More Faces To Match With Names

Jan 11, 2018   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Even before I wrote the first word for “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” two years ago, I knew that it would be heavy on details and based around characters. After all, the fun is in the details and the wide variety and large number of absolute characters I’ve known or met, throughout it all, sometimes even baffles me. And, it wasn’t until I got started in the process, working with Outskirts Press, that I began to understand how photos can or can’t be used in a printed publication. The short version is that there’s a ton of paperwork and signatures involved and some of the photos I had could not be used at all. So, a lot of photos ended up in a file folder saved for those that didn’t make the cut.

In addition, I’ve been searching for our Paintsville Hilanders team photo, and I know it’s here somewhere but I can’t find it. Moving to Spokane in 2012 meant that everything in the house had to be packed up and moved with us. When we arrived, a lot of those boxes just got put straight away instead of being unpacked. And then we moved back to Minnesota in 2016 and the same process played out in reverse. I know the Paintsville photo is still around, in a cheap frame, but I haven’t found it yet. Yesterday, though, I did stumble onto a box that held some more photos I’d previously considered “missing” so now I have the chance to share some of those. I think it should be fun to add some real faces to the many names that played such big roles in the book.

Well dressed champions! (Click on any image to enlarge)

I’ll start with this great photo of a bunch of guys in matching tuxedos. No, we were not part of a huge wedding party. We were, instead, at a banquet.

The Sauget Wizards baseball team played in the Mon-Clair League near St. Louis, as I explained in the book. At the end of each season, the league held a banquet to congratulate the champions and hand out awards. Every year it would be held at an American Legion Hall (note the classic paneling) with a couple of buffet lines that featured fare like Wonder Bread and cold cuts. Maybe some potato salad.

While no one came grubby, the average level of formality was generally in the area of a sport coat and slacks. Maybe. A decent pair of jeans wouldn’t have exactly raised any eyebrows. When the Sauget Wizards won the Mon-Clair League title, we smashed the dress code to smithereens by all renting matching tuxedos. That was kind of our image in the league, and we had a riot at the banquet that year. It was fun to walk in the Legion Hall as a group, all dressed like that. The other teams looked at us like we were nuts, or aliens, or possibly just lost.

If you’ve read the book, you may remember these names. All great guys and fantastic ballplayers. From left to right: Jeff Junker, Neil Fiala, Bob Wilber, Joe Mehallow, Gerry Pitchford, John Parke, Jim Greenwald, Dan Nicholson, Bob Hughes, and Rick Fiala. Champions all! (Greenie wore a red bowtie because, well… He’s Greenie.)

A Blue Jay and a Giant

This next photo is from my scouting days, with the Toronto Blue Jays. I think my facial appearance backs up the fact I was the youngest scout in Major League Baseball. I look like such a kid. I was 25 at the time. The photo was taken at Yosemite National Park during that summer of 1981. The other guy in the pic is the one and only Jeff Trax, who I became great friends with that summer.

Jeff was the property of the San Francisco Giants and had been assigned to their Class-A team in the California League, the Fresno Giants. Unfortunately, he’d injured his pitching arm and couldn’t play. Rather than go home to Michigan, he stayed with his teammates at the same apartment complex where I lived. We all got to be good friends, but Jeff and I spent so much time together we became extraordinary friends. We still hold the unofficial record for “most hours spent at the pool” in California League history.

And as I spelled out in the book, we spent such a crazy amount of time together because he was on the disabled list and Toronto pulled all their scouts off the road during the 1981 MLB work stoppage. So, Jeff moved into my place to have a room of his own. I’m sure a Blue Jays scout rooming with a Giants pitcher was totally fine. Really. Well, it is now, anyway.

And that brown t-shirt I’m wearing… The brand name on the front is Snauwaert, a Belgian maker of tennis racquets. Why was I wearing a Snauwaert t-shirt? Well, Jeff and I also played a lot of tennis that summer, and I did play with a Snauwaert racquet, but the reason I had the t-shirt was because my brother Del Jr. was the President of Snauwaert. I had connections.

In the next photo, whattaya say we move backward to the summer of 1978 in Paintsville, Kentucky. I know I will find that team photo one of these days, no doubt in a place where I’ve already looked five times, and I hope I do because almost every guy on the team is in the book in some way.

Stan Loy. Comedic genius.

This guy is Stan Loy, wearing a dapper hat in our clubhouse at Johnson Central Park. He was a heck of a ballplayer, and a truly hilarious guy. He played a solid second base for us, and hit a very fine .263 on the year. Plus, he kept us in stitches.

Stan is in the book for having pulled of one of the greatest pranks ever. You may recall a certain night in Elizabethton when we were playing the Twins, and Stan was taking Eddie Gates’s gear out to him after Eddie had been stranded on base during our half of the inning. Except Stan took something else out there instead of Eddie’s hat. I don’t want to spoil it in case you haven’t read it yet but this, ladies and germs, is Stan Loy.

