A Dream Deferred: Celebrating One-Game Careers With The Moonlight Graham Society
By Evan Katz, Dave Gilbertson & John Choe
As published in "Turnstyles" the literary magazine of the
Society for American Baseball Research
For devoted baseball fans, there is a cadence of “seasons” to their fandom. During the “child’s season,” being a fan consists of playing the game, dreaming about becoming a professional and cheering for those who have made it. Subsequently, the “player’s season” narrows to playing the game and cheering for those who have made it. Finally, the “adult season” consists of only cheering for those who have made it and, if we’re lucky, passing on our love of the game to the next generation.
Early in the “playing season” nearly all of us lose the dream of playing baseball professionally, after realizing our talent does not equal our love for the game. We hear about the select few who make it to the “big time,” but what about the even smaller group who never allowed the dream to die even though the dream was not realistic? Common sense suggests that getting cut from a high school or college team rules out playing at the next level. But what if it didn’t? What if there was a possibility that even though your talent peaked in Little League your heart could keep the dream alive? What if your heart sustained your aspiration across many decades, just long enough for your head to figure out a way to play just one game of professional baseball?
Baseball’s season stretches longer than any other, with six professional levels below the Major Leagues, resulting in over 25,000 professional games played every year. They all feature players living out a dream. Dig a little deeper on the tail end of those 25,000 games, however, and you’ll find a few players who power ahead without verified baseball talent, without hope of moving up a level, without hope of playing more than one game of professional baseball. A few fans who step across the foul line and, for a brief time, become a professional baseball player. This is the story of how three of those fans started a career and then retired within the span of a few spectacular innings.
Evan Katz, Right Field/Pitcher
White Sands Pupfish, Pecos League
July 28, 2017
I grew up two miles from Fenway Park in the 1960s. During the baseball season newspapers delivered a twice-daily stream of stories and statistics about the Boston Red Sox in the morning and afternoon. Backyard baseball games were ever present, from dawn to dusk. Baseball cards were five cents a pack. It was easy for me to dream about playing professional baseball.
But I never played Little League or any other organized baseball. When I was 45 I decided to make up for lost time. I practiced relentlessly as if I was thirty years younger. I learned how to hit, pitch and field well enough to play competitive adult baseball. But professional baseball? It was still a dream. Or was it?
At 60 years old, I wondered, was there a minor league team that would help my dream come true? During the winter of 2016 I combed the internet searching front office directories of independent minor league teams for an introductory angle.
Thanks to the professional networking group LinkedIn, I found I shared boyhood roots with the Sales Director of the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association. We had both delivered the Boston Globe from our bicycles in the same Massachusetts city.
That entrepreneurial bond opened the door to the General Manager’s Office. But my hopes waned when I was unable to brainstorm a promotion that would boost attendance for my pro debut. Minor league teams were reluctant to stage a promotion if it wouldn’t draw fans. I briefly considered self-promotion to generate revenue, but I lacked the resources of the bank that paid a generous fee for one of its officers to pitch for the Stompers.
In Texas, home of the Sugarland Skeeters of the Atlantic League, I tried a family connection I discovered in the family genealogy. While most nineteenth century Jewish immigrants settled on the East Coast of the United States, an intrepid few settled in Texas.
I emailed the Skeeters’ owner, advising that my ancestor had settled in his father’s hometown of Brenham, Texas, where Jews had been living for 150 years. Maybe I could be the first Jewish Skeeter?
Sorry. No frontier Texas ethnic short-cuts to pro baseball. “We cannot allow anyone to play who does not have the skill level required,” the owner advised.
The family of baseball’s most famous promoter might help, I theorized. Bill Veeck, a major league owner from the 1940s to the 1980s, invited the scrutiny of the Commissioner’s Office for his unorthodox marketing. This included a three-foot, seven-inch pinch hitter, outfield fences whose distance from home plate could be adjusted between games, and Disco [Record] Demolition Night.
