If they hadn’t all known greatness in their previous lives, they had at least known the major leagues. First-class travel, first-class hotels, first-class meal money. Tens of thousands in the spanking new ball parks to watch them play and to assign them fame. And some day enormous pensions, too, not that they’d ever need them; it would be impossible to entirely offload the money they made in even a few seasons during their next lifetimes.
Yet here they are, just one year removed from the major leagues, in Miami Stadium, playing and living Class A baseball. Here they are, the lowest of baseball’s low, enacting a naked desperation. Look at them:
Jim Essian, 34, (A’s, White Sox) is smacking grounders to the infielders. Eric Rasmussen, 33, (Cardinals, Padres) is collecting money to pay for the team’s warmup shirts. Derrel Thomas, 34, (Padres, Dodgers, Angels) is running infield practice. Mike Torrez, 38, (Red Sox, Mets) is counseling an 18-year-old pitcher. Broderick Perkins, 30, (Padres, Indians) is helping pick up the clubhouse laundry.
It doesn’t get much better come game time. Tropical evenings here, their chores done, they band together for the greater glory of Florida State League baseball, not to mention the gratification of perhaps 300 fans, some of them obviously relatives. A year ago Torrez, earning $275,000, was the Mets’ Opening Day pitcher. Here he is in the Florida twilight, with mostly empty seats as witness, throwing his 88 m.p.h. fastball at some Ft. Lauderdale kid.
Now, the kid is on his first stop, presumably on his way up through the Yankee organization. Next Class AA, then Class AAA, then the big leagues. That’s how it goes. Torrez? The seven other fallen heroes on the Miami Marlins? Maybe this is their next-to-last stop, on the return to baseball anonymity.
They are betting not, of course, which is why this rogue team of castoffs, their pride temporarily ignored in the greater need to return to former glory, is manned with so much major league experience and, arguably, talent. In baseball, which is upward-or-out directed, Class A is for the unproven rookie, not tested veterans. Baseball teams no longer supervise far-flung minor league empires, where there is room for the veteran on his way out. No system has room for the likes of these, all released, shooed out of baseball and into apparent retirement.
But the Marlins are part of no system, having lost their working agreement with a major league club (San Diego) after last season. Of some 150 minor league teams, all have parent clubs that dictate personnel moves and foot the bill. All but Miami, which can do as it pleases, at least until the money runs out.
What pleased Miami, which had done no box office in years, was the idea of signing veterans, former stars, who could bring the necessary fans back into the park. General Manager Mal Fichman was brave enough to call upon Vida Blue, then out of baseball because of drug problems and a high ERA. Blue wouldn’t do, though, as he happened to be getting back in at the major league level. What about Torrez? A one-time 20-game winner, he was at liberty because of a New York youth movement and a high ERA.
Torrez, it turned out, didn’t have anything better to do, nothing that couldn’t wait. He was selling office furniture. Yes, it was Class A. Yes, it was quite a fall. But all he wanted was a tryout, a chance to prove somebody wrong. He said sure, he’d play Class-A ball, $1,500 a month was plenty. So a strange little team began to take shape.
The others fell in line. In fact, the veterans began calling Fichman to offer their names to the enterprise. Fichman hears from a new one almost every day. So the Marlins quickly had the league limit of seven former major leaguers (with an additional one on the disabled list). In addition to Torrez, Rasmussen, Thomas, Perkins and Essian, there are Ed Farmer, 35, (White Sox, Phillies), Juan Eichelberger, 31, (Padres) and Terry Bogener, 29, (Twins).
This has all been good for Miami, although so far not quite good enough. There was some early attention from the local media but after the novelty wore off, the only visitors were from out-of-state newspapers, who sometimes still outnumber the fans. But Fichman figures the fans will come sooner or later. It’s a major league city and now it has, practically, a major league team. It’s a fine stadium, too. Anyway, what does it cost to see a game? Hardly anything. Fichman figures a family of four can come to a game, and eat there, for less than $10.
Miami can use the $10, too, because its operating costs are $190,000 more than any other team in the league. Because there is no parent club to pay the prospects’ salaries and travel expenses, Miami must depend entirely on its attraction at the gate to stay in business. The owners, you can bet, are reaching into some deep pockets.
The success or failure of this enterprise, a throw-back to the days when minor league teams stood on their own, is a long-term thing. If the Marlins do catch on, the owners hope to upgrade to Class AAA. There is money to be made, maybe. But for the players, this can not be any more long term than the white zone along an airport curb.
All hope to hear from a major league club soon and escape this tropical purgatory. “I wasn’t too hot on this idea at first,” says Rasmussen, whose last stop was a brief one with Kansas City. “But if a guy like Torrez can play here, it’s good enough for me.”
Rasmussen drove cross-country from San Diego after his phone call, that’s how good it was. Rasmussen, suddenly wistful, explains, “I sure do want to get back, you know.”
Thomas, who used to entertain fans and traumatize managers with his basket catches, is using this career interlude to straighten out his act and get a new label. He is now properly remorseful. “I feel bad now, putting Tommy (Lasorda, the Dodger manager) through all that. I can understand now his pulling his hair out. I mean, imagine asking somebody to stop making basket catches and he keeps on doing it. I shouldn’t have taken Tommy through that.”
If that sounds like a work-wanted ad, be assured that Thomas, an official coach as is Torrez, is at least backing his newly assumed attitude with performance. He’s taken Lance Hudson under his wing, a kid who may have been so flashy that he washed himself right out of the Dodger organization, and counseled him against flamboyance. “Lance, he can be a great shortstop, but he does certain flashy things,” Thomas says. “I tell him to do it the right way. Get to the major leagues first.”
Thomas would like to see Hudson get there, but not ahead of him. Thomas is certain he can still play and would like to assure some major league teams of the fact. “Nothing wrong with my ability, just my act,” he says. “Everybody thought I was Darth Vader before, so now I’m acting like Luke Skywalker.”
Fichman says he’s already had calls from major league teams and also from one Japanese team about his band of irregulars, although the inquiries have not yet been serious. “It’s too early,” Fichman says. “These are the kinds of players some pennant contender is going to call on down the stretch.”
In the meantime, these veterans are not exactly eating the league up. Of the eight, Thomas is probably doing best of all, hitting .314 at last check. The pitchers have had their troubles. Torrez has been wild. Rasmussen up and down. Rasmussen says it may actually be tougher to pitch at this level, because the young hitters lack any ability to discriminate among hurled objects. “In the big leagues, you know there’s a pitch the hitter likes to get,” he says. “You avoid that pitch, you’re all right. These kids, they don’t care. They don’t even know when you’re setting them up.”
But that’s the biggest beef these fallen stars have--the kids can hit you and they can get you out. Otherwise, no complaints. In fact, a surprising amount of enthusiasm. Torrez has volunteered to do the club’s Spanish PR. Thomas came to the park on a rare off-day to work with the younger kids. “A lot of people think this is a big deal because we’re playing A ball,” says Rasmussen. “But we’re not playing A ball, we’re playing baseball.”