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Old 03-25-2020, 06:33 PM   #801
Tib
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Chapter 56

The Bottom, The Top, and Everything In Between

At the end of June we were swept twice in a row by a Kansas City team last in the division and an Oakland Mammoths team coming off a hot 10-game stretch. I admit that when we took off for KC I was counting on taking a few from the Knights, even on the road. Kansas City was simply not a good team. Bobby Frisina was still the main attraction and primary offensive force of the Knights, but he did not have much support. Despite this, the Knights’ golden boy (now a veteran with a big contract and tons of local endorsements) roped two doubles and hit a two-run homer to drive in six runs in the three games. And if losing to my old team wasn’t punishment enough, game two was an 11-10 slugfest and the sweeper was a 12-5 drubbing. The next game at home against Oakland was a 20-6 embarrassment that started with a first-inning grand slam off Alfred Viola and didn’t get any better.

It was the last straw for Fontillion. Eric McKern was fired as pitching coach the next day, and everyone began counting the minutes until Mitchell went, too. We started July on a demoralizing 3-12 streak and faced a 47-34 Baltimore team who seemed only to be getting stronger. I had been playing through a strained arm ligament for a week, so I went day-to-day for this series and got to watch from the bench as Baltimore took game one with ease, 8-1.

Then things got interesting.

After the game, I saw Fontillion walking from the Baltimore locker room. Baltimore was well-known to make aggressive moves if they felt a championship was within reach, and everyone was very aware of the trade deadline coming in three weeks. Combine that with the slide we were on, and our payroll, and it didn’t take much to get a little paranoid. It turned out Fontillion hadn’t made any moves, but later that night Baltimore announced the acquisition of Rudy Galindo from Phoenix for four prospects. Galindo already had 8 wins, was healthy, and was the last guy UL East teams wanted to see in the Steamers’ rotation. At least we were going to be spared his next start, as he was traveling to meet the team on getaway day, which we lost, by the way, 8-3.

We had lost four in a row, including the humiliating home sweep, but imagine me saying the sweep wasn’t the worst news we had that night. After the press conference, we learned Fontillion was shopping Happy Parikh. The gloom at Cobblestones was palpable. The whole atmosphere seemed to turn bitter. I knew we needed pitching, and trading Happy was one way to get it, but I also knew we were going to struggle to score runs without his bat. I hoped we could keep him, but our team ERA was 5.68 and something inside said he was already gone.

I went 8 for 25 the week I returned, and was hitting a respectable .278, but it didn’t help. We went 5-4 as we marched toward the deadline. A glimmer of hope on the schedule, a three-game series against last-place Seattle, was squashed when we got swept again, at home. The Lumberjacks scored thirty runs, and the sweeper came on a combined 2-hitter. Since June 23rd we were 6-18, had been outscored 172-110, and had been swept by two last-place teams.

That was the bottom, one of the lowest bottoms I’d ever felt in baseball. It wasn’t the losing. I’d been on losing teams. It was the helplessness. The feeling that no one knew what to do to reverse the tide carrying us out to sea. I remember walking out to the Comanches jet for the flight to LA to play Joel and the Colts, taking the escalator up into the plane and hearing that Happy was gone – traded to Baltimore for ace Tim Clary and Glen Nusbaum, a prospect. It was like someone told us, “Hey, everybody, to keep from sinking we’ve thrown the engine overboard.”

Baltimore. Now I knew why Fontillion was coming out of the Steamers locker room that day. I also remember thinking that even Tim Clary might not be enough to overcome the loss of Happy’s presence and attitude. But Fontillion wasn’t done. After we got swept by Jukebox (.346) and the Admirals on the return homestand, he traded Tyrone Escalera for Cody Reimer. Escalera wasn’t pitching poorly (6-6, 4.78), but Reimer was pitching better, was a lefty, and had a 3.65 ERA.

Looking back now, these were improvements, no question. We had to stop hemorrhaging runs. But at the time it felt like desperation. Nothing against Clary and Reimer. Clary got along well with everyone, was a pro, and did his work; a good combination for a Chicago athlete. Reimer was solid as well. But I guess you could say the team made the tough choices and the future was looking up. The press liked the moves. The general mood in the clubhouse was optimistic, so I guess it did inject a little energy into our situation.

In early August we took our first three series. Our team ERA was dropping, we were scoring runs, and even though we got swept by Detroit, we also took a series from Happy and Baltimore at home. At 50-67 we were far from out of the woods, but things were better. Guys had new optimism, after-game dinners were more fun, even the press admitted we were playing like we should. I was still stressed. What else is new?

First of all, I was in a horrible slump; 2-18. I was walking a lot, so that saved me, but I couldn’t hit anything with anything. It was so bad I was surprised I could grab doorknobs on the first try. I finally broke through against Joel and the Colts (a series we swept on the road), but made two errors in the series, numbers 16 and 17.

To add to things, Gwen’s pregnancy was moving right along and I couldn’t be there for her because we were on the road most of September. She never complained, but it was tough to be away from her. In mid-September I was home for two key series against Boston and Dallas, and it was great to help get the nursery ready and just be home, but I hit another huge snag at the plate, 2-18 again, and my average dropped to .246. All I could think was: .246 ain’t worth the money they’re paying me.

But it wasn’t just me. The team was fighting injuries. Willie Aguila was out three weeks with a groin strain and a slew of arm problems hit our already stressed bullpen (24th in the league). On September 21st we were 15 games back and mathematically eliminated from the division title and even a playoff spot. I felt dismal. I couldn’t hardly taste food anymore. I couldn’t hardly eat food anymore. Then first-place Cleveland (already 86-65) came to town and swept us.

Then something happened to bring me back to the top. It wasn’t baseball, I can tell you that. We were eighteen games back, had one of the worst bullpens in the league, and the press had turned on us again, but something happened to help.

Von broke his hand in early September diving for a ball, so his season was all but over (.271/39/110). He was traveling with the team, though, and came over for dinner while they were in town to play us. That was nice. Gwen and Damon loved seeing him, (he brought Damon a Hammers cap, the bastard). It was nice to talk to him, hear what was going on in his life, hear him complain about getting no respect (in the top five on the MVP ballot again, but whatever). It felt like old times and it really settled me. But that wasn’t it.

