One Remarkable Day

Mar 20, 2014   //   by bwilber   //   Bob on Baseball  //  5 Comments

The date was September 29, 1979. The place was Royals Stadium in Kansas City. The Oakland A’s were in town for a three-game series against the Royals, one that would mark the end of another dreadful season for the A’s, and on this night they would go down to their 108th loss on the year, taking it on the chin 6-2. Mike Morgan was the losing pitcher, dropping his record to 2-10.

I suspect it’s not totally remarkable that I was there, watching that game. Nor is it inconceivable that Lance McCord, my college roommate, co-captain, and best friend, was sitting next me. Nor is is totally beyond belief that my father, Del Wilber, was there as well. What is truly remarkable is the reason why all of these things are true.

1979 was the year in which I started the season in the Tigers organization, at Lakeland in the Florida State League, but finished it with the A’s at Medford, in the Northwest League. As has been exhaustively detailed in my earlier Bob On Baseball installment entitled “A Lifetime of Memories From a Summer in the Northwest League” I began my stint with the A’s doing just fine, until an errantly thrown Louisville Slugger (one could make the leap to say any Louisville Slugger that has been “thrown” was hopefully done so errantly) helicoptered about five feet through the air before it hit me in the face. It not only knocked me down quite literally, it also dealt the blow that basically ended any chance I had to play as a position player at any higher level, much less the Big Leagues.

Later that summer, with my mother in attendance at Miles Field in Medford, I made my professional pitching debut as a submarine reliever, and I got five outs to end the game without any further runs being scored against us. I even struck out two guys on the Salem team. With no pitching coach in Medford, I was ad-libbing and making it up as I went along, but I pitched successfully for the last few weeks of the season and then returned to Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville to finish up my degree in TV/Radio Broadcasting.

The aforementioned Lance McCord and I had roomed together for three years, so there was ample reason to continue that set-up after the ’79 season. The pitching experience had not only been a thrill, it had also been an eye-opener for a player like me, looking for a chance to keep playing while knowing I had to learn fast and get better in a hurry. Lance had pitched all the way through American Legion ball, high school, college, and one summer of minor league ball, and he was gracious enough to catch me regularly and offer pitching tips during that month of September, after I’d returned from Medford.

His advice was terrific, and during our sessions we made one key change to my delivery. We brought it up a little to be more sidearm than submarine, and that allowed me to keep the same arm angle for my so-called fastball and my breaking pitch. It also added about 10 mph to my velocity, which had been comically slow when I threw submarine-style. The next thing I discovered was some heavier sink when I’d throw a two-seam fastball, and the relatively straight four-seamer was immediately put out to pasture. I had a nasty fastball that ran down and in on right-handed hitters, and a sharp “slurve” of a breaking ball that dove down and away, both thrown from the same arm slot. My former roomie was a heck of a pitching coach.

It should be mentioned that these sessions were held on any vacant field we could find, and that as part of the deal I would also catch Lance after he’d caught me. I threw moving junk. Lance threw hard. And, we didn’t own a catcher’s mitt. Both of us handled our catching duties with my first-baseman’s mitt, and I definitely got the more painful end of that deal. We also didn’t own a mask, but I never said we had an overabundance of common sense.

As it all started coming together, I talked to Big Del and asked him to watch me pitch.  We set up a semi-official “scouting day” on the field at Meramec Community College, not far from the Wilber home in Kirkwood, Mo., and Dad came over to check me out for the first time. Hearing what he had to say gave me goosebumps, and after all of those years when he’d have to carefully choose his words to be diplomatic (and not too discouraging) when talking about my hitting ability, he finally could heap some praise on his youngest son after watching me pitch. I wasn’t sure how I’d really gotten to this point, but it was a wave I was willing to ride.

Skip’s scouting report on me was basically this: I could stand to gain a little more velocity, and repetition could do that for me.  After all, I hadn’t pitched in a game prior to the Medford stint since, oh, 4th grade. He loved the life on both pitches, and instructed me to get to work on a change up.

