My girlfriend bought me a book the other day, an awesome book that I’ve seen for years, but I’d never actually pulled the trigger on buying. It’s called Rebel Baseball, by Steve Perlstein. Rebel Baseball chronicles the independent Northern League during the 1993 season, their inaugural campaign. Among the players in the league at this time were former and future MLB stars Rey Ordonez, Pedro Guerrero, Leon ‘Bull” Durham, Kevin Millar along with other notable names (to nerds like myself) like Jeff Bittinger, Kash Beauchamp. Linc Mikkelsen. Mick Billmeyer, Jim Eppard. and Rodney McCray. The players and people that independent leagues employ have always facinated me, even before I was one of them.
My first job in professional baseball was as bat boy for the Mobile BaySharks of the independent Texas-Louisiana League during the ’95 season, their second year of operation. The Texas-Louisiana League eventually became the Central League, and some of their teams eventually moved on to play in the United League, American Association, and Northern League after the Central League dissolved. The BaySharks played at Stanky Field, the home of the University of South Alabama Jaguars. Our clubhouse was a single-wide trailer down the left field line. There were three little shower stalls that also comprised the training room, about fifteen lockers, and a manager’s office, but all things considered, the team and the league were a legit operation.
Former Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson was the manager of the BaySharks, former MLBers Neil Allen and Jamie Nelson were the pitching and hitting coaches, repectively. The league hired some big names as managers for the league to give it credibility and visibility. Besides Butch, former Cubs manager Jim Essian, and former all-stars Jose Cruz Sr. and Alan Ashby, also ran teams. Each team had a handful of former big leaguers as players too. Eric Yelding, Mike Felder, Russ Swan, and Don Carmen were among the guys trying to get back to The Show.
All indy leagues, including the TLL and the Northern League, as written in Rebel Baseball, have struggles. Big names on the field aren’t often enough to ensure the survival of a team or league. The Laredo and Pueblo franchises folded midway through the season due to financial difficulties. The players from those teams were either dispersed among the league, or out of work. The league wasn’t very geographically friendly. How long would a bus ride from Mobile, AL to Harligen, TX be? It had to be at least ten hours. Probably not on a bus as nice as the buses in affiliated ball, either. Each team in indy leagues are responsible for paying the players on their team, as opposed to affiliated teams, where the parent club picks up the tab.
Our team had it’s bush league moments. Mobile had a midday thunderstorm on a particular game day, the sky cleared up by game time, but the field was a little mushy. Our “Star Spangled Banner” performer for the night was a high school kid that was going to do a Hendrix-esqe rendition of our national anthem. The dude set his amp down in the mud behind home plate, played one note, blew the power to the whole ballpark, and cancelled out game! Water and electricity don’t mix, kids!
One of the other unbelievable moments of the season was a fight in the clubhouse. Apparently, one of our players had a ‘problem’ and decided the solution was to steal money out of another player’s locker during a game. Apparently somebody walked in on the job, he got busted, a fight insued, and the theif was released from his contract. Theft in a clubhouse is something that IS NOT tolerated in baseball. Every person has cash, valuables, and expensive equipment in their lockers…… sorry, I’ve gone off on a tangent.
The ‘Sharks didn’t play to well on the field, we finished 40-59 that year, but 3rd in attendance. The birth of the Mobile BayBears and Hank Aaron Stadium was announced during that summer. The BayBears wouldn’t actually begin play until ’97, but the league didn’t want to run a lame duck franchise in ’96. The BaySharks existed for only two seasons, and I was there.
That summer was one of the best summers of my life. The team had four bat boys, two of which would work each home game. I had days off, but I think I only missed one game all season, and that was because I had foot surgery. If I wasn’t scheduled to work, I was picking up a shift from another guy, or watching the game from the stands. “Bat Boy” on my resume was surely what got me into clubhouse management.
Appendix: Notable Mobile BaySharks Players, 1995
Tim Becker (IN) – U of South Alabama alum made it as high as AAA with the Yankees. Now head baseball coach at St. Luke’s School in Mobile.
Don Carmen (P) – Pitched 349 games with the Phillies, Reds, and Rangers in the big leagues.
Rex Gonzalez (OF) – U of South Alabama alum and brother of MLBer and fellow U of South Alabama alum Luis Gonzalez. Later coached and managed in the Western League.
Kelly Mann (C) – Previously played in 18 games in the majors with the Atlanta Braves.
Tommy Parks (P) – Would later be a punter in the NFL, he five punts for the New York Jets in one game in 2001. He made headlines later that year when it became apparent he had lied about his age and background in order sign with the Jets. He claimed to have played six years of pro baseball and to have reached AAA. He also embellished his college football experience, and had taken five years off his age. He has a lifetime punt average of 47.7 yards, five yards longer than Ray Guy, who is widely accepted as the best punter in NFL history.
Kinnis Pledger (OF) – Former White Sox farmhand would later sign with the Cubs and reach AAA. Also would play in Mariners, Yankees, Royals, and Rockies organizations. Now a real estate agent in Tampa-St. Pete.
Mike Porzio (P) – Pitched in the Cubs organization in 1993 and ’94 before going to indy ball until 1997. Signed with the Rockies organization in 1998 and was promoted to the big leagues in 1999. He also pitched for th Chicago White Sox in 2002 and 2003. In all, went on to pitch in 51 games at the Major League level. He’s lone former BayShark who would advance to MLB.
Andy Skeels (C), Mark Skeels (3B-C), David Skeels (C’s) – All three are brothers. David would later play in Mariners and A’s organizations. Mark was a former Marlin farmhand. Would go to law school, be a prosecuter and law proffesor, and is now General Manager of the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League. Andy had played in the Padres and Yankees organizations, reaching as high as AAA with the Yanks. He is now the manager of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, AA affiliate of the S.F. Giants. He was also, later, my manager when I was clubhouse manager of the Augusta GreenJackets in 2008, thirteen years later. Small world.
Lance Ward (OF) – U of South Alabama alum and brother of former MLBer Turner Ward.