Unlikely All-Stars savor day

July 11, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- They are conspicuous by their presence at the 66th Major League All-Star Game, because they had every reason to think they wouldn't be here.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Steve Ontiveros once quit baseball. Walked away for good, because his arm couldn't take the stress. was finished with the game, he was sure, and learned he could live without it.

Two years ago, Heathcliff Slocumb was fighting his way out of the minor leagues and trying to cope with the unexpected death of his wife, trying to raise two children.

Jim Riggleman and Terry Collins never got out of the minor leagues as players, and just six years ago, both were managing and hoping to get to the majors somehow, some way. Kevin Seitzer was released twice, and thought his career might be over.

They are all here, and for each, this is a special time.

*

Every day, for five years, Steve Ontiveros felt pain in his arm. On the underside of his elbow, serious, jabbing pain. He had reconstructive surgery and, still, the pain. He came back once, in 1991, pitched well for seven starts and believed he was on the verge of getting back to the big leagues, with the Philadelphia Phillies.

But pitching one night for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he was walking off the mound after the first inning and felt pain again. Except this pain was on the outside of his elbow, where he never had felt pain before.

The same day the Phillies released him shortly thereafter, Ontiveros found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, and he decided to leave baseball. And he did. Didn't pitch again in 1991, or in 1992.

"Baseball was my life, but once I was away from baseball, I realized that I could live without it," he said.

In the fall of 1992, he was helping a friend at a charity function, playing with some kids, when he starting throwing a football around. Right away, he recognized something strange: He felt ++ no pain. He kept throwing. No pain. The next morning, he woke up expecting the worst. But there was no pain.

He got back into baseball the next year and pitched 14 games for the Seattle Mariners. He re-signed with the Athletics for 1994; he had come up with the A's, at the time his arm began hurting. Ontiveros believed he had some unfinished business with Oakland.

He led the AL with a 2.65 ERA, and this year, he's 8-3 with a 3.09 ERA.

"It's an absolute miracle," Ontiveros said yesterday, "that I'm here."

*

Two years ago, Heathcliff Slocumb's wife, Deborah, died of breast cancer, and suddenly he became a single parent of two young children. For almost 10 years, he had been trying to establish himself in baseball, bouncing around the minor leagues, learning how to control his fastball. Now he would have to do so as he bore the responsibility of parenthood alone, and as he mourned the loss of his wife.

Slocumb was signed by the New York Mets in 1984, taken in the Rule V draft by the Chicago Cubs in 1989, and in 1993, they traded him to the Cleveland Indians. That fall, he was traded again to the Phillies. Four organizations in five years and, at best, Slocumb was seen as a middle reliever.

He believed he had gotten a handle on parenthood. Deborah's mother would take care of his children when he was on the road and, Slocumb said, his kids had come to understand: One day, Daddy would be home for good, to take care of them all the time. But now, he's playing baseball.

Slocumb was the setup man for Doug Jones in 1994, and pitching well enough so that by the end of the year, he could hear fans yelling to Philadelphia manager Jim Fregosi to give him a chance to save games.

Jones left after the '94 season, eventually signing with the Orioles, but the Phillies planned on using Norm Charlton as the closer. However, Charlton was having trouble recovering from elbow surgery and, Slocumb says now, he could sense that Fregosi was thinking about using him as a closer.

Finally, Slocumb got his chance the first week of the season, and Fregosi pulled him aside, afterward. "This is the first of many," he told Slocumb. "You're going to get the ball."

Slocumb has 20 saves now, which ranks second in the NL.

"Coming here," he said, looking around, "is very special to me."

*

Montreal manager Felipe Alou was an All-Star when he played, but once his career was over, he went back to the minor leagues to manage. For years, he was passed over for promotions, despite a growing reputation for handling players until, finally, in 1992, the Expos hired him.

After he was named NL All-Star manager earlier this year, he decided to pick, as his two coaches, Chicago's Jim Riggleman and Houston's Terry Collins -- who both had managed in the minors for 11 years, and who never had advanced beyond the minors as players.

"I looked around and I saw two young guys who were doing a good job with their teams," Alou said. "The Astros had a good year last year with Collins, and the Cubs -- who had been a last-place team -- are having a good year with Riggleman.

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