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Chattanooga choo-choo
Kent Hannon
June 29, 1981
Kevin Rhomberg has aspirations that would try The Little Engine That Could: a .400 average and a major league job
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June 29, 1981

Chattanooga Choo-choo

Kevin Rhomberg has aspirations that would try The Little Engine That Could: a .400 average and a major league job

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The information is waiting on tape for the Cleveland Indians' player development director, Bob Quinn, when he gets to work every morning. Quinn punches a button on his Code-A-Phone and then settles back in his chair to listen to the reports called in by his minor league managers during the night. From Chattanooga, Manager Woody Smith reconfirms that the Lookouts aren't going anywhere in the Southern League race, but as depressing as that news may be, Quinn's spirits inevitably rise when Smith gets to the portion of his summary that Quinn and the staff in Cleveland call the Rhomberg Report.

It seems that no matter how the Lookouts fare, Kevin Rhomberg gets his hits. And the details of his latest performance are right there every morning when Quinn needs something strong to go with his coffee. As of last Sunday the 5'11", 175-pound second baseman was the leading hitter in professional baseball with an average of .390.

The Southern League has its own version of the Rhomberg Report—a box on the front page of its stat sheet that reviews his week in detail. Until this week Rhomberg had been a .400 hitter in "every Monday edition since April. He not only leads the league in average and in hits (97), but also in triples (10) and steals (34). He's second in runs with 50.

"What kills me about Kevin is the way he routinely takes low, outside sliders to rightfield for extra bases," says Chattanooga Third Baseman Jeff Moronko. "He probably won't hit a home run all year long, but the ball explodes off his bat. Hits nothin' but ropes. And this is a" guy who was sent back down to AA ball to work on his fielding!"

As the Indians see it, Rhomberg can only make the majors as a smooth-fielding second baseman. He batted .287 and stole 37 bases playing rightfield for Tacoma in the AAA Pacific Coast League last year, but he doesn't have a strong arm or the power to reach Municipal Stadium's fences. That's why the Indians have returned him to the infield.

"I've had to play a different position every year I've been in the minors," says Rhomberg, 25, who signed out of The College of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. as a third baseman in 1977. Rhomberg is the father of two children with a third on the way, but he earns only a four-figure salary for his high average. "I've always thought I was at least a better fielder than the utility men they had up there and that I could hit as well as most of the regulars. I've walked the floor night after night thinking about hitting, looking for some edge, trying to find a way to prove to them that I didn't belong where I was. But it's getting increasingly harder to stay committed to baseball with the financial demands of our family."

To make ends meet, until last winter, Rhomberg went home to Dubuque, Iowa in the off-season and poured concrete for a local construction company. When it got so cold the concrete wouldn't pour anymore, he switched to carpentry and odd jobs.

"Trying to get Kevin to the bigs has been a struggle," says his wife, Denice. "His first full year in the minors he hit .309 at Waterloo and .307 at Chattanooga, and I made three times his salary working as a bank teller at the drive-up window. According to the IRS, we've been below the poverty level every year Kevin has been in baseball. We qualify for earned-income credit every April 15."

When Cleveland elected not to protect Rhomberg last December, any team in baseball could have claimed him for $25,000. But none did, so Rhomberg decided he had to make a move that would prove to the Cleveland front office—and to himself—that he was a better baseball player than construction worker. He sent Denice and the kids home and flew to Venezuela for a fling at winter ball.

The sojourn in South America was successful in many ways. Rhomberg batted a solid .290. He also talked out some of his anxiety with Mike Easier, who had just made it big with the Pirates at 29 after nine years in the minors. And he became friendly with Manny Trillo, the Phillies second baseman who had a lot of things that Rhomberg didn't: a World Series ring, a 7-year-old daughter who wore real diamond earrings and a ton of confidence in himself.

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