The words in today’s headline, or something approximating them, were the first ones to come to mind as I stood outside the home-team dugout in the little Class A (Rookie Level) ballpark in scenic Bristol, Tenn., on a warm day in early June, 1978. Just days before, I had signed my first professional baseball contract, with the Detroit Tigers, and soon thereafter found myself in an exotic and strange part of the country, deep in Appalachia.
Like other rookie circuits, the Appalachian League season didn’t start until after the June draft, and when my new teammates and I gathered there to begin our pro careers, it seemed to me that we had a few too many players for a typical roster, and something had to give. One of those somethings was me.
On that particular day, we had just finished an intra-squad game, as we prepared for the season to begin a few days later. In that game, I’d played well and I capped off my day by battling the hardest throwing pitcher on the staff, Tim Justus, in a lengthy at-bat as I tried to catch up to his mid-90s fastball. On the final pitch he threw me, I finally got all of one and hit it deep over the right field wall for a grand slam homer. As I circled the bases, getting handshakes from the other Bristol infielders despite the fact they were “the other team” in this intra-squad game, I was thinking about how proud my dad would be when I called him that evening. Not just a home run, but a grand slam off the hardest thrower in camp. Sometimes I surprised even myself.
Before I could shower and make that call, however, Hoot Evers, the Tigers’ Farm Director, called me over to speak with him, along with infielder Buddy Slemp and catcher Dan O’Connor. Hoot said “I just want to let you three know that we’re optioning you to Paintsville, Kentucky, here in the same league. It’s a co-op team with no affiliation, so most of the teams in the league are sending two or three players. We want you to play, and not split time here, so we’re sending the three of you there today.” Looking right at me, he said “We made this decision this morning, before we saw you hit the grand slam, but we know you can play. All three of you can play, or you wouldn’t be here at all. Now get yourselves up to Paintsville and have a good summer. We’ll see you when you come back to play us here in Bristol.”
As Hoot walked away, the three of us (who had met for the first time just a few days before) looked at each other with blank faces. We didn’t even know where Paintsville was. What we did know, instantly, was that Bristol, in the rookie-level Appalachian League, was the lowest rung on the Tigers’ minor league ladder, but somehow the three of us had found a way to get sent down from there.
The trip to that moment in time, one of simultaneous disappointment and excitement, had been a journey full of more ups and downs than a drive through the mountains. One year earlier, I had just completed my junior season at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville (SIUE) and things seemed to be going according to the master plan (the one that ended with me in the big leagues). We’d competed in our second consecutive NCAA Div. II World Series, and I’d been red hot there despite the fact we were unceremoniously eliminated in two straight games. A number of scouts, who all knew my father, reached out to him about drafting me that June, but even I knew I wasn’t worth more than a late-round pick at that point in my development, and Skip made it clear to everyone that, as much as my healthy ego would get a kick out of being drafted in the 35th round, I was going back for my senior year on scholarship because my degree meant as much to me as a contract. Therefore, I unsurprisingly went undrafted.
That summer, between my junior and senior years, I landed a summer ball spot with the Danville Roosters, in the highly regarded Central Illinois Collegiate League (CICL), a college summer league that had a long history of sending players on to pro careers, including my oldest brother Del Jr., more than a decade earlier. At Danville, playing with some of the best athletes with which I’d ever shared a clubhouse or a dugout, things really came together. I hit .363 that summer, and even my outs were hit hard. We had players on the Roosters from the University of Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, University of New Orleans, and some other great programs. Our pitching staff included Charlie Liebrandt and Andy McGaffigan, two guys who would go on to lengthy and successful major league careers. Doing so well at such a high level, I was sure my senior year at SIUE was going to be the launch point for a lengthy career of my own. And then the bottom dropped out.
Despite having been to back-to-back Div. II World Series, and despite having a team that looked, on paper, to be just as good as those post-season squads, we all collectively managed to have our worst college seasons at the same time. Not only did we stink as a team, we all simultaneously managed to end our college careers on the sourest of down notes, struggling to win games or even perform the basics without errors and mistakes. The scouts had no reason to watch us, and very few did.
