MINOR DETAIL : Even the Little Things Mean a Lot for the Bucks of Bend, Ore., Where Success Requires Being Ready for Anything and Keeping the Park Packed
Ten hours and five aspirins later, Jack Cain plopped down in an office chair and rubbed his aching feet. All things considered, the Bend Bucks’ home opener was a smashing success. Hey, it didn’t rain, the opposing team showed up and no one tried to de-antler Bucky Buck, the team mascot. It’s the little things that keep a minor league baseball owner happy.
OK, let’s clear this up first. You can’t technically call Jack the owner this year, even though he pays the bills and does everything around the stadium but park cars. Jack also is president of the Northwest League and is trying to avoid a conflict of interest. So he has signed over title to his wife, Mary. The Cains have owned the Bucks since 1981 and run the operation with a combination of elbow grease and offsprings.
This is as Mom and Pop as it gets these days among minor leagues teams, which, like almost everything else, are being gobbled up by multi-partner corporate ownerships.
The Bucks were the Philadelphia Phillies’ Class-A affiliate until 1986, when they pulled out and left one Buck out of luck. Don’t get Jack started about the Phillies. He likens the parting to a divorce. If they wanted to move their farm team east to be closer to home, fine. But he’d rather not talk about it, even though it forced the Bucks to play as an independent in 1987, which meant combing the countryside for players to fill the roster. You
ever try combing for a baseball team?
Thankfully, the Bucks latched onto the Angels last season, and now all is well. They provide the players, God provides the weather and Jack Cain provides the entertainment.
It’s 9:51 p.m., Sunday, June 18, and a weary Jack Cain couldn’t walk another step. He smiles and reaches for a piece of cold pizza.
“It was the smoothest opener we’ve ever had,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. Our first opening day we ran out of beer in the third inning. You learn from your mistakes.”
The Bucks, by the way, were clobbered, 11-4, by the South Oregon Athletics, but winning is secondary when rosters turn over faster than fast-food employees and you have no control over personnel. The crowd was a clean 2,029, meaning it wasn’t padded by some nutty promotion like Luggage Night, where everyone brings a packed suitcase to the game hoping to win a trip to, say, Las Vegas. The catch is having to leave directly from the game.
Which leads to another one of Jack Cain’s biggest problems--keeping people in town. Bend is gorgeous enough, nestled in the central Oregon high desert and surrounded by deep-blue skies and snow-capped mountains. But in baseball terms, Bend is the end. You approach it with the same attitude as you would robbing a liquor store--hit quick and get out fast.
The four returning players from last year’s team don’t want to be here. It’s like being held back a year in grammar school. Everyone’s looking to get out. Bob Hards, the team’s general manager and play-by-play announcer, wants to be Vin Scully. Don Long, the Bucks’ 27-year-old manager, wants to be Doug Rader. Even Bucky Buck is tired of doing pratfalls and waiting for the echo off Mt. Bachelor. His question: If a mascot falls in the middle of the forest, does anyone hear it? Bucky Buck’s goal is to be the next San Diego Chicken. Really.
An open diary of opening day:
2 p.m.--It’s four hours before game time and Jack Cain already is wilting under the Oregon sun. “Something will go wrong today,” he says assuredly. “You always panic. I have a phobia about forgetting to put the flag up.”
The key is damage control. The Bucks are already on the field when a player wanting to stretch his calves presses both hands against a freshly painted advertisement on the right-field fence. Cain smiles. There are easier ways to make a living. Cain was a 35-year-old gas station owner in 1981 when he and Mary put down their life savings, $63,000, to purchase the Bend Bucks. Cain had played some football at Pacific University outside Portland before tearing up a knee and never quite kicked his addiction to sports.
“It was my midlife crisis,” he said of the purchase. “Some guys buy Porsches or chase fast women. I bought a team. I knew I was never going to be rich, so why not have fun?”