I inked a new endorsement with Silver Slugger bats. Why bats, you ask? Good question. I was hovering at .248 at the time. But I think it was because Baseline Sports picked up Double Play, maker of the popular League Star glove line. I was using their V20 Munoz. They gave me a nice prototype of the Bruiser II, which definitely helped keep my horrible slump from getting any worse. I also had a minor procedure done on my knee which reduced the pain I was having. But that wasn’t it.

What was it, you ask? Oh, yeah. Gwen gave birth to our second child.

I was reading in my study before our game against the Rovers when Gwen started having contractions. She calmly walked into the doorway and stood there for a moment before asking if I could get the hospital bag. I said, “What for?”, like an idiot. She gave me that look. "What for?” she asked slowly. In no time we were in the car, Damon asking if we were going to the “baby place”. I called the team and told them what was going on and they scratched me from the game.

Soon enough we were at the hospital and Gwen was admitted. One of Gwen’s friends came over to wait with Damon while I went into the delivery room with Gwen. Let me tell you, miracles never get old.

Molly Driscoll was born at 6:49 PM on September 28th, 2012. She was wet, bald and pissed off. A family tradition, it seems. I stood at the nursery window talking to Von on the phone and watched her cry for five minutes straight.

“I can hear her through the damn phone,” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Takes after you,” Von said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Always complaining about something.”

I didn’t take any time off. Went right back to work. I was so pumped it felt like I was bursting. Went 10 for 21 the final week of the season to raise my average to .251. Yeah, I know. But it felt like victory. A little, teeny tiny victory.

We finished the season 74-88, only two games ahead of the last place Knights. We had some serious problems with our roster. Power was down. Runs scored was down. Bullpen ERA was way up. The press was merciless. The team was tight on money going into what was to be the most competitive free agent market in ten years. When it came to our chances in 2013, people began to use the snowball/Hell analogy.

But I didn’t care because my princess was finally here.


A day after the season ended Fontillion fired Stump Mitchell. Well, somebody had to pay for our mistakes. Couldn’t very well fire the entire team. Sean Pangle hit .376 for Dallas and won the batting title, qualifying with the minimum at bats. Rudy Galindo finished with 22 wins for the Steamers and got the Golden Arm. Moose played 119 games for Montreal, batting .291, and became their starting catcher the last month of the season.

Cleveland and Atlanta marched to the finals that year, but the Generals had the pitching (Randy Bose went 20-3 that year, 2-0 in the final) and took the championship in six games. Close but no cigar again for Von Jones and I felt for him. But I was happy for Bobby Nitta, Yoogie, and Dave Guevara. I sent them cards and included pics of the new addition to the family. Ugarte wrote back that Molly sure looked like him. Dave Guevara sent me a framed Horatio Munoz rookie card. Bobby Nitta sent Damon a Generals cap, the bastard.

I spent the off-season pondering. I like to ponder. It’s like doing a weird kind of math in your head where you don’t really know all the variables but you’re looking for the solution anyway. Some of the variables? Many of my friends were free agents. Where would they land? Mike Wynn, maybe the best shortstop in the league, was also a free agent. It would be interesting to see how his situation turned out. Also, I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage (four mortgages, actually, counting all our investment property), and 2015 was going to be the last year of my own contract. I had played as advertised defensively, but not up to my hopes at the plate. I had to put together a couple of decent seasons or things could get ugly. I didn’t want to get caught in the in-between, the purgatory of value vs. performance.

Then I just set it all aside. Didn’t think about it anymore. I had other, more important things to think about. My princess was finally here.

Last edited by Tib; 03-27-2020 at 07:40 PM.
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Old 03-25-2020, 06:39 PM   #802
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Chapter 57

Money Season

Owners don’t throw pitches or field grounders. General Managers do not turn double plays or hit homers. Directors of Player Personnel do not take batting practice. Yet these people have a competitive season of their own. Not a season of plays and injuries and hitting streaks and shutouts and blowouts, but a season of evaluation, prognostication, dedication, and planning that rivals anything players do on the field during competition. I call it the Money Season, and it can win a championship before the season even starts.

Granted, a season isn’t truly won until the last out goes into someone’s glove, and the players do that, but creating a team capable of getting outs and scoring runs is just as important to success as anything players actually do on the field. Maybe more important, because front offices deal with statistical and economic factors far removed from a player’s day-to-day experience, factors spread over multiple seasons that are influenced by a host of speculative decisions and stark realities. It’s not just the alchemy of success, it’s the economics of success, a kind of competitive clairvoyance based on algorhythms. And getting it right is hard. Very hard.

It's a hard game. Managing the variables involved in just one contest is a monumental task, emphasis on “mental”. Imagine attempting to control variables over multiple seasons. Imagine going on a voyage in a ship you built and paid for where every year the rocks get moved and last year’s charts are worthless. That’s what the off-season is like for every team. And having money means you can pay for the best sailors and captains only to have the ship run aground on an unseen reef. Sure, you may have the nicest ship, but you can’t sail it if it sinks. And the Comanches just spent $400 million on the new harbor for that ship, our new park The Hunting Grounds. And they just paid for a new captain to replace Stump Mitchell: Max Thune. So it was unclear at the start of Money Season how much Chicago had left to pay for sailors.

As I said, the 2012-13 off-season was record setting. Lots of big-name free agents, lots of contract extensions, lots of big changes for a lot of teams. It was the kind of off-season where pundits used words like “complexion” and “atmosphere” and “climate”. I took more interest in this off-season mainly because my own contract was going to be up in 2015. I was happy with the Magic Man running things on the business end, but I wanted to gain an understanding of the factors that could influence my career at the end of my contract, and I knew I had to start that education now. It was a weird feeling, planning for something three years away that had nothing to do with playing the game, only how well others played the game. Sure, when I was coming up I got moved around a bit, but things were different now. I was twenty-nine now, with a family and a home. I had to acknowledge that my next contract might be my last in baseball. A sobering thought, to say the least.