As the ’78 draft unfolded, none of us got the call. Frankly, none of us were surprised. The next day, my father reached out to Bill LaJoie at the Tigers, and secured free-agent offers for both myself and my teammate, first-baseman Steve Novak. The offers were contracts for Bristol, at $500 per month with a $500 signing bonus, which actually seemed like a lot of money to me at the time. I signed before anyone could change their minds, but Steve (who had suffered through an injury-marred senior season to only compound the misery we’d all felt by simply playing so poorly) decided he was done with the game, and he turned his down. My roommate, Lance McCord, attended a huge “cattle call” tryout camp for the Minnesota Twins, and his 90-plus fastball got him an identical contract in the same league, with the Elizabethton Twins. It wasn’t what we had dreamed, but it was a shot.
On the day I needed to report to Bristol, my mother dropped me at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. I had a duffle bag full of equipment, a suitcase full of clothes, and my three best Louisville Slugger bats, taped together (and I somehow doubt that in the current day they’d allow you to walk onto an airplane with three baseball bats, but that was a different time). I changed planes in Knoxville, and then landed in Tri-Cities, where my instructions were to take a cab to the Econo Lodge Motel. At the front desk, the lady asked me if I had a preference for a roommate, but I didn’t really know who any of my teammates were going to be so I asked if I could see a list. The first name that jumped out at me was Judson Thigpen, because he had pitched for Delta State in the Div. II World Series, where they had beaten us. I headed up to the outdoor walkway on the second floor, put my key in the door, and knocked as I walked in. Judson was laying atop one of the beds, watching TV, and after a quick “get to know you” conversation, we both hid our nervousness and excitement enough to watch a few hours of “The Three Stooges” before it was time to sleep. I have no recollection of how well I slept that night, but I suspect the quality of my shut-eye ranged from “not good” to “not at all”.
We reported to the park in the morning, receiving our uniforms, having a few meetings, and then getting to work. The season started in seven days, so there was much ground to cover in terms of playing the game “the Tiger way” and we dove in earnestly. By the end of that first day, I was relieved to see that while I might not be the best player in camp, I was by no means the worst. At this “next level” of the game, I could tell I belonged. I had a chance.
A few days later, after my thrilling grand slam was followed by Hoot Evers’ instructions to get our butts to Paintsville, wherever that might be, the cold reality of just how hard this was going to be had set in. I had flown to Bristol, but both Buddy and Dan (who, like almost all guys with the last name O’Connor simply went by “OC”) had their vehicles, so we found a map, found Paintsville on it (in rural eastern Kentucky, basically in the middle of nowhere) and headed north. Whatever this was about to be, we knew it would be an adventure.
We reported to the tiniest little ballpark I’d seen since college, and I don’t mean any of the major universities at which we’d played road games. Put it this way, the stadium in Danville, home of the CICL Roosters, was roughly five times as big as Johnson Central Park in Paintsville, a ball field that began its life as the home diamond for the high school located just beyond the outfield fence (the aptly named Johnson Central High).
This was Paintsville’s first foray into professional baseball, and the town of just 5,400 souls, tucked mysteriously into the coal-mining mountains of Appalachia, was quite taken by the spectacle. We had no sooner arrived in town when we saw one of the ubiquitous “PAINTSVILLE HAS PRO BASEBALL” bumper stickers on a local car. They were everywhere. Buddy, OC, and I knew, right then, that we were about to be big fish in a little pond, but the pond was a very unique place.
Back then, before the days of cable TV and cell phones, villages like Paintsville were truly remote. It was a small town to begin with, but it had almost no contact with the outside world other than by car. There was not a single national retail chain, of any sort, represented in town. Everything was local. The one local radio station, WSIP, was owned by Paul Fyffe, who was also our team owner, and it was the only entertainment over the airwaves. To the local folks in Paintsville, a place like Ashland, Ky. (about 60 miles to the north) was considered the big city.