Veeck’s son Mike had an ownership interest in several minor league teams and had inherited his father’s showmanship, applying it liberally with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. Their promotions included a Pillow Fight Night, an umpire-less game and first-pitch starting time of 5 a.m.
Mike Veeck had authored the book “Fun is Good,” and my hopes soared when I reached him by phone. Although I couldn’t generate a Veeck-quality promotion to support my dream, Mike connected me with the general manager of the Normal (IL) Cornbelters of the Frontier League.
I reached out with eager emails and phone calls. For days, then weeks, they went unanswered. It was mid-summer when an email advised that 60 years old exceeded the Frontier League’s usual mid-twenties age limit. “Double-A baseball is probably a much better option with no age restrictions,” I was advised.
Too old. Too poor. Not good enough. That’s how the 2016 baseball season ended for my dream, but the fall and winter offered more time to network. The Can Am League gave me a polite “sorry, but no” and recommended another option, the new Empire League.
But I couldn’t find reliable contact information on the website for the two-year old Empire League. When I saw that MLB player Matt Joyce was a league owner, I reached out to Joyce’s agent. Again no response.
Returning to LinkedIn, I found that I shared a connection with Joyce. I was a sidearm pitcher, and a fan of the web page “Sidearm Nation” founded by former minor league pitcher Geoff Freeborn. I had emailed Freeborn regularly for hard-to-find sidearm pitching advice.
When I emailed Freeborn about contacting Joyce, Freeborn had a better idea. Would I like to play in the Pecos League? It was a lesser known independent league in the desert Southwest and Freeborn knew the commissioner! A few years earlier Freeborn had worked with the Pecos League when it sent players to a tournament in Canada where Freeborn was based.
Freeborn introduced me by email to the Pecos League Commissioner Andrew Dunn. A few days later, on my lunch break, I excitedly strode to my car across the parking lot at work. It was a grey, overcast, raw, early March New England day. I had already entered Dunn’s phone number, found on the Pecos League website, into my cell phone.
Sitting in the car, my heart racing, I dialed Dunn and listened as the phone rang. “Hello. Baseball,” Dunn answered. Eagerly, I explained my connection with Freeborn and my baseball dream. Dunn listened. I said I was a competent adult baseball player, and that playing professional baseball was my goal. Dunn listened more. I said I would be comfortable with whatever arrangements would work for the Pecos League.
“If you want to play in a game, we’ll get you in a game,” said Dunn. In a few weeks, I would be 61 years old. Fifty years after I began dreaming of playing professional baseball, my childhood aspiration would come true.
On July 28, 2017, I signed a minor league contract with the White Sands Pupfish of the Pecos League. I pitched to two batters in my professional baseball debut at Griggs Park in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The next day, in a second game, I played right field and hit the cutoff man after retrieving a ball hit over my head. In my only professional at bat I struck out on a 3-2 pitch.
Dave Gilbertson, Right Field
Dakota Rattlers, Prairie League
August 26, 1996
My heart raced as I walked through the dugout for the first time in a professional baseball uniform, cleats clanking off the concrete as I stepped onto the semi-manicured grass of Bismarck Municipal Ballpark. It’s not exactly Wrigley Field but Bismarck Municipal Ballpark was home to the Dakota Rattlers, an independent team in the Prairie League, among the lowest rungs on the minor league ladder. The Rattlers had just made me the lowest-paid player in the history of professional baseball, signing a contract for $1 just before batting practice.
I stepped onto the field, breathed in a combination of fresh-cut grass, old chewing tobacco and stale beer and looked out to the scoreboard as my whole body tingled. After a lifetime of dreaming of this moment, I would soon make my professional baseball debut. As I looked out to the scoreboard with a big smile on my face, I noticed that only a few bulbs lit up. The scoreboard read “E-9.”
I yelled up to the press box to ask why the scoreboard wasn’t working. “It is,” the official scorer yelled back, “we’re just warming up for your debut in right field.” Given the situation, I understood the logic.