Money Season starts out simply enough, with arbitration in January. A player in the last year of their contract who doesn’t get the multi-year extension they want can file for free agency. Players who file may be offered a one-year deal by their club, who for the moment retains negotiating rights. If the player agrees with the contract, but not the amount, they can request arbitration. Both sides make their case and an arbiter decides the amount of the contract. It’s always a one-year deal and almost guarantees the player will be a free agent the next off-season, but it is a way for a team to maintain rights to a player (including the right to trade the player) for one more season and for the player to avoid a disadvantageous free agent market. Either way, it takes a player off the lists, at least for that season.

Arbitration is like looking at the clouds from your back porch. Sometimes you can see it’s going to be a fine, sunny day and sometimes you can see a storm coming. Arbitration decisions can often move the needle of future negotiations, mainly because the number of available players at the position (APAP) may go up or down as arbitration takes them off the market. The key word here is market. Supply and demand says if there are more third basemen than teams need, the teams have the advantage and the offers will be lower. If there are fewer quality outfielders on the market, outfielders have the advantage.

The arbitration decisions that moved the needle in the 2013 Money Season came down to a handful of $4 million guys retained by contending teams. Baltimore took a gamble, lost money, but kept catcher Norman Lacefield ($3.1M) and pitcher Dan Miller ($3.4M) for one more season. For an older team still wanting to contend, keeping them (especially Lacefield) was key.

The Sentinels split the money with their two guys, Saul Alonso and Mike Rhea, but kept them both. For a team close to the next level, it was a good deal. It left them vulnerable to 2014 though.

Atlanta was the busiest team, going to arbitration with no fewer than six players, including Bobby Nitta and Steve Ugarte, both of whom got $600K out of it. Raises, both. Atlanta also kept Sal Fons, but Fons was not happy with his $3.8 million and said so in the press. Indianapolis was the other team who rolled the dice. It hurt them. Leo Hawkins and Pedro Espitia cost them almost $10M together. It was win or die for the Trackers. And perhaps in an effort to change the direction of the waves taking them out to sea, the struggling Legends went to arbitration with five players, costing them almost $2 million more than they offered.

And if these “rented players” had great seasons (and that was the motivation for a player under an arbitrated contract), they would almost certainly price themselves out of the range of their current team and enter the free agent market in a much stronger position, changing the “atmosphere”, “complexion” and “climate” of the league. By and large, high-profile players, especially older pitchers who had great seasons, move the needle during arbitration. The rest is part of the million calculations front offices make during Money Season.

The first big contract signings came in early February. Albert Gills signed with San Francisco, leaving a huge hole at first base in Cleveland. All of Chicago was happy about that. It was good timing, really, for both sides. Gills was forty now, but in great shape. However, his numbers did decline in 2012 and it was time for Cleveland to look to the future. Gills was happy to go, too. He felt he could still be productive and knew Cleveland didn’t feel the same way. So, he became a Gull for $8 million a year. The Gulls were happy to have him.

We resigned Latronne Volk for $10 million over three years. Volk was thirty-three but had been injury free and solid for us in spite of some high-loss seasons. Easy decision.

Then the first shot across the bow: 2012 Golden Bat winner Sean Pangle signed with the Admirals for $8.5 million a year. As a shortstop, this was huge. There were only a few other shortstops who made that kind of money and they were all in the Hall. I hoped this signaled a rise in pay for all shortstops. Plus, with Pangle signed long-term he was out of the market, making more room for me. There was still shortstop Mike Wynn, though, out there somewhere in Mexico sipping margaritas and waiting for the friction in the market to heat up enough to bring him back to winter negotiations.

Dallas signed Cliff Martin, another shortstop, for $2.5 million per for two years, a deal shorter and less lucrative than mine. This also made me feel good. Then I got a call from Bobby Frisina in early February. Kansas City was saying goodbye to their golden boy. He was traded to Washington for three prospects. I called him.

“What happened?” I asked. “I thought you were talking extension.”

“We were, and then we weren’t.”

“No arbitration offer?”

“Nope.”

“What’s going on over there?”

“Youth movement. Remember when you were part of that?”

“That was a few years ago.”

“Well it’s happening again. So, I’m a Sentinel now.”

“Knight. Sentinel. Same thing.”

“No, it ain’t.”

“I mean… the words are –”

“I know what the words mean, professor. But this is Washington. Totally different than the
Kansas City metropolitan area.”

“Same pitching, though.”

“Yeah, but it’s going to be weird. The Knights was the only jersey I’d ever worn.”

“What about Sandy and the kids?”

“We’re looking at houses. Kensington looks nice. North Potomac. Kids will have to change schools. Sandy’s not happy. We have friends here. The kids have friends here.”

“I can’t imagine changing cities with kids still in school.”

“Well imagine it, my friend. It may happen to you, too. You’re up soon.”

“Not that soon. Besides, we’re hoping to stay. We like it here. We’re invested here.”

“So were we. Start thinking about it now. Don’t get surprised like us.”

“Washington’s good, though. Playoffs last year.”

“Yeah.”

“When do you report?”

“Two weeks, like everybody else. Gotta go in a little early to get photos done. Shake hands. That kind of stuff.”

“Best of luck, man.”

“Thanks, Davey. Congrats again on the new addition.”

“Thanks.”

And the market continued to get hot. Orlando Fort and Willie Schreiber both signed for over $7 million per year. Ramon Valdes went to Dallas for $4.5 million per. Then the Comanches jumped in and opened the checkbook for Kenny Abbey, a bat we desperately needed after losing Happy, for $5.6 million per. A day later Happy went to Cincinnati for over $9 million per. There was a lot of money flying around. Then I saw another big signing and had to call Jukebox. After being courted by about ten different teams, he chose the Generals.

“Atlanta?” I asked. “What made up your mind?”

“What made up my mind? Uh, they won the world championship, or don’t you remember?”

“Believe me, I remember. Man, oh, man, though. The best just got better.”

“This is true,” he said. I could hear the smugness right through the phone. “I’m going to win a batting title over there, you know.”

“I believe you might.”

“Ain’t no ‘might’ about it.”

“You’ll have to say hi to my buddies over there.”

“Yeah? Who?”

“Bobby Nitta, Steve Ugarte, Dave Guevara. Played my rookie ball with them in Hinesville.”

