By STEVEN TRAVERS
Before he became a prolific author, Steven Travers pursued baseball glory from high school to college to the minor leagues, and almost the Majors . . .
When I was 13 years old, I read several baseball books that described to me what I could expect when the day came that I was a professional ballplayer myself. Those books were Ball Four by Jim Bouton, and both A False Spring and The Suitors of Spring by Pat Jordan. Bouton and Jordan were unique; professional athletes who could write. They sensed in real time that they were experiencing things that would be worth remembering, and that others would very much enjoying living vicariously through these remembrances. In this respect I have this unique trait in common with Bouton and especially Jordan. I too became a professional baseball player who became a writer recognizing, because I made sure to live in the moment, that what I was experiencing would be interesting to others.
The baseball capitol of the world
I grew up in California in what truly was its golden age, the greatest decades in the history of the Golden State. The Dodgers and Giants had arrived. California absolutely produced the greatest athletes in all sports anywhere in the world: baseball, basketball, football, tennis, track, Olympic and women sports. The decades of my youth and early manhood put to shame New York with their “three center fielders” of the 1950s. Two of those center fielders – Willie Mays and Duke Snider – brought their stardom to California.
Baseball dynasties included the Los Angeles Dodgers (1959-66), the Oakland Athletics (1971-75), and the University of Southern California (1948-78). Football dynasties included the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (1967-83), the San Francisco 49ers (1981-94), and the USC Trojans (1962-81). Basketball dynasties included the Los Angeles Lakers (1980-88), and the UCLA Bruins (1964-75). Track dynasties included USC (1926-74) and UCLA (1956-88). There were tennis dynasties at USC and Stanford. The three top all-around college athletic departments were USC, UCLA and Stanford. In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, just to name one of several examples, both USC and UCLA, had they been countries, would have placed among the medals leaders. The state produced the best high school and junior college sports. California had the best weather, the best stadiums, the top attendance, and the greatest glamour.
It was a golden age in every other way, too. Streets were safe. It was the most racially diverse atmosphere in the nation. The state produced two Presidents (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan) and dominated both the culture and politics. It was a Republican state. Hollywood easily enjoyed its greatest decades.
It was out of this culture of success and excellence that I emerged. My parents were both members of the Greatest Generation. My father, Donald Travers, had played sports at the University of California before serving as a Naval officer, seeing combat in World War II. He went on to become a hall of fame high school track and cross-country coach, then an attorney, college professor, and eventually my baseball coach.
My mother, Ingeborg Travers, was a nurse with the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed in London during the war. She went on to become a renowned artist with her work showing at some of California’s top galleries.
We were an energetic and outdoors-oriented family with a cabin and later a condominium in Lake Tahoe, where we hiked, fished, and played tennis. But from an early age it was obvious I had an affinity for baseball. I was the tallest kid in all my classes, good at all sports, but it was in baseball where I thrived. At a very early age my dad threw me whiffle balls, which I slammed over the roof of our house.
I entered little league and Dad made a deal with me; if I wanted to be good I had to practice, and he was willing to give of his time to practice with me. I enthusiastically agreed and we played in the warm California sunshine all year round.
I dominated at the little league and Babe Ruth League levels. Most of the kids who played with me in those days felt I would someday go far in baseball. I certainly had great confidence that I would. When I read baseball books it was in anticipation of living that life. Baseball was everything to me. I had no girlfriend, no social skills. To the extent that I was a history buff, it was from reading about baseball history. I also became utterly infatuated with anything that had to do with the University of Southern California, first through O.J., Simpson, and then when I learned Tom Seaver had played baseball there, I was a lifer.
When I was in the eighth grade my father took over as the coach-manager of Sir Francis Drake High School’s fall and summer Joe Di Maggio League programs. Drake had a lowly baseball team, but my father never did anything half-way. He ran a highly organized, goal-driven program and the players loved him.
