 2, I needed to pick up Peter Bavasi in a different car, as he was tied up all morning and couldn’t ride with the rest of us. When we got to the ballpark, I bravely drove straight for the same reserved lot, trying to look confident while feeling quite nervous. It worked like a charm, and Peter was impressed. Amazing.

After one of the games, we piled into the station wagon and found a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant not too far from the Stadium. We enjoyed a raucous dinner, which included the singing of college fight songs, and in the end we rode back to the hotel with Bobby Cox and me laying in the rear section of the wagon, with our feet hanging out the open tailgate as we drove down Wilshire Blvd. I reiterate my earlier statement about this moment in time not being all that far removed from my college days.  Double amazing. Stunning, actually.

Once the amazement of the World Series wore off, my next assignment came down from on high, and it was one that had me simultaneously excited and petrified. I’d be splitting coverage of the Mexican Pacific League (a winter league that featured a lot of top minor league guys) with Wayne Morgan, but it was his prerogative to decide which of us would cover the various cities. He chose the border towns, where you could stay on the American side and just drive across for the games, and I got the clubs in the dusty Sonoran region, most of which I’d never heard of before.  I’d be flying into Mazatlan, a resort town on the Gulf of California, but after that it would be Hermosillo, Ciudad Obregon, Los Mochis, Guaymas, and Guasave.

Frankly, I have no memory of how our travel department set all that up, but before long I had a full itinerary, which included hotels, flights, and rental cars. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I flew from LAX down to Mazatlan, and arrived well after dark. As far as I knew, I was on a different planet. The rental went okay, with me using my rudimentary Spanish while the agent used his equally rudimentary English, and my drive to the resort beachside hotel took me through dirt roads in neighborhoods where open fires, roaming chickens, and yapping dogs were the standard.  This was going to be interesting!

Mazatlan was actually a pretty nice way to start, staying in a nice resort right on the beach. The ballpark wasn’t too far away, and the staff there treated me well. I quickly got up to speed on understanding the P.A. announcers, and it was all pretty enjoyable. After five days there, I got back on an AeroMexico flight up to Hermosillo, and that was another interesting experience of a different sort. Hermosillo is a medium sized city in an agricultural area, sort of a Mexican version of Topeka, and the people there were really friendly, but I was on my own in a foreign land and in those circumstances you quickly learn that even the simplest tasks can be quite difficult. Thank God for three years of Spanish at St. Louis University High…

After a home-stand there, my breakfast ordering skills had improved, my comfort level had increased, and I was enjoying the baseball, although it was a little uncomfortable being stared at and pestered by kids, as the only American sitting in the grandstands.  After that home-stand, it was time to head to Ciudad Obregon, and my itinerary had me flying there, despite the fact it’s only about a three-hour drive. I vividly recall our AeroMexico pilot taking off and powering up to 30,000 feet, then flying straight to Obregon at that altitude until we were directly over the town, at which point he commenced a spiral descent that put us right on the runway.

I headed for the Hertz counter, and was greeted by a charming young lady who spoke quite a bit of English. We processed the transaction and I asked her for directions to the Valle Grande Hotel, in downtown Obregon. She started to give them to me, got a bit confused, and finally said “You are my final customer. I’ll ride with you and show you the way, then have my boyfriend pick me up there.”  I’m still stunned by that customer service.  Funny thing was, there were two Valle Grande hotels in Obregon, and she took me to the wrong one. I went inside to check in, and discovered this but she had already departed.

When I arrived at the second hotel, things went smoothly enough and I got to my room just in time to watch Monday Night Football, featuring Mexican announcers. You could hear the regular American announcers in the background, but I more enjoyed listening to the excited chatter about “Los Vikingos de Minnesota y los Broncos de Denver”.   I was a long way from home.

