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Life in the Minors: Only Dreams Are Big League : All the Same, for Players Such as Jerry Keller, It's a Life They Wouldn't Change

May 13, 1985|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

Cooper recalls he once had a pitcher nicknamed Boom-Boom because he was so unreliable. He spent seven years in the minors before he emerged as the Yankees' stopper of the '60s, Luis Arroyo. It took him that long to come up with his screwball.

Neither major league clubs nor minor league players are as patient these days. As Bill Cutler, president of the Pacific Coast League says: "In the old PCL, it wasn't unusual for players to spend their whole time in the minors. I guess it's not unusual today, either, except their whole time won't be a long time." Nowadays, things have to develop more quickly. Time is money. In a country where the interstate freeway might well be the metaphor of our time, who takes the slow road? As with other disciplines, baseball is up-or-out, and quickly.

Jerry Keller, 30, is among a handful of exceptions, players whose promise has long since been denied but who somehow have made themselves valuable or popular enough at this level to keep retirement at bay. There are others who have gone neither up nor out. Tucker Ashford, now at Portland, has been knocking around for 11 years. Casey Parsons, with Louisville, has spent nine years in the minors. Keller, however, is the only player never to have enjoyed, as they say in baseball, even a cup of coffee with a major league team.

He is, in other words, a throwback, a reminder of the kind of player who punched in and out, earning his living the best he knew how. Dreaming a little on the side, too. You can't help that.

Keller, like all the other 20-year-old phenoms, had a right to his dreams at the beginning. He had a right to think he was just like the other prospects, on a career path that would take him to the major leagues, even if it did stop shy of Cooperstown. This is his story, baseball's oldest:

He was an all-conference catcher at Eastern Michigan, calling signals for pitchers such as Bob Welch and Bob Owchinko. He was a baseball hero, the typical jock. Keller laughs half-heartedly at his own admission. "We cared about girls and staying eligible," he says. "Dumb but true. Baseball was everything."

At that time it was certainly enough. An erratic arm and speed that was decidedly sub-sonic, made him something less than a sure shot. But his bat was quick enough to compel Atlanta to draft him in the 10th round, neither high nor low. He was about to live the dream.

"I signed in '76, went to the rookie league and hit .370, then to A-ball where I hit about .300 with seven or eight homers," Keller says. "Then (next year) I'm in the instructional league hitting .320 with 11 homers. This is easy. I'm 22, I'm invited to spring training where Willie Montanez is starting slow. I'm a hot prospect."

But not so hot to beat out Montanez. That's too much to ask. He is, all the same, promoted to Class AA and to the scouts' amazement, hitting about .340 after 60 at-bats. He is on his way, quick, on a major league career path for sure.

Keller, good-natured even as he remembers the fall to come, looks out upon the field where the pitchers, every batter's natural enemy, warm up in the sunlight. "The pitchers, then began giving me this," he said, flicking his wrist, baseball sign language for a curveball.

Keller has been found out. He finishes the year with a .253 average. "It's 1978, I'm 23, and suddenly there are no plans to get me to the big leagues fast."

Well, there is that career path, too. Thing is, that's usually when the career ends. But Keller persevered, hoping his power at least might generate interest. Any interest. Atlanta promoted him to Richmond, its Class AAA team in 1979 and he showed promise at that level. He batted .255 and hit 21 home runs. Anything can happen.

But in 1980 he was struck in the face with a pitch and he went nearly 50 at-bats after that, struggling for self-confidence, without a hit. He finished at .197, though he did hit 20 home runs. In 1981 he again was struck in the face with a pitch. Same struggle. Finished at .191, with 22 home runs. "I thought I had proved myself at every level," he says. "Then 1980 and 1981. I'm not a prospect any more."

He is instead a career minor leaguer, or the closest thing to it. The parent club has all but forgotten him. But everybody loves a home run hitter, even if that's all he can do. Anyway, even now, not everybody on every team is a prospect. Why not keep somebody the fans like? The fans like Keller. At Richmond in 1982 he hit 28 home runs. He was signed to Portland the next year as a free agent. He hit 28 home runs. The Toronto Blue Jays signed him to their Syracuse franchise and he hit 28 home runs in 1984. The team has given him a car to use and they promote him heavily. He gets the biggest roar of all the Chiefs when he comes to the plate.

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