Proud ballplayer needs someone to bat for him

This Just In...

June 28, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

A BALTIMORE boy, the baby in a Wagner's Point family of 14, Ted Sepkowski was wild about the one thing that inspired so many kids throughout the century, especially during the Depression. Growing up by the smoky factories of southeastern Baltimore, he prayed that God would make him a big-leaguer. He shined shoes, polished cars and cleaned rowhouse yards to earn money for his first glove. He wanted more than anything to play baseball in a flannel uniform.

Then, in what must have seemed like an instant, Sepkowski found himself in a big park in Cleveland, surrounded by the Indians. He looked over and there was the great Ted Williams, visiting with the Red Sox, taking batting practice. It was 1942. The war had started, but Williams hadn't left for it yet.

Sepkowski was 19. The kid from Wagner's Point must have been tempted to pinch himself.

Within a few months, he'd hopped from Mount St. Joseph High School to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League to the Indians infield. One sudden summer moment, he was living every boy's dream, and making $200 a month.

"Ted, you're my second baseman today," he remembers the Cleveland manager, Lou Boudreau, telling him.

He remembers Ted Williams getting up to bat, and the umpire granting Williams a walk on a 3-2 pitch that looked like a strike. When the Cleveland catcher, Jim Hegan, gave the ump a hard time about the call, he took off his mask, tapped Hegan on the shoulder and said, "This fella hit .406 last year, he's got better eyes than I have."

When the Indians traveled aboard a train, the older guys suggested Sepkowski rest his throwing arm in the net sling on the wall in his berth. "You were supposed to put your clothing in the sling," he says. "But I slept with my arm in it."

Remarkably, he didn't get a sore arm from the experience. Just a bruised ego.

Sepkowski, who's 75 and lives in Anne Arundel County, loves to tell that story. He didn't have a lot of major league time, so he savors the memories the way some men savor old coins. The player register of The Baseball Encyclopedia records Ted Sepkowski as having played in 19 games -- 17 with the Indians, two with the Yankees in 1942, 1946 and 1947. He had six hits in 26 at-bats.

Most of his playing days were in minor-league towns in Oklahoma, Florida and New York. He played on a Coast Guard team out of Curtis Bay during the war. He had 15 years in professional baseball, in the days before the players' association and a pension fund. He gets no retirement benefits from his years as a player and manager.

"Boy," Sepkowski says, pondering modern baseball salaries and benefits, "them boys got it made nowadays."

When he played ball, Sepkowski picked up an addiction to chewing tobacco, the curse of old ballplayers. (And some active ones. Curt Schilling, ace of the Phillies pitching staff, is back chewing the stuff -- after swearing it off last year when doctors removed a lesion from his mouth.)

A few years ago at Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors found cancer in Ted Sepkowski's mouth. The old habit cost him a piece of his tongue.

And his teeth. They turned black during radiation therapy. He had the teeth pulled. His gums had weakened; they were not strong enough to support dentures. Sepkowski got dental implants, instead. That procedure cost $10,000. But Medicare refused to pay for it. Neither the removal of teeth after radiation nor implants are covered by the program.

He's appealing, arguing that he needs the teeth to eat properly.

Sepkowski is a retired Sun employee who gets a modest pension from the newspaper, along with his Social Security benefits. Ten thousand bucks -- about what Orioles right fielder Albert Belle makes for one inning of baseball -- is a steep fee, even with the understanding doctors who repaired his mouth. Sepkowski appealed to the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps former ballplayers and their families. BAT came through with $4,000.

"That was great," says Sepkowski, self-conscious about appearing to beg for help.

He's hoping his Medicare appeal will come through. I'm hoping some big-leaguer reads this and sends the guy a check.

Spiritual journey

I knew the classy and congenial Ed Byer, as a lot of Baltimoreans did, from his gourmet cheese stall in Cross Street Market. "Ed Byer should be credited for bringing to Cross Street Market a clientele that used to shop at just the upscale stores in the city," said Tom Chagouris of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. "And you know what? Every merchant in here benefited. It made us better merchants."

I have to tell a story about Ed.

He knew of my love for the outdoors. He used to get after me to hike the trail along the Gunpowder River in Perry Hall, near U.S. 1. He thought the hike to Sweathouse Branch was one of the prettiest in the region. It was touched by the spirits of Native Americans, too. They'd made therapeutic steam lodges there centuries ago. A hike to Sweathouse would do me good, Ed said.

I took his advice, but put off the hike -- for about five years.

Then, last week, I took the kids out there. We hiked west from U.S. 1, through the cool woods, along the slow-moving river, toward the Sweathouse area. I thought of Ed Byer, of course. I hadn't thought about him in months. We'd fallen out of touch.

I had planned to call him to tell him I'd finally made the trip. But, as I soon learned, Ed Byer died Wednesday in his house in South Baltimore -- the same day I took the hike he had long insisted would be good for my spirits.

Pub Date: 06/28/99

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