“I will do this. Hey, I read those names somewhere. Didn’t they all just get some championship arbitration type money?”

“Yeah, they did. A nice boost. They earned it.”

“Want me to have them send you pics of their championship rings or bank account printouts?”

“They did.”

“I like them already. How’s the new kid? Have you started her on grounders yet?”

“Uh, not yet. She’s only four months old --.”

“Gotta start’em young, you know.”

“That’s what I hear.”

“Somebody out there has their three-month old swinging a bat.”

“Yes, I get it.”

“Talk at you.”

“Bye, Juke.”

“Grounders.”

“Yep.”

And the market stayed hot. All-Everything second baseman Geoff Shadrick held out, alienating several smaller market teams, until he finally signed with Boston for over $9 million per year. Now the Rovers had their impact bat in the middle of the lineup. And once his name was off the list, it left only a few big-name outfielders and a few solid arms. The Comanches brought Ross Watts in for a tour of the new stadium and the “rejuvenated city of Chicago”. Apparently, there were discussions about free country club memberships and complimentary supercars. It didn’t help.

Ross Watts went to Tinseltown, signing with the Colts for $8.8 million per year, an almost $50 million contract. With that signing, the Colts went from also-rans (the Legends were better for almost thirty years) to the big dog. Remember what I said about words like “complexion”? The complexion of Los Angeles was changing, and all of it due to Money Season. After Watts went, the rest of the outfielders fell like dominoes, among them LF Chris Cabrera to Seattle for $8.0 million per.

Chicago was in the hunt for most of the remaining pitchers, too. They courted Ryan Masuhiro, Jim Bader, and Tim Clary but couldn’t land any of them. It was a bit of an embarrassment for the Comanches, I must say now. At the time, no one could really say whether these three were going to have an impact, but any one of them would have made our rotation better. The Chicago sports press kept pointing fingers at our empty bullpen and wondered out loud why the Comanches couldn’t land any fish.

Fellow shortstop Celso Escandon signed with Pittsburgh for $9.9 million over 3 years, which did not give a lot of confidence to the handful of starting middle infielders ending their contracts in 2015, including me. To make matters worse, less than a month later Escandon was traded to San Francisco for lefthander Joe Stutzman. It became clear Pittsburgh was doing a work-around of the financing rules to land a pitcher. Not exactly a vote of confidence.

Escandon was not the biggest or most influential signing of Money Season. The last big name to sign was shortstop Mike Wynn. He held out like Ross Watts did and was clearly a marquee name and huge bat. He was also very patient. There is always a worrying thought during negotiations that circumstances out of your control could affect the talks. Somebody somewhere signs for some amount, team priorities change on a dime, and all of a sudden you are simply not as valuable as you were five minutes ago. Mike Wynn did not flinch. He didn’t have to. He wanted Ross Watts money, and Celso Escandon’s $3.3 million per year and subsequent budget ledger trade only proved his point. A week into Spring Training he chose the Houston Cougars and signed for over $10 million a year, a huge $60 million contract. Houston got to the playoffs in 2012, lost to St. Louis, and clearly felt they were close to breaking through. They got their guy, and in doing so won the Money Season.

Now that the money was all spent, and all the sailors had been hired, it was time for ships to hit the breakwater and see where the rocks were this year.
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Old 03-25-2020, 06:41 PM   #803
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Chapter 58

The Mike Wynn Thing

Opening Day 2013 was at home in our brand-new park, The Hunting Grounds, against our rivals the Cleveland Hammers, complete with MVP candidate and my friend Von Jones (114 HR over the last three seasons). With my family in the stands, I hit a ball over Von’s head and into a souvenir stand for a game one homer and a 6-4 win, and for the only time in my professional career I led my team in home runs.

The Comanches started hot, and we needed to with all the press watching, waiting for an implosion of any kind. We went 15-8 the first three weeks and jumped into first place. Not only that, we were scoring runs late and coming from behind, four games in a row at one point. Reuben Tinch carried us with his bat, slugging nine homers in April. I had an eight-game hitting streak and was hitting .429. Also, Cleveland without Al Gills just wasn’t the same. During Spring Training, they traded for Ned Capetillo from Vancouver to fill that spot, but Gills was the leader of the Hammers for so long it seemed like they didn’t know whose team it was now. I knew it was only April, but for the first time in about six seasons it felt like the Hammers were vulnerable.

As if to send a message to the Hammers, Al Gills hit three homers and drove in ten runs the first week of the season. Hot starts also for Flash Richards (now with Phoenix), who was hitting .611 at the end of April, the second-highest April average in CBA history (Johnny Pruitt hit .625 in April in 1988). Also Mike Wynn, freshly paid with his new team, the Cougars, drove in 24 runs in 25 April games. There was a volatility to the start of the season, like records were going to fall and everybody wanted in on it.

But even the hot starts I mentioned were overshadowed for a while by the Chiefs’ release of shortstop Wes Schmidt in late April. A sure Hall of Famer who had been the heart and soul of the Chiefs for fifteen years, Schmidt’s production had declined over the last two seasons and he had accepted a part-time role on the team. He was battling injuries, too, a chronic shoulder issue and an ankle sprain from a spring game. Still, he gave his all, like he’d always done, but it just wasn’t enough anymore. Rather than wait for the axe to fall, Schmidt told the team to cut him, save the money, and no hard feelings. Horatio Munoz aside, I idolized Schmidt even before I gave a thought to becoming a professional ballplayer. When I came to Chicago it was with the clear understanding that I was always going to be the “other shortstop” in the Windy City.

The fan outcry was remarkable, not just for their love of the man and what he had done for the Chicago Chiefs, but for their passion that he remain with the team in some capacity. Shortly after he announced his retirement, the Chiefs retired his number 18 and hired him as an assistant to the Director of Player Personnel.

Gwen, who had interviewed him a few times, received an invitation to his retirement dinner in early May. I went as the plus one. I didn’t mind. When it came to public recognition in Chicago, off the diamond I was the plus one. Gwen was the real celebrity.

