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JERRY CROWE / CROWE'S NEST

Rich Pohle has some tales to tell

He says he once so convincingly forged a phony identity that the San Diego Padres signed him to a contract even though he actually was 36.

August 25, 2009|JERRY CROWE

Thirty-five years ago this summer, a 21-year-old Aussie named Rocky Perone made his professional baseball debut.

Except he wasn't 21.

He wasn't Australian.

And he wasn't Rocky Perone.

He was Rich Pohle, who grew up in Maine but so convincingly forged a phony identity that the San Diego Padres signed him to a contract even though he actually was 36 and, when not in character, spoke with a thick New England accent.

Pohle (pronounced POH-lee) made it through only one minor league game in Idaho before he was found out, but the infielder's tale of determination and deception endured after he wrote a first-person account of it for Sports Illustrated in 1979.

As Pohle proudly notes, "I cheated the Establishment."

He is 71 now but still trying to pass for younger. He wears a jet-black wig cut in the 1970s style once worn by his favorite player, Pete Rose. He dates women 30 to 40 years his junior, a friend says. And he still spends most days on a baseball diamond.

He and son Rich Pohle Jr., who played in the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners organizations, run Rich Pohle Baseball Development, a private teaching academy that guides aspiring ballplayers of all ages through the game's fundamentals.

"Some guys would quit and get a deadbeat job behind a computer," Pohle sniffs during an interview at Clark Regional Park in Buena Park. "Come on! I'm out here in the air, man."

And, as he notes without a trace of remorse, he is still trying to cheat The Man. Pohle claims he has advised about half a dozen prospects to follow his lead, conning their way into pro contracts by pretending to be somebody they are not.

Asked if he feels guilty about that, he looks up suddenly and shouts, "Hell, no. Are you kidding me? Guilt? What guilt?"

Pohle claims he understands firsthand the frustration and desperation of a young ballplayer who believes in his heart that, all evidence to the contrary, he is destined to be a pro. He claims he knows all too well the pain of rejection, of being told you're not quite good enough or, worse yet, too old.

"It was the sort of thing," he wrote in his Sports Illustrated account, "that could turn an honest man into a liar."

Pohle's lie was to knock 15 years off his age, which he says he knew would be easier to pull off if he presented himself as a foreigner without ready access to a birth certificate.

Years earlier, he claims, the Kansas City Athletics had cut him loose after he'd developed pneumonia and lost 16 pounds on the eve of spring training. He then spent time playing ball in Australia, he claims, so he figured he could pass himself off as Australian.

Gleaning tips on how to make himself look younger, Pohle claims he visited beauty parlors and cosmetic specialists. He got facials and massages and mudpacks. To hide a heavy black beard, he taught himself how to shave closely without cutting himself. He bought a wig, watched what he ate and drank, got plenty of sleep and kept his face out of the sun as much as possible.

Living in Huntington Beach at the time with his sister, Pohle says he figured he'd have a better chance of maintaining his new identity in Florida, where fewer people knew him.

In Florida, Pohle claims, he used his regular voice to phone scouts, telling them he was a baseball-savvy importer-exporter who in his travels had come across a young Aussie prospect named Rocky Perone. Perone, he told them, was in Florida looking at colleges but probably would be open to a tryout.

As Perone, wearing a Dutch Boy painter's cap and addressing everyone as "mate," Pohle claims he tried out for the Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Padres bit.

Offering a contract, they assigned him to their Class-A farm team in Walla Walla, Wash., where Pohle claims he hid his face with creams and powders, shaved three times a day and, last but not least, actually had to make the team.

Fearing detection, the faux Aussie says he ate his meals at a local American Legion hall, never socializing with his teammates. Even at "21," he was the oldest player on the team.

Finally, in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Lewiston, Idaho, Pohle made his professional baseball debut. He was one for two with a walk and a stolen base, feeling as if he actually was 21.

Unfortunately, he claims, the opposing manager recognized him from years earlier and revealed his secret.

The jig was up.

The next day, he was gone.

Back in California, Pohle never stopped dreaming and scheming. According to his website, richpohle.com, he has worked as a scout for the Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. He has coached all over the world.

Tony Battaglia, whose son Connor has been tutored by Pohle, says of the coach, "He's a different character, that's for sure . . . but he knows the game of baseball. Does he know anything else? I have no idea. But he has a passion for the game."

A passion, some might suggest, that knows no bounds.

Pohle remains unapologetic, invoking Manny Ramirez.

"You think I did something wrong?" he says, incredulous at the thought. "Look at what Manny did."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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