His gut large, his nose crooked, his pride wounded, I and his World Series batting average a whopping .153, Creighton (Goobie) Gubanich gripped a bottle of Cash-man Field's finest bubbly (estimated price, $1.42) late last Thursday night and refused to let go. He would take swigs every now and then, cherishing the smooth liquid as it oozed down his throat. At one point, a teammate yelled over to him, "Hey, Goobie! We did it, Goobie! We did it!"
Goobie did not hear. He was in his own world. Planet Goobie. Moments earlier, Gubanich—journeyman catcher for the Indianapolis Indians—had caught the final pitch of the Triple A World Series, a split-finger fastball from closer Bob Scanlan that darted past the bat of Memphis Redbirds shortstop Luis Garcia and sealed the Indians' three-games-to-one romp. Gubanich jumped, jogged toward the mound and hugged Scanlan, who raised his gangly arms high above his head. For a moment, it was as if the Indians had upset the Atlanta Braves to win the World Series.
But Goobie is a realist. He knew better. This was Las Vegas, home of Danny Gans, Tommy Tune, $3.99 breakfast buffets and, above all, crapshoot dreams. Two nights earlier, with the Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League and the Indians of the International League tied at two in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 2, Gubanich created the memorable moment of an otherwise forgettable series, taking Jose Rodriguez's full-count fastball and slamming it over the leftfield wall for the game-winning walk-off homer and a 2-0 series advantage. When he reached home plate, Gubanich was pounded on the back and helmet by his teammates, all of whom chanted GOO-BIE! with the enthusiasm of a Pac-10 pep squad.
It was nice, real nice. But like many of his peers on the veteran-laced Indians (15 of whom have major league experience), Gubanich relished the Triple A World Series the way a hog relishes bacon bits. Two of the four games started at noon in 100� heat. For the opener on Sept. 18, there were fewer than 150 fans. (The announced attendance, 1,939, included Elvis Presley and 1,700 of his closest invisible friends.) Team buses were late, the traditional free T-shirts never arrived, the clubhouses were semiputrid, and—worst of all—there was no Wayne Newton to sing the national anthem.
Surely, somewhere there is a major league team in need of a hard-nosed, clutch-hitting gamer. "I know I'm a big-league catcher," says Gubanich, who batted .284 for the Indians in the regular season. "I just know it. If I could just get the chance and have some time to show my abilities. That's all I want."
He is yet another in the long, unbroken line of Crash Davises—28 years old, with 10 years of professional experience and once-upon-a-time potential. Way back in 1990 the Oakland A's made Gubanich their sixth-round pick, out of Phoenixville (Pa.) Area High. He was 18 and dazzled enough by a five-figure signing bonus to turn down a baseball scholarship to Texas A&M. "I thought it would be so easy," he says. "I was on a fast road to the majors."
The road turned out to be winding and rough. Gubanich failed to dazzle the A's, who grew impatient with his mediocre defense and inconsistent bat. He was often stubborn and lazy, unwilling to make necessary sacrifices. He could—and still can-be loud and abrasive and ornery. Last season, after having signed as a minor league free agent with the Boston Red Sox, he spent part of the year with their Triple A affiliate, Pawtucket. On April 15 Gubanich was in his Pawtucket apartment when Gary Jones, his manager, called. "We've got a problem here at the stadium," Jones said. "We need you to come down."
When Gubanich arrived, Jones stuck out his hand and congratulated his catcher. The Red Sox were calling him up. In a May 3 game against Oakland, Gubanich became the fourth player in major league history to get a grand slam as his first hit. "The greatest 84 days of my life were the 84 days I was with the Red Sox last year," says Gubanich, who hit .277 with 11 RBIs as a replacement for catcher Scott Hatteberg, who was on the DL. But Boston, with a glut of catchers in its system, didn't re-sign Gubanich.
Everywhere he goes, Gubanich is certain to mention his 84 days. It is his medicine—his reminder to fight the negative feelings, to keep dreaming. Three times this year the Milwaukee Brewers, Indianapolis's parent club, needed to add a catcher to their roster. Three times they ignored Gubanich. "It's been tough on him," says Steve Smith, the Indy manager. "He has the skills to be a major league backup, but baseball is about opportunities. If you don't get 'em...."
This was the tie that bound all too many of the Triple A World Series participants—a common belief that there were bigger and better games to be playing. It is also the reason Triple A bigwigs should consider scrapping the three-year-old event. (Instead, it will return to Vegas next year as a best-of-three series.) Save for the handful of players (Scanlan and Memphis second baseman Stubby Clapp, for example) who were genuinely inspired by the thought of a Triple A ring, the Indians and the Red-birds would have preferred to be somewhere, anywhere besides Cashman Field. They were men who felt robbed of opportunity and showed it through indifferent, let's-hit-the-slots attitudes. With the heat and an empty stadium, who could blame them? Moaned one Memphis pitcher, "Who thought of this stupid idea anyway?"