In the course of watching my father’s teams play I became aware of another school in the Marin County Athletic League: Redwood High School in Larkspur. They were everything Drake was not. Redwood had the largest and most-affluent population in the county, and dominated in all sports, but none more thoroughly than in baseball.
I would sit on the bench listening to Drake High kids talk about girlfriends, parties, tell jokes and the like; all that is until Redwood’s Joe Di DiMaggio League team came to play. Sponsored by the Italian Athletic Club, they were a juggernaut. Instead of the usual flatulent repartee, the Drake kids would sit in awe of Redwood and tell stories about their players. They were completely intimidated as was everybody who went up against them.
My father in fact would drive by Redwood High on his way home from work, park, and with a yellow legal pad make notes on the way their coach, Al Endriss, conducted practices. He would come home raving about something called the “three-in-one drill.”
“There is no wasted motion,” Dad said. “Nobody just standing around. They have a series of batting stations. Every player is moving, always hustling, always working on something. They are the best-conditioned team I’ve ever seen. Coach Endriss gets more done in an efficient hour-twenty than another coach in three hours.”
Then he said to me, “If you are really serious about baseball, Al Endriss is the man you should play for in high school.”
In the summer following my graduation from the eighth grade, I attended the Saint Mary’s College Athletic Camp. One of the coaches was Al Endriss, a very intimidating, well built, ruggedly handsome and tall man of Italian descent, with a touch of Cherokee Indian. He heard that I wanted to play at Redwood instead of Sir Francis Drake. He did not “recruit” me, but he made it clear if I wanted to attend Redwood I was free to do so. I lived in the Tamalpais Union High School District and any student in the district was free to choose any of the schools as a freshman. Additionally, we owned a home in the Redwood district and paid property taxes. My father could easily drop me off every day on his way to San Francisco, and either he or my mom could pick me up after school. It was all set.
The Redwood program was already considered one of the best in the state, and certainly number one in Northern California, before I even arrived. Endriss had grown up in Oakland, where one of his boyhood friends had been Sonny Barger, founder of the Hells Angels. Oakland in the post-war era was the single greatest producer of high school sports talent in the world.
Athletes from the area during Endriss’s youth included Jackie Jensen, Billy Martin, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Bill Russell, Joe Ellis and Joe Morgan, just to name a few. Endriss came out of St. Elizabeth High a football-baseball star. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and learned the “Dodger Way” from the likes of Al Campanis and future Oakland A’s World Champion manager Dick Williams.
After his first year in the Dodgers’ organization, he was called to general manager Branch Rickey’s office. Rickey had just purchased the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise in the All-American Football Conference and wanted Endriss to play for them. Endriss agreed but later decided against it.
Instead, after a few years in professional ball, he played football at San Francisco State. Since he was a baseball pro he was ineligible, but he changed his named from Endrise to Endriss, fooling the sports pages. After starring at San Francisco State he played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Calgary Stampeders.
Eventually he retired, got his teaching credential, and started coaching baseball at St. Patrick High in Vallejo, where he came to know future college coaching sensation Augie Garrido. In 1958 one of his friends from San Francisco State, Bob Troppmann – the athletic director at brand new Redwood High School – recruited him to coach the baseball team.
By the time I arrived at age 14 in the fall of 1973, the man was a legend, and a rather scary one at that. He had a deep growl of a voice. When he whistled it could cut through a Saharan sandstorm. Immediately, the entire focus of my life was to impress and please this man. Only my father, then or later, ever had this kind of effect on me.
After my freshman year, Coach Endriss asked my dad to manage the Italian Club in the Joe DiMaggio League. That team included two former Redwood superstar pitchers who had just finished their freshman years in college, and remains perhaps the most talented amateur team in Marin County history. Instead of just playing the 18-game Joe D. schedule, my father arranged for a 50-game slate against the best DiMaggio and American Legion competition in the Bay Area. In the fall of my sophomore year Dad agreed to coach Endriss’s fall ball team. Now that I had baseball year-round I quit all the other sports to concentrate on one sport.