Of all the teams I played on in college and pro ball, that Paintsville team was probably the closest-knit and tightest group of guys I ever had the privilege to play with. And that’s saying a lot, because all of our SIUE college teams were close and many of those guys are still great friends today. There was just something about all of us gathering in a town we’d never heard of, to start our pro careers out in the distant coal-mining hills of Appalachia, that really brought us together as brothers. And the way the locals treated us made it feel even more like home. I will never forget it. The Medford A’s were also a very close group, but it was the Paintsville experience that really meant the most to me. I think about it often.

And, let me digress one moment. It is now officially 2018, so that makes it time for Lance McCord, Bob “Radar” Ricker, James “Oscar” Noffke, and my own bad self to decide where our annual reunion will be this summer. Three summers ago, for our first such reunion, we went to Cooperstown and Washington, D.C. Two summers ago it was Minneapolis and St. Paul. Last summer it was Seattle. This summer, it looks like it will be Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and thanks to the MLB schedule makers we have a chance to do something really fun. If everyone is good to go with the weekend I spotted (and so far they’re all in) we can meet in Pittsburgh and see them play the Cardinals, then get up to Cleveland to see the Indians play the Twins! We’ll have some genuine rooting interests at both games. We haven’t picked hotels yet, but that’s the easy part. Can’t wait.

With Pete Conaty

Okay, back to photos. This one is also from Paintsville.

I’m standing at my locker with teammate Pete Conaty. He was a fantastic pitcher for us, and was mostly used as a starter. He went 5-5 that year, but he threw three complete games and ended the season with a fine earned run average of 3.10 which is pretty damn good for a guy who went undrafted out of college and was on the Hilanders as one of our unaffiliated free agents.

Pete and I got along great and were good friends on that club, but as the book explained we crossed paths, and were coincidentally teammates, one more time, almost a decade later. When I was working for my brother Del’s company in suburban D.C. I joined a very good semipro team in Fairfax, Virginia for the summer. Lo and behold, there was Pete Conaty on the bench the first day I arrived to meet the team. Small world. And yep, that’s a can of Mountain Dew and a blow dryer on the top shelf of my locker. I have no need for either of those items now.

Conaty is not the only example of such “small world” stuff in the game. I played at SIUE with Stan Osterbur and we were then teammates on the Hilanders. I played for the Sauget Wizards with Pete Delkus, who went through SIUE nine years after me. Then, I was his agent after the signed with the Minnesota Twins.

Gosh I wish we would’ve had incredible cameras built into our smartphones back then. To actually have someone show up with a camera for a day, and it was usually a Polaroid, was a big deal and we’d all go out and buy a couple of 10-packs of film for the occasion. Then we’d pass the camera around and try to get as many photos as possible. We’d have every moment documented these days, but I have maybe a dozen blurry photos from that entire summer in Paintsville

Number 5, making sure the Cardinals catcher is OK.

Like this one, taken by an actual member of the media. On this particular night in Paintsville we were playing the Johnson City Cardinals. The Cardinals catcher had just been hit in the throat by a pitched ball, and a number of us were out there to check on him. I was clearly the on-deck batter at the time, because I still have the rubber “donut” weight on my bat.

The teammate I’m mostly blocking the photo was Steve Chandler. Our manager, Yank Mihal, is partially seen at the far left, talking with the umpire. I don’t know who No. 14 is for the Cardinals but he looks like a coach. It’s the other Cardinal guy in the shot, the one looking down at his catcher while scratching his right arm, who made it big.

That’s Nick Leyva, who was managing for the first time that summer. He went on to manage or coach his entire career after that year in the Appalachian League, for the St. Louis Cardinals and many other organizations. He managed at the Big League level with the Phillies, from 1989 to 1991. Your standard “baseball lifer” like a certain father of mine.

And in the background of that shot? That’s your basic weeknight crowd at a Paintsville Hilanders home game. Packed.

We’re all in there somewhere…

Now, let’s jump ahead to the summer of 1979 and those wacky Medford A’s. This photo is not an old photocopy of a better one, but it is surely one you’ll need to click on to enlarge (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s what’s left of an actual giveaway item from a home game. Yes, it was “Team Photo Night” at Miles Field in Medford, and the first 1,000 fans got this low-resolution grainy photo on a piece of plain paper. They didn’t even manage to print them on card-stock. Frankly, I’m amazed I found this the other day and it’s still in mostly one piece.

For those who have read the book, I can point out some familiar names. In the front row, one of my roomies at the radio guy’s house, where most of us slept on the floor, was Shaun Lacey. He’s second from the left. Next to him, third from the left, is Mike “Alto” Altobelli, one of my favorite teammates EVER. Sixth from the left is another roomie from the radio guy’s house, Oscar Burnett. Dan Randle, with whom I spent many nights laying on the carpeted floor listening to albums in the house, is sixth from the right in that front row. At the far right is our trainer, Charlie Saad, next to him is Rod Runyon, our radio guy, and next to him is our manager, Rich Morales.

In the back row, pitcher Keith Call (who makes a couple of funny appearances in the book) is far left. Second from left is John Pignotti, the first player on the A’s I met after flying out there and making my way to the hotel. Fifth from the left is Don Van Marter, otherwise known as Don Hawk Van Hawk Marter. I’m at the far right in the back row. Third from the right is Terry Harper, another denizen of the empty house, and next to him is Craig Harris. “Craig, man.”

