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MAJOR CHANGES IN THE MINORS : Never a Dull Moment on Baseball’s Newest Frontier

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Step aside, Tim Fortugno.

For years, the Cincinnati Reds’ reliever has lived with the ignominious fact that as a minor leaguer he was traded for a gross of baseballs.

At long last, Fortugno may live it down. Dave Maloney, general manager of the independent Beaumont, Tex., Bullfrogs of the first-year Texas-Louisiana League, last month traded three-dozen baseballs and a 35-inch bat for a pitcher.

This undoubtedly qualifies as wondrous news for Fortugno and Maloney, but not necessarily for Zack Raney of San Francisco, the pitching chattel in question.

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"(Raney) had the 10th-lowest earned-run average in the league,” Maloney said, gloating openly. “It was a great trade.”

Wheel and deal, scratch and claw. Independent teams like the Bullfrogs, seeking a place in the minor-league milieu, are doing whatever it takes and then some to remain afloat.

Operating without funding from major league organizations, independents are breaking out the bells and whistles in an effort to fill the stands. In many regions, legions of fans are turning out to view the offbeat, novel product.

For independent players, the leagues mean, well. . . .

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“Never a dull moment,” said Pete Kuld, a Chatsworth High graduate who plays in the independent Northern League.

Independents are an amalgamation, a hybrid. The Valley region could soon join the independent fray if the proposed Golden State League, which hopes to place a team in the Antelope Valley, comes to fruition next summer as organizers plan. According to reports, as many as nine independent leagues may be operational by 1995.

Nine leagues staffed by players with nine lives. Independent players, often as not, are hoping for one last shot at climbing an organizational tree. It begins in the independent bushes, where for many, it will end.

Kuld is an independent graybeard at age 28. But experience must count for something, right?

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A catcher for the Thunder Bay, Ont., Whiskey Jacks, Kuld has walloped 26 homers to obliterate the league record of 17 set in 1970, during the league’s first incarnation. In fact, he has broken the minor-league short-season record and still has one game remaining.

As much as any player, he personifies what the independent Northern League is all about: Reclamation and rejuvenation.

Generally, fans buying tickets to see a minor-league affiliate are watching players on the ascent. The majority of those in the independent ranks have been jettisoned or bypassed because they didn’t make an affiliated team’s organizational grade.

Kuld played in four organizations and reached double-A with San Diego, Oakland and Texas. Yet he never played in more than 75 games in a season.

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“I felt I was never given a real opportunity in minor-league ball,” he said. “I’m wearing this uniform because I still want to play in the major leagues.”

In 1992, Kuld hit .228 for the Texas Rangers’ double-A affiliate in Tulsa and was released on April 1, 1993.

When he signed with Cleveland in 1987 after his junior season at Pepperdine, Kuld gave himself five years to make it to the majors. The itinerary has been severely modified. The ticket to the bigs is now open-ended.

“If I can put this uniform on every day, I’ll keep running around until they say I can’t play anymore or my body breaks down,” he said.

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A break of a different sort would be welcome news. Independent players hope to be spotted by a big league organization, which sometimes will purchase the player’s contract and breathe new life into an inert career.

Kuld has heard whispers that scouts from a couple of organizations, in dire need of help behind the plate, might be interested in his services. Nothing concrete, though.

Other career paths end here. Former Dodger Pedro Guerrero, who plays for the Northern’s Sioux Falls (S.D.) Canaries, also wants to be picked up by a big league club. The free-spending Guerrero, who pays for his own plane tickets in lieu of taking the team bus, said he might be the only guy in pro ball who’s paying for the privilege of playing.

Not necessarily. Northern League players earn an average monthly salary of $1,000, which doesn’t go far, even in the Dakotas.

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“By the time you pay rent, food and all the things you need to survive, we’re all paying to play,” Kuld said.

Kuld isn’t the only area player who is making noise in a last-ditch effort to catch on. Mike Hankins, a Simi Valley High graduate, is playing at one of the northernmost pro outposts on the continent--Winnipeg, Ont.

His batting average is among the northernmost, too. Hankins, an infielder for the Winnipeg Goldeyes who played triple-A ball for the New York Yankees, led the Northern League in hitting for much of the summer. Hankins is batting .326, third-best in the league.