In my sophomore year I came out of fall ball with a strong shot at making it as the second starting pitcher on the Redwood varsity behind a stud named Eddie Andersen. Andersen was the most sensational pitcher in the Bay Area and at the end of the 1975 season would be the second round draft pick of the Houston Astros.
But just as the spring semester began, a kid named Frank Ferroni transferred in from Tamalpais High. Frank was a year ahead of me and threw as hard as Andersen. He was immediately installed as the second starter behind Andersen. I made the varsity at the beginning of the season but when a trip to San Diego was canceled just before we left for the airport, the JV coach arrived and asked Endriss if he could “borrow” me for his opening game vs. El Cerrito.
Endriss agreed and I ended up spending the season on the junior varsity, although I got called up a couple of times, including at the end of the season when we competed in the first-ever North Coast Section play-offs.
Andersen won his play-off game but Ferroni was beaten by a strapping hurler from Alhambra High named DeVallon Harper. While he was a “rival” of sorts who undoubtedly cost me a full season on the varsity, he and I became very close friends. He was a hard worker, a hard core baseball man from a great family.
I put together a 7-1 record on the junior varsity and that summer pitched for Dad in the Joe DiMaggio League. It was probably my best year in high school. Early in the season I matched up with a stud pitcher who had thrown a couple of no-hitters for Rohnert Park, but I beat him with a shutout. In the Joe DiMaggio State Tournament I threw a one-hitter under the lights against our best competition before 1,000 fans at Albert Field in San Rafael.
When I got home my mother told me that she was approached in the stands by a man named Bart Johnson, a Chicago White Sox scout. He told her he would be watching me the rest of my high school career and wanted my birth date, phone number, height, and weight.
I was utterly thrilled. It was the first time I was ever scouted, and it confirmed for me the belief that I had a real future in baseball. I was further convinced that in my junior and senior years I would follow in the tradition of Eddie Andersen, and other previous Redwood pitching stars.
A football coach at Redwood named Jess Payan had put me on a weight training program and it was paying dividends. When I came to him I was 6-1, 129 pounds. He told me someday I would be 6-5 or 6-6, 230 pounds, which were Coach Payan’s dimensions. He insisted he knew what he was talking about.
Combined with my sterling 7-2 DiMaggio League record with a 1.29 earned run average, plus my one-hitter in the state tourney (14-3 combined Redwood and Italian Club records), I had confidence. When fall ball began I thought I was a big shot and stardom would follow me for two years.
When the varsity season began in the spring, Frank was the undisputed number one starter, and from the first game of the season he delivered one of the greatest prep performances these eyes have ever witnessed. He threw a good 94 or 95 miles per hour. Frank was 17-1 with a 0.91 ERA and 190 strikeouts in 90 innings. He was named to the California North-South All-Star Game and made prep All-American.
Late in the season, Giants’ Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, the club’s chief scout, came to see Frank pitch. Why he was not drafted until the 17th round I cannot explain, except that perhaps they felt Frank, at around 5-10, was not tall enough and had to generate too much torque to throw the ball as hard as he did.
Frank turned down several top scholarship offers to play at Central Arizona Junior College, the defending national champions. He had a spectacular year and was the number one pick of the now-defunct winter draft by the Minnesota Twins. He played summer ball for the Eureka Humboldt Crabs and the Boulder Collegians, and earned a full scholarship to Cal State, Fullerton to play for Endriss’s old friend Augie Garrido.
Where he hurt his arm is up for debate. Over-pitched at Redwood? Forced to turn it on for scouts who would clock him in the bullpen at Central Arizona? Either way, Frank barely threw a few innings for the Titans. He never threw an inning when they won the 1979 College World Series. Later he rehabilitated himself and played a year in the Orioles’ chain, but his talent had been lost to injury. A Major League talent, to be sure.