Welcome to Medford!

This next one is a newspaper photo from Opening Night against those pesky Central Oregon Phillies. I’d just arrived in Medford about 48 hours earlier, after having driven home to St. Louis from Lakeland, Florida. I was, technically speaking, in a bit of a daze but happy to be a part of the Medford A’s, as I shook hands during the introductions with owner Doug Emmans. I wore number 33 that night, obviously, but I don’t remember if I wore that number the rest of the year after we got our new green jerseys. Maybe I did. It was a long time ago.

I’m also sporting my brand-spanking-new white adidas spikes, purchased in Medford at a sporting goods store the prior day, with the stripes hand-painted green with a Magic Marker.

In the photo with me are catcher Frank Kneuer, soon referred to as “Baloosh” by all of us. In the middle is Shaun Lacey again, and at the far right is Howard Robinson, who actually signed with the A’s in 1975, so this was his fourth year in the organization, and there he was back in the Northwest League for another season.

What do Kneuer, Lacey, and Robinson all seem to have in common in this shot? To me, it looks like they’re all thinking “Who is this guy?”

The disco dance winner celebrates

These next two photos are really out of focus and horribly composed (I have no idea who took them but they ended up coming home with me.) This first one is from a night specifically spelled out in detail, in the book. We were on a long road trip, and were in Bellingham, Washington to play the Mariners. Alto and I were thrilled to find a bar and disco across the street from our hotel.

On that first night in Bellingham, we went over there after the game and they were holding a freestyle disco dancing contest. Yes, Alto won. Of course he did. In the photo, from left to right, is an exuberantly proud Mike Altobelli, and then me, Frank “Baloosh” Kneuer, and radio guy Rod Runyon.

The next night, we played a video football game that made our forearms so sore we could barely swing the bat the following day. Please, don’t anyone tell our skipper Rich Morales that. We kept it a secret.

This, my friends, was life in Class-A ball in 1979.

Livin’ large…

In this final photo, we are back in Medford at Rod Runyon’s nearly empty house. I stumbled upon this yesterday and hadn’t seen it in many years. What leaped out at me was the Mickey Mouse telephone. I had no idea that memory was still lodged in my head, but as soon as I saw the photo I clearly remembered it.

Since I’m laying on the floor at the bottom of the photo and Alto is not in it, Alto must’ve taken the shot. And my location would effectively put me “in bed” in this photo, since we slept on the floor. Behind me are roomies Pete Slattery from Boston (who called me and his girlfriend Barb the same sounding name of “Bahb”), Shaun Lacey (who gets in a lot of these photos, doesn’t he?), and Oscar Burnett.

Every time I think about that season in Medford I wonder how any of us got through it. Incredibly long bus rides, made longer by the proclivity of said bus to quit in the middle of the night, playing every single day, living on the floor when we weren’t on road trips, and eating about as well as Lacey is in this pic. I can almost guarantee that’s a bowl of cereal as an after game midnight snack. Oscar is at least having a beer.

It was fun finding some of these, and one of these days I’m really going to find that Paintsville team photo. It has to be somewhere.

As for my new book, my very personal memories and view of my dad’s life, as a biography, I’m still neck deep in preparations and I’m getting in touch with more and more guys who used to play for my dad in the minor leagues. The Twins want to set up a meeting in early February, so some key researchers from their office can sit with me and see what I need and how I need it. I appreciate that enormously, and Elon Werner is working on the same sort of thing with the Texas Rangers. I’ve also seen, first hand, that a bit of the research can be “viral” in a way. Steve Greenberg is involved, and he played for my dad for three years, spanning Denver and Spokane. Steve is a great guy and really unique. His dad was Hank Greenberg, one of the best to ever wear a Detroit Tigers uniform and a two-time American League MVP. Steve got his college degree at a little place called Yale. He then signed his pro contract when the Texas Rangers were still the Washington Senators. He played for my dad from 1972 through 1974, and then the Rangers sold his contract to the White Sox. Despite being one step from the big leagues and doing very well as a Triple-A first-baseman (one of the best defensive first-basemen I’ve ever seen) he decided to retire and went to UCLA to get his law degree. He’s a smart guy. And very well connected and respected.

Steve is still in touch with a few guys from those teams, and it hit me that if some of the guys I can track down are also in touch with other guys, the list can grow pretty quickly. And the Twins and Rangers front-offices should have info on a lot of the guys I’m after.

So, I’m officially making progress but I really need to get these ducks lined up before I dive in with the interviews. I did go up to Office Depot and buy a little digital voice recorder, so I’m all set.

I’ll be back here next week. Now, I can just spin around in my office chair to look out the back window to see that it’s still snowing and has been since mid-morning. Looks like we have almost two inches so far. And earlier this week I went for 2-mile walks outside on the paved trails in our development, where it was 40 and most of the snow was gone. Winter has returned, as I suspected it would.

As always, please do met the favor of hitting the “Like” button at the top of the page, if you enjoyed this installment. “Likes” are important, or so I’m told.

Bob Wilber, at your service and still looking for that Paintsville team photo.

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