Kevin Farlow’s playing career began with a bang when he was chosen City Section 4-A Division player of the year as a sophomore at Kennedy High in 1985. Farlow, 25, a shortstop who played in the San Diego farm system, is in his second season at Sioux City of the Northern and is batting .276 with eight homers.

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“You have rookies who didn’t get picked in the draft and they’re hungry,” said Farlow, a member of Cal State Fullerton’s 1990 College World Series team. “Then you have guys like me, who had our taste of organized ball.

“We’re just out here to have fun and win a championship. We’re here because we love the game.”

Steve Morales, 23, was one of the unwanted. Morales, a right-handed pitcher from Cal State Northridge, missed his senior year because of elbow problems in ’93. Scouts were predictably disinterested.

Morales (2-1, 3.72) plays for St. Paul of the Northern League. Former Northridge teammate Greg Shockey, released by the Minnesota Twins, is batting .316 for Duluth-Superior of the Northern. Duluth-Superior’s Mark Skeels, a catcher from Thousand Oaks, is batting .210.

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Whle the independent ranks often represent the last outpost of baseball opportunity, there are reasons for optimism.

Infielder David Waco, a Chatsworth High graduate who played at UC Santa Barbara, is one of approximately 40 players who have used the Northern League as a stepping stone to affiliated baseball. Waco, 24, played alongside Guerrero last summer at Sioux Falls before he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the spring.

Waco, for one, thinks the Northern compares favorably with affiliated Class-A leagues, including the South Atlantic, where Waco started the 1994 season.

“I thought it was terrific,” Waco said of his Northern experience. “The ballparks were great, the competition was good and so were the fans. I had a blast.”

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He hit a few blasts, too, a storied part of Waco’s wild independent ride. Sioux Falls staged a promotion last year in which a grand slam hit during a predetermined inning meant a new car for a lucky fan. Waco came to bat with the bases loaded in the long-ball inning and turned to Guerrero, who was on deck.

“I’m going deep,” Waco said.

He did, but the guy who won the $15,000 car didn’t exactly dig deep to show his gratitude.

“He didn’t give me squat,” Waco groused. “The next day, he drove right by me. He practically ran over me.”

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Waco’s reward came later. He earns $1,200 a month at Class-A Clearwater, Fla., roughly twice his salary in the Northern, he said. He is batting .322 with 24 RBIs in 87 at-bats.

To say the least, independents are using every promotional trick in the book to put bodies in the stands. Former big-leaguers like Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Leon Durham and Guerrero dot Northern League rosters, but the real theatrics are saved for between innings.

The Northern’s franchise in St. Paul, which boasts comedian Bill Murray as a part-owner, has a trained pig that brings baseballs to home plate. And you thought Schottzie was a nuisance.

“It’s a pretty famous pig,” Kuld said, sarcastically. “It comes out and (messes up) the field and it’s really great.”

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Predictable fare from team President Mike Veeck, son of the late Bill Veeck, who staged a few promotional doozies in his time. At Sioux Falls, players throw balls at the headlights of an auto from 90 feet. If a player shatters a headlight, a fan wins cash.

The spotlight, obviously, is on entertainment--particularly since independents can trot out few legitimate big league prospects. So they dazzle ‘em with trinkets, baubles and atmosphere.

“At this level, it’s 90% promotion,” Maloney said.

Nothing beats the stunt pulled by the Sioux City Explorers of the independent North Central League, though.

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In mid-summer, CBS talk show host David Letterman sent one of his neighbors from New York City, Mujibur Rahman, on a tour across the heartland. Somehow, Letterman’s producers talked the Explorers into allowing Rahman to suit up.

He not only wore the uniform for one game, he was named starting pitcher, even though he’d never played ball in his life. Sioux City bullpen coaches gave him a crash course in pitching. When the starters trotted to their positions, Rahman, completely bewildered, ran to first base.

Redirected, he threw one pitch--to the backstop screen--and was mercifully relieved.

Maloney, who worked for the proposed Golden State League for six months before taking over Beaumont’s front office in June, pulled a headline-grabbing stunt last month. Maloney scattered 750 baseballs across the outfield before a game and lined up 250 fans on each foul line.