He then surprised the heck out of me a few days later, when he alerted me to the fact that my parent club, the Oakland A’s, would be finishing up their season across the state in Kansas City, and that he’d called A’s pitching coach Lee Stange to see if Lee would meet with us to talk pitching. The place would be the Marriott Hotel, across I-70 from the ballpark. The day would be September 29. And Lance was invited along as well.

To celebrate this news, Lance and I went out on the evening of September 28 and had a few beers at one of our regular Edwardsville stops, if by “a few” you mean a little bit more than a few. We were young, stupid, and indestructible at the time, and we’d had lots of practice doing such things throughout our college careers on nights before big tests or even final exams, so when we pulled into the Wilber driveway at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, to pick up the big guy and head to K.C., we were not only none the worse for wear, we were actually bright-eyed and anxious.

We arrived at the Marriott around midday, and headed into the lobby. I immediately felt the first pangs of nervousness, seeing Major League ballplayers milling about. I’d been in baseball my whole life, and had been around plenty of Major League players, many of whom ended up in the Hall of Fame, but knowing I was there to meet with the pitching coach after just a couple of months of figuring it out on my own, I felt like a pretender and I didn’t like that feeling. I calmed my nerves by reminding myself that this particular Oakland team had already lost 107 games that year, and they still had two games left to increase that total.

The 1979 Oakland club might have been bad, but they also set some stunning records when it came to a lack of home attendance, after owner Charlie Finley tore apart his front office and pinched every penny by having no promotional staff, no scouting staff, and basically a three-person front office. On the year, they drew a total of 306,763 lonely souls to the Oakland Coliseum, averaging about 3,700 per game. It’s no wonder the park was more often referred to as the Oakland Mausoleum.

On at least three occasions during the summer of ’79, we got the word up in Medford that we’d out-drawn the big club that night, when we’d put a solid 1,800 into Miles Field and they couldn’t match that in Oakland.

Legend has it that Steve McCatty pitched a great game one night, going the distance and getting one of the club’s 54 victories, and after the game he hopped up into the stands and personally thanked every fan for coming. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s too good of a story to ignore. I choose to believe it happened.

Meanwhile, back at the Marriott, we killed time for a couple of hours, during which the odds are enormous that Big Del completed at least one crossword puzzle, and frankly it all began to feel a lot more normal. After all, as Del Wilber’s son I’d already done my share of “lobby sitting” in hotels all across the country. He was the focal point and center of attention in any hotel lobby, and just about every afternoon on any long road trip would feature long stories, crosswords, and a never-ending stream of players dropping by to chat, as everyone counted the minutes waiting for the bus to leave for the ballpark. There was usually a cheeseburger or a club sandwich in there somewhere, as well. This was no different.

Finally, around 2:00, Lee Stange made his appearance. As an old friend of Big Del’s, he was awfully gracious and after handshakes were shared I made it clear that both Lance and I were very appreciative of the time and advice he was about to share. And then he said these words…

My pitching coach for one afternoon. Lee Stange.

My pitching coach for one afternoon. Lee Stange.

“Let’s go over to the ballpark and see what you’ve got.”

We weren’t actually, technically, expecting to hear that.

I explained that we only thought we were there to talk pitching, not actually engage in the act, and therefore had not brought our gear. He brushed that off with a shake of the head, and told us “Don’t worry, we’ll scrape together enough stuff for you. We have 25 guys in that locker room, and we’ll find everything you need.”

Well, okay then!

I have no memory of making our way from the Marriott lobby over to the ballpark and into the visitor’s clubhouse at Royals Stadium, but I vividly remember walking in that door. A large square room. 25 lockers.The backs of 25 Oakland A’s jerseys staring at me from hangers. Candy, chewing tobacco, snacks, and bubblegum everywhere, and a soda fountain in the corner.

Despite their horrible season and their understandable  lack of any real motivation, many of the A’s were already there when we made our appearance, and my biggest fear was irritating any of them when it came to finding enough stuff to wear, but they could not have been nicer. Rick Langford gave him his glove and a pair of white spikes. Mike Norris gave me one of his spare uniforms. The batboy loaned me his hat. I don’t recall whose jockstrap or socks I wore, but you get the picture. Somehow, at the same time, Lance borrowed all of the same stuff from other guys, and we were ready to actually go pitch baseballs in the visitor’s bullpen. We made sure to stop and get a free Coke from the soda fountain before we went out.

