Life in the Minors: Only Dreams Are Big League : All the Same, for Players Such as Jerry Keller, It's a Life They Wouldn't Change

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Keller reflects on a dream pursued, a life deferred. The sharp crack of the bat from a nearby batting cage is the background to his reverie. Occasionally there is the tinny resonance of a ball bouncing on a metal roof beyond the right-field wall. From the dugout where he sits, you can hear the flag snap in the wind in deep center.

"It's not so bad," he is saying, wiggling a bat in his enormous hands. "Even if I never get to the big leagues--and if I did at this stage it would really surprise me--I've had 10 years doing what I like. How many people can say that?" He goes on. The minor leagues, Class AAA anyway, are not so bad, really. The money is surprisingly adequate. Travel is often by plane, just as in the big leagues. And baseball is baseball.

On the other hand: "Jeff Burroughs up at Toronto might get hurt. Somebody might want a third-string catcher, a good role player." The sunlight dapples the green playing field of old MacArthur Park. "Anything can happen," he says. Ten years and nearly 200 home runs in the minor leagues, without even one visit to a major league clubhouse where there might be a cubicle with his name or number on it, and nothing has happened yet. No matter. It may have exhausted his youth but not his capacity for hope. "I still have a chance. I still have the dream anyway."

There are not many people like Jerry Keller any more, what you might call the career minor leaguer, men for whom the dream dies hard if at all. Because of baseball's new economics, dreams have become much too expensive to subsidize. So a player like Keller is mostly a thing of the past, an overlooked dinosaur.

Once there were hundreds of Jerry Kellers in baseball, men who toiled in the relative anonymity of the minor leagues, who worked it like a job, suffering few illusions of oncoming stardom but maintaining hope of at least a shot nonetheless. It was blue-collar baseball. In those days it was not so unusual for a player to endure a 10-year servitude in the minors before finally earning his shot. Maury Wills managed to stay hungry for nine years before the Dodgers called him to the major leagues. That kind of example, and there were hundreds, encouraged patience.

That's the way it was a long time ago. "We used to have real career players," says Joe Ryan, president of the American Assn. "But starting in the 1960s, a trend developed. The farm system shrank and there was no longer room for anybody who wasn't a prospect."

The minor leagues, you see, were not just different then, there were just more of them. Whereas the Dodgers now have six minor league teams at the four levels, which is a lot by today's standards, they once oversaw 26 different teams. So there was room for everybody, at least at the minor league level. Getting beyond was much more difficult as there were just 16 major league teams then. The player who advanced to one of them through such a thicket was either very good or very lucky. Certainly nobody was demeaned then to be called a minor league career player, as one who was left behind.

Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, who spent 15 years in the minors for a payoff of 45 innings in the majors, remembers when career players were in abundance--Rocky Nelson, Steve Bilko and others. Jigger Statz played 18 years in the Pacific Coast League after a somewhat undistinguished major league stint. It was possible because of the economics of the time, a time when a steady paycheck was not a thing to be scorned. "You might have been hoping and praying to get to the big leagues but you were also trying to earn a living," Lasorda says.

The term "money player," in fact, was coined by Branch Rickey to describe just this kind of player, somebody you would sign to your organization without any real hope of helping your big league club. He was there to play good triple-A ball, help your minor league franchise and make himself a living.

In fact, the minor leagues had their own galaxy of stars, some of whom had such box-office appeal at the local level that they occasionally refused to move up. It might have meant a cut in pay. Minor league teams, then without the parent club's subsidy, stood on their own, developed their own stars, who in turn demanded their own deals. "When you yourself owned a player, you might keep him four to six years just because he was popular with the fans," says Harold Cooper, president of the International League. "One time I traded a ballplayer I had for four years and my son wouldn't speak to me for a week."

Occasionally a career minor league player escaped this to find major league stardom, as if all that time really were necessary. Stan Musial, for example, might not have survived today's system. He spent three years in the minors establishing some shaky credentials as a pitcher. His fourth season he tried playing outfield. Later that year he joined the Cardinals.

