Time To Meet The Wizards

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July 6th, 2022

Sorry. We’re not going to the Emerald City. We’re going to Sauget, Illinois, which is a good thing.

You see, I just figured it was time to write the words “And now for something completely different” here on the blog. I hope you used your best John Cleese voice for that.

I’ve been writing a blog, not just any blog but this blog to be precise (although it spans two different generations, locations, and countless themes) since 2005. That means I’ve been writing this mess for something like 17 consecutive years while also writing a lot of press releases, stories, and two exceedingly long books. That’s insane. Nuts, I tells ya.

When I started this adventure way back when, at NHRA.com, I truly wondered if I had enough material and a vast enough imagination to get through an entire month. I guess we made it. Good for us! I couldn’t have done it without all of you. I guess I could have, but what’s the value in writing a blog in a vacuum? Nobody hears those trees when they fall…

But now, on this installment, we finally break through and provide a single theme that stretches between two web locations, using multi-media, while tying a whole long story together. It’s about time…

Here’s the first disclaimer. This blog will link you to a site where you can see a lot of baseball stuff, but as of today you can also see a few rudimentary videos. The warning is this: You’re not going to see any cutting edge modern technology. These videos were shot on a bulky old VHS camcorder, the kind you balanced on your shoulder, and were then later transferred to a DVD about 25 years later. It was “raw footage” in every way, which means for every minute of good stuff there were many more minutes of blurry nonsense. To edit, I played that DVD on my big screen home theater and recorded the small parts I wanted for this exercise on my iPhone 12. That’s what you’ll see. Modern smart-phone tech being used to show some truly ancient tech. The only way it could be more ancient would be if the original footage was shot on film, in Super-8. (And a percentage of readers just thought, “What the heck is Super-8?)

I’ve written about the Sauget Wizards baseball team many times, here on the blog and in my first book Bats, Balls & Burnouts. You probably know this, but I played for that stellar semipro team after my professional baseball career was over. I was a Wizard for close to a decade, but there were a couple of summers in there when I was living out of town, so I missed those.

I’ve told stories of the guys on that team. They are some of the best players I’ve ever shared a dugout with. I’ve shown old photos. I’ve waxed poetic about everyone from our illustrious player/manager Bob Hughes to our one-in-a-million batboy Ray Schott.

Now you get to see some of these heroes in action. They were my heroes. I never played with a finer bunch of guys.

Once the loose concept of a Wizards reunion (our first such reunion ever) finally gained some traction, I took it upon myself to be the guy who coordinated it. We are set for August 20, and we’ll meet at a real professional game actually being played in Sauget. The Gateway Grizzlies are Sauget’s team now, in the Frontier League. We just paved the way for them.

As part of the reunion, I launched a Facebook Group Page, where former Wizards can share stories, read old clippings, and even see some photos of us back when we were young and could still do extraordinary things like running and throwing.

Now, I’m putting some of these ancient videos on that site. I’ve chosen some key clips from our trip to Millington, Tennessee where we beat the USA team in a thrilling upset for the ages. I’ve also added a few from the legendary Valmeyer Tournament, which just concluded its annual run yesterday in Valmeyer, Illinois. Congrats to the Belleville team for winning it all. It’s a tough tournament to win, but it’s a wonderful experience. Been there, done that, wouldn’t trade it for much of anything.

I’ll post the direct link to the FB page at the bottom, but first… Here’s a synopsis of the guys who made up two particular Wizards teams. I’ve chosen the 1988 and 1989 clubs. Why? Because in ’88 we won the league championship, which was another tough mountain to climb, and in ’89 we beat the USA team, which might have been akin to climbing Mount Everest.

Most of those two teams were made up of the same guys, but there were a few classic (and very talented) Wizards who were on one or the other, but not both. The team had some mainstays over the years, but also evolved every season with new guys coming as other guys left.

So, it’s my mission to let you get to know a lot of these guys better, before you watch the videos.

Here, in print, I present to you a group of Sauget Wizards who accomplished greatness. In my own particular order, they are:

Bob Hughes – Player/Manager and 3rd baseman.

