May 28, 2020

Greatest minor-league

team since expansion:

1970 Spokane Indians 





It's hard to grasp that it was 50 years ago.


It seems like ...


OK, it seems like 50 years ago. 


But it's still hard to grasp.


Bill Buckner stood at the top of the small cement stairway that led to the runway between the visiting clubhouse and the field at Eugene's Civic Stadium. 


"Hey, Billy," one of his Spokane Indians teammates called out, "wanna go get a nice steak after the game?"


His teammates laughed.


I never knew who had said it behind me, but I heard it and I saw him grimace. As in, "Very funny, guys ..." (Or maybe something more graphic.)


Buckner had a broken jaw and it was wired shut.        


Ah, I thought at the time, pro baseball camaraderie.  


It is a tiny snippet of what I saw in that summer of 1970, and it was a tiny part of why I still consider that Indians team -- the Dodgers' Classs AAA, Pacific Coast League affiliate -- as one of the most memorable teams I've ever been around, however peripherally. That covers a lot of territory in both a life and a profession linked to sports.       


I also believe the Indians, the 1970 PCL champions, the best minor-league team since the 1961-62 expansion from eight to 10 teams in, first, the American and then the National Leagues. The Indians were 94-52 and swept Hawaii in the championship series, outscoring the Islanders 38-9 in the four games. 


I bet you've already taken a stab at identifying the men in that picture above.  


And the answers are ...


Manager Tommy Lasorda, Bobby Valentine, Steve Garvey, Buckner, Tommy Hutton and pitcher Bob O'Brien.


That's remarkable on its own, but also now consider the other members of that team not included in that group picture:


Tom Paciorek, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, catcher Steve Sogge -- the quarterback of USC's 1968 national champions in the backfield with O.J. Simpson -- plus pitchers Charlie Hough and Doyle Alexander.


Russell played 55 games for the 1970 Indians, but wasn't around for the official team picture because he had been called up -- for a short-term military stint. Hutton's season was limited to 90 games by injury, and he and Garvey, who played 95 games, weren't in the team picture, either. The next season, about half those guys were gone, but Ron Cey also joined the Indians.            


I saw the Indians up close, both in the cramped quarters charitably called the visiting clubhouse and on the field at the converted football stadium across the street from South Eugene High School.


It was the home of the Phillies' PCL affiliate, the Eugene Emeralds, who had some eventually well-known players themselves that season, including future managers John Vukovich and Carl "Stump" Merrill; plus Willie Montanez,  AAA standout Frank DeCastris and player-coach Ruben Amaro Sr.  


That year, I had a tiny stall in the corner of that visitors' clubhouse. 


When I could wedge it in among my school and summer ball seasons as a 15-year-old, and also the next year, when I moved to a corner of the home clubhouse, I suited up and was everything from a batboy, an assistant groundskeeper who chalked the batter's boxes before many games, batting practice pitcher and catcher both on the side and in the bullpen before games. I was invited to sit in on the Emeralds team picture. Literally sit in it, in fact. That's me in the team picture below, wearing a different uniform and sitting alone cross-legged in front.  


I caught "on the side" to help out Emeralds of Phillies staff working with pitchers. Plus, if you were a former successful major-league pitcher fallen on hard times and wanted to try a greasy new pitch, I was the guy you'd line up to catch you. Then you'd hear me break the news that while the ball moved, it might not work because I couldn't grip the ball well enough to get it back to you. Visiting teams occasionally asked me to catch for them, too. 


I even made road trips at the end of each season, the first because manager Lou Kahn was livid that the Phillies left him with only one catcher and insisted on taking me to Spokane and Portland to help out. I'll never forget the thrill of being handed the envelope with the $6.50 per diem for the trip; outfielder Joe Lis -- a AAA superstar and great guy who played 356 games at the major-league level -- telling me to be careful and avoid asking anyone to "pass the ^%$# butter" when I got home; and Lasorda calling me "Bonus Baby" when both the Indians and Emeralds were on the same Portland to Spokane flight after we bused up from Eugene. I roomed with DeCastris, a great guy who hit .288 with 19 home runs that season and dserved a major-league chance he never got. (In this 2013 Rocford Register Star story by Matt Trowbridge, DeCastris is pictured with an Emeralds helmet among his collection.)  