Cooper recalls he once had a pitcher nicknamed Boom-Boom because he was so unreliable. He spent seven years in the minors before he emerged as the Yankees' stopper of the '60s, Luis Arroyo. It took him that long to come up with his screwball.

Neither major league clubs nor minor league players are as patient these days. As Bill Cutler, president of the Pacific Coast League says: "In the old PCL, it wasn't unusual for players to spend their whole time in the minors. I guess it's not unusual today, either, except their whole time won't be a long time." Nowadays, things have to develop more quickly. Time is money. In a country where the interstate freeway might well be the metaphor of our time, who takes the slow road? As with other disciplines, baseball is up-or-out, and quickly.

Jerry Keller, 30, is among a handful of exceptions, players whose promise has long since been denied but who somehow have made themselves valuable or popular enough at this level to keep retirement at bay. There are others who have gone neither up nor out. Tucker Ashford, now at Portland, has been knocking around for 11 years. Casey Parsons, with Louisville, has spent nine years in the minors. Keller, however, is the only player never to have enjoyed, as they say in baseball, even a cup of coffee with a major league team.

He is, in other words, a throwback, a reminder of the kind of player who punched in and out, earning his living the best he knew how. Dreaming a little on the side, too. You can't help that.

Keller, like all the other 20-year-old phenoms, had a right to his dreams at the beginning. He had a right to think he was just like the other prospects, on a career path that would take him to the major leagues, even if it did stop shy of Cooperstown. This is his story, baseball's oldest:

He was an all-conference catcher at Eastern Michigan, calling signals for pitchers such as Bob Welch and Bob Owchinko. He was a baseball hero, the typical jock. Keller laughs half-heartedly at his own admission. "We cared about girls and staying eligible," he says. "Dumb but true. Baseball was everything."

At that time it was certainly enough. An erratic arm and speed that was decidedly sub-sonic, made him something less than a sure shot. But his bat was quick enough to compel Atlanta to draft him in the 10th round, neither high nor low. He was about to live the dream.

"I signed in '76, went to the rookie league and hit .370, then to A-ball where I hit about .300 with seven or eight homers," Keller says. "Then (next year) I'm in the instructional league hitting .320 with 11 homers. This is easy. I'm 22, I'm invited to spring training where Willie Montanez is starting slow. I'm a hot prospect."

But not so hot to beat out Montanez. That's too much to ask. He is, all the same, promoted to Class AA and to the scouts' amazement, hitting about .340 after 60 at-bats. He is on his way, quick, on a major league career path for sure.

Keller, good-natured even as he remembers the fall to come, looks out upon the field where the pitchers, every batter's natural enemy, warm up in the sunlight. "The pitchers, then began giving me this," he said, flicking his wrist, baseball sign language for a curveball.

Keller has been found out. He finishes the year with a .253 average. "It's 1978, I'm 23, and suddenly there are no plans to get me to the big leagues fast."

Well, there is that career path, too. Thing is, that's usually when the career ends. But Keller persevered, hoping his power at least might generate interest. Any interest. Atlanta promoted him to Richmond, its Class AAA team in 1979 and he showed promise at that level. He batted .255 and hit 21 home runs. Anything can happen.

But in 1980 he was struck in the face with a pitch and he went nearly 50 at-bats after that, struggling for self-confidence, without a hit. He finished at .197, though he did hit 20 home runs. In 1981 he again was struck in the face with a pitch. Same struggle. Finished at .191, with 22 home runs. "I thought I had proved myself at every level," he says. "Then 1980 and 1981. I'm not a prospect any more."

He is instead a career minor leaguer, or the closest thing to it. The parent club has all but forgotten him. But everybody loves a home run hitter, even if that's all he can do. Anyway, even now, not everybody on every team is a prospect. Why not keep somebody the fans like? The fans like Keller. At Richmond in 1982 he hit 28 home runs. He was signed to Portland the next year as a free agent. He hit 28 home runs. The Toronto Blue Jays signed him to their Syracuse franchise and he hit 28 home runs in 1984. The team has given him a car to use and they promote him heavily. He gets the biggest roar of all the Chiefs when he comes to the plate.