Cain says he has had offers of $400,000 for the Bucks, but he’s not selling as long as he can keep squeezing a $40,000 profit out of the team each season. It’s a tough 40 grand. The Angels pay the player salaries--$850 per month--and help out with some expenses. Cain pays motel costs for 18 of his team’s 29 players and the Angels make up the difference. The Cains rely heavily on gate receipts, which is why packing Vince Genna Stadium--capacity 2,250--is so important. The Bucks play a 72-game season with 38 home dates. They drew 43,587 fans last season despite the team’s 38-38 record. It was a good year.
2:15--Bad news on the doorstep. Tonight’s opponent, the Southern Oregon A’s, are stranded 20 miles outside of Bend after their bus broke down. Bob Cain, Jack’s 21-year-old son and jack-of-all-trades, will keep him posted. It’s always something.
2:45--Angels owner Gene Autry’s voice-- I’m back in the saddle again --booms over the loud speakers during an early-afternoon sound check. It’s about as close as the Bend Bucks get to Anaheim. Autry doesn’t get to Oregon much. “I’ve never met him,” Cain said.
3:15--An anxious Cain is about to call down to Medford to see what’s keeping the A’s when he gets word from Bob that the bus has been repaired and the A’s are on their way. Cain sighs with relief. An opener with two teams is always so much easier.
3:30--Bob Hards, play-by-play man and general manager, is panicked. He thinks he has left his game notes back in Medford, where the Bucks opened the season two nights before. He hits the airways on KBND in less than three hours.
“How embarrassing,” Hards says. “I’ll just have to sound like an idiot tonight.”
Hards is 38 and embarking on a new career after seven years as a drummer in a traveling Top 40 lounge band.
“We did Holiday Inns coast to coast,” he said. “The band thing had run its course. This is a stable job compared to music.”
Hards’ first love has always been broadcasting, and now he’s lucked into the job as Voice of the Bend Bucks. As general manager, he’s also responsible for selling radio and print sponsorship, but that’s just grunt work until air time.
“This is heaven every night in the summer,” Hards says as he continues a frantic search for his notes.
Hards says he’ll ship out his play-by-play tapes after this season and hope for the best.
“I’ll try to move up after this year,” he says. “Everyone in this business wants to be the next Vinny. My goal is to be that good. I’d like to be offered a major league job, but if I don’t end up in Dodger Stadium, I will not be broken-hearted.”
He will be if he doesn’t find those notes.
3:45--Justin Martin is a pitcher and one of four returning Bucks from last year’s squad. Don’t say it too loud. His right arm is wrapped in ice as he tries to reduce the swelling from his Friday night start, in which he took the loss after being held to a 60-pitch limit.
Martin had been throwing for Quad Cities before getting pulled from the rotation. Now he’s back in Bend.
“I’m only 19, so it’s better for me to be back,” he says. “I don’t want to be back, but I think it’s to my benefit.”
Martin was a 34th-round draft choice out of McKay High School in Salem, Ore., but opted to pitch a year at Mt. Hood Community College instead.
He signed with the Angels this month, the night before the major league draft in fact. The contract was signed between bites at a local Dennys, which is fitting because he’s eating there so often these days. So what does a young Buck do on 11 bucks a day?
“You eat only twice,” Martin explains. “The night before I pitch, I use my own money and go to a nice pasta place to get protein. On eight-day trips, you can buy one of those $1.25 coolers and pack baloney sandwiches.”
Martin is giving himself until age 25 to make the majors. He received a $17,500 signing bonus from the Angels plus another $12,000 for college after his playing days are over. He’s been timed in the 90s on the radar gun. Martin thinks he has a chance.
“You’ve got to think you’re the one,” he says.
4 p.m.--"Something’s got to go wrong,” Jack Cain says as he passes by in a huff. “But at least I got the flag up.”
4:20--First player: “You’re DHing tonight, right? Can I borrow your cup? I left mine at home.”
Second player: “My cap or my cup?”
First player: “Your cup.”