It was held at the Crystal Gardens Ballroom on Navy Pier. Two hundred fifty people. Media. Baseball people. Friends. Family. Big screen filmed retrospective of Wes’s career. There were speeches. Good food. Champagne. I’ll tell you, I needed a distraction. We just got swept at home by a vengeful Cleveland team and had to go on the road for a week. As we fell from first place I kind of envied him not having to endure losing streaks anymore. Then again, with him on your team you weren’t going to have many of those.

Gwen and I got a chance to speak with him before dinner. He looked relaxed. He is bigger in person, by the way, like all Hall of Famers, it seems. Gwen teased him, ‘You’re grayer than I remember, Wes.”

“I’ve been gray for a while, Gwen,” he said. “It was just under the cap. Nobody could see it.” He looked at me. “Been playing like a grayhair for a while, too. Not you though. Good start so far for you guys.”

“So far,” I said.

“Feels like ten years ago we played each other in the playoffs,” he said to me.

“Yeah. Different teams, both of us.”

He nodded. “We had a good team in Dallas that year, but you Knights scared us a little.”

“Really?”

“Wild cards, all of you. You had something weird going on in KC no one could figure out. You shouldn’t have been winning, but you were. That lineup; Kral, Jones, Cardenas, Carreras, you. Looking back, nobody’s surprised. But then? Nobody knew you guys were you guys, you know?”

“John Grier knew.”

“Imagine if you had all stayed together.”

“I think of that all the time.”

“That’s the way it goes,” said Wes Schmidt, taking a sip of his drink. “How are things with the Comanches? Any knives missing at Cobblestones?”

I was confused. “Knives missing?”

“The Comanches have a history of turning on each other,” he said, then shook his head. “Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have said that. You guys have a strong team.”

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. It creates friction,” I said.

“Been there,” he said. “But the media creates friction, too. No offense, Gwen, but the Comanches have made you guys lots of money the last few years.”

“I suppose that’s true,” I admitted.

“Hey,” said Gwen, “We only follow the blood in the water. We don’t do the cutting.”

“Fair enough,” he said. Then to me: “But imagine what you could do if you could at least unite on the field.”

“It’s not as bad as people think.”

“I hope not,” he said. “Or you’ll have to get ready to play somewhere else.”

I thought, Wow, this guy really does think ahead. He’s three seasons into my future. “I’m not worrying about that right now. Hell, I just want to enjoy a winning April.”

“Okay,” he said, “I just thought the whole Mike Wynn thing might have soured you.”

Mike Wynn thing? He looked at me. I looked at him. “What Mike Wynn thing?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said, embarrassed, realizing now. “I probably shouldn’t have said that, either.”

“What Mike Wynn thing, Wes?” said my wife.

I suddenly became aware of the muffled conversations around us, the quiet piano jazz in the background, the big plate glass windows of the ballroom filled with the blue skies above Lake Michigan. Wes Schmidt, Hall of Famer, one of my heroes, bigger in real life don’t you know, let out a big sigh. “When they first hired me on as an assistant, they brought me up to speed on all the deals during the off-season, gave me all the info on what was going with teams and players on throughout the league.”

“Yeah? And?”

“I guess you didn’t know this, but after Ross Watts fell through the Comanches went after Mike Wynn.”

What. The. ****.

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t a big thing. Just an inquiry. Over before it began, really. Wynn wanted ten million for seven years and the Comanches didn’t want to pay it. They had a lot of money tied up in Aguila, Abbey and Gillingham already.”

“And how do you know what Wynn wanted?” asked Gwen.

“This is off the record, Gwen. This is two ballplayers talking, okay?” said Wes defensively.

“Fine,” said Gwen. “But as an ex-ballplayer talking to the wife of a current ballplayer, how do you know this, if it was ‘over before it began’?”

“Mike called me. Wanted to know about the city, the team. Everything. I gave him my opinion.”

“Which was?”

“I told him, based on what I saw, that the Cougars were closer and Chicago didn’t have the money he wanted.”

“I guess we’ll see,” was all I could think to say.

“Why call you?” asked Gwen.

“We’ve had…similar careers. Been courted by the same teams over the years. I was in the same situation when I signed my last deal with the Chiefs.”

“Hey, it’s business,” I said. “Wynn is a big bat. A big name. I understand.”

“It is only business,” said Wes Schmidt. “Don’t read more into it than that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for the info, Wes.”

“No problem. I’m sorry if this ****s things up. Don’t mean for this to cause more friction.”

“No,” I replied. “I’m good.”

Gwen stared after him as he walked away to greet more people. We each took a sip of our wine. “What does this mean?” she asked.

“It means the Comanches are doing the same calculations as all the other teams,” I said.

“You still have two seasons left and they went after Mike Wynn.”

“They are planning for the future of the team,” I said, leading her to our table. “I suppose we should do the same for our team.”

“Is it wrong of me to hate them right now?” she said after she sat down.

“Hell, Gwen, I’d have gone after Mike Wynn, too. But look, I just need to play well. If I play well, we’re in the best possible situation, no matter what Chicago decides.”

“Don’t go trying to be Mike Wynn. Stick to your strengths.”

“Right,” I said with a nod. “So no homers, RBIs, or batting titles. Got it.”

“That’s my little spray hitter.”


But boy was I fired up when I went back to work. Ironically, playing ball took my mind off the business of playing ball. Play the game, Hal Fitzwalter had told me. Just play the game and everything will be all right. I hit .308 in April and .280 in May. We finished May 28-24, but good enough for first place, just in front of a Hammers team still searching for another Albert Gills. I was steamed at first about Chicago going after Mike Wynn, but who wouldn’t go after Mike Wynn? Four weeks into his first season as a Cougar, he was named Mutual League Batter of the Month for April, hitting .385 with six homers. He did it again in June. Not to mention Sean Pangle was destroying everything they tried to throw past him. Superstar shortstops sure made it hard to be average.

I realized I had to up my game or I might become the “other shortstop” in a city with only one team, so I gave myself a mission: improve all aspects of my game. Re-dedicate myself. Re-tool my fundamentals, mechanics, swing, everything. The Mike Wynn thing had convinced me I was too complacent. I had to get hungry again. I couldn’t afford to allow other teams to consider what the Comanches considered: that there might be a better way without me.