The other small-world connection came up that season when young Indians trainer Herb Vike asked me if I knew Oregon's football coach, Jerry Frei. He said he was asking because they were both from tiny Stoughton, Wisconsin. I don't remember if it was pure coincidence, or if he'd asked someone in the Emeralds organization about Jerry Frei, had been told that kid dressing in the Indians' clubhouse was the football coach's son, and he was making sure. But soon, my father came to a game and, I believe, had a nice chat with Herb and Lasorda. And I was handed a Louisville Slugger with my name etched on it on one of the Indians' subsequent trips to Eugene.           



1970 Spokane Indians   

Back row: Trainer Herb Vike, Jerry Stephenson, Doyle Alexander, Mike Strahler, Tom Paciorek, George Lott, Dick Armstrong, Charllie Hough, clubhouse boy Kent Schultz.

Middle row: Bill Buckner, Geoff Zahn, Sandy Vance, Dick McLaughlin, Tom Lasorda, Bart Shirley, HJohn Purdin, Marv Galliher, Jack Jenkins.

Front row: Batboy Dave Vaughn, Bob Valentine, Bob Stinson, Bob O'Brien, Tom Mulcahy, Davey Lopes, Steve Sogge, Gus Sposito, ballboy Mike Wilson.

Not pictured: Steve Garvey, Tom Hutton, Bill Russell.   



1970 Eugene Emeralds 

Back row: Batboy/ballboy Jon Widney, Ken Reynolds, Joh Vukovich, Hank McGraw (Tug's brother), Jack Nutter, Billy Laxton, Ed Sukla. Frank DeCastris.

Middle row: Business manager Craig Hayes, Jim Vopicka, Bill Wolfe, Al Raffo, Jerry Lanning, Billy Champion, Fred Wenz, Jerry Messerly, GM Hugh Luby. 

Front row: Groundskeeper Don Conradi, Barry Cox, Gordy Knutson, Joe Lis, Stirling Coward, Manager Lou Kahn, Ruben Amaro, Willie Montanez, Carl "Stump" Merrill, trainer Ted Zipeto.

... and me.


Here are the Indians' 1970 stats. Valentine (.340, 14 home runs, 80 RBI) and Paciorek (.326, 17 HR, 101 RBI) were the stars, with Valentine winning the PCL's Most Valuable Player award. Pitcher Jerry Stephenson was 18-5.


Thirty years later, in 2000, Lasorda -- by then a Dodgers vice president after concluding his long managerial stint -- came to Denver to speak at a fundraiser for the University of Colorado Hospital's Anschutz Center for Advanced Medicine. The Denver Post's parent company sent its plane to the San Francisco area to pick him up and bring him to Colorado. (I assume he had been in the Bay area for another speaking engagement.)


We arranged for me to be on the plane from Denver and to interview Lasorda on the flight back. Just him and me and the pilots.


He didn't remember me as the kid in Eugene, but I didn't expect him to and the 1970-era Indians were among the many things we informally talked about in the interview setting. He was both ebullient and characteristically caustic. We also talked about his one-season stint as a pitcher with the Denver Bears. Lasorda was about to manage the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney, and he also spoke bluntly about patriotism.  


Lasorda and his Spokane and Albuquerque players effectively were called up to the Dodgers together, or close to it. The Indians moved to Albuquerque for the 1972 season and Lasorda joined the Dodgers as a coach in 1973. He succeeded the venerable Walter Alston as manager in 1977. 


I got two columns out of the plane-ride interview. I noted in the first that after we landed in the Denver area, he hollered up to the two pilots, Tom and Gary: "Great job, guys. You're the only guys who have to bat 1.000!" 


Here's Part One.  (Note how primitive newspaper web sites could look in that early internet era.) 


Here's Part Two.  


At one point, I kicked around the idea of trying to do a book on the 1970 Spokane team, writing about it as coming-of-age experience for both those who had long major-league careers and those who never got any higher than Class AAA.    


I should have done it.