I served for two years as Director of Promotions for these Dakota Rattlers. In that role I did everything from come up with sponsorship opportunities, create games to play between innings, hire the announcers and umpires, deliver tickets to fans and even host my own weekly television show. I was 19 years old living out a dream in minor league baseball, working 100 hours a week for less than minimum wage and loving every minute of it.
Although I had fun, the team was not particularly good. We finished 3rd out of 4 teams in 1995 and dead last in 1996. Toward the end of the 1996 season, it was tough to get fans to attend the games. We played against some future major leaguers like Kerry Ligtenberg and Shawn Wooten but sitting in metal stands baking in 100 degree heat in the Bismarck, North Dakota summer watching the home team consistently lose did not appeal to as many people as one might suspect. Late in the season I talked with our manager and made an enthusiastic pitch to “put me in coach”! The best argument I could make was that nobody would notice if I played an inning in right field. I promised to talk to the local television, radio and newspaper outlets to drive some publicity for the event in hopes of getting additional people to the game. For reasons I still do not understand, he agreed to my proposal. I would start the game in right field the following day against the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs, the best team in the league.
Once we got through the scoreboard shenanigans, I ran out to take my place in right field. The first batter hit a double, the second batter a single and the third batter walked. That brought up Randy Kapano, one of the best left-handed hitters in the league. He ripped the first pitch deep into the cavernous right-center field. I took off at the crack of the bat and knew instantly I had been beat. I eventually gathered up the ball and threw it as hard as I could to our second baseman, who snagged it after a couple hops.
Mercifully, we eventually recorded three outs and I trotted into the dugout down 5-0. Watching Derron Spiller, the left-handed opposing pitcher, warm up I was mesmerized by the speed and curve of his screwballs. Spiller pitched for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox the prior year and did not appear to be particularly happy to be pitching for a team in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan this season. The first batter walked, then the second and third struck out. The first pitch to the next batter was a screwball that started at the batter’s waist and curved over the plate at the last-second. I was slated to bat fifth and as I stood in the on-deck circle, I came to a terrifying realization: In my hurry to get to the ballpark, I had forgotten my athletic cup. All of a sudden sweat began pouring down my face as I prayed for the batter to record the final out. He hit a weak dribbler up the first-base line and was tagged out as I breathed a sigh of relief.
A weak dribbler up the line while I stood in the on-deck circle provided an apt ending to my professional baseball career. As the team took the field to start the 2nd inning, I called the press box to officially announce my retirement. As the news blared throughout the stadium, it brought the only cheer of the night.
In professional baseball, if a team is forced to forfeit a game the final score is recorded as 9-0. On August 26, 1996 the Dakota Rattlers lost to the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs 18-0, meaning the team would have done twice as well if they had failed to show up. The game was ultimately a meaningless coda to a losing season. However, that single game created a career, if briefly, for one right fielder.
Fast-forward to 2001 and I had been “retired” from the sport for five years. It occurred to me that five years is the waiting period to become eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. What better way to cap a one-inning professional baseball career than with a single vote for the Hall of Fame? I began a campaign among sportswriters asking / begging for a single write-in vote. The baseball winter meetings came to Boston that year, setting up shop a few blocks from where I lived at the time. I wandered over to the headquarters hotel and ran into a well-known Boston sportswriter. I introduced myself, told him the story of my one inning in professional baseball and asked for his support for the Hall of Fame on that year’s ballot.
“Sure,” he said, “I understand what that means to someone that played the game. Give me your card and I’ll write in your name. You’ll be treated just like Pete Rose since you aren’t technically eligible but you’ll have a single vote.” And so I did.
Ozzie Smith was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame the next summer, gaining entrance on the first ballot after retiring from the sport when age caught up with him. I got a single write-in vote, missing induction by a long-shot after retiring from the sport because I wasn’t that good. We shared a pure love for the game and a pride in calling ourselves professional baseball players.
John Choe, Right Field
Normal Cornbelters, Frontier League
May 16, 2011
Clarity came as I walked to the batter’s box. I was the just-announced pinch hitter. This was going to be my first and only at-bat in professional baseball. Swinging at a first pitch fastball would be the best way for me, an unlikely rookie, to get a hit. I decided that I was going to swing at this first pitch. Don’t think. Take a deep breath and swing hard. No matter what.