Second player: “Oh, sure.”
4:30--Manager Don Long, who had been drilling his team in fundamentals since 2 p.m., finally takes a break. The chances of anyone making it out of here to the big leagues are slim, but Long never lets on. What if someone set the odds of his ever managing in the majors? Fact: Only 12 of the 300 or so players who have passed through here in the last decade have played in the majors. The most famous Buck graduates are Juan Samuel, recently traded from the Phillies to the Mets, and Rick Schu of the Detroit Tigers.
Long makes this much clear: He doesn’t cater to prospects.
“As long as a guy is playing for me, I don’t care how good or bad he is,” Long says. “I’ve seen coaches hang their hats on certain players and then when he makes it they say, ‘I made him.’ That’s bull. I’d rather work with 25 guys who are treated fairly.”
And who is Long to play God?
“You don’t have the right to do that,” he says. “You work under the assumption all will make it. If you don’t, it affects the way you work with them.”
Making it to the majors comes down to hard work and breaks, he says. Long got his as a manager after his minor league playing career fizzled in 1985. He coached a year at Seattle University and then served an internship with the Everett (Wash.) Giants, which were run by Bob Bavasi, brother of Bill, the Angels’ director of minor league operations.
At Everett, Long served as groundskeeper, traveling secretary and statistician. He also served coffee, helped build a scoreboard and called in scores to the local papers.
With a kind word from Bavasi, Long landed a coaching position with the Angels’ affiliate in Palm Springs.
He begins his second season as manager in Bend.
And one more thing: He didn’t care much for the movie “Bull Durham.”
“I didn’t like the manager in the movie,” Long says. “He was portrayed as a guy who didn’t do a whole lot. If my guy was on the top of a dryer (with a girl) when I walked in, he’d be done.”
4:45--Bob Hards finds his game notes!
5 p.m.--It’s an hour before game time and all hell has broken loose, just as Jack Cain promised. The three-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle Bucky Buck uses to entertain the crowd between innings won’t start. Bucky is more popular than any player (he comes back every year) and the prospect of a game without Bucky doing wheelies in the outfield is chilling.
How big is Bucky? Last year, three Bend-area children dressed up as Bucky Buck for Halloween. Kids follow him around the stands as if he were the Pied Piper. Bucky signs more autographs than any player.
Who is Bucky? It’s a closely guarded secret in Bend. Bucky doesn’t want his identity known, especially by children or his mother. He’s afraid it will ruin the fantasy.
Bucky usually sneaks in a back entrance to the stadium shortly before game time and dresses in an adjoining house.
There, Bucky puts on his furry suit and antlers. Bucky’s head reminds you of something that might hang over the fireplace at an Elks Lodge.
Before he dresses on Sunday, Bucky Buck is cornered for a rare interview. He’s actually Curt Winchell, a 26-year-old substitute school teacher in Bend. Now you know why he doesn’t want the kids to know. Can you imagine a child’s horror knowing he has been assigned math homework by Bucky Buck?
Let’s also get this straight: Bucky is a clean act.
“I don’t do anything rude or crude,” Bucky says. “Well, I lift my leg and honk a horn.”
Bucky’s is not an easy job. Last year, stealing a scene from the just-released movie Bull Durham, an Everett pitcher buzzed Bucky’s head with a fastball while warming up between innings.
“I was 20 feet from the mound,” Bucky recalled. “But even if it hit me in the head, I wouldn’t feel a thing.”
The Bucks considered the knockdown pitch intentional, and Long assured that if the Everett Giants ever got their own mascot, retaliation would be in order.
Undaunted, Bucky Buck yucks on. He’s going to send his tapes out soon, too.
“The Chicken is my idol,” he says. “I’d like to make it to the bigs someday. I know it’s not something you can go to school for, but I can be anything I want under that thing.”
But tonight the three-wheeler won’t start. Bucky Buck might have to wing it.
