Throughout the game, the St. Petersburg Pelicans dominated the luckless Winter Haven Super Sox. In the third inning, Cecil Cooper, who played first base with the Boston Red Sox from 1971 to 1976, swatted a line drive, only to see Pelican centre fielder Jerry Martin, who once played for the Philadelphia Phillies, make a dramatic, diving catch. Later in the same inning, the 1,428 fans at the game in Winter Haven’s 4,500-seat Chain O’Lakes Stadium watched as Pelican pitcher Gary Rajisch, who played for the Texas Rangers in 19791980, blasted a 380-foot home run into the right-field screen off Super Sox pitcher Jim Bibby, a onetime Pittsburgh Pirate. With the Pelicans winning 9-2, it was credible, but not brilliant, baseball. Remarkably, many of the players were men in their 40s. As well, many were former major-league players who returned to their field of dreams last week as the Florida-based Senior Professional Baseball
Association (SPBA) got off to a shaky start.
The brainchild of James Morley, a Colorado real estate developer who once played minorleague baseball in California, the SPBA is open to players 35 or older. (Catchers are eligible at 32 because that position is considered so taxing.) The league has attracted a large number of former baseball greats, including Vida Blue, the sensational Oakland Athletics pitcher of the 1970s, former Oakland Athletics shortstop Bert Campameris, Rollie Fingers, who pitched for Oakland from 1968 to 1976, ex-Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant and Paul Blair, the onetime great Baltimore Orioles outfielder. At 54, Pedro Ramos was believed to be the league’s oldest player. Between 1955 and 1970, Ramos pitched for the Washington Senators, the Minnesota Twins, the Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Senators. Now he is pitcher-coach for the Fort Myers Sun Sox.
The league—made up of the Pelicans, the
Super Sox, the Sun Sox, the Bradenton Explorers, the Orlando Juice, the St. Lucie Legends, the West Palm Beach Tropics and the Gold Coast Suns—will play 72 games in a short season that is scheduled to run from Nov. 1 to the end of January. Under an agreement with Denver-based Prime Network, 30 games a season will move on cable television to about 18 million U.S. homes.
The players have returned to the sport for a variety of reasons, including salaries that range from $2,000 to $15,000 a month. Although some of the younger players, including Sal Butera, a catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays during the 1988 season, hope to use the SPBA as a road back to the major leagues, older players seized the opportunity to make a comeback simply because they love the game. Said 40year-old Cooper: “I think it will be a lot more fun this time around. There won’t be as much pressure, but it will still be competitive.”
Despite the relatively advanced ages of the ball players, most arrived at training camps for the new league last month in surprisingly fit condition. Bill Lee, 42, a former pitcher for the Montreal Expos who now is player-manager for the Super Sox, said that his team’s twoweek training went smoothly. Said Lee: “A lot of guys came down in better shape than I figured.” As well, Lee said that his players had an advantage over some of the other teams in the league because 11 of the Super Sox’s players are former Boston Red Sox players. As a result, many of the Super Sox players are used to playing with each other. As well, Lee
has been joined by two other former Expos—outfielder Tony Scott, who played for Montreal from 1973 to 1975, and pitcher Bill Campbell, who played for Montreal in 1987.
The league came about as the result of a trip that Morley took to Australia earlier this year. A former outfielder for a San Francisco Giants farm team in Fresno, Calif.,
Morley, 33, who now lives in St.
Petersburg, Fla., read about the successful Senior Professional Golfers Association golf tour while sitting on a beach in Australia. It occurred to him that something similar could be done using baseball players who had passed their prime playing years. Morley subsequently mailed out letters explaining his idea to 1,250 former major-league players—and received 730 positive replies. Later,
Morley canvassed groups of private investors to create seven teams in Florida cities used for major-league spring training. Morley himself became president of the eighth team, the St. Petersburg Pelicans. Each franchise cost about $1 million. Said Morley: “In January it was just a dream. Now it’s a reality. A lot of people couldn’t believe we could do it this fast.”
Morley’s delight is clearly shared by many of
the other players. “I think the league will be outstanding,” said Bemie Carbo, a former Boston Red Sox outfielder and designated hitter who now plays for the Winter Haven Super Sox. “This is the best opportunity for us to play again, to have a second career.” As a measure of his commitment to the new league, Carbo,
42, sold his house in Michigan earlier this fall and bought a new one in central Florida the next day.
If the SPBA catches on with fans, its organizers hope to expand the league to include other Sunbelt states, including Arizona and California. To succeed, league officials say that games have to attract between 1,500 and 2,000 fans willing to pay between $6 and $11 for tickets. Still, attendance figures for the first two days of play held some surprises. Average attendance at the four opening-day games was just over 2,000. But the next day, attendance at four games dipped, to an average of just 639. Peter Lasser, the league’s executive vice-president, acknowledged that, with professional and college I football and basketball currently being carried on television, the I fledgling baseball league will face stiff competition. “But a baseball fan is a baseball fan,” said Lasser. “I feel baseball fans are dedicated enough to carry this league.” Still, that conviction may not be enough to ensure success if the calibre of play among the doughty boys of autumn is not good enough to fill the league’s sun-drenched ballparks.
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