Fortunately, prior to the arrival of our new club, the Paintsville Hilanders, the owner had built satisfactory clubhouses for both us and the visitors, so at least we felt like professionals when we were getting dressed. One step out into the dugout brought our situation into the bright light of day, though, as the three tiny grandstands illustrated. My guess is that the seating capacity at our little park was roughly around 900 people, if they all sat in the smallest possible spaces. That, of course, meant that to fill the place roughly 1/6 of the town’s population would have to attend a game on the same night, and that never happened. Still, they embraced us and there was a certain atmosphere there that I’ll never forget.
On our first day of workouts, we met our manager Ron “Yank” Mihal, who had never coached at anything close to this level, and the rest of our teammates. The Twins, White Sox, and Orioles had also sent a few players to this co-op outpost, but the rest of the roster was made up of undrafted free-agent players from the nearby colleges in eastern Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. We were a motley crew of wannabes and never-weres, but we were all there together and the immediate sense was that we were going to be a tight bunch. Adversity will do that to a group, if it doesn’t tear the group apart. My instinct turned out to be correct, and that Paintsville Hilanders club ended up being one of the tightest I’d ever played with.
Buddy, OC, and I were a bit taken aback by a couple of things in those first workouts. 1) The drills were the same as those we’d done when we were kids, and it was hard for any of us to take them seriously. 2) Yank tended to favor the half of the team made up of his hand-picked free agents, despite the fact he could’ve fielded a complete team of players who belonged to major league clubs. It was the beginning of a very odd summer.
Before heading off to Bluefield, W. Va. to play our first series of the season, my two Tiger amigos and I found an apartment to share, up atop the hill that overlooked the tiny downtown section of Paintsville. It was the upper level of an elderly woman’s turn-of-the-century home, and while it had a kitchen, living room, and one bedroom, it only had a bath tub instead of a shower. Buddy made the living room his bedroom, while OC and I laid claim to the twin beds in the bedroom, which was cooled by a single window fan. Who knew that OC had a fear of fans, and went to bed every night afraid that our little window unit was going to mysteriously fall off the ledge and chop off his legs? Neither Buddy nor myself did, until the first night when, as soon as we fell asleep in the warm apartment, OC turned the fan off. We all awoke soaked with sweat, but there was no getting OC to move from that bed, and no overcoming his fear of amputation by fan blade. Just another colorful memory…
On the final night before our initial roadtrip, we played an intra-squad game “under the lights” at Johnson Central Park, ostensibly as a way to acclimate ourselves to night baseball after three days of afternoon workouts, but probably more realistically as a way to see if we could actually see in the dark. Our lights, as they were, did not illuminate much of anything, but all of us had played under bad lights, so this was not a huge concern.
Late in the game, a lefty relief pitcher came in to throw for Team B, and I was due up. I’d met the outgoing Chicagoan a day earlier, and had heard his tale of never having played organized baseball before. Ever! He’d played a lot of softball, but never real baseball. He’d attended one of the most well-known cattle-call tryouts in the country, held by the White Sox at a southside Chicago park, where hundreds of hopeful players dressed in everything from full uniforms to overalls, would take their turns trying to impress the southsiders’ scouts. Kevin took the mound in sneakers, at the camp, and promptly fired a few 95-mph fastballs right over the plate. The White Sox promptly signed him (the only player they signed out of that camp), and just like me he’d been shipped off to this newly discovered lowest rung in the minor leagues, playing for a team of castoffs in a town we’d never heard of. After fouling off a few of his letter-high heaters, I drilled one into the right field corner and ended up sliding into third with a triple. If I ever felt like I deserved to be a starter on a pro team, it was then. Not the following day, when we opened the season in Bluefield and I watched from the dugout, but I felt certain of it then. Whatever happened to hard-throwing Kevin, you ask? He worked his way up through the White Sox system until he ended up pitching in the big leagues for six full seasons. His name was Kevin Hickey. Just now, as I was researching his career, I discovered that Kevin had recently been the batting practice pitcher for the White Sox, but he passed away this past May. I’m saddened by that news, but proud to have known him and played alongside one of the most remarkable and unlikely ballplayers I ever knew.