Universally known as “Coach Hughes” or “Hugheser.” Bob was originally from Okawville, Illinois. He signed his first professional contract with the Dodgers after they drafted him, and was a bona fide prospect for L.A., playing in the minors for Tommy Lasorda and alongside some guys who went on to Dodger greatness. And then the army got him in a different kind of draft. When his tour of duty in Vietnam was almost over, he stepped on a land mine. He was lucky to be alive. He worked hard to get back on the field against enormous odds despite the fact he knew his pro career was over, and he managed to put together a stellar player/manager career for us, while also throwing batting practice for the Cardinals and, for many years, holding the position of Head Coach for the St. Louis U. Billkens baseball team. When I met Bob, in 1976, he was an assistant coach on the SIUE Cougars, of which I was a part. Anyone who knows Coach Hughes loves the man. There is no one like him. Supremely talented, incredibly dedicated, truly tireless, and on top of that he’s a man with a heart of gold.

Jim Greenwald – Outfield

Known as “Greenie” to all who played with him, Jim was a key part of nearly all the Wizards team. It was he and Bob Hughes who formed the team after they got to know Rich Sauget, who had incorporated the town and who was eager to back the new team financially, while also building a beautiful ballpark for them to play in. Greenie went to SIUE a few years before me, but I got to know him there because he was always around. He signed with the Twins after his senior year and played for their minor league organization for a while, but never got the baseball bug out of his system. Without “Hughes & Greenie” (always collectively known as that one simple term) there never would have been a Sauget Wizards team. With them, and their leadership, we became one of the best semipro teams in the country.

Neil Fiala – Shortstop

Neil was a major prospect when he played at SIU-Carbondale, and as such was drafted and signed by his hometown team the Cardinals. He advanced through their organization rapidly before being traded to Cincinnati. I actually scouted him, when he was playing in Triple-A Indianapolis for the Reds and I was still a scout for the Blue Jays. Neil made it to the big leagues, with both the Cardinals and the Reds. When he joined the Wizards, he became a key part of the team’s bedrock and foundation. The man could do it all, to the point where he was playing for the Wizards while also managing a summer team for college players. We were so fortunate to have him.

Rick Fiala – Infield and Pitcher

Rick is Neil’s brother. He was also a fine college player, and was a massive part of the Wizards for many years due to his ability to play all over the field, and do it well. He could hit, pitch, field, and throw. On top of that, he was a huge positive motivator in the dugout and on the field, while also a fine coach and instructor in his own right. Rick was a born leader.

Dave Kassebaum – 2nd base

Dave Kassebaum was not the tallest or biggest guy on the Wizards. Hence, his nickname “Moose.” What he lacked in stature he made up for with sheer talent and determination. I may have never played with any other guy who had Moose’s discipline at the plate. He had no fear of taking a strike or two until he got the pitch he wanted. He could handle second base like a pro, and knew the game inside-out. He had been a fine college player, and was a key part of the Wizards for many years.

Dan Nicholson – Outfield

Dan Nicholson, known as “Nick” for short or “Nick The Stick” to many of us, was a jack of all trades for the Wizards, playing anywhere Coach Hughes needed him, after his junior college career. The sort of guy every teammate loved. He was a key part of the Wizards in many ways, for many years. Coach Hughes later brought him along to St. Louis U. as an assistant, when he took over the head coaching job.

Joe Mehallow – Pitcher

Joey Mehallow was the epitome of a classic “crafty lefty” on the mound. A fine college pitcher who may have only been overlooked by the Major Leagues because of a slight lack of velocity, he relied on location and changing speeds to carve up every league the Wizards played in. He was elegant on the mound, and a joy to play behind. A true pitcher, who understood the art of the position. If talking about being “lucky to have him” that was definitely the case with Joey. Every time he took the mound, we knew we were probably going to win. That’s why he started the game against the powerhouse USA team and shut them out for three innings. Gamer!