While Stange got dressed, we tried to act calm and look like we belonged, but I’m sure we were a bit wide-eyed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Rob Picciolo’s locker, where even on this final road trip of the year he had at least 15 pairs of white spikes. That season in Medford, I had one pair. And I shined them myself.

I had also already begun to feel sorry for whichever A’s catcher was about to be blessed with the plum assignment of catching two minor leaguers on Day 161 of the 1979 season. I knew that would be a big hit for whomever was asked to do it, but it turned out to be Mike Heath and he was great. We met at his locker, and quickly connected the “one degree of separation” dots by discovering he’d played with Dennis Werth, who we both knew from college.

My catcher for one afternoon. Mike Heath.

My catcher for one afternoon. Mike Heath.

Dennis played for the SIUE Cougars before we arrived there, but like us he went back each off-season to take a few more classes in order to finish his degree, and as an alum who was on his way to the big leagues, he was part of our inner circle. Also, and this is important, he was the star nose-tackle on our undefeated intramural flag football team. The SIUE baseball team’s flag football squad went undefeated, un-scored upon, and we didn’t give up a first down all year. Dennis was already on the Yankees’ 40-man roster by then, and in our championship game, played on an icy field in freezing weather, we all laughed when he got so fired up he got down in his stance and snorted large gusts of visible breath on the football, trying to imitate the famous images from the “frozen tundra” at Lambeau Field.

I can recall turning to Lance, Steve Novak, and a few other guys that day, and saying “I wonder what George Steinbrenner would think if he saw this…”

Anyway, with the connection made and some other background shared, Mike Heath gave us each a pat on the back and said “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just go out there and have some fun.”  It was happening.

With Stange and Heath in tow, we headed down the long dark tunnel to the dugout. At the end of that tunnel, bright afternoon sunlight could be seen streaming through the spaces around the  door, and I opened it. The sun was nearly blinding, as I exited out of that dark tunnel, but there we were in the A’s dugout, and there were the Kansas City Royals taking batting practice under an impossibly blue sky. I looked to my left and sitting on the bench, holding court yet again, was Big Del. He winked at me and simply said “Show ‘em what you showed me.”

I hopped up the stairs of the dugout like I had a million times before, although I’d never done it in a Major League stadium, wearing a Major League uniform, a batboy’s hat, and Rick Langford’s glove and spikes. As I jogged out toward the bullpen in left field, I passed third base where George Brett nodded at me and said “How’s it goin’, man?”

Being 23 years old and having grown up as Del Wilber’s son, hanging around Stan Musial, Marty Marion, Ted Williams, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and too many others to mention, and having been to far too many stadiums and ballparks to remember, I have to admit having George Brett say hello, just like he would to any player coming out to throw in the pen, was slightly cool. Just slightly.

Lance and I jogged out to the bullpen, did some stretching, and got ready for this impromptu pitching session with an honest-to-goodness Big League pitching coach and a successful Big League catcher. It was both a blur and one of those moments where still, to this day 35 years later, many of the tiniest details are as fresh in my mind as they would be if it all had happened yesterday.

The bullpens were the only part of Royals Stadium that featured real grass, back then. With only an artificial playing field to maintain, it was pretty clear that the grounds crew slaved over making this little patch of green the best it could possibly be. Every single blade in the bullpen stood straight up, and each was so uniformly cut it looked to me like someone had trimmed them with scissors.

The mound was perfect. The pitching rubber was flat against the ground, and there were no ruts or holes. It was the smoothest pitching surface I had ever seen, much less felt under my feet.

Heath stood behind the plate and we began to get loose. After my first toss, Stange said “Oh, a sidewinder huh?”