We made the trip to Bluefield, to play the Orioles, and as mentioned above I did not start our first game. I can’t recall who our three outfielders were, but none of them were named Wilber. On the bench, we observed the gangly shortstop for the Orioles, who looked every bit like a teenager who had grown quickly and still had no way of controlling just where his arms and legs were going. He struggled to field ground balls, was overmatched at the plate, and otherwise looked out of place, even in the Applachian League. I mean, any of us could tell he had no talent and no way of making it out of Class A ball. The words “I’m embarrassed for that poor kid” were spoken by more than a couple Hilanders. That poor kid ended up doing okay, in the end. His name was Cal Ripken.
I finally did get to play, although we all split time in Paintsville (so much for Hoot Evers’ plan to send us there so that we WOULD play, and not ride the bench). As a group, we got along well and although our bus itself was your standard coach (far better than the ancient behemoth I would ride the next season, out in Medford) the trips themselves on the winding roads of Kentucky coal country, were a bit thrilling. The night we completed a road trip in Kingsport and had to make the trip back to Paintsville, where we’d usually arrive around 6:00 a.m., was the one none of us will likely ever forget. Only a few miles out of Kingsport, with the interior lights turned off, one of my teammates elbowed me in the ribs and said “Holy cow, look at the driver!” I peered ahead through the darkened bus just in time to see our “bussy” (baseball lingo) lift a liter bottle of Miller High Life to his mouth and take a deep swig, while driving one-handed on the narrow mountain road. This was not good.
We woke Yank and told him about it, and he then informed the driver to pull over at the upcoming diner, so we could all “get a cup of coffee” before making the full trip. We stayed there two hours (no one else onboard was qualified to drive a commercial bus) and after Yank was convinced the guy was sober, we headed out again. None of us slept a wink that night.
The league was made up of four clubs that were located within a few minutes of each other in eastern Tennessee; the Kingsport Braves, Johnson City Cardinals, Bristol Tigers, and Elizabethton Twins. Bluefield, to the east in West Virginia, and Paintsville, to the north in Kentucky, rounded out the six-team circuit. Whereas the first four teams could dress at their own parks and simply ride over to play other local games there in the Tri-Cities area, all of our road games were legitimate six or seven-day road trips, since we had so far to go. In that regard, it was real minor league baseball, as we all discovered the challenge of killing time during the days so that we could play the games at night.
There were good players in the league, for sure, and many of them became solid big leaguers or even famous ones. Bruce Fields and Bruce Robbins were on the Bristol club, Ripken, John Shelby, Larry Sheets, and Mike Boddicker were on the Bluefield team, Jesse Orosco and Lenny Faedo were on the Twins club in Elizabethton, and Steve Bedrosian pitched for Kingsport. Some guy named Wilber played for Paintsville. Whatever happened to him?
In overview, the season was a memorable one. I finally started cracking the lineup with regularity in July, and at one point was the everyday left fielder. By the end of July, I was hitting about .280 and playing good defense, so it was fun. What was also fun was simply the experience of living in Paintsville.
When we first arrived, a geeky looking guy who was our PA announcer asked each one of us if we had a nickname. I went with “The Hawk” because my SIUE college teammates had tagged me with that after a magazine article called me a “Flyhawk Outfielder” even though I still don’t really know what that means. Teammate Vince Bienek, a hip looking California boy who had played college ball at Oral Roberts (but who hadn’t gone there for any reason other than playing on a good team) and was clearly one of our best players, proudly declared that he was “The Bronze Fox”.
For the rest of the season, whenever I’d come to the plate at home, our announcer would loudly proclaim “Now batting, number five, THE HAWK, Bob Wilber.” Vince got the same treatment, with “THE BRONZE FOX” inserted before his name. Guess what? Neither one of us ever asked him to stop. It was too much fun to be eating at Wilma’s Cafe in Paintsville and have a local boy walk up and say “Hey, you’da Hawk, ain’tcha?” Yes indeed, I’m the Hawk. And he was the Bronze Fox.