I watched a low fastball pass over the plate at my knees for strike one. In a post-game summary of this minor league baseball game, a newspaper reporter wrote that I “patiently took the first pitch.” But I didn’t take the pitch because I was being selective or picky. Truthfully, I was in the process of swinging, but the speed of the fastball shocked me. I was barely into my stride when the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. I was down 0-1 in the count and the little confidence I had before the at-bat was gone. The rain that began at the start of the game was still falling and it left me cold and wet. I was alone in the batter’s box with only my thoughts, and unfortunately they had chosen this moment to ask existential questions like “Who am I?” and “How did I get here?”
Before we return to the batter’s box, let’s answer that first question. At the time of my minor-league adventure, I was a 34-year old living in Boston with my wife and two kids. The first thing my wife Katie ever said to me was, “I love baseball.” My best friend from childhood was baseball. The game played a role in most of my friendships. And my love of the numbers found in baseball (and baseball cards and fantasy baseball) led me to a career as a stock analyst. The game was now bringing joy to my kids. Baseball had its grip on me for my entire life.
To answer the second question, I was on the roster of the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League in May 2011 because I asked nicely. When my wife and I learned that we were expecting our third child, I knew that the next few years would be entirely focused on family. So I set out on a silly adventure before our third child’s arrival. I always wanted to experience one at-bat against a pitcher in a professional baseball game. Haven’t we all? And isn’t one shot, one opportunity, all that someone could ask? Or put another way, this whole escapade was a mid-life crisis-induced project.
I wanted to fulfill my childhood dream of playing professional baseball. And I knew that minor-league baseball teams wanted to build excitement among their fans and generate publicity through creative and wacky in-game promotions. So I hatched an idea and started calling minor league baseball teams and asked to speak with the person in charge of promotions.
After my call was transferred to that person (and before they could even say hello), I would blurt out “I have a promotion idea that would excite your fans, get your team publicity, and raise a lot of money for your favorite charity. Would you like to hear my 15-second pitch?” The startled person would usually agree.
I’d explain that running an eBay auction for a one-day minor league player contract would be a win-win event. The excitement would generate attendance and the story would be covered by the media. Money raised would benefit the team’s chosen charity. Other teams had successfully run similar promotions. And though the auction would be public, I would promise to submit a generous bid to guarantee that the promotion would be highly successful.
My proposal was declined over and over, but I reminded myself that Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times during his career. This sustained my spirits and encouraged me to call more teams. Finally, the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League graciously agreed. To my enthusiastic delight, I found out on a Tuesday afternoon that I won the auction. But panic immediately set in. The team advised that I would be playing in seventy-two hours in Friday night’s game in central Illinois against the Joliet Slammers!
Back in the batter’s box I was down 0-1 in the count on a fastball I barely saw. My swing was slow. I had to be creative. I moved as far back in the batter’s box as I could. I choked up on the bat. For the next pitch I decided to begin my stride earlier and swing before the ball left the pitcher’s hand.
My mind was racing. Thoughts filled my mind. Then I remembered Bull Durham’s Crash Davis saying, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.” At that moment events slowed down tremendously. I stopped hearing my family cheer from the stands. I heard nothing except the blood rushing through my body. Everything was in slow motion.
What was he going to throw? I thought I’d see another fast ball, since it appeared that I took that first pitch. The pitcher had no idea how truly slow my bat really was. Don’t think. Just swing. As soon as the pitcher’s arm started moving forward during his motion I started my swing. The pitch was a low, inside fastball (90 mile per hour according to the scout who talked with me after the game) but this time I fouled it back! I was still extremely late, woefully overmatched and down 0-2.
Because I was still late on the second fastball, I decided that I had to start my hitting stride even earlier. I would start my swing as soon as the pitcher’s hands separated during his motion.