About 15 warm-up pitches later, Heath put on his mask and crouched behind the plate. In that moment, I remember vividly thinking that this precise moment was such a stark contrast compared to that night in Medford, just eight weeks earlier, when I made my pro pitching debut. As I toed the rubber at Miles Field, and looked in at my catcher Frankie “Baloosh” Kneuer, he seemed to be a mile away. I feared for my own ability to throw my first warm-up pitch anywhere near him.

On this day, though, I was throwing to Mike Heath, and it seemed as if I could reach out and touch him. It all seemed so close and so manageable, and I took that as a good omen.

After my first pitch, Stange stopped me and said a couple of things. “First of all, you’re going to be a guy right-handed hitters will struggle with, so make it even harder on them by moving all the way over to the right edge of the rubber.” It did strike me that making such a move was really only possible at the highest levels of pro ball, because in the Class A leagues the mounds were typically too rutted for you to stand (and hopefully land) anywhere but in the ruts already made by other pitchers. Here, on this day and on this mound, I could stand wherever I wanted. Who knew?

I’d also been struggling to find the right wind-up and delivery during the summer out in the Northwest League and, even during my September sessions with Lance, I was constantly changing things and trying to find some consistency. Stange’s second point was about just that, and he had me change the way I brought my hands down from the top of my wind-up. Instead of dropping both hands behind my raised left knee (like a righty version of Steve Carlton) he asked me to bring them down over both sides of my knee, so that my leg came up through my arms, and then he had me separate my throwing hand from my glove in one continuous motion, as I slightly turned and made my stride forward.

On the first pitch after those two valuable pieces of advice, I threw the best sidearm fastball I had ever delivered. It felt like the orchestra had finally stopped their random warmup and had launched into the symphony. Even I was stunned.

The sink was better, the life later and more precise, and I was hitting Heath’s glove no matter where he put it. The 40 or so pitches went by in a blur, and even as I was throwing I was mesmerized by it. This was pitching. I had been throwing before.

I worked up a good sweat and we called it quits. I’d snapped off a few good breaking balls and even mixed in the new change-up I was working on. It was all there. And it was all good.

As Lance began tossing to Heath, Stange pulled me aside and asked me how long I’d been pitching. I told him I’d been pitching for quite a while. Like maybe eight weeks, tops. Seriously, I’d spent my whole life as an outfielder, and eight weeks earlier I pitched against the Salem Senators in the Northwest League. My mom was there to see it. On September 29, I was pitching to Mike Heath in the Royals Stadium bullpen, and my dad was there to see it. Sort of amazing, really.

Stange told me “I can’t hardly believe that. You’re rough around the edges, but it was pretty obvious to me that you only needed some coaching. You’ve got some good stuff young man, and if we can get your velocity up, and I’m sure we can, you’ll be able to pitch at a very high level. You have some real natural talent.”

I’m pretty sure that, right then, the white spikes I had borrowed from Rick Langford were floating a few inches off the surface of that immaculate bullpen mound.

Lance threw his session, popping Heath’s mitt with a sound only 90+ mph fastballs make, and when he was done Stange told him he had better stuff than some of the guys on his current staff. He qualified that by adding “But that ain’t sayin’ much” with a laugh. He talked about putting in a word with the general manager to possibly get Lance a try-out next spring. He told me, bluntly, that he’d like to get me a non-roster invitation to the Big League spring training camp, because the most critical thing for me was more coaching on a daily basis.

We strolled back to the dugout. We were in no hurry. We got back to the clubhouse, which was now a beehive of pre-game activity, and took off all of our borrowed items, making sure the apparel went into the laundry basket and the gear went back to the owners. Also, the hat went back to the batboy.

We showered, and at that point I really wanted to make a hasty retreat because, once again, I felt like I was intruding on the Big Leaguers. Lance, however, was in no hurry to go anywhere. He even shaved at the same bathroom sink and mirror Rickey Henderson had most likely already used that day. At that point in his life, Lance needed to shave about once a week and he’d already done so that morning, but hey… There was time to shave, there were razors, and there was a can of shaving cream. And this was a Major League clubhouse. I may not have felt the same way, but I got it. I totally got it.

