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It's Bottom of the Ninth for These Big League Hopefuls

September 08, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

RICHLAND, Wash. — Gino Minutelli never pitched before this summer, but one hot August evening, the strapping Tri-Cities Triplet left-hander, his fast ball blazing, struck out 15 batters in slightly over seven innings.

Because, overall, he struck out 78 batters in only 56 innings for the Class A minor league baseball team, the hurler from National City near San Diego will probably be sold to a more advanced team before next season.

Meanwhile, Bruce Young, 23, a 6-3, 195-pound pitcher from Cal State Long Beach, probably ended his career when he posted a 2-2 record for the same team.

"This year was pretty emotionally and physically draining," he said after the Triplets finished with a 33-41 record to tie for third place among four teams in the Washington Division of the Northwest League.

"It took the wind out of my sails. I'm basically looking forward to completing my college education and settling down with my girl.

"I can pitch, but I don't feel I have stuff to make it to the majors. I don't see myself withering away in the minor leagues."

Minutelli and Young were among 25 players who pursued their version of the American dream on an independent minor league team this summer. It was also a living fantasy for four Los Angeles men, who bought the team last winter.

When attorney Dick Leavitt and partners Jerry Salzman, Sam Goldstein and Marvin Levine purchased the team, however, they were unable to get many players from the usual source: major league teams.

Holding tryouts across the country, they filled the team roster with athletes who had been released by other organizations or who had never been drafted.

Like their manager, who wanted to manage again in a major league organization, and like Leavitt, a lifetime fan who wanted to affiliate with a big league team, Triplets players clung to the hope that an organization would see them play, buy their contracts and give them one last chance at the major leagues.

Late last week, several days after the close of the season, none of the Triplets' players had been sold. However, scouts who watched the team during the season had filed favorable reports and Leavitt had received offers for at least three athletes. He expected to conduct some business soon.

How far they would go is another matter. Players who reach the major leagues from independent teams are as rare as unflawed pearls.

Bill Schweppe, vice president of minor league operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, said the use of about 500 full-time and many part-time scouts by major league teams makes it almost impossible for a major talent to remain undiscovered for long.

Larker an Example

But, Schweppe said, they do appear. He recalled that Dodger first-baseman/outfielder Norm Larker, acquired from an unaffiliated team in Hazleton, Pa., hit .289 in 1959 and helped the Dodgers win the World Series. The next year, he batted .323.

The would-be Larkers on the Triplets played every day or evening for 11 weeks, with only two nights off, representing the 114,000 residents of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco in southeastern Washington.

They routinely took afternoon batting practice in 100-degree heat, often using cracked bats that they had nailed and wrapped with tape in a money-saving effort typical of minor league baseball.

They worked for as little as $400 a month and $11-a-day meal money. On one occasion, players said, their uniforms were not cleaned for a week.

Memorable Moments

The summer had its memorable moments. Before one game, players frolicked in the outfield teaching a dog to jump over a bat in front of a dog food sign on the stadium wall.

Once, the team bus reached Bellingham, Wash., before players realized that a teammate had been left in a roadside restroom hours earlier.

But most Triplets played nervously, looking over their shoulders for the major league inquiry that did not come.

"The pressure on most of them has got to be great," owner Leavitt said over lunch during the final week of the season.

"Their whole career is on the line. If they don't do well here they probably won't be able to play anymore and what that leaves them is questionable in many cases.

"Especially right now, they're worried. They're tired, worn out and emotionally troubled because they don't know (what's going to happen). They keep coming to me all the time and asking, 'Is there any interest?' "

"You get anxious, especially at this time of the season," said Matt Butcher, a Los Angeles infielder who hit .250 for the Triplets after being released by the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners organizations in 1984. "You start to wonder if you haven't heard and you start to think of your options.

"Do you want to come back and play on an independent team? Do you want to go back and finish school?" said Butcher, who played at Loyola High School, West Los Angeles College and the University of Nebraska. "Or do you just want to get a 9-to-5 job and put the cleats in the closet?"

Wouldn't Blame Himself

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