YUMA — First-ball honors at postseason baseball games are usually reserved for team owners, Hall of Famers or politicians trying to stay in the limelight.
The Padres took a different approach before Game 4 of last year's National League Championship Series. They asked Whitey Wietelmann to throw out the first pitch.
Whitey Wietelmann? He is listed in the Padres' 1985 media guide as Mr. Indispensable.
The first-ball honor was virtually a unanimous decision among front office personnel. There was only one dissenting vote--Wietelmann's.
"I didn't want to do it," Wietelmann said. "I did it as a favor to Mrs. (Joan) Kroc because she wanted me to. After I did it, it was all right. But it just wasn't like me to do it."
Wietelmann prefers working behind the scenes--filling roles from handyman to cook.
The 66-year-old Wietelmann has, in fact, been with the team since it joined the National League in 1969. And that only indicates his involvement with the \o7 major league \f7 Padres.
Wietelmann played for the minor league Padres from 1949 to 1952. He later coached for the team in 1957 and 1958 and from 1960 to 1965.
Baseball has been his life for 60 years, and he is not about to change now. When the Padres are home, Wietelmann arrives at the ballpark at about 9 a.m. and usually leaves after midnight.
He'll do anything from assisting equipment manager Ray Peralta to cooking the team's postgame meal. And more than once, he has been known to fix a broken glove or refurbish a broken bat so that it can be used in practice.
"If it breaks," Wietelmann said, "I fix it."
Wietelmann spends much of his time either in the Padre players' lounge adjacent to the clubhouse or driving around the stadium in a modified golf cart equipped with a long bed.
The lounge is his hideout, a place where he performs his numerous duties. He knows he could be spending his time hunting or fishing, but those activities never appealed to him.
He just wants is to stay active in some capacity of baseball.
The most publicized aspect of his occupation is cooking the team meals. Wietelmann has developed a reputation over the years for his chili, which the Padre media guide describes as "world renowned."
"I cook because my dad owned a restaurant," Wietelmann said. "If a cook ever called in sick, my dad would call me. Plus, being a single man, you have to cook a lot."
Wietelmann's father, Bill, got him involved in baseball at the age of 6 in 1925. Bill Wietelmann owned the Zanesville Greys, a semi-pro team in Ohio. Whitey was the team's bat boy.
Wietelmann still has numerous postcards of the 1925 Greys team pictures. He is seated in the middle of the front row, directly in front of the legendary Jim Thorpe.
Wietelmann said he did not become acquainted with Thorpe. He only remembers Thorpe for his massive size.
When Wietelmann displays the team picture, the first thing he notes are the uniforms. They are the baggy, gray-flannel type that were popular during that era.
"Put one of those uniforms on these boys today and they won't even go out on the field," Wietelmann said.
Wietelmann is more than somewhat dismayed by today's ballplayer--and it's not because of their preference for lightweight, body-hugging uniforms.
After all, he played at a time when baseball was an all-consuming occupation for the players. Modern players, he said, seem to be more interested in stock market reports than box scores.
"We used to talk baseball from the time we got to the ballpark until after the game," Wietelmann said. "These guys today are all business. I take it with a grain of salt. I don't think they have as much fun as we did. Their biggest business now is their off-the-field activities. It's a new breed of ballplayer."
Wietelmann remembers his first big league manager, Casey Stengel, as being of a different breed.
"Casey would always be telling you a story, then he would get off the topic," Wietelmann said. "A day later, Casey would finish telling you the story."
Wietelmann first played under Stengel in 1939 at Boston. He was a skinny, 142-pound shortstop then, nearly 80 pounds lighter than he is today. It did not take long for Stengel to catch Wietelmann's attention.
"I remember we had this kid, Chet Ross, who had broken his leg sliding," Wietelmann said. "We were staying at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Right in the lobby, Casey put some paper down and did a hook slide. He told Chet, 'Here's how you do it.' The next day, Chet slid into second base and broke his leg again."
In 1939, Wietelmann broke into the big leagues with Boston because of an injury to another player. He remained with Boston until 1946, then he was traded to Pittsburgh.
In nine major league seasons, Wietelmann compiled a .232 lifetime average.
"I was a good fielder but not too much of a hitter," he said. "I liked to run, but they didn't steal too many bases in those days."
In 1948, Wietelmann was traded to Cleveland's minor league team in San Diego, and the city stole his heart. He loved the climate, especially compared to the Ohio weather he had been raised in.
"I went back to Ohio and shoveled snow that winter," Wietelmann said. "When I got back to San Diego, I called my mother. I said, 'I'm not going back there again.' I have never gone back, except for my mother's funeral."
During the time since, Wietelmann has established himself as Mr. Baseball of San Diego.