John Parke – Pitcher

John Parke, aka “JP” to all his teammates, was one of those fine college players who the scouts all somehow missed. His talent proved that scouting is an imperfect art. I’ve told him that and meant every word of it. I still mean it. He was great at Vanderbilt (a very good program) and never heard his name called during the draft. For the Wizards, he was every bit as important as Joe Mehallow, and the two were a phenomenal pair in the rotation. Like with Joey, when JP took the mound we knew we’d probably win. He was also incredibly smart and brilliantly funny, and a terrific friend to all of us. JP pitched the middle three innings in the USA game and got the win.

Scott Brown – Pitcher

Scotty Brown could bring the heat. He played his college ball at Illinois State and (this is a recurring theme) was missed by the scouts when he graduated. Their loss was our gain. Scotty could pitch, and he was fearless on the mound. Not long after the USA game, in which he pitched the final three innings and earned the save, the Pittsburgh Pirates came calling and Scott signed with them, proving that the road between the Wizards and the pros was a two-way street. He went on to be a very successful coach at Vianney High School in St. Louis.

Jeff Junker – Catcher

Jeff Junker (pronounced “Yunker” and known as “Yunk” to teammates) was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the Wizards. When he joined the team, Coach Hughes was in dire need of a starting catcher, and despite the fact Jeff hadn’t played the position in high school or college, he volunteered and turned himself into a first-class receiver. The dude was strictly talented, and dedicated, and tireless. A total gamer, who could play that tough position, throw runners out, call a great game, and hit. He drew a critical walk that kept the top of the second alive against the USA, and moments later the Wizards scored to make it 1-0 on our way to a 6-5 win. The two catchers the USA used in that game, Dan Wilson and Pedro Grifol, both played professionally with Wilson starring in the big leagues and Grifol having a fine minor league career. Frankly, you couldn’t tell the difference between those guys and Jeff Junker. Seriously.

Robert Giegling – Outfield

Robert was another player, like John Parke, who the scouts all totally blew it on. He played his college ball at Nicholls State and was a stud. “Gigs” and I played side-by-side in the outfield for a few great years, and the guy could do it all. Between the two of us, not much got by us without being caught. And man, he could just flat hit. What a beautiful swing. A phenomenal guy, a dedicated player, and a star. As a former scout, I have no clue how the scouts who saw him missed a chance to sign the guy.

Gerry Pitchford – Outfield

“Pitch” was another SIU-Carbondale alum and why he never got a chance to play pro ball is yet another mystery. The dude could just flat run, track down everything in the outfield, and work his butt off to be a key part of every Wizards team he was on. He could do it all. And there were no teammates more admired and liked than him.

Tim Black – Outfield

Every now and then, the Wizards would bring in young college guys who could provide the energy and wheels we older dudes lacked in our 30s. Tim Black was one of those guys, who was a stellar centerfielder at Meramec CC in St. Louis. He was part of the team that beat the USA club and a major part of the Wizards that year, taking over Giegling’s spot in center. He covered center field like a blanket. Sure made my life easy next to him, in right.

Jason Boehlow – Catcher/Utility

Jason played for Bob Hughes at St. Louis U., and his stature earned him the nickname “Payload” from his teammates. The guy could just flat hit, and when he got all of one it rarely come down before leaving the park. Jason was multitalented, and was actually held out of the USA game for one good reason: Should Mehallow, Parke, or Brown falter on the mound, we had him in reserve to finish the game on the mound. A big boy, and a talented dude.

Curt Junker – Pitcher

Jeff’s little brother was a tall and wiry young guy when he joined the Wizards. He was a key pitcher for us during the ’88 championship season and actually got the win for us in the league championship game, throwing eight innings of stout relief in the win over a tough and experienced East Alton team. He was 17-years old at the time, although he turned 18 a few days later. A great kid with a ton of talent, and most of us remember him as a “cool as a cucumber” guy on the mound. He stepped up huge in ’88. We wouldn’t have won the championship without him.