The season ended all too soon, and an unfortunate “budget crisis” hurt me in the end, statistically. I’d run out of my own bats, my favored U-1 model, and the team refused to buy us any additional lumber. Everyone on the club was pretty much in the same situation, hoarding their last few bats zealously, so I was forced to use whatever was left over in the bat bag, and the heavy thick-handled clubs that no one else could swing were all I was left with. When you only get about 90 at-bats on the year, going 0-for-10 to end the season puts a damper on your average, and I finished the year at .215, although to this day I know that number was deceiving. Oh for just one more U-1 to get me to the finish line.
I hit no home runs, but did hit two balls right to the 405 sign in center field, where they were caught. Two years later, when I finally added a little weight and a little muscle, those would’ve been outta here. Timing is everything.
I had some real highlights, and luckily a few of them came against my “real” team, the Bristol Tigers. On our first trip back to Bristol, I ended up playing shortstop (never a good thing) and late in the game with the winning run on second, one of the Tigers hit a ground ball up the middle. Pretending I knew what I was doing, I ranged to my left, got a glove on it, and spun around to see where the runner was. I was deep in the grass behind second, and my first sight was the runner rounding third, challenging me to save the game with a good throw. Before I had time to panic, I fired a strike to our catcher, and the game continued into extra innings. In the top of the 10th, I came up with the bases loaded, and hit a similar ball up the middle, but mine got through and we went on to win the game. I was interviewed by the Bristol radio guys after the game, and they asked me what was going through my mind when I came up to bat with the bases full of Hilanders. I calmly said “I was thinking of hitting a grand slam.” I’m not sure if they got the reference.
Another of my personal highlights was a defensive one, on a night when we played the Tigers up in Paintsville. I was in left field, peering into the muggy darkness, when the Tigers catcher, who hit lefthanded, lofted a ball deep into the corner. When he hit it, my internal GPS told me it was going to land just 15 or 20 feet to my right, so rather than sprint over there and then try to find the ball again in the darkness, I glided over easily, keeping my eye on that little white orb as it made its arc toward the line. And I kept gliding. And it kept slicing away from me. I picked up the pace a little, and as it came down I knew I was going to catch it, but I was already a little embarrassed because I also knew I was going to have to leap and backhand it to make that happen. Any outfielder knows you should get camped under a ball if you can, and I had just glided slowly toward this one. We had no warning track in Paintsville, and frankly I’d lost track of where I was, but I leapt at the right moment, and reached high to catch the ball. I saw it nestle into the webbing of my Rawlings glove, just as I saw the top of the outfield wall hit me right in the elbow. I pulled my glove, with the ball inside, back inside the ballpark, knowing I’d just robbed that poor kid of his first pro home run, as I also heard (and I’m not making this up) two little kids yell, from out behind the wall, with one voice saying “He caught it!” Funny how that memory never leaves me.
Our wall was made of plywood, and by sheer luck I’d hit right in the middle of one piece of it and not on the metal post at either end. Acting like a trampoline, the plywood gave just enough to cushion my impact before it gently tossed me back to the ground, baseball still firmly held in my glove. I hopped up, held it high, and jogged off the field with a sort of “I meant to do that” attitude. Possibly the best catch I made as a pro.
The true highlight of my season though, came on a night against the Elizabethton Twins, again at Johnson Central Park in Paintsville. We were locked in a 1-1 game, and seemed to be heading to extra innings, when I came up with a runner on third and one out, in the bottom of the 9th. The Twins had brought in their best pitcher, reliever Jesse Orosco, and his big-league fastball was tough to catch up to under the Paintsville lights. Fortunately, Jesse had yet to perfect or gain confidence in the slider he later used to earn 144 saves in the big leagues, so this became a battle of hitter versus fastball, pitch after pitch. I saw nine of them, each a little harder than the one before it, fouling them straight back. I finally caught up to the last one, and laced it into the right field gap for my only walk-off hit as a pro. I somehow doubt Jesse remembers that night as well as I do.
