A new life for some old cats

The military draft and big-league expansion may be specters to some, but to a small group of aging fringe players they are a fountain of youth
April 08, 1968

Down at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. this spring, Dick Schofield dressed alongside Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver and the rest of the important St. Louis Cardinals. Over at Cocoa, on Florida's east coast drag strip, Bo Belinsky disappeared from the Houston Astros' dormitory with a Playboy magazine centerfold, a real live one named Jo Collins, and threatened to return to Hawaii. And out West in Scottsdale, Ariz., in the Chicago Cubs' camp, Dick Radatz, who for three years was the 267-pound monster that strutted out of the Red Sox bullpen to turn baseball bats into Silly Putty, missed home plate with 24 successive pitches and looked somewhat like a 267-pound tabby cat.

Despite their different situations, the three were among the 20 players forming a suddenly important category on the major league baseball scene: "non-roster player invited to training camp." Technically, the group was made up either of free agents, such as Schofield, who had committed themselves to the highest bidder, or minor league farmhands, such as Belinsky and Radatz, who were the exclusive property of a major league team that hated to let them disappear without at least one further look.

Actually, these non-roster players are major league pensioners, with at least the minimum five years in grade. The majority of the 20, in fact, had well-documented records, and a number of them had earned rather large salaries. Radatz, for instance, and Catcher Jim Pagliaroni of the Oakland Athletics had been paid in sunnier times as much as $35,000 for a year's work in the majors.

During the off season these 20 players were released by major league teams compelled to protect younger, untested players on their controlled rosters. In past years most of them would have been permitted to sink into the minor leagues or a used-car farm in Skokie, Ill. This year they were in demand because baseball teams now are confronted with two particularly stressing problems: 1) the military reserve that siphons off a number of young players to active meetings three and four times each month, and 2) the 1969 expansion of the American League—and perhaps the National League, too—that will create an instant need for 50 or 100 players with even fringe major league ability.

So, rather than finding themselves in the boneyard, the older draft-and-re-serve-free players are currently hot property in a seller's market. For example, Schofield, a utility infielder who was released by the Dodgers last December, has now signed a 1968 Cardinals contract for more money than he made all last season.

The military situation prompted Phil Linz to reconsider his retirement plans and report to camp with the New York Mets. The ex-Yankee, whose New York restaurant, Mr. Laffs, grosses almost $500,000 a year and will continue to prosper as long as athletes like stewardesses and stewardesses like athletes, planned to count money rather than sit on a hard bench all year. "Then a few weeks before the camps opened I began to have second thoughts," he said. "I had an invitation from the Mets, and Harry Dalton talked to me about working out with the Orioles when he dropped in for dinner one night. I knew the Mets, with all their young infielders, had military problems and decided to try it again." This spring the Mets' kid infielders have been flying all over the country to meet their reserve commitments, and Linz has been playing more baseball than he has in three years. He has played so well that if the Mets do not sign him the Orioles definitely will.

Schofield and Linz are not the only non-roster veterans who are likely to survive the season with a major league team. Ed Charles probably will share the third-base job for the Mets, while Hal Reniff possibly will become their No. 1 right-handed relief pitcher. In Pittsburgh, Manny Jimenez will be the top left-handed pinch hitter for Manager Larry Shepard, and if Felix Mantilla, who had earned a job last season with the Chicago Cubs before suffering a severe injury to his Achilles' tendon, does not limp too noticeably, he will be the right-handed pinch hitter for Leo Durocher. And Floyd Robinson may be someplace in the Oakland outfield if his injured knee responds completely by Opening Day.

The most impressive non-roster player training in Florida, however, has been Pagliaroni, still the property of the Pittsburgh Pirates but an Oakland Athletic by virtue of a conditional deal made last winter shortly after Pagliaroni had a cervical disc removed from the back of his neck. If Oakland decides to keep him, the Athletics must pay the Pirates $75,000 and assume Pagliaroni's $30,000 salary. That seems a small price for a 30-year-old catcher who this spring has been hitting home runs and throwing out base runners and handling pitchers the same way he did in Pittsburgh two and three years ago when he was considered one of the best receivers in baseball.

Pagliaroni was the Pirates' volatile leader on the field. "Then one day everything just started to go wrong," he said. "It began when Harry Walker and I argued over the mechanics of handling pitchers. He thought that just because Vernon Law, say, could get Henry Aaron out with curves, that Bob Veale could get Aaron out the same way. Well, no two pitchers throw the same pitch the same way. Harry just never gave me the benefit of the doubt that I was a big-league catcher."

Next, Pagliaroni encountered serious problems in his position as the team's player representative. The players complained when they had to pay $1.50 or $2.00 to park their cars outside Forbes Field for home games, and they exhibited no especial fondness for the club's air-travel policies (it generally flies only tourist class). Pagliaroni's arguments in behalf of the players were not appreciated particularly by management. Then the cervical disc began to act up. "It sent knots through my head and sapped my strength," Pagliaroni said. "I'd swing a 32-ounce bat and it would feel like 40."

Last May, Pagliaroni asked Pirate General Manager Joe Brown to be traded. At the end of the year, and after the operation, Brown obliged. "Now I feel like a new man, just great again," Pagliaroni said at the Athletics training camp in Bradenton, Fla. "Bob Kennedy is letting me call my game, and there are no worries as player representative. Aah. Can't you see old tippy toes right now in his size 12D white baseball shoes with pink polka dots and a psychedelic uniform. It's great to be here."

The non-roster players who do not survive spring training will, for the most part, be offered fairly large salaries to spend this year in the minors while waiting for expansion. The motive for inducing these veterans to return to the minors is simple: a team would prefer to lose, say, a George Thomas, a Bob Shaw or a Jim O'Toole in the expansion draft than to be done out of a top young prospect. On the other hand, the same club would like to have any of these men available if, indeed, it should happen to lose that same good young prospect.

"Sure, I'll go to the minors if the Red Sox send me there," said Thomas, who wore No. 24 in the World Series last October but was assigned uniform No. 53 ('The Boston on my front really spells Louisville," he said) when he arrived as a non-roster player in Winter Haven, Fla. this spring. Two weeks ago Thomas got his wish and reported to Louisville where his pay will be $17,500, only $5,000 less than he earned last season in the majors. "If expansion wasn't scheduled next year, I'd probably quit," Thomas said. "But I've got a little more than seven years in the pension plan and probably can get 10 years in because they will need new players to fill the new teams. I'd be crazy to quit now."

Like Thomas, Gary Geiger will go to the minors if he does not win a job in the St. Louis outfield. A left-handed hitting outfielder, Geiger faces severe odds because Roger Maris, Lou Brock and Bobby Tolan also are left-handed hitting outfielders. But even if Geiger does not make the Cards he expects to be sent to Tulsa as a player-coach and collect $15,000 for the year. "Me quit?" he says. "No way." Neither Shaw nor O'Toole, both of whom were sent down two weeks ago, is as certain about staying in baseball.

Then, there is the case of Dave Nicholson, the right-handed hitting outfielder who follows Paul Richards like a shadow. Nicholson signed with the Orioles when Richards was their manager. He was acquired by Houston when Richards was that team's general manager. And he was acquired by Atlanta after Richards became general manager there. When Nicholson hits a ball, it sometimes does not touch down for quite a while. The trouble is he seldom hits one, and the other day, as he prepared to go down to the minors once more, he said, "With a wife and three children, I cannot afford to play in the minors much longer."

Try it one more year, Dave. What with expansion and military service, you could even find yourself playing on the same big-league team with Bo Belinsky, who might turn serious again and pitch another no-hitter.