3 teens took to field of dreams 2 defied odds in reaching glory

March 09, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

They were three aspirants hoping to live an incredible dream: the major leagues. But in the starkness of reality, they were prohibitive long shots. The biblical reference to many being called but few chosen was applicable.

A left-handed pitcher from Norristown, Pa., a second baseman out of St. Thomas, Pa., and a catcher whose home was in Baltimore. They were the same age, 17, hoping to achieve a baseball identity, fueled by similar ambitions toward infinite goals that required a demanding apprenticeship.

This was the minor leagues, where hopes were perpetually high, but disappointment too often prevailed. World War II was winding down, men returning from the military to rejoin teams and rosters were crowded.

The pitcher in question was Tom Lasorda, sent by the Philadelphia Phillies to Concord, N.C.; the second baseman was Nelson Fox, whose contract was owned by the Philadelphia A's and who was playing in Lancaster, Pa., and the catcher divided his time between York, Pa., and Salisbury, N.C., two Pittsburgh Pirates affiliates.

Lasorda didn't exactly dominate the North Carolina State League with a record of 3-12, and Fox, although a contact hitter, arbitrarily wasn't considered a prospect. It was generally agreed he wouldn't get much higher than where he was, the Interstate League.

Playing alongside Fox at first base was a towering physical specimen, one Bob Moyer, who came within a fraction of a point of winning the league batting title with an average of .342. He had size, power and was considered the likely successor to Hank Greenberg with the Detroit Tigers.

But that prospectus never worked out. Moyer advanced to Buffalo of the International League, then dropped to the Texas League and was another example of impressive talent going unfulfilled. But when Fox and Moyer were on the same team, there was no debate on which one had been endowed with pTC enormous natural ability; it was Moyer.

Meanwhile, Fox inched his way through the minor leagues and had parts of three seasons with the A's, but the wise and venerable manager, Connie Mack, although impressed with his tenacity, didn't believe he belonged, trading him to the Chicago White Sox for catcher Joe Tipton.

To Fox's credit, he was a self-made player who refused to back away, and ultimately proved he could play with baseball's best. He stayed in the major leagues for 19 years, batted more than .300 for six seasons and struck out a mere 216 times in 9,232 trips to the plate.

In 1958, he struck out on just 11 batting attempts in 155 games. Remarkably, he never went over 18 strikeouts in any one year. Always going to the maximum in individual effort, bothersome to the opposition by constantly fouling off pitches and making himself a general nuisance in deciding the outcome.

"That great little guy must have robbed me of 100 hits," said Ted Williams, who cast one of the votes this past week for Fox's election to the Hall of Fame. Fox epitomized fortitude, enormous desire and, to his everlasting credit, exceeded his own ability by ignoring how the scouts measured him, this mere 5 feet 7, 150 pounds of quiet intensity.

Fox, indeed, made his way, and justifiably, to the Hall of Fame. As for Lasorda, he took a different route. He pitched in only 26 major-league games. Ever gregarious, he was a combative competitor, knocking down hitters, getting involved in fights. But he was to make his mark as a manager -- combining exceptional qualifications as a leader, a teacher and motivator.

In 20 years of managing the Dodgers, he won four pennants and two World Series, and his personality caused Williams to say: "I believe he's the third-greatest goodwill ambassador the game has ever had, behind only Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel."

The Dodgers started him as a rookie-league manager and next advanced him all the way to Triple-A, an unprecedented move.

"I don't know if that will ever happen again," Lasorda said. "I owe it all to the O'Malley family giving me a chance and to Al Campanis, the man who helped Jackie Robinson when he broke the color line. Campanis was always pushing me as a manager and saying I had ability when others may have doubted."

Lasorda, as part of his charm, seemingly never forgets a name or an incident. Asked to relate details of when he played at Christobal in the Panama Winter League, he said: "I played for Al Kubski, as smart a manager as they come. He was from Baltimore and had two players from your city in Bill Sweiger, who was killed in the Korean War, and Don 'Tex' Warfield."

When Lasorda was pitching in the minors, there was evidence he didn't lose track of what had happened in the past. A veteran outfielder, Buster Mills, was playing his way down from the majors to the minors and Lasorda was either knocking him down or deliberately hitting him with a pitch.

"That's for refusing to give me your autograph when I was a kid," was the astonishing explanation Lasorda gave him. Yes, he triggered a fight that time, too.

So now Fox, posthumously (he died in 1975), and Lasorda have attained the highest honor their game can bestow. And as for the nondescript catcher, he became a broken-down sportswriter, the same one putting together these humble words in tribute to the joy he receives in realizing what Fox and Lasorda have achieved.

Hopefully, if the Good Lord wills it, we'll be in Cooperstown this summer to stand in the audience and applaud such monumental accomplishments.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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