Other Key Wizards Through The Years

Lance McCord. My roomie from college at SIUE, played for the Wizards in the very early years. As in, during the first year the Wizards existed. I had been in pro baseball for six years when I finally quit scouting, and Lance called me. He said “You want to play for this team I’m on? Hughes and Greenie run it, and we’re pretty good. It’s fun. Come on out.” I joined the team to end the season and found my game. Without Lance, I never would’ve played for the Wizards. And yes, the scouts saw something in him they missed with some other guys. Lance signed with the Twins after our senior year at SIUE. We played against each other in the Appalachian League.

Pete Delkus. Another former roomie of mine, whom I met for the first time on the Wizards. A sidearm/submarine pitcher with absolutely nasty stuff, Pete was our ace for a couple of years while he was finishing up his college career at SIUE (He was All-America one year and is in the SIUE Hall of Fame.) He used the Wizards as his “summer team” to stay in shape for college ball. He could just flat deal. I’ve hit off him in the cage, and know firsthand that when you made contact, it felt like you were hitting a concrete ball. The scouts missed him, but my dad didn’t. He saw Pete pitch for us on the Wizards and called the Twins after the draft. Sight-unseen and only on Del Wilber’s recommendation, the Twins signed Pete. Two years later he was Minor League Player of the Year and winner of the Rolaids Relief Man Award. He made it as far as the Twins 40-man Major League roster and Triple-A before his elbow blew up and ended his career. Since then, he’s done OK. He’s the Chief Meteorologist at WFAA TV in Dallas and has more Emmy Awards on his shelf than any of us have baseball awards. Like I said, he’s done OK…

Tom Burg. Tom was a catcher at SIUE, and I actually scouted him when I was with the Blue Jays. He was a fine catcher and a great teammate with the Wizards. And now is as good a time as ever to admit that I was a scout who missed him when evaluating his skills. I blew it. I didn’t write him up for the Jays, and once we played together I totally regretted that. He was a fantastic defensive catcher, a brilliant game caller, and an all-around fine player who deserved to sign a contract. The rule of thumb is, if you want a serious chance to play pro baseball, be a catcher. Good ones are in short supply and great ones go to the Hall of Fame. Tom Burg was a good one. He should’ve gotten a chance, but as you can tell by reading this the Wizards were usually made up of very good players who also should’ve gotten a chance.

Me. You know the story. A decent player coming out of SIUE where I was 80% outfield defense and 20% hitter. I battled through a couple of years in the minors with Detroit and Oakland, and had my moments but not enough of them. Playing for Coach Hughes and the Wizards, I became a different player and came into my own. I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything, and I have Coach Hughes to thank for turning me into a real hitter, with power and at least a little discipline at the plate.

There are so many more, including some incredibly great players from the early 90s teams, and the ’92 team that I managed for the second half of the season. How good were they? Another Valmeyer Tournament win. That good… Guys like Mike Rogers, Reid Hartmann, Jimmy Anderson, Darin Hendrickson, Pat Donohue, Bob Finder, Boyd Manne, Sean Randall, Joe Swiderski and more. All fantastic ballplayers from great college programs. Managing them was easy. I just filled out the lineup card and let them play.

Over the course of the Wizards existence, we put a ton of great players on the field, but we also had the knack to get “the right kind” of guys. We all got along. We all cracked each other up. We all LOVED THE GAME and that was the key.

This was no “beer league” or softball stuff. We were dead serious about it and worked our butts off. Some of us worked out all year together, taking BP at the St. Louis U. indoor cage during the winter and keeping our arms in shape. Not because we were trying to get signed or move up the ladder. Only because we loved the game. And we did some incredible stuff.

So, now that you’ve met and gotten to know so many of the Wizards a bit better, click on this link and look around at our Facebook Group.

Wizard FB Group

There’s lots to see there, and if you go searching you can find those “low tech” videos I mentioned at the start of this lengthy blog. The boys will “come to life” for you, if you squint just a little…

If you liked this blog, or like the videos, please click on the “Like” button below. The guys earned that.

See you soon. Long live the Wizards!