Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Prospects

Unless you were there, it didn’t matter.

The closest I ever came to earning a check in baseball was in the summer of 1981, the strike year, selling minor league baseball tickets over the phone for the International League, Triple- A Columbus (Ohio) Clippers. I was a boiler-room pitchman, reading from a script, cold-calling hundreds of businesses a day for some stupid, spurious “Business Night” promotion. Most weeks I made less than $100, a dispirited take that soon precipitated my move to Boston.

There was just one perk – free tickets.  No matter how many tickets I didn’t sell, I could still get two free box seats for every game, right behind the plate, where the scouts and player’s families, wives and girlfriends sat.  I managed to catch about 30 games  and due to the strike, the IL had a fair number of prospects as big league clubs stashed talent there that in any other year might have been playing in the big leagues – guys like Cal Ripken, Von Hayes, Brett Butler, and from Pawtucket, Marty Barrett, Wade Boggs (who won the batting title by less than a point), Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst and Bobby Ojeda (they still finished sixth, 67-73).

Although the Clippers had a few prospects on the roster – most notably slugging Brockton native Steve “Boom Boom” Balboni (“Bye Bye” when he struck out), SS Andre Robertson (who broke his neck in a car wreck and was never the same) and 20-year old pitcher Gene Nelsen, (later a valuable head –hunting reliever for Oakland) -- most of the roster was a bunch of “4-A” re-treads that couldn’t quite make it at the next level – Marshall Brant, “Uptown” Bobby Brown, Dave Stegman. For them, Columbus was more a destination than a stepping stone. The irony of the enormous graveyard just beyond Cooper Stadium’s right field fence wasn’t lost on anyone who played there.

The two guys I most remember were two of the oldest guys on the team, both of whom started out in the Red Sox organization. Wayne Harer, 29, was a slender, switch-hitting, walk machine of an outfielder with little power. In 1977, his first year at Pawtucket, he hit .350 with an OBP of. 451, leading the league in both categories, yet wasn’t called up to Boston. A year later, he hit just .247 and his career stopped one rung shy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. In 1981 for Columbus, he was just another .270 hitter with no pop, one year away from retirement.

The other guy was outfielder-DH Dave Coleman, 30, an 18th round pick by Boston in 1969. He had some right-handed power, an almost prospect who had the misfortune to reach Triple-A at the same time as Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.  With Yaz and Dewey already in place, he got  lost in the shuffle, the fifth or sixth best outfielder in an organization there the top four all had a shot at Cooperstown.  Nevertheless, he managed to make the team in 1977 and debuted on April 13, pinch-hitting for Denny Doyle and popping up to shortstop.  It didn’t get any better from there, and he was sent down after only nine games another 12 plate appearances, one walk, one run and one strikeout on his career line. Even though he twice hit more than 20 home runs in Triple-A, he never got another chance. He made the book, and saw Fenway up close, but his MLB batting average is forever .000.   

Columbus won the regular season and played Rochester in the first round of the “Governor’s Cup,” playoffs. The Clippers dropped the first two games of the best-of-five series to the Ripken-less Red Wings, then the series returned to Columbus and the Clippers evened it up. The game five would play winner would play  Richmond for the Cup. The loser would go home, and if that was Columbus, that meant Dave Coleman’s career would end.

Now, memory being what it is, what happened next gets a little murky – you can’t find everything on the Internet-- but I remember most of it. I do know game five went 10 innings, and because school was back in session, there were only a few hundred fans in the stands. I’m pretty sure Gene Nelsen pitched the whole game for Columbus. And with the Clippers batting in the bottom of the 10th, I think there were two runners on base, and one of them may have been Harer. The score was either tied 1-1 or the Clippers were down 1-0.  Then ready-to-retire Dave Coleman, he of the non-existent career major league batting average, came to the plate in what was conceivably the last at bat of his career, his Ted Williams moment.

I can see it still, a hard line drive soaring high over the shortstop’s head.

Then it all gets blurry. Did it split the outfielders, hit the wall, go over the fence?  Damned if I know.  I do remember runners racing toward home, players running from the dugout, all tumult and shouting… and then a celebration, guys who were never going to make the majors hugging guys who were going to, and somewhere in the middle – Dave Coleman, the hero of the moment, being pummeled and praised and lifted up. And then I saw Wayne Harer, another guy going nowhere, heading toward the stands, a bottle of cheap champagne in his hand, shaking it and spraying it over our heads, then taking a big swig, and passing it into the stands, erasing the line, celebrating that this season, and Coleman’s career, would last – what?  A few more days?  Just to play another game no one would ever remember, before a few hundred fans, for a trophy no one cared about?  

Yeah.  Exactly that.
from Boston Baseball July 2013

1 comment:

  1. Great story about long forgotten Dave Coleman. I've been searching for one of his game bats for many years. Thank you for sharing the triumphant end to his career.