We met up with Big Del and headed up to three box seats right behind home plate. Mike Morgan, who was actually three years younger than us but already in his second year in the Big Leagues after being drafted No. 1 in the 1978 draft, got knocked around by the Royals, and while Lance and I were thinking it to ourselves my dad said it out loud. “You were both better than him today.”

We left early, and made the four-hour drive back to St. Louis. My mind was racing, reliving the highlights of the day and recalling Stange’s encouraging words. I allowed myself, for the briefest moment, to even ponder the thought that only by fate and the sheer awfulness of our Medford A’s relief-pitching staff, I’d gone from being a washed-up outfielder to a professional pitcher, and I even had good reason to think there was a future there.

About three weeks later, I found a receipt for a certified letter in my mailbox. The receipt noted that the letter had come from Oakland, Calif.

My heart sank with an audible thud. Contracts are sent via certified mail, but they come in January. Outright releases also come certified, and they come in late October or early November. I had no desire to drive to the Post Office to pick it up, but I did and my fears were realized. I’d gotten my “number three box punched” by the Oakland A’s, as signified by the X typed into the box next to the third option on the page: Unconditional outright release.

A faded old photo of the minor leaguer who had one remarkable day...

A faded old photo of the minor leaguer who had one remarkable day…

I had Lee Stange’s phone number and I called him. I asked him if he knew why this had happened, and all he said was “I’m sorry to hear that, but join the club, Bob. I got my walking papers too.”

Charlie Finley had released a bevy of minor leaguers and the entire coaching and managing staff. It was over.

I thought about going to Spring Training and getting some try-outs, but the realist in me knew that I’d be 24, with two releases in my possession, and I’d only been pitching for eight weeks. I couldn’t honestly figure out who would even give me a look, and with my delivery and the need for a lot of coaching it meant I really only had that one shot, with Lee Stange, in the Oakland organization. It went as well as it could go. I heard words I’d only dreamed of hearing. It just didn’t happen.

There are independent minor leagues all over the country now, and had they existed back then I probably could’ve kept my career alive (and possibly garnered the attention of some other Big League teams) by staying active as a St. Paul Saint or a Gateway Grizzly. But that’s now and I played then. It was over.

Lance and I got on with life, although we went in different directions. Being a finance and accounting guy, he went to work and started a long successful career “putting numbers in boxes” as he said. I finished my degree in TV/Radio and was putting audition tapes together when the Toronto Blue Jays offered me a scouting job. The tapes got put away.

I’ve done a lot in my career, before, during, and after my professional playing days, and almost all of that is documented here at Bob On Baseball. I played with or against dozens of guys who went on to the Big Leagues. I hit some mammoth home runs off pitchers who would eventually make it to the top. But I only pitched for eight weeks, and the last pitch I ever threw was on the mound in the visitor’s bullpen at Royals Stadium.

It was all pretty remarkable.

 

 

  • Jim Keegan

    Great story Bob. I love the passion and hearing the names of players I used to follow in the late 70’s and early 80’s. On a personal note it connected some dots for me on what happened to #5 Bob Wilber and his professional baseball journey after SIUE ( I guess Lance a little too). I love baseball and these kinds of stories hit “home runs” for me every
    time!! Keep up the good work.

    • bwilber

      Thanks Jim! We sure had a lot of fun in our TV/R classes at SIUE. Those days were very memorable, and I was lucky to go through the program with someone as intelligent, funny, and enjoyable as you! And I still remember that fun afternoon when you took me to Wrigley for the first time!

    • Bob Wilber

      Thanks Jim! We sure had a lot of fun in our TV/R classes at SIUE. Those days were very memorable, and I was lucky to go through the program with someone as intelligent, funny, and enjoyable as you!

  • Jeff Morton

    Bob as I sit here on a plane with my son on our way to an official visit, I finally got to read this and how wonderful it was. You got a taste and and we both know just how rare that is to accomplish that. Baseball is all about passion and I hope my son will continue to have the same passion you did and who knows…hopefully a taste of pro ball. Looking forward to the next article…thanks!

  • Bob Cole

    bob should write a book.. seriously.

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