Life in the Minors
Never leave the fate of a team’s season on a pitching coach
Sometimes the sight of a familiar face can go a long way.
For the past few weeks, I've been fortunate enough to have my girlfriend here with me in the Midwest, as she has sacrificed pretty much all of her vacation time this year to come and visit me during my season.
Having her around has been great, and really has made it feel as if I was a lot closer to Hawaii than the 5,000 miles that actually separate me and home.
More than that, she has vastly improved my quality of life and lowered my stress levels at a time of year when I probably needed it most.
That said, she has sat shotgun with me in the cockpit of the Honda Civic I've been driving this summer as we've followed the team bus on road trips to Kalamazoo, Mich., Rockford, Ill., and even the Frontier League All-Star Game in Florence, Ky.
In between we've mixed in off-day road trips into downtown Chicago and I've enjoyed and appreciated every second.
Being back in the Frontier League after a two-year hiatus, it was inevitable that I would run into a bunch of familiar people and places, having spent five seasons here before going off to coach in the Northern League two years ago.
This past week, I've had the pleasure of reconnecting with someone who I spent a lot of time with early in my professional baseball career. In the midst of our series sweep of the Slippery Rock Sliders the past three days, I had a little reunion with the Sliders' general manager, Steve Tahsler.
I first met Steve when I played in the Frontier League in 1999 for the Evansville Otters. At the time, Steve was the assistant general manager for the club, and he was one of the first people I had to deal with in my very pleasant time there.
Two years later, when I began my professional coaching career with the Dubois County Dragons, I met up with Steve again, as he had made the move over to become the general manager of the ballclub. Actually, Steve was again the first person I met from the ballclub, as he picked me up from the airport in southern Indiana and drove me back to Huntingburg, where the team was based. That year, like in 1999, we won a division title.
In the years that passed since 2001, we have stayed in touch, either through e-mails or an occasional midseason meeting, and in that span Steve has truly become one of the top front-office leaders in the Frontier League, winning the league's executive of the year award in 2005 and 2006, and setting franchise records for attendance in each of his final three years leading the Otters. Now the GM for the Sliders, Steve was in town as we played his club this week. I had seen Steve briefly at the All-Star game a few weeks ago, but this time we actually got to sit down for a minute and talk and reminisce a bit.
We talked about Evansville and Dubois County, and the time Steve set up a promotion in which a random fan would have one swing to hit a ball over the fence while I was the pitching coach for the Dragons. Each night during our three-game series against the Gateway Grizzlies, one fan would have the chance to win $10,000 or $100,000 -- whatever it was -- during the seventh inning.
Of course, I was picked to be the guy who had to toss the ball to the contestants -- a little bit of pressure knowing the balance of the budget rested upon me. The first night, some guy was picked, and as it turns out, he was something of a local slow-pitch softball legend. My strategy was just to flip it up there mountain-ball style, and let the contestant have at it. I mean, hitting the ball out of a minor league field with a wooden bat with someone just tossing a ball at you is not an easy thing to do.
Well, then again, I didn't know that the Babe Ruth of southern Indiana softball was at the plate. So I flipped the first one in there and he took it to gauge the speed. I tossed another one up there and this time he unleashed a swing on it. As the ball took to the air, two things happened. First of all, the fans jumped to their feet and went nuts, thinking this guy was about to win a pretty sizable cash prize. Shortly after the ball took flight, I looked up into the stands and saw good old Steve sprinting toward the dugout with a look on his face I equated to the same expression one could expect to see on a lion as he attacked his prey.
The ball made it to mid-left field, but never really got anywhere near the fence, but Steve informed me that if I allowed a homer, the remainder of our season would be in jeopardy. So over the next two nights, I again had to jog out there in the middle of the seventh and pitch to contestants. But now, under new orders, I had to make it a little tougher on them. I didn't reach back for any high heat, but I did make the ball move a little.
So over the next two nights, I carved up two more contestants, resulting in a pair of jam shots and allowing us to finish our season. The final night, I guess my toss had a little more heat on it, and the high school kid at the plate had no chance, nubbing a ball off of the handle that rolled about 15 feet.
I can still hear it now, a drunk fan yelling at me as I walked off the mound at League Stadium. "I hope you're proud of yourself, coach." Well, I was ... and I wasn't. I was proud I allowed us to continue our season, and I was pretty embarrassed to have turned a two-seamer loose on the kid.
Sitting in our coaches' office here at Hawkinson Ford Field after our 16-0 afternoon rout of Slippery Rock, Steve and I had a chance to laugh about the promotion, which actually earned the Dubois County Dragons a little ink in Baseball America.
As reunions in baseball go, our little meeting was very pleasant but brief. Steve had people to see and my girlfriend was on her way to pick me up from the stadium. It was great to see Steve again, but I was glad this time there wasn't any promotion with the team's season on the line.