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The over-the-hill league
Bill Colson
June 04, 1979
The new Inter-American circuit, which has franchises from Miami to Maracaibo, is giving veterans a chance to play—except when immigration officials bench them
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June 04, 1979

The Over-the-hill League

The new Inter-American circuit, which has franchises from Miami to Maracaibo, is giving veterans a chance to play—except when immigration officials bench them

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Miami Manager—and sometime player—Dave Johnson, a three-time Gold Glove winner with Baltimore and a .262 lifetime hitter, sees a need for a league that welcomes older players.

"The system isn't conducive to breeding talent anymore," he says. "The real problem is that, as a rule, scouts and minor league managers are incompetent judges of ability. Usually they were .220 hitters who couldn't get jobs outside of baseball.

"You can't imagine the number of talented players these guys have hurt or overlooked. The Yankees were using the best pitcher in baseball, Ron Guidry, as a reliever in the minors. Also, with expansion and the rush to get kids into the majors came the elimination from Triple A ball of the veteran player. Instead of being a tough educational step to the big leagues, Triple A has become nothing more than glorified Double A. Owners didn't really appreciate the value of having young prospects playing against veterans."

Veterans are one thing the IAL has plenty of. The league boasts such golden oldies as 38-year-old Cesar Tovar, 35-year-old Dave May, 35-year-old Clarence (Cito) Gaston and 36-year-old Adolfo Phillips. And most of them can still play. According to Santo Domingo Manager Mike Kekich, who is best remembered for his spouse-swap with Fritz Peterson when both pitched for the Yankees, "They're now reaching their outer limits"—that is, they are still good enough to be major-leaguers but in another year or two will be over the hill.

The Amigos, whose average age is 27.5, have 13 players with big league experience, twice as many as any other club except Santo Domingo, which has eight. Among the better known are pitchers Bob Reynolds ( Montreal, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland), Mike Wallace (Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals, Rangers) and Hank Webb (Mets); Designated Hitter Hal Breeden (Cubs, Expos), who is in a slump—"I just went 0 for Puerto Rico"; and Outfielder Danny (The Sundown Kid) Thomas, who won the Triple Crown in the Eastern League in 1976. He also hit .276 in 32 games that season for the Brewers but was released because, as a member of the World Wide Church of God, he was forbidden to play from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.

Whether they have been up to the big leagues or only as far as Double A, all of these players know this is probably their final shot at getting another serious look by the majors.

"Baseball has said we're dead," says Wallace, who was 6-0 pitching out of the Yankee bullpen in 1974 and never had a losing record in four seasons in the majors. "We're all trying to prove them wrong. Ninety-five percent of us have eaten the pink slip. It's almost like a bond among us. Even the trainer has been released. My only hope was to come down here and win 20, and even that may not be sufficient."

Wallace, now 6-1, may well get 20 wins the way the Amigos are playing. Because their front office got organized earlier than the other teams' and because Miami is the only IAL club based in the U.S., the Amigos had an advantage when it came to signing players. Consequently, they have a 28-8 record and a 7�-game lead. When the players and managers are asked to assess the IAL, they invariably tell you that, on balance, the quality of the league's play is somewhere between Triple A and Double A, but that the Amigos are in a class by themselves. "We are probably the best Triple A club in existence," says Johnson.

Miami has a team batting average of .296 and a team ERA of 2.45. The Amigos' best batters are outfielders Jim Tyrone (.357), who was hitting over .300 for Oakland in 1977 when Charlie Finley benched him, and Leon Brown (.346), who hit over .300 in three of his four years in Triple A and was with the Mets for most of the 1976 season. Miami also has a 26-year-old reliever from Nicaragua named Porfirio Altamirano, who may throw as hard as anyone in the majors. This is his first year of pro ball, and he has a 0.91 ERA. Each of these players, says Johnson, could help a major league club right now.

For the time being, they must be content with playing in what they have nicknamed the Ma�ana League. "Every time you need something in one of those countries, you always hear ma�ana, ma�ana," says Wallace, reviving a shopworn stereotype. Although the players don't like to admit it, it is they who make this the Ma�ana League, because without it, there would be no ma�ana for most of them.

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