Klein keeps hope alive for fringe players

February 20, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

It's not a summertime diversion for college players, nor is it a place for major-league organizations to assign still untested prospects. The Atlantic League is what it is, a concept that's different from anything else in professional baseball -- where veteran free agents can find an opportunity to play with the hope of being re-discovered.

Joe Klein, the president of the league, with offices in West Chester, Pa., is elated over what has happened and how the effort has fulfilled the goals intended. It's an accommodation for players and teams, a place where there's a salary to be made and a chance to be summoned by a major-league club.

Klein, who lives with his wife and family in Sykesville, is a graduate of Polytechnic Institute and has handled virtually every position in professional baseball: from minor-league first baseman for seven years to a general manager of three major-league clubs. His long suit has been player development, and one of the first prospects he recommended be brought to the major leagues was Mike Hargrove, now manager of the Orioles. That was with the Texas Rangers in 1974, and Hargrove immediately batted .323 and became the American League Rookie of the Year.

Now, Klein, instead of being beholden to one team, is caring for an entire league. Two new franchises have been awarded as the Atlantic prepares to enter its third season. For the first time, teams will be in Aberdeen and Central Islip, N.Y., joining established clubs known as the Atlantic City (N.J.) Surfs, Somerset (N.J.) Patriots, Newark (N.J.) Bears, Bridgeport (Conn.) Blue Fish, Nashua (N.H.) Pride and Lehigh (Pa.) Black Diamonds.

The Aberdeen team is in the process of selecting a name (perhaps Ironmen, Rips or Rippers) and discussions continue with Camden, N.J., and Worcester, Mass., about joining for next year. The Aberdeen club, operated by Peter Kirk, who also owns the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys and Delmarva Shorebirds, will have a temporary home at Harford Community College before moving into a park that should be ready in 2001.

It has been reported that Kirk will sell his three minor-league clubs to one of two unannounced bidders. One offer is contemplated from the Orioles, which would allow Kirk to concentrate on his new Aberdeen holdings.

Klein, 56, respected all over baseball for his years as a minor-league player, manager, scouting director and then general manager at Texas, Cleveland and Detroit, has created a reputation for his vision, sincerity, and knowledge of the game. He has provided the Atlantic circuit with a direction and a charge that has drawn attention and applause.

"Players sign with us, one-year contracts, for salaries averaging around $2,000 a month," he says. "Some are former major-leaguers hoping for a chance to return. If they are playing in Japan, Mexico, Korea or Taiwan, they don't have that kind of flexibility.

"Our league is where major-league clubs look for experienced players that aren't in their farm system when they have a specific need. We give passed-over major-league free agents and minor-league free agents, with at least six years' status, a chance to play. Some have been to spring training and want to complete a season, considering the investment they have in time and a chance to see if they can still attract major-league interest."

In the Atlantic's first season, the average player's age was 26. Last year, it was 25 1/2. Thirty-nine players were called up to the majors in the first two years, which indicates the Atlantic League is achieving what it was intended to do.

Additionally, 15 managers and coaches, including 10 minorities, are now working for major-league organizations, which is another area of opportunity that gives the Atlantic a special identity.

"There are five independent leagues in the country, but none of them play at the level we do," adds Klein. "On a given night, we might offer the quality of Triple-A baseball. We use the same bats and balls as in the majors, and we're heavily scouted, which is appealing to the players.

"Rather than being caught up in a contract overseas that won't let them leave, we offer the ideal option for the player and interested teams."

The acceptance of the Atlantic League is as much a tribute to Klein as it is to anyone. He has continuing respect all over baseball for the type of individual he is. General managers, farm directors and agents hold the highest regard for Klein and believe what he's doing is an absolute service to baseball.

He's not a high-profile personality, but he is easy to meet and well-spoken, and he has stayed current with the changing trends in the game. "Our league is a working project," he says. "Eventually, big-league clubs may be able to bring younger players to Triple-A earlier and reduce the price of operation. Now about 70 percent of the minor-league overall budget goes to Triple-A."

Meanwhile, another element of the Atlantic League is about to be explored, according to Klein. A shortstop named Bobby Hill, drafted in the second round by the Chicago White Sox in June, dropped out of the University of Miami and is ineligible to be signed.

He'll play this year for Newark and hopes to enhance his value while waiting for the moment as an ex-college student to negotiate or else go back in the draft.

The Atlantic League offers extensive possibilities for further growth and development. Joe Klein recognized the need, and it's being achieved.

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