Unlikely All-Stars savor day

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ARLINGTON, Texas -- They are conspicuous by their presence at the 66th Major League All-Star Game, because they had every reason to think they wouldn't be here.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Steve Ontiveros once quit baseball. Walked away for good, because his arm couldn't take the stress. was finished with the game, he was sure, and learned he could live without it.

Two years ago, Heathcliff Slocumb was fighting his way out of the minor leagues and trying to cope with the unexpected death of his wife, trying to raise two children.

Jim Riggleman and Terry Collins never got out of the minor leagues as players, and just six years ago, both were managing and hoping to get to the majors somehow, some way. Kevin Seitzer was released twice, and thought his career might be over.

They are all here, and for each, this is a special time.

*

Every day, for five years, Steve Ontiveros felt pain in his arm. On the underside of his elbow, serious, jabbing pain. He had reconstructive surgery and, still, the pain. He came back once, in 1991, pitched well for seven starts and believed he was on the verge of getting back to the big leagues, with the Philadelphia Phillies.

But pitching one night for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he was walking off the mound after the first inning and felt pain again. Except this pain was on the outside of his elbow, where he never had felt pain before.

The same day the Phillies released him shortly thereafter, Ontiveros found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, and he decided to leave baseball. And he did. Didn't pitch again in 1991, or in 1992.

"Baseball was my life, but once I was away from baseball, I realized that I could live without it," he said.

In the fall of 1992, he was helping a friend at a charity function, playing with some kids, when he starting throwing a football around. Right away, he recognized something strange: He felt ++ no pain. He kept throwing. No pain. The next morning, he woke up expecting the worst. But there was no pain.

He got back into baseball the next year and pitched 14 games for the Seattle Mariners. He re-signed with the Athletics for 1994; he had come up with the A's, at the time his arm began hurting. Ontiveros believed he had some unfinished business with Oakland.

He led the AL with a 2.65 ERA, and this year, he's 8-3 with a 3.09 ERA.

"It's an absolute miracle," Ontiveros said yesterday, "that I'm here."

*

Two years ago, Heathcliff Slocumb's wife, Deborah, died of breast cancer, and suddenly he became a single parent of two young children. For almost 10 years, he had been trying to establish himself in baseball, bouncing around the minor leagues, learning how to control his fastball. Now he would have to do so as he bore the responsibility of parenthood alone, and as he mourned the loss of his wife.

Slocumb was signed by the New York Mets in 1984, taken in the Rule V draft by the Chicago Cubs in 1989, and in 1993, they traded him to the Cleveland Indians. That fall, he was traded again to the Phillies. Four organizations in five years and, at best, Slocumb was seen as a middle reliever.

He believed he had gotten a handle on parenthood. Deborah's mother would take care of his children when he was on the road and, Slocumb said, his kids had come to understand: One day, Daddy would be home for good, to take care of them all the time. But now, he's playing baseball.

Slocumb was the setup man for Doug Jones in 1994, and pitching well enough so that by the end of the year, he could hear fans yelling to Philadelphia manager Jim Fregosi to give him a chance to save games.

Jones left after the '94 season, eventually signing with the Orioles, but the Phillies planned on using Norm Charlton as the closer. However, Charlton was having trouble recovering from elbow surgery and, Slocumb says now, he could sense that Fregosi was thinking about using him as a closer.

Finally, Slocumb got his chance the first week of the season, and Fregosi pulled him aside, afterward. "This is the first of many," he told Slocumb. "You're going to get the ball."

Slocumb has 20 saves now, which ranks second in the NL.

"Coming here," he said, looking around, "is very special to me."

*

Montreal manager Felipe Alou was an All-Star when he played, but once his career was over, he went back to the minor leagues to manage. For years, he was passed over for promotions, despite a growing reputation for handling players until, finally, in 1992, the Expos hired him.

After he was named NL All-Star manager earlier this year, he decided to pick, as his two coaches, Chicago's Jim Riggleman and Houston's Terry Collins -- who both had managed in the minors for 11 years, and who never had advanced beyond the minors as players.

"I looked around and I saw two young guys who were doing a good job with their teams," Alou said. "The Astros had a good year last year with Collins, and the Cubs -- who had been a last-place team -- are having a good year with Riggleman.

"You never know in life if this could be the only chance to be in an All-Star Game."

Riggleman said: "It means a lot. I think what he's doing is paying his respects to all minor-league managers, not just Terry and myself. He's pointing out there are a lot of really good people down there working. Terry and I are a couple of guys who got a break and got to the big leagues, and Felipe, too -- he worked in the minors a long time.

"Maybe we're guys who represent hard-working minor-league people who haven't been recognized, and he's trying to get the whole profession some credit by naming two career minor-league guys. It's really a class act on Felipe's part not to forget those people."

*

Kevin Seitzer made the AL All-Star team in 1987, a year he batted .323 for the Kansas City Royals. In the years that followed, however, he became a symbol of unfulfilled expectations, his average sinking gradually from year to year. He batted .265 in 1991 and was released the following spring. He spent a year in Milwaukee, signed with Oakland for 1993 and was released halfway through the year.

Seitzer had grown to realize, as his career progressed, that he had become his own worst enemy. If he made an out with a runner in scoring position, if he failed to drive in a run late in the game, he would berate himself for failing. He would think to himself: I have failed for me, failed for my teammates, failed for the organization, failed for my family and friends.

"I think that I realized that the game needed to be more fun for me," he said, "or I just wasn't going to last."

Seitzer relaxed, and had great fun in 1994, hitting .314, his highest average since his rookie season. He had found peace of mind. "That's the key," he said.

Now, Seitzer is hitting .323 -- the exact average of his rookie season -- and he's an All-Star again. He's back, and, Seitzer admits, "There were times when I thought I'd never get back here."

He and the other unlikely All-Stars -- they will all be conspicuous by their presence tonight.

Facts

Site: The Ballpark in Arlington (Texas)

Time: 8 tonight (first pitch at 8:30)

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Radio: WBAL (11090 AM)

Starting pitchers: Randy Johnson (AL) vs. Hideo Nomo (NL)

All-time: NL leads 38-26-1

5) Last year: NL won, 8-7, in 10 innings

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°