The pitcher threw a low, outside fastball and I popped up the ball over the first base dugout. The crowd let out a collective “oooh”. I smiled as I realized that I didn’t strike out on three pitches and made contact twice. But I was still in trouble. I was starting my hitting stride earlier and earlier and I was still swinging late.
Back in the batter’s box I thought. What will he throw? A curveball to put me away? I started my swing early last time and was late. Jeez. How early do I have to start my swing? As soon as he separates his hands? Will I get the heater again since I’ve proven that I can’t hit it? Shh, John. Don’t think.
I started my swing even earlier. Another fastball. But this time I hit it fair --- a fast two-hopper that skipped on the wet turf. The first baseman knocked it down and threw to the pitcher covering the bag. I was out by at least ten steps. As I ran to the dugout, my teammates gave me high fives as if I had hit a home run. They said that if the ball was three feet closer to the foul line, then the ball would have skipped into the right field corner for a double.
Before I could reflect on what could have been, a coach yelled, “Choe, grab your glove. You’re going into right field next inning.” Yes, this game moves fast. I had never played outfield in a game before, and now I had to play right field. And, of course, the ball found me out there --- twice.
The first ball was a line drive that rolled to the wall in right-center. The centerfielder and I made it to the ball at the same time, so I deferentially let him throw it in. With a runner at second base, I cleanly fielded a base hit to right and I had to throw the ball to the cut-off man quickly. He had to decide to throw home to try to prevent a run or cut the ball to hold the batter to a single or to try to throw him out at second base.
In our baseball dreams, haven’t we wanted to throw out a runner at home? Now was my chance! I fielded the ground ball cleanly and muscled up to throw a laser to the cutoff man. The good news was that I hit the cutoff man and we kept the runner on first. The bad news was that the run did score and my laser did not reach the cutoff man in the air. Still the silver lining was that my two-bounce throw to the cutoff man looked deliberate because the turf was wet and baseballs skip quickly on wet turf. I’ve seen pro ball players bounce throws on purpose in similar situations. Yes, that’s how I remember it.
The continuous rain finally stopped the game in the middle of the fifth inning. I reflected that during my at-bat, I reminded myself over and over not to think. But in the clubhouse after the game, all I could do was think.
I thought of how much baseball meant to the players and coaches in that room. This included my manager and CornBelters manager Hal Lanier, who led the Houston Astros to the 1986 National League Championship Series and won the NL Manager of the Year Award. He coached Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio. Now he was cracking jokes with me and other baseball-loving dreamers.
I thought about my teammates and wondered why they were so gracious that day. Likely because they were good teammates, but possibly because they were aware of their professional mortality and appreciated how special it is to play professional baseball, even if for just one day. They knew their baseball careers were tenuous so many asked about how I got into the business world.
I thought about the meager post-game meal of white bread and peanut butter and understood the harsh realities being a minor leaguer. I drove to the cheap motel where I was staying, hugged my family and thought about how fortunate I was to be a pro ball player for one day and share that experience with my wife and children. I closed my eyes, joyfully replayed the entire day in my mind, and knew I would never forget living my dream.
Three strikes in an out, three outs in an inning, nine innings perfectly divisible by three. Baseball is a game of mathematical nuance and statistical precision. Behind the numbers, however, lie the human stories so easily missed within the over 25,000 professional games played each season.
Three baseball fans. Three adult boys who never gave up a childhood dream despite very little positive indicators to provide a glimmer of hope. Three professional baseball careers, however brief.
In 2018, we all discovered our unique connection to the game while living near each other in the Boston area. Over a minor league baseball game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island we gathered to form the Moonlight Graham Society, dedicated to the man made famous for his single inning baseball career in the iconic movie “Field of Dreams.” Our goal is to take pride in the single games we managed to play in the lowest rungs of professional baseball, celebrate the journey it took to get there and do so with a deep sense of humility along the way.
We celebrate these single games as a way of celebrating the sport of baseball and the professionals who play it. We celebrate the dreams that never died as a reminder of future dreams that still have a chance.
And we celebrate the fact that in those single-game careers, we all managed to hit the cut-off man. At least that’s how we each remember it.