I spent some time testing bats and settled on a new composite Silver Slugger SS, which really helped. A week later I hit a walk-off against Baltimore and had three hits in a game for the first time that season against the Colts later in the week. By the end of June, I was hitting .275 with five homers and only five errors. I was the best fielding shortstop in the UL. And the team was second in league batting average, was 43-35, and trailed Cleveland by 2 games.

And no knives were missing at Cobblestones. Yet.

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Old 03-25-2020, 06:44 PM   #804
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Chapter 59

Missing Knives

In mid-June the Comanches released Pat Laubach. Pat was 1-4 with an ERA over 5.00. Some saw it as a necessary move, one that could bring in some younger talent and continue Chicago’s resurgence. Others saw it as yet another good player’s demise, burned up by the toxic Comanche psyche. It turned out Fontillion wasn’t done hiring sailors. After Laubach’s rotation spot came open, he traded outfielder Shawn Ishee to New Orleans for prospects.

Was one a promising young pitcher? No. Two infielders. So who did Fontillion get to fill Laubach’s supposedly ancient shoes? Walter Mayberry. 39-year-old surgically repaired Walter Mayberry. Recently released from the struggling Legends. Spot starter, 1-3 record, 6.41 ERA Walter Mayberry. Laubach, by the way, was claimed by the injury-riddled Sentinels and immediately won his first three starts.

This was Fontillion’s plan? Okay, Latronne Volk was Pitcher of the Month for May (4-0, 2.34 ERA), but how is Mayberry better than Laubach? And if you release Laubach for youth, why claim Mayberry, who was considered old five seasons ago?

It all started to become very confusing. Again. It was like our annual August collapse was happening in June now. The media, my wife included, jumped on the Mayberry claim with both feet. What exactly was Fontillion’s end game? Where does Mayberry lead us that Laubach couldn’t have?

Fontillion wasn’t talking, except to say how much confidence he had that the team would continue winning. But he wasn’t done. In a move that defied even the most liberal speculation, he traded Cody Reimer, another solid arm, to Detroit for 2B Ezekiel Alou. Another infielder, like the two he got for Laubach. Alou was very good, and under other circumstances I’d have been thrilled to have him on my left, but now we had three extra middle infielders and no established veteran arms, unless you count Mayberry (and nobody did). Additionally, Fontillion just brought up another second baseman from Des Moines, Nick St. Laurent, who was making a splash with the bat (.303 in limited play). So why did we need two second basemen?

I’m not going to lie, it got me a little worried, like what kind of pitching can we get for a veteran shortstop who’s hitting .275? kind of worried. Like, maybe St. Laurent can play short kind of worried. The dark side of my brain began to think maybe Fontillion was going to package me and Walter Mayberry and send us to Egypt for a mummy middle reliever.

Through all this we maintained a winning record, lurking only a couple of games back of Cleveland going into the All-Star Break. Ben Gillingham won United League Player of the Week right before the Break, and Bill Hunter and Ron Hoyos were on hot streaks on the mound, so things were not entirely catastrophic. But the speculation had already started about the trade deadline coming in less than a month and what the Comanches needed to do to win the division. My name began to appear in print and in the conversations of pundits. “Driscoll’s offense is not good enough to hit seventh,” they said. “Why are they paying this guy to hit .265 when St. Laurent is hitting .285, is ready, and can play short?” “Trade him while you still can.” You know, encouraging things like this. What preyed on my mind most was that I was having a pretty good season so far, at least for me. I was leading off against lefties (.328), stealing bases again with a pain-free knee (10 steals), and I was finding gaps (17 doubles).

Max Thune encouraged all of us to take the Break and relax. Rejuvenate ourselves. Do something fun unrelated to baseball and come back refreshed and ready to hit the second half hard. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play in the All-Star game, which was during the Break and was baseball related.

You know who was picked for the All-Star Game? Detroit Monarchs pitcher Cody Reimer and Washington Sentinels pitcher Pat Laubach. You know who was not selected for the All-Star Game? Any Chicago Comanche. Not even Willie Aguila, who was about ten hits away from 2,000. Cleveland sent five players, including Von Jones.

The players raged at Cobblestones. They grumbled to the press. They took to social media to voice their anger. And they were told what everybody is told: the All-Star Game has no guarantees when it comes to representation. You have to put up the numbers to get there, and Chicago was not putting up the numbers. Except for one thing: Cody Reimer and Ron Laubach put up the numbers. The players ire turned to Fontillion. The Chicago could have had two starters on the All-Star squad if Fontillion hadn’t sent them away.

The media ate it up. Good ol’ Comanches. Always ready to implode.

For myself, I felt the frustrations as much as anyone, but I had learned not to let those feelings out of their cages in public, especially at Cobblestones. It concerned me that Fontillion hadn’t replaced Reimer and Laubach. I looked at the numbers. There was nothing to support the idea that our rotation was going to become the best in the division, which was a must-have if you’re going to compete against the Hammers. In fact, our entire pitching staff was older than me, except for Kyle Martinelli who was 27. Where was Fontillion’s plan?

Gwen understood my frustrations. She gave me great advice: go play with your kids. So I did. It helped. Kids don’t care about extra infielders.

And I called my dad.

My dad was a sales manager for a business services firm in Los Angeles. He was responsible for thirty salespeople selling comprehensive business management packages to endeavors of all sizes, from manufacturing facilities to high-rise tech firms to hospitals to massive distribution centers. Schematics. Infrastructure creation. HR and efficiency management software. Support materials. Seminars and training weekends. He went to work at 8:00 in a coat and tie, but usually had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up by 9:30. He said he liked it better in the field, but he had to be available, so he stayed in the office. When it came to practical solutions, my dad was the guy everybody called.

My relationship with my dad ran along the same lines. Like so many others, when I needed to know what to do, I called him. He was also a third baseman in college, so that helped. I knew he understood a player’s mentality. Any time baseball and business clashed, I called my dad.

“I don’t know what to do, dad,” I said.

“About what?” he asked.

“The team,” I replied. “Fontillion is making moves no one understands, adding infielders. It’s making me nervous.”

“But you’re starting.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re having a good season.”

“Pretty good.”

