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RED-HOT FACTORY FOR THE PROS
John Schulian
August 12, 1974
While manufacturing amateur titles, a Baltimore sandlot team stamps out major league products
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August 12, 1974

Red-hot Factory For The Pros

While manufacturing amateur titles, a Baltimore sandlot team stamps out major league products

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Little doubt exists that Walter inherited many of his values from Youse, who is said to have responded to elimination from one AAABA tournament by burning his uniform in the ball park parking lot. Nor is there much doubt that Youse, who now functions as general manager, is still the dominant force on The Team, even though his crust is not as tough as it once was.

Youse's specialty has always been profane sermons against pleasures of the flesh. Time has forced him to devote almost as much attention to coiffures. "Long hair is fine," he says. "Just don't bring it to the ball park." Still, he has mellowed to the point where second-year players can get away with calling him Walter, and boldness reached new heights last season when the blue ball bag Youse never lets out of his sight became known to The Team as Walter's Son.

"You can see how much our kids have changed today," says Youse. "They don't have chips on their shoulders. They're not fighters." What they continue to be are quality ballplayers, who are either too good for American Legion or too young and inexperienced for a fast college summer league. "It's the best thing that can happen to you if you want to play pro ball," says Rick Senger, a Leone's graduate who caught for five years in the Met's organization. "If you can make it through a summer with this club, I'll guarantee you can make it through any minor league camp."

Johnny's plays eight games a week from June through the middle of August, a considerable number by any team's standards, but that may be the least demanding aspect of the program. The venerable twilight league ritual of showing up at 5:55 for a six p.m. game has been scratched by the management, which has told the players to arrive for infield and batting practice not later than 4:30. That means it is advisable to be there at four.

"Sometimes I think the games are easier than the practices," says Bernie Walter. "Our pitchers may throw harder in batting practice than the pitchers we face in the game. Our infielders are taking ground balls. Everybody's doing something, and everything our kids do on the baseball field is observed by somebody. We practice with pressure."

It is not unusual to see Johnny's stay after a game to work on sliding or relay plays while the team it has just throttled goes home to showers, food and girl friends. "Everybody believes he's going to play professional baseball," says Lehigh University Pitcher Paul Hartzell, who won 17 games without a loss for Johnny's last summer. "When you're all working for the same thing, it's really very easy."

For two years it was easy enough for Chris Knepp. Then this spring, Knepp, a 3.9 student in economics at the University of North Carolina, decided his summers should include more than catching five games a week. "There are times when I'd just like to go home after work and read a book or play tennis with a friend," says Knepp, who is in his third and final season with Johnny's. He thought a knee condition was going to get him off a year early, but it cleared up and he tried to talk his way out of playing. Youse and Walter, afraid it was too late to line up a quality replacement, would not let him go. "We made a deal where I'm going to get some time off," Knepp says. "I don't know exactly when though." The important thing for Youse and Walter was that they had back a hitter who is now batting .431.

The price of fielding The Team has become fatter than its catcher's batting average. In 1972 two of the Leone brothers decided that they were in over their heads, no matter how many beers they sold. Not that they had failed to capitalize on The Team's success. They had scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings and trophies in the tavern's front window and on top of the piano and air conditioner. Dominic, the last Leone associated with The Team—he also dropped out in 1973—had parlayed the publicity into a seat on the city council, where in one of his rare speeches he introduced an anti-beanball bill. The cost of sponsoring The Team had shot from $1,000 a year to a minimum of $5,000, and since 1970 the Leones had been sharing the burden with Maryland's busiest car dealer, John H. Wilbanks, who says, "The H is for Handsome." Sharing did not do anything for the ego of Georgia-born Johnny, who already had made a local name for himself as a big spender. He backed everything from girls' softball teams to country-music radio shows, and last season The Team was all his. Wilbanks, who claims the world lost a great hitter when a train crushed his legs 30 years ago, has not made a secret of his benevolence. "I wish I'd had a sponsor like me when I was playin'," he says.

Youse has found Wilbanks on the up and up, which is sometimes more than can be said of Youse, at least on the diamond. In The Team's formative years many pitchers learned the spitball from Youse. The balls that were not dampened were often frozen. Youse even had a tree house, equipped with a high-powered telescope, built in center field at Swann Park to steal catchers' signals. The justification was that such trickery was the equalizer when Youse's kids ran into ball clubs loaded with ex-professionals. "Now that we have powerhouses of our own, we don't do that kind of stuff," Youse says.

It would seem, however, that The Team has been a powerhouse all along. Leone's 1959 All-American Amateur Baseball Association champions had six pitchers sign with the Orioles, and two of them, Tom Phoebus and John Miller, made it to the majors. After Leone's won in Johnstown in 1967, 15 of the 18 players on the roster signed pro contracts. The best pitching The Team ever received—42 shutouts in 88 games—came last year. The pitchers who threw most of them, Mitch Lukevics and Hartzell, were from Pennsylvania, a point some of The Team's old enemies tried to use to shut out Johnny's this year.

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