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Shades of Shea : Ghosts of Pennant Races Past Haven’t Changed, but Their Playing Field Has

At first glance, it looked like Shea Stadium in the 1960s.

It was a hot, muggy summer day typical of New York. Jets roared overhead every few minutes. And there at the plate taking batting practice were, among others, former National Leaguers Orlando Cepeda, Wes Parker, Don Buford, Roman Mejias and Dick Simpson.

But it was Pacific Park, not Shea. Burbank, not the Big Apple. Softball, not baseball.

And it was a Sunday afternoon in 1985, not the ‘60s. The ex-pros were playing for charity, not the pennant--and fortunately so.

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On this day, Orlando Cepeda’s Baseball All-Stars were soundly defeated, 23-6, by the KTLA Angels, a recreation team that competes in the Los Angeles Advertising Softball League. Most of the proceeds from the game reportedly were earmarked for scholarships to Cepeda’s youth baseball camp, scheduled for Aug. 12 at Beverly Hills High.

But the outcome of the game seemed immaterial to most of the small collection of fans, many of them little leaguers. Just seeing the former major leaguers up close was satisfaction enough.

Here was ex-Yankees/Red Sox/Indians/Twins/Angels pitcher Luis Tiant, a lump of chew bulging in his cheek, as usual. And former Dodger first baseman Parker, his glove as golden as ever. And Mejias, attired in an old-fashioned Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, one of four major league teams he played with. And of course, Cepeda, the National League MVP with St. Louis in ’67, who sent a shot 30 feet beyond the fence in left-center field in his first at-bat against KTLA.

What kind of pitch was it?

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“A low fastball,” laughed Cepeda, 47.

Even the Angels, who paid $25 each to play the former professionals, seemed somewhat in awe of their opponents before the game.

“We might get beat to death, but it could be kind of fun to say ‘Hey, I got a hit off Luis Tiant,’ ” Angels Manager Tom Hansen said.

But El Tiante, the cigar-smoking Cuban, wanted nothing to do with the pitching duties and started at third base instead.

“Pitch? You crazy? It’s too close. You get hit with line drives. I don’t need that,” Tiant said.

But Tiant’s team certainly could have used his twisting, no-look windup to confuse the KTLA hitters, who teed off early and late against starting pitcher Dan Fox, one of the few non-major leaguers on the club. The Angels went up, 7-6, in the fifth inning, scored once in the sixth, then broke the game open with a four-run seventh and eight-run eighth.

Suddenly, the former pros looked all too human.

Said KTLA second baseman Mike Suter, who slugged an inside-the-park home run over Parker’s head into center field: “I like seeing the back of Wes Parker’s uniform, that’s for sure.”

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But even with a big lead, the Angels weren’t ready to concede victory--not when the opposition was composed of guys whose baseball cards they once collected.

“They’re just toying with us,” pitcher Craig Korn said. “Most of these guys have arms bigger than my thighs.”

“Maybe this is the way they play,” said another Angel. “Then in the last two innings, they kill you.”

But the ex-major leaguers, who had undoubtedly snatched victory from defeat on many occasions during their heyday, could mount no comeback. This time, there was no game-winning home run by Cepeda, no key steal by Buford, no game-saving defensive play by Parker.

It must have been especially frustrating for catcher Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the former USC and New England Patriots running back, who Cepeda recruited for his team. Cunningham used to take out his anger by punishing opposing tacklers, but all he could do on this day was suck it up.

“I played football because I could hit somebody back, but you can’t do that in baseball,” Cunningham said.

Just hitting the ball was difficult enough for the former Trojan, who went 0 for 3. It might have been different had the opponent been Ohio State.

Cunningham’s teammates fared little better. A team that, on paper, read like softball’s version of Murderers’ Row, went out like the ’62 Mets, going hitless over the final three innings.

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But at least one young fan still had faith in these heroes of yesteryear, asking Cepeda in the seventh inning, “How much longer until you guys win?”

Probably just as long as it takes to schedule another game. Despite the blowout against KTLA, Cepeda’s All-Stars had won four previous benefit games, one by a 26-1 margin.

But as Mejias, 55, explained, “We got a bad day today.”

It could happen to anyone. Even ex-major leaguers get in a slump now and then.

They’ll come back. They have been for years.


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