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Major Dreams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One out. That’s what Wally Ritchie’s livelihood may come down to. The ability to get one hitter out in a baseball game.

That’s why Ritchie is in Mission Viejo, playing minor league baseball and commuting daily from his parents’ home in Glendale.

For Ritchie, a 32-year-old left-handed pitcher with faint but fond memories of his days in the majors, it’s the Last Chance League.

“Anybody can have a legitimate dream,” Ritchie said, “but whether it’s realistic or not is another thing.”

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In baseball’s lexicon, the major leagues are “The Show” and the minors are “down on the farm.” The Mission Viejo Vigilantes, whose travels will snake through such places as Grays Harbor, Wash., and Bend, Ore., are tending to the Back 40. They will host Chico at tonight’s season opener.

If the Western Baseball League gives Ritchie and his teammates hope for a return to the big leagues, it also provides an opportunity for those who can’t get there to remain close to the game. That’s why players put up with franchise movement, crowded motel rooms and bus rides that are about as appealing as a mouthful of chewing tobacco.

The average player salary is $1,000 a month over a 3 1/2-month season. The minimum is $600--less than major leaguers receive to spend on food when they’re on the road for a 10-day trip--and none of the Vigilantes make more than $1,500.

But Steve Ceterko, a pitcher from New Jersey who is a part-time model, part-time supervisor for a shipping company, said he’s here for the prospect of big-league money. He clings to the same hope as his Vigilante teammates: that his performance will be rewarded with a role in the majors.

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But there’s another pull. Simply put, they’re afflicted with baseball and aren’t interested in a cure.

Players in the Western League typically are injured or injury-prone and trying to get back into shape, were caught in baseball’s numbers game, or have no chance at reaching the big leagues.

Josh Gingrich, 25, not only pitches baseballs, but also vegetables to restaurants for a local produce distributor. He played football and baseball at Edison High in Huntington Beach, graduated in 1991, and paid his own way to compete in the Atlantic Coast League two years ago. His team folded after one month.

“It’s the best summer job you can have,” Gingrich said. “I think guys in the big leagues are the luckiest guys in the world. I love the camaraderie. I’d hate to have not done it. The stories you gather. . . . To me, baseball is a privilege.”

Carlos Castillo, 27, feels the same way. A pitcher at Loara High in Anaheim who was drafted by the Dodgers out of Cypress College in 1991, he paid for cutting-edge laser surgery to repair a protruding shoulder. He has played for five organizations in seven years.

“Those five who released me are just five opinions,” said Castillo, who was released this week because he still isn’t able to throw but who will be signed by the Vigilantes when he is fit. “There are 25 others out there. I haven’t had a bad year my whole career.”

So, what’s the problem?

“Wrong place, wrong time,” he said.

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Every player has a story.

Kirk Irvine insists on telling people he is 6 feet tall, but he’s really 5-11. He was drafted in 1995 out of Rancho Santiago College in the 45th round. Instead, he went to Cal State Fullerton and was drafted the next season in the 46th round. Both times he was coming off years in which he won 12 games and lost only three.

“I’ve experienced a lot of discrimination because of my size,” Irvine said. “If I’m 6 feet, I only have to throw 88, 89 mph. If I’m 5-11, I have to throw 93 or 94.”

So instead of returning to the Titans, he went pro.

“I felt I was getting no respect and it was time to prove myself in the minor league system,” said Irvine, who also works in a sporting goods store. “I could’ve gone back to college, but who knows if I’d have been drafted again?”

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Who knows? That’s what Dwain Bostic wants to find out. Bostic, a second-round draft choice by the Dodgers, has been a copier repairman. Randy Curtis is an instructor at a baseball school and a nutrition entrepreneur. Willie Mosher is a general contractor in St. George, Utah. Orange’s Alan Burke dabbles in insurance.

Many have bosses who understand the dream and the chance. They cut back hours, make adjustments, just to fit in the game over the most important 3 1/2 months of the year.

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Manager Buck Rodgers, who played eight seasons in the majors and managed 14, including four with the Angels, says the league “is made up of role players.”

So are some of his coaches.

Duke Pullman, a Seal Beach trouble-shooter/repairman for AT&T;, uses his vacation time so he can be the team’s bullpen catcher. Out of the playoff hunt, the Vigilantes signed Pullman to a one-day contract last year and let him make his professional debut in the last game of the season. He started the second game of a doubleheader, singled in his second at-bat and was taken out of the game to a standing ovation.

Pullman, back this season, is 47.

Jim Dixon, an assistant coach, is a detective with the San Diego Police Department.

“I can do that another eight years,” Dixon said, “and I can retire and do this full-time. Even if they didn’t pay me, I’d do this for free.”

That’s how strong a grip the game has on the people here.

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The Vigilantes, who play their home games at Saddleback College, are owned by P&P; Sports Enterprises, with president Pat Elster and general manager Paula Pyers serving as managing partners. There are 14 silent partners, including actresses Heather Locklear and Susan Anton, and Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, who is Locklear’s husband.

“My personal goal is to be in Mission Viejo the next 25 years and make this project work,” Elster, 40, said. “I’m a single dad with two sons at Capistrano Valley High, and my goal is to carve out a good living for them here in Mission Viejo. It’s no more ambitious than that. I don’t want to be in the big leagues. I want to be here.”

The Western League has no affiliation with major league teams. As such, its teams are responsible for supporting themselves without the benefit of major league dollars during the regular season, which runs through Sept. 2.

Here, light years away from Edison Field and the Angels, the bottom line is thin and profitability has a real impact. Money actually means something. The Vigilantes used to be the Long Beach Riptide. The Pacific Suns in Oxnard used to be in Palm Springs.

“For all intents and purposes, we’ve yet to make a profit,” Elster said. “We’re not projecting a profit this year because we’re still in a temporary ballpark. But you can’t go back to your shareholders and say, ‘Guess what, I need a half-million dollars to run the team this season.’ We have an obligation to those people.”

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Ritchie is the Vigilantes’ oldest player, an old dog learning new tricks--a split-finger fastball and a sidearm delivery.

He pitched in Salinas last year to get back into playing shape after a 1 1/2-year layoff. He admits if he has another year like the last one (9-5, 4.56 earned-run average), his playing career is over.

He has spent parts of four major league seasons in the big leagues pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, the last time in 1992. He did pretty well as a big leaguer, allowing an average of 3.14 earned runs per nine innings over a 177 2/3-inning career.

He played for five organizations over the next three seasons, and finally left baseball after being asked to be a replacement player by the Pittsburgh Pirates during the strike of 1995. “I wasn’t enjoying it,” Ritchie said.

He worked in construction and civil engineering. He was a dad to his newborn daughter, Megan, and lived--dare we say--a normal life for that year and a half.

But as long as there was a possibility he could return to the big leagues, he had to give it another shot. Left-handed pitchers, even those on the downside of their prime athletic years, are a premium commodity.

“If I was a right-handed starter who threw 84 mph, it would be a different story,” Ritchie said. “I’m 32, but being left-handed and getting people out, it does give me another chance. That’s one of the reasons we decided to come back. Before I got past the point where I could come back, we thought we’d better go ahead and try.”

He doesn’t want to go through life kicking himself and asking, “What if?” No one on this team does.

So this season awaits him. One out at a time.

* SEASON PREVIEW: Changes abound as the Vigilantes begin their second season in Mission Viejo. C12


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