Keller is smart enough to suspect he is serving Syracuse's purpose more than Toronto's at this point. But, as he says, anything can happen. Like last year. Cliff Johnson, Toronto's designated hitter, hurt his ankle and was about to be put on the disabled list. Keller was advised he would be called up soon. He had his plane ticket. Johnson did not go on the DL.

In the meantime, it is not a bad life. He says he makes $25,000-30,000 at Class AAA baseball and could earn another $15,000-20,000 by playing winter ball, which he hasn't for the past two years. This winter, as last, he will return to Detroit to tend bar at the Thunderbird Bowling Alley, where he will earn an easy $300 a week. He expects to save $8,000-12,000 this season from his pay and expects to earn money from a condominium he has bought in Florida. It is, as he says, temporary money. But, all the same, not bad money.

This is not about money, however, not entirely. "I could win the New York lottery," he admits. "I'd still want to be a major leaguer."

This is at the heart of his quest, however foolish it may seem to the rest of us. Here's a man who has spent his youth for some poorly attended days in the sun. It's a private thing, by and large. Nobody knows about Jerry Keller, the years he's spent and the homers he's hit, not even the folks up at Toronto. Billy Smith, director of player development, apologizes for his lack of direct knowledge of Keller's career. "He's DH'ing, I think," he says. "You might have to check with the papers in Syracuse."

Likely, Keller will not be shocked to learn that his progress is not being charted daily. He knows--everybody knows--that the major leagues are a long shot. Still, he repeats, "Anything can happen."

Down in Miami, where a group of former major league players have grouped, playing Class A ball in the hopes of a return trip, Eric Rasmussen understands. "Hey, that's the dream, to put on a major league uniform, even for a day," he says, entirely sympathetic. "You might as well go after it. It's certainly worth it. Me, I can understand. I got the Joneses real bad. I live in San Diego, not far from the stadium. Driving by there every day during the summer, that I didn't think I could take."

The dream dies hard, even for those who lived it. On this day, as Keller sits in the dugout, wiggling his bat and explaining his life, a bowlegged, silver-haired player from the Columbus Clippers, just discharged from a yellow school bus by the right-field foul line, ambles by. "Hey, Jerry," he says. Keller says, "Hey, Butch."

Butch Hobson. He lived the dream. Did he ever. In 1977 he hit 30 homers and drove in 112 runs for Boston. This wasn't a matter of putting on a major league uniform, just for a day. Hobson was major league through and through, a star, his greatness certified by a $300,000 contract. But look at him now: He's going on 34 years old, in his fourth season with Columbus since being demoted by the Yankees and struggling at that. He's still making his $300,000 a year, but, because of the injury that caused his demotion, he'd make that whether he played baseball or not. It's Advertisers' Day at MacArthur Stadium in Syracuse. There will be a crowd of 6,000 to see this star play.

What to make of Butch Hobson? He's gray, prematurely to be sure, but no youngster in any case. His arm still hurts and doctors want to operate again. Not hardly a prospect, not after four seasons in the minors. What is this about?

"I want to get back to the major leagues, that's all there is to it," he said later.

It is gently proposed that his best chance to return has possibly come and gone. It's been four years since he had been invited to anybody's camp. And he hasn't been getting better, just older. That's a baseball fact. "Somebody'll want me," he'll say. "My contract runs out this year and if I have to, I'll go somewhere else." Even without that big money? "Damn right I will." And what if nobody wants him? "I'll try out."

What is it Keller says in the wake of that silver apparition, the ghost of career minor leaguers, the ones that are left? As Hobson walks by, Keller says there goes a desperate and sad case. "Hit 30 home runs for Boston, 13 for Columbus." He shakes his head as if to say, some people never learn, they never grow up.

'Even if I never get to the big leagues--and if I did at this stage it would really surprise me--I've had 10 years doing what I like. How many people can say that?'

--JERRY KELLER

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