And now let’s meet a few of my Paintsville teammates. Pete Conaty was the pitcher of record the night I got the game winning hit off of Orosco. He was a smart and witty guy, and a great teammate, but he was one of the undrafted and unaffiliated players on the team and that summer in Paintsville was his only taste of pro ball. Many years later, when I went to work for my brother Del’s sports marketing agency in McLean, Va., I was driving on the road to Dulles Airport one afternoon when I saw that bumper sticker that had one day been so familiar. In bold letters, on the back of an older car, it said “PAINTSVILLE HAS PRO BASEBALL”. I pulled alongside and motioned to the driver, a young woman, to roll her window down. I yelled “Where did you get that bumper sticker?” and she yelled back “My husband played there.” After I yelled that I too had played for the Paintsville Hilanders we both pulled over. Turned out her husband was Pete Conaty. A month later, I landed a spot on a semi-pro team in Fairfax, and Pete was a member of that team. Small world.
Roy Dixon was another of the unaffiliated players on the club, and he ended up being my favorite. Roy played at North Carolina State, and was a fine outfielder and a truly witty guy. Although tall and lanky, he had a sort of Charlie Brown-ish round face, and his college teammates had nicknamed him “Pie” in reference to his pie-shaped mug. Roy, always thinking on another level, simply put the mathematical symbol for Pi on the knob of his bat. Not many of our teammates got that, but I appreciated it immediately.
Roy and I also started a habit of playing “Carnac The Magnificent” on road trips. After games, we’d find a local establishment to have a couple of cold ones, and he and I would hold court, trying to one-up each other as Johnny Carson’s Carnac character. We’d go so far as to pretend to hold an envelope to our foreheads, then we’d announce two or three completely unconnected words. We’d actually pretend to rip the envelope open, pull the card out, and read the supposed “answer” aloud, always making sure we took it to the ultimate level by having the answer rhyme. I won championship honors with this one: I held the imaginary card to my forehead and carefully said “Impulsive behavior, daring the odds, and a rock quarry.” Then I tore the fake envelope open (making the required “tearing” sound) and said “Off on a lark, whistling in the dark, and Johnson Central Park.” Brought the house down…
Our starting catcher was a Miami boy of Cuban descent, by the name of Chino Cadahia. Chino was the property of the Twins, and like me he’d been banished from Elizabethton to play out his summer in Paintsville. Chino was about as round as he was tall, but he could hit and he was fine receiver. Whatever happened to Chino? He played seven seasons of minor league ball, making it as far as Triple-A, but then he started a magnificent coaching career, which eventually took him to the big leagues. After many years with the Braves, he is currently a bench coach for the Kansas City Royals.
Eddie Gates was another of our unaffiliated players, and he was a fine player who had actually played a few years of minor league ball before he got to Paintsville. He’d been released by the Expos and picked up by Yank Mihal to be a utility player for us, but the most noteworthy thing about Eddie was his large square head, which earned him the well-deserved nickname “Boxhead”. One night, in Elizabethton, Eddie was on base when the final out of an inning was made, and in such instances it would be standard procedure for one of his teammates to bring his hat and glove to him, so that he didn’t have to run into the dugout and then back out again. Infielder Stan Loy, another of the many truly funny characters on that team, grabbed Eddie’s glove but purposefully left his hat in the dugout. He instead reached over the fence and grabbed an empty popcorn box, and then calmly ran out to Eddie and handed him his “equipment” while the rest of us fell to the dugout floor in laughter. You can’t make this stuff up.
Early in the season, it was clear we were short of pitching, and we really needed a lefty to join the staff. I heard Yank and our pitching coach talking about it, and immediately joined the conversation, telling them about Stan “The Count” Osterbur. Stan played at SIUE with me, but was a year older. He was a crafty lefty, with a sinking fastball and good control, but he was not overpowering. Stan’s biggest moment was his brilliant complete-game win over Florida Southern, in the 1976 Div. II World Series, and although that masterpiece got him looked at by the scouts, he went undrafted in 1977. He spent that summer playing for an independent team in Beeville, Tex., but by the summer of ’78 he was back home in Illinois, still wanting to pitch. I convinced Yank and our pitching coach to give Stan a shot, and two days later I was reunited with my former SIUE Cougar teammate. Stan needed to get into game shape, so he spent the first couple of weeks throwing BP, before he got into a game. Sadly, his game performances weren’t what he was capable of, and the Hilanders released him after only two appearances. It was a sad night in our apartment when that happened.