“And you’re not in charge of the team.”

“I know that.”

“Then why are you trying to do two jobs at once?”

I had no idea. “I guess it’s how I think.”

“Let me ask you: does it help you do your job to think all the time about how someone else is doing their job?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “I don’t think about it during games, but I do rely on the people around me to do their jobs.”

“And aren’t they? You guys have a winning record. Somebody must be doing their job.”

“It would be better if I knew why we’re giving up All-Stars and adding thirty-nine-year-old surgically repaired arms to our rotation.”

“Why would it be better to know that? You don’t get to know those things, do you? You can’t just walk into Fontillion’s office and demand explanations.”

“No…”

“Sounds like you’re trying to control the uncontrollable.”

“So what do I do?”

“First, you’re assuming there is something you can do. Maybe there isn’t. Have you considered that?”

“I know. Everyone keeps telling me I’m not the GM.”

“Who tells you this?”

“Well, just Gwen, actually.”

“She’s right. Don’t get caught up in speculation. Speculation accomplishes nothing. When I’m faced with unknowns, I always remind myself what my job is. I make sure I do what I need to do to help the team be successful. Speculation never once won a ballgame.”

“So play baseball.”

“Right. It sounds like these moves are not giving you any reassurance about your own role on the team.”

“The Comanches went after Mike Wynn during the off season. Fontillion just traded for three infielders. I’m feeling pretty vulnerable.

“You think you’re going on the block?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Dave, there’s always something out there we can’t know. There are too many variables in business, my business, your business, to be able to define them all. You can’t control everything. You can only prepare yourself to handle them if they come up.”

“So what can I do?”

“Don’t make it more complicated. You’re having a good season. The team is winning. Go play ball.”

“You sound like Hal.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Two weeks later things seemed to settle down, even with the trade deadline looming. Willie Aguila got his 2,000th hit. Cleveland made a huge surprise move, trading superstar shortstop Mario Rowlett to the Colts for premium prospect pitcher Sergio Cazares and cash (a lot of cash, like millions in cash), making the Colts very, very for real. You’d think this would only weaken the Hammers, our perennial rivals, but they somehow continued to win.

And somehow, we continued to lose. The last three weeks of July the team went 6-10. We were 54-52 now, seven games back of Cleveland. Walter Mayberry set a UL record by giving up eight hits in an inning. Inside Cobblestones the grumbling was getting louder and the recorders were always on. Knives started to go missing.

But my hard work was paying off. I went on a 14 for 38 run in mid-July (.451) and brought my average up to .271. I was the best defensive shortstop in the United League.

Trade that, Fontillion.

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Old 03-27-2020, 09:42 AM   #805
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One of the greatest dynasties ever!

Welcome back Tib! You have no idea how happy I am to see you writing Sort Hop again. It's been a LONG time. Too long.

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Old 03-27-2020, 07:32 PM   #806
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Thanks, man. It feels great to be back.
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Old 04-06-2020, 08:39 AM   #807
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So happy this is back. Maybe Covid was worth it.

You might want to consider posting this on the main OOTP dynasty forum. It would get more views there, and you completely deserve it.
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Old 04-06-2020, 09:46 AM   #808
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The best dynasty ever and the one that made me to love the baseball world and minors culture besides the Majors that was the only system I knew about being from outside USA. You should publish it as e-book, I think it’s easy now doing it online.
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Old 04-06-2020, 05:43 PM   #809
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You should publish it as e-book, I think it’s easy now doing it online.
Thanks, guys. Believe me, I've thought about it, but I need to finish it first! So here's the next chapter of the History of Pro Baseball by Dave's long-time friend (and a character you will all meet soon) Del Harrison.
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Old 04-06-2020, 05:52 PM   #810
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The History of Pro Baseball: Part Six: The End of an Era

“Damning and Irrefutable Evidence”
APBP vs. ABF, 1965

The Association of Professional Baseball Players vs. the American Baseball Federation began in November of 1965, as soon as the Championship was over and the preliminary hearings were concluded. It convened in the Federal Court of Washington D.C. and was presided over by Justice Myron Barnhardt, who had presided over Brown vs. the ABF in 1961. Solomon Brown, president of the Liberty Baseball League, sued to break up the ABF on the grounds that it was a monopoly and was ruining his ability to earn a living owning a professional baseball league by signing away all his best players. He failed. Judge Barnhardt ruled that the very fact that he owned a baseball league was proof that the ABF was not a monopoly.

The Union opened by arguing that the purpose of the Fund and its use were two different things, that the owners used the Fund as their “personal piggy bank”. The ABF countered by saying the Fund contained money contributed solely by the owners and they should not be told how to spend their own money.

The Union argued that the money in the Fund might be the owners’, but it was still subject to the law, and using the money to augment the contracts of certain groups to the detriment of other groups was economic discrimination.

They submitted documentation of league transactions using the Fund, received under subpoena, which, they claimed, showed a distinct pattern of discriminatory negotiating practices, namely the consistently higher salary offers made by teams to white players vs. Black and Hispanic players. Particularly conspicuous, claimed the Union lawyers, were the nature and amounts of the various performance bonuses in many contracts. In almost all cases, said the Union, white players received more advantageous bonus structures, incentives, and money.

The ABF countered that the white players cited were established stars of the league and the higher salaries they received were due to market dynamics, not any effort to prevent minority players from earning their due. They said the white players mentioned had been in the league longer than any minority player (Clayton Breckenfield came into the league in 1957) and their skills earned them the salaries they received. They said the best minority players received salary offers competitive with white players of the same skill and submitted their own reports supporting this assertion, along with copies of Salary Offer Sheets to those players from each team. Of the performance bonuses, the ABF lawyers said only that each team has the discretion to negotiate such contract items as it sees fit, and the players involved ultimately signed the contract, which was tantamount to an endorsement of the process.

The Union argued that minority players who signed their contracts for less than they knew they were worth were not endorsing the process but sacrificing economic worth to remain in professional baseball. They also said minority players received significantly less bonus money than white players. The Union ended the day by calling ABF Fund Secretary Leslie Strom to the stand. They asked Ms. Strom one question: How did the Fund know that the approved monies paid to teams actually went to the player for whom the money was requested? Ms. Strom answered that there was no process in place to determine that, as the transferred money went directly to the team itself, not the player. But this, she added, was not unusual. The teams, after all, were the ones responsible for paying the players.