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Somewhere in the outfield grass was a ball autographed by Beaumont Manager Charley Kerfeld. The whistle blew and a frenetic free-for-all ensued. A 17-year-old boy who found the autographed ball received a half-carat diamond pendant. Nice haul.

“I think he gave it to his mom,” Maloney said.

Moms, dads, sons, daughters . . . and geezer relievers?

Former big league relief ace Juan Berenguer, 39, is player-coach for the Minneapolis Loons and leads the independent North Central League in saves with 20. Imagine Berenguer walking to the mound to make a pitching change--while wearing a mitt.

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It lends new meaning to the coaching phrase, “Gimme the ball.”

For Mike Teich, the credo was more like, “Give me a chance.” Teich took a flyer on a league that didn’t yet exist.

A left-handed pitcher, Teich was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization after 12 appearances in 1993, despite a respectable ERA of 3.50 and a 1-0 record. Late last spring, he got a call from Jason Felice, who like Teich attended El Camino Real High.

Felice was player-coach of a team in the first-year Great Central League, and he asked Teich to join. Teich agreed and became a member of the Regina Cyclones, one of two Canadian entries in the six-team Great Central, another independent league.

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Canada, eh? Truth be told, Teich wasn’t sure where he was going and couldn’t even recall the name of the league when first asked by his father. He didn’t know Saskatchewan from Sasquatch.

“I knew nothing about (the league),” Teich said. “A guy called, gave me the information, and I said, ‘Why not?’

“I went into it totally blind.”

He and his mates have opened some eyes in the league, which pays players around $1,000 a month, Teich said.

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Teich’s teammates at Regina include former Birmingham High standout Danny Larson and Master’s College pitcher Mike Smith.

Larson ranks second in the league in batting at .333 and Smith is second in victories with seven.

What’s more, Felice hit a pair of homers in the season opener and leads the circuit with 15. He may be the hottest hitter in pro ball. Over 29 games of the second half, he has 12 homers and 50 runs batted in.

Felice, 32, is leading the league in the triple-crown categories with six games left. His closest competition comes from teammate Dennis Hood, who is right on his tail in batting average.

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“Maybe I’ll bench him,” said Felice, who hopes to pursue a career as a manager. “I’ll rig it so I win.”

Nobody from Regina’s 22-man roster has been picked up by an affiliated club.

That’s OK with Teich, an assistant baseball coach at Agoura High who will continue working toward a degree at Cal State Northridge at season’s end. Unlike many in the independent ranks, he’s actually looking ahead.

“Most of the guys want to hook on, but I never really looked at it that way,” said Teich, who is 5-2 with an earned-run average of 3.81. “I was just looking for something fun for the summer.”

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Independent ball has been a hoot for players and fans alike in dozens of instances.

While the Northern has been the runaway winner in terms of notoriety and attendance, the eight-team Texas-Louisiana also has fared well.

The franchise in Mobile, Ala., has averaged a robust 3,105 and six of eight teams are averaging 1,400 or better nightly. Beaumont, the team Maloney was hired to resuscitate, is averaging 760.

Maybe it’s the heat. Beaumont is about 30 miles from the sweltering Gulf of Mexico. Such are the outposts of independent ball.

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“You know it’s humid when you step out of an air-conditioned car and your glasses fog up immediately,” said Maloney, who worked for the San Diego Padres for 21 years. “You know it’s humid when it’s 95 degrees and raining.”

The independent barometer fluctuates wildly in many respects. Some leagues aren’t exactly noted for their first-class accommodations.

The Ohio-based Frontier League, in its second year, evidently is as Spartan as the name implies.

Said former Frontiersman Travis Barbary, who now plays for an affiliated team: “In the Frontier we had to drive our own cars. You were supposed to get money for gas, but they gave us coupons for Hardee’s or something like it.” Road hotels, which included a fraternity house, were “horrible . . . just terrible.”

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All things considered, life in the wild Frontier still beat the alternative: A 9-to-5 job. Barbary’s independent brethren undoubtedly would concur.

“Things like that made everyone pull together,” Barbary said. “It was really, really fun. I had a great time.”


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