And that pitching coach? He had been an assistant at the University of Tennessee and was brought in by Yank Mihal to work with the Hilanders staff. He never coached at such a low level again, but he did spend about 30 years in the big leagues, as a pitching coach, for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rangers, and Orioles. And I knew Mark Connor when…
About midway through the season, just after Stan had arrived, Buddy Slemp decided to take a bath in our now truly overcrowded upstairs apartment. An hour later, Buddy remembered what he had planned to do. Oops. The next day, we were all moving out, having been asked to leave by the landlady, who now needed to replace the ceiling in her living room below. As bad as that was, it was time to find a new place anyway, because four guys in a one-bedroom apartment just wasn’t working out. Our owner, Paul Fyffe (one of the most gracious and kind people I’ve met in the game) found a place for Stan and me, on the second floor above a local drug store. It was just an efficiency apartment, but it had two beds and Stan and I weren’t exactly cooking gourmet meals every night, so it worked for us. What I remember most was the fact the door knob had no lock, but the door itself had a hook for a padlock on each side. When we’d leave for the ballpark, we’d put the padlock on the outside, and when we’d go to bed at night we’d put it on the inside, locking ourselves in. Not that anything nefarious was going to happen to us in Paintsville, but you have to be careful.
Speaking of Paul Fyffe, I mentioned earlier that he owned both the ball club and the local radio station, WSIP. Right after we all arrived in Paintsville, Paul brought the whole team to the station and had each of us record “liners” to promote the team. All the other guys mumbled and stumbled their way through their bits, but no one knew I had studied broadcasting in college. When it was my turn, I put on my best radio voice and said “Hi, this is Bob Wilber from St. Louis, Missouri, and I play for your Paintsville Hilanders. We hope to see you at the ballpark this summer” and out of the corner of my eye I could see the engineer and most of my teammates staring at me with wide eyes, through the studio glass. Immediately after that, Paul offered me a regular slot as a morning sports call-in host, and we called the segment “Talk To The Hawk.” The biggest challenge was deciphering which callers were actually my teammates, trying to set me up for trouble. If the call came in and the garbled voice on the other end said “What do you think of that Yank Mihal? He’s a terrible manager, isn’t he?” my brain would launch into hyperdrive to figure out who it was, and then I’d return the favor, answering “Well Roy Dixon was just telling me the other day that he loves Yank, and I think Roy is the smartest guy on the team, so that’s all you need to know…” Talk to the Hawk, and be ready to take your punishment.
I have to admit it was a sad day, in late August, when we completed our season in Kingsport and all had to scatter. It had been an unforgettable summer, in a very strange part of the country, playing with some of the most unique characters I’d ever met. I had Stan, a former college teammate, with me for a while and we both got to play against Lance, my college roomie who spent a little time with Elizabethton before they needed to make some cuts and the guy who had signed at the try-out camp was the first to go. That’s baseball… It’s a cutthroat deal at any level.
Roy did well enough to earn a contract with the Tigers, and we roomed together in early 1979 when we both made the Lakeland club out of spring training. And yes, he put the symbol for Pi on his bats there, too. The rest of his career lasted about as long as mine did.
I still miss those afternoons at Wilma’s Cafe on Court Street in downtown Paintsville. Wilma created home-cooked meals for her customers, and as Hilanders she gave us a 25% discount, so an any given afternoon you could find nearly the entire team there, eating meatloaf with mashed potatoes for all of $4.50. After the games, we’d all convene at Giovanni’s Pizza, and share some good food and cold drinks while we dominated the pinball machines.
Paul Fyffe was such a class act, he reached out to me that next winter, after Paintsville had secured an actual affiliation with the Yankees, and he sent me my jersey, old number 5. I still have it.
I’m proud to say I was a member of the one and only incarnation of the Paintsville Hilanders. I suspect there are still some people in that lovely little town who remember us. I know I’ll never forget them.
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