It looked as though the ABF had mounted an insurmountable defense. Indeed, the documentation submitted by the league showed significant salary offers to white, Black, and Hispanic players. It also showed that players with “statistical similarities” were offered about the same money regardless of color. It also showed that bonus payments covered a necessarily wide range of circumstances, which was reflected in the disparate amounts paid to white, Black, and Hispanic players alike.

In response, and to the complete surprise of all, the Union offered to enter private mitigation with the league. According to sources following the trial, when the league entered the Salary Offer Sheets into the official record as a defense exhibit, the Union moved to adjourn for the day. When the adjournment was granted and the parties filed out onto the promenade, Union chief counsel Linton Pew approached the ABF lawyers and offered to negotiate a private settlement.

The offer was rejected immediately by all save one: Nicholas Freeders’ attorney Wallace Armagel. Armagel later wrote he only wanted to hear why the Union wanted to settle but was soundly rebuffed on the spot by lawyers for the other teams. “They didn’t want to appear conciliatory,” he later wrote. “If we had met with the Union, the league might have been saved”.

After turning back all Union arguments for eight hours, the ABF lawyers were not about to appear weak. They felt they were in control. What had the Union proved, anyway? According to witnesses, ABF chief counsel Thomas Ventner’s response was terse: “We will not entertain any settlement. Drop the suit.” Pew responded that he was trying to save baseball, that he had “damning and irrefutable evidence” of the league’s illegal use of Fund money.

Ventner replied, “If you were trying to save baseball, you would not have brought this suit forward in the first place. Bring your evidence, and we shall see what is damning and irrefutable.”

Throughout the next four days, the Union showed discrepancies in the reporting process for Fund requests and payments. According to the Union, teams routinely requested Fund money in the form of low interest loans to pay for stadium improvements, advertising, and other overhead costs, as well as to cover bonus payments to players at the end of a contract or season. To do this they used Form 62-2A, a Request for Fund Loan, or RFL. The Union also showed records of the timely payment of these monies to the teams from the Fund.

What the ABF could not show, said Union lawyers, was where the money went. The Union submitted subpoenaed copies of the Salary Offer Sheets for a number of white, Black and Hispanic players sent by teams to the Fund. Then they submitted stacks of pay receipts for the same players. In every case, the Offer Sheets failed to match the remuneration received by minority players. In every case, the contract bonus payments to white players were augmented by additional checks written after seasons concluded, outside the terms of their contracts. In short, minority players did not receive what they had been offered, and White players received more than they had reason to expect.

The ABF responded by saying the Offer Sheets were only that, offers, and did not constitute a binding agreement. They said that many times during negotiations the terms of payment changed for a variety of reasons. The Offer Sheets, they said, were only notices sent to the Fund in anticipation of future RFL requests. They added that each team, at their discretion, may increase bonuses paid to any player at any time for any reason.

“And yet,” said Pew, “not one minority player, over the course of the last nine seasons, was paid more than they were due, per their contracts. Almost fifty percent of White players were given extra bonus money, however.”

The implication was clear: while ABF owners were paying minority players per their contracts, they were augmenting the bonuses of White players to maintain a pay discrepancy. Don’t worry, the teams seemed to be saying to their White players, we’ll make it up to you on the back end.

The ABF reacted strongly. There is no evidence of economic collusion of any kind here, they said. These were all legal contracts, honored by the teams who signed them. And it was all the owners’ money to begin with, which could be spent outside of contracts in any way the teams saw fit.

“Why then,” replied Pew calmly, “pay White players the money you offered minority players?”

Pew submitted Offer Sheets for the 1959-1965 seasons that matched exactly the Offer Sheets submitted earlier by the league. Then he submitted the actual contracts of those players. Then Pew submitted the income tax returns of those White, Black and Hispanic players. In all cases, the Offer Sheets sent to White players matched exactly the contracts signed, while the contracts of minority players were in all cases less than their Offer Sheets. In each season, the total amount of bonuses paid to White players was almost exactly the total difference between the Offer Sheets and actual contracts signed by minority players. White players were, quite literally, being given money that was withheld from minority players.

The ABF argued that this money was not being withheld from minority players. The results of negotiations cannot be planned upon in this way, they said. “The contracts are the binding legal document,” said Ventner, “not offer sheets which are not legally binding, nor are they signed. Contracts are signed.”

“We are not arguing this, your honor,” replied Pew. “We are wondering, if team owners had no problem with paying minority players their due, why George White, a Black player who hit .263 in 1962, with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs, received no bonus money, when the other catcher on the Marshals, Bob Martin, a white player, received a $25,000 non-contract bonus for hitting .231 with 4 home runs and 37 RBIs in 44 fewer games.”

To this, Venter could only say, “Bonuses are discretionary money, your honor.”

“Discriminatory money, you mean,” replied Pew, which garnered an immediate and sustained objection from Ventner.

Judge Barnhardt used the rest of the week to make his decision. That Friday, January 8th, Judge Barnhardt ruled for the plaintiffs and awarded them current and punitive damages, to be paid from the General Fund until it was exhausted, the remainder to be paid by the individual teams involved in every contract submitted by the Union. The decision affected over 700 current and retired players and the estimated cost to the league was over $460 million.

Pew expressed mixed feelings about the ruling. “I am pleased the judge saw fit to make this award. His decision will be economic justice for many minority players, but I am saddened because I am a baseball fan.” He reminded those listening that while this ruling favored minority players, it put their careers in greater jeopardy than ever before. “We have won a great victory for baseball players of all races, but now must wonder, if the league folds, where will they play?”

Thomas Venter vowed to appeal. “This was a case about discretionary money and the appearance, not the reality, of impropriety,” he said afterward. “No laws were broken here.”

Two months later, Judge Barnhardt’s ruling was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision. After eighty-six seasons, the most prominent baseball organization in America was no more.

Solomon Brown took out ads in major newspapers advertising the availability of rosters spots in the Liberty Baseball League.
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