A week later, it was a quick drive back up to Guaymas, a beautiful resort town on the Gulf of California. There, two other scouts from other organizations were staying at the same hotel, and my boss Wayne had come down as well, to continue covering one of the border teams he’d been following. I noticed he chose to follow them to Guaymas, not Ciudad Obregon. Didn’t blame him, either.  The best part of the week in Guaymas was getting to know the other two guys, one of whom was fluent in Spanish and sort of a legend in those parts. That would come in handy later in the trip…

Los Mochis was the next stop, after a bit of a harrowing drive down the country highway, where I was only stopped twice by psuedo-soldiers at check points.  Los Mochis was a dusty town well south, but it had a Holiday Inn so I was staying there for six days. My air conditioner didn’t work, but for all six days I was promised that it would be fixed immediately.  I’d also been eating whatever the locals put in front of me, and enjoying it all without harm (although I did follow the advice of seasoned veterans by only drinking Mexican beer, and never the water or anything containing ice). At the Holiday Inn in Los Mochis, I had a club sandwich on my first night. I basically spent the next five days in my room. Montezuma got his revenge. It was not pretty.

I had noticed some armed soldiers in the ballpark back up in Guaymas, and when I could haul myself out to the Los Mochis  ballpark I noticed more of the same. Then we traveled down to Guasave. With each stop on this trip, the towns were getting smaller, darker, more third-world, and a bit scarier. I went to the park early and met the GM, and after shaking hands with him I asked for a roster. He said “Follow me” and the next thing I knew we were in his car, heading into downtown Guasave on dirt roads. Trepidation might describe how I felt.  He stopped at a store front, went inside, and came back out with a roster. I’m still wondering about this escapade…

My most excellent Mexican adventure (except for Mazatlan, which is too far south to make this map.)

My most excellent Mexican adventure

That night, my two new scouting friends arrived at the park and grabbed me, then took me up to some “special” seats the team president had offered us. They weren’t as good as the three seats the GM had given me, right behind home plate, but they could not be turned down. When the P.A. announcer introduced us, we all stood and I followed orders by gently waving with the back of my hand turned toward the crowd. And then the beers started arriving. My local advisor let me know that turning any of them down would be disrespectful, but we could simply take a sip, wave, and put the bottles down. That all went well, until I noticed the startling lack of armed soldiers or police officers in the stadium. I thought this was a good thing, but when I asked about it I heard “They’d be afraid to come here.”  Oh, swell!

Anyway, as described in a previous Bob On Baseball, I discovered Jim Gott in Guasave, and I stretched my bounds and learned to explore places I otherwise would never have gone. I did, however, breathe a wonderful sigh of relief when my flight from Guadalajara touched down in Tucson.

A month later, Pat Gillick called me again with the news that Rich Hacker was moving to the Cardinals’ organization, and he asked if I’d be willing to move back to St. Louis to take over the central region again. I rejoiced.  By January, I was “home” in my familiar stomping grounds. All was right with the world.

It had been, however, a 1981 I would never forget. A move to Fresno, learning to scout California prospects, a summer like none I’d seen since I was 12 while a San Francisco Giants pitcher on the DL roomed with me, a World Series so surreal I’m still wondering if it really happened, and a trip through Central Mexico that only got weirder as it went along.

What a year!

  • Bob

    That whole story sounds a bit surreal Bob. I’ve heard of Fantasy Baseball and this sounds a bit like Fantasy Scouting. What an experience.

  • TomFWL

    20 undivided minutes with Yogi telling stories about your Dad is pretty tough to top.

  • Billy Heimach

    Great stories……great summer, thanks for the memories!

  • John Parke

    Another great read. I always liked the way Bobby Cox handled himself with the Braves. He seemed like a guy who the players played hard for. Keep em coming, Bob.

  • laurie

    would love to get in touch with Jeff Trax – Oakland CC baseball alumni!

    • Bob Wilber

      Laurie, I would love to reconnect with Jeff too! Great guy! -Bob Wilber

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Bob on Baseball

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  • 06/03/2014 TPGF Fellow: Kira Jones: The following story was submitted by Kira Jones, a 2014 fellow of The Perfect Game Foundation. Name: Kira Jones School: University of Southern C...

In His Words

"There is no substitute for Excellence – not even success. Success is tricky, perishable and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and for itself, is the best of foundations,” The Heart of the Order, by Thomas Boswell (Doubleday, 1989).