5:07--Jack Cain begins greeting fans at the gate. Meanwhile, an ice freezer breaks down in one of the concessions stands. Cain orders his son Bob to the store for dry ice. Fifty-three minutes until game time.
6 p.m.--Showtime. Bucky Buck, having borrowed a smaller three-wheeler, bursts from the right-field corner to a standing ovation. He rides an extended wheelie and nearly catches an antler in the right-field wall.
One of the characters from Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler commercial fame tosses out the first ball, though we never find out whether he’s Bartles or Jaymes.
6:17--Bucks shortstop Brian Specyalski gets the first hit of the home season, a broken-bat single to left.
7:30--The Bucks blow a 3-1 lead as the Southern Oregon A’s roll out six runs in the fifth inning, ignited by a key Bend error on a possible double-play ball that could have ended the inning. So what time do the Bucks take the field for fundamentals tomorrow?
The saddest moment of the inning was the relief appearance by Paul Swingle, who threw 12 consecutive balls before being removed. The Bend crowd is loyal, but not necessarily kind. “Put Bucky in to pitch!” one fan shouted.
7:45--The A’s score three more runs in the sixth and the rout is on. The only blessing is that the game is almost impossible to see with the sun setting over the left-field fence. Jack Cain admits Vince Genna Stadium was laid out incorrectly, but you do with what you have. He used to start the games at 7:30 until he realized that no matter what the score, everyone left at 10 p.m.
Cain had ordered a sunscreen material to be wrapped around the fence behind home plate, but the lady in charge of delivery left the office early on Friday and never placed the order.
Bob Hards has considerable trouble identifying players for his live radio broadcast.
8:15--Bear Bangs, the 14-year-old kid who dragged the infield before the game, has changed hats and shirts and now tries to sell bags of peanuts. He makes 20% commission and guesses he’ll rake in $20 bucks for the day.
“It’s just something to put on my resume,” Bangs said.
And yes, his first name is really Bear.
8:45--It’s early in the season and Hards, game notes and all, still doesn’t have a lot of information on opponents.
“Here’s number 40 for the A’s. We don’t know very much about him. We know he’s a left - handed hitter . . . “
Did Vin Scully have days like this?
9:07--Tom Rudstrom grounds to second to end the game. The Bucks lose, 11-4, committing four errors.
9:30--Pitcher Wayne Helm, from Laguna Hills High School and Pepperdine, sits in an empty Bucks dugout and watches Bear Bangs drag the infield.
Anaheim seems like a million miles away.
“Yeah,” Helm says, “it does. But they told me (Angel pitcher Chuck) Finley only played one year of A ball. And (Jim) Abbott never played in the minors. I hope to be in double A next year.”
Bend isn’t such a bad place, really. But Helm is getting married in November and misses his fiancee, Eve Carr.
“It was a big adjustment,” he says of leaving home and his girl behind. “We should be together all the time. But this is the future and we just said let’s make the most of it.”
Time to grow up.
“I’m a California boy,” Helm says, “I miss home, but it’s always good to have an experience like this. I thought it would be a drag, all the cruddy motels and holes. But it’s been nice.”
Helm isn’t much for looking at the odds, either.
“It’s the chance you take,” he says. “I believe I can make it. I’m not going to give up. Sometimes it gets depressing, but you can’t play that (mind) thing that you’re not going to make it.”
9:45--Bucky Buck takes off his deer head. He’s lost 10 pounds in perspiration. Who said show biz was easy?
10 p.m.--Jack Cain is exhausted, but it’s a good kind of tired. He’ll be here a while, too. Someone has to turn out the lights.
ON THE ROAD TO ANAHEIM
Team: Bend Bucks
Classification: Short-season Class A
Manager: Don Long
1988 Record: 38-38 (Tied for 3rd place, Southern Division)
Stadium: Vince Genna Stadium
Capacity: 2,250 (1988 average attendance--1,125 for 38 dates)
Bend, Ore: Population 17,000; resort, retirement community; elevation 3,600 feet.