Which brings us back to me, because I believe what happened to me affected Frank and possibly caused his injury. Early in my junior year we played in the San Luis Obispo Easter Tournament. Frank dominated a Santa Clara Buchser High team that included a USC catching recruit named Dave Hodgens and future Angels star Mark Langston, 3-0.
That left it up to me in the championship game on Saturday night. I remember every horrible, wonderful moment of this, one of the strangest games I have ever experienced. Our opponents were the Rolling Hills Titans, coached by Gary Poe. They were the Southern California version of us: a hard-ass, disciplinarian coach who insisted on short hair; traditional uniforms; tremendous talent and an arrogant approach meant to rattle the opposition. We were often confused with a Marine team with our short hair and traditional uniforms, styled by Coach Endriss after the Dodger teams he once played for.
Rolling Hills matched us culturally, as well. Like us they were located in an affluent place, the Palos Verdes Peninsula. They had a pitcher named Mike Lynes who would go 17-0 in 1976, and in 1982 would be my teammate with the Modesto A’s. Their catcher, Don Slaught, after making All-American at UCLA would lead the National League in hitting one year for the Pirates. Their second baseman, Jeff Ronk, would make All-American at Cal.
But I was confident. This was my day, my chance to shine, to prove myself. There were 1,000 fans in the stands that night, and plenty of college and pro scouts. It was also freezing cold. The stadium was near the Pacific Ocean and gale-force winds were blowing in an Arctic pressure system, but I warmed up in the bullpen and felt super.
My bullpen catcher, Howard Gibian, filled me with confidence. My fastball had pop, dipping and sinking all over the place. My breaking stuff was sharp, but most important my control was impeccable. “You’re gonna dominate tonight,” Howard told me. “This is the best I’ve ever seen you throw.”
Unfortunately, I left it all in the bullpen. I ran out to the mound, felt great in my warm-ups, but inexplicably walked the lead-off man. The next man singled. Then Don Slaught and Jeff Ronk hit bases-clearing doubles.
Endriss was apoplectic in the dugout.
“Walk this man and you’ll never throw another pitch for Redwood High School,” he yelled out to me. Then he asked our catcher, Ross Ohrenshchall, “What’s he got, Ross?”
“Nothin’,” he replied, plenty loud enough for my dad and everybody else in the stands to hear.
I cannot truly say what it was like for me. It was a blur, really. As best I can tell it was kind of like I imagine combat is, everything happening too fast to process it. But what I do remember was an overwhelming sense of despair, a despair that happens when a man has all he holds dear taken from him.
With the score 4-0, the bases loaded and nobody out, Coach Endriss headed out to the mound. He was too pissed to say a word to me. In my mind’s eye, out of the fog of memory I somehow recall staring out at some eucalyptus trees beyond the center field fence and thinking to myself, “If there’s a guy up there with a high-powered rifle, just shoot me and end my misery. I don’t care anymore.”
It was really that depressing. I handed the ball wordlessly to Endriss and jogged to the dugout. A few parents offered some perfunctory clapping. My teammates acted as if I had the plague. Only Frank patted me on the back and told me, “Chin up.”
I found a spot at the end of the bench. Our equipment manager had folded all our jackets. They were extra thick and heavy. Those not playing were wearing theirs, but the starters were not. I put on mine then added two more to ward off the brutal, icy cold and wind. My sweat quickly formed into icicles which seemed to torture me even more.
I sat there the rest of the game. Occasionally somebody would get in my face and tell me to “root for your teammates.”
I would clap once or twice then just fall back in a clump. As I sat there in silence, a picture of dejection, a loser, I composed in my mind two speeches. The first was the one I planned to give my dad after the game, in which I would tell him that while I knew he told me “winners never quit, and quitters never win,” I had enough. Baseball was no longer fun. I was not good enough. I was deluding myself into thinking I had a future.
The second speech was for Coach Endriss, which I would deliver to him on Monday before practice. In this speech I would tell him it had been an honor to play for him; he had the best program in the nation; but I was not good enough to play at the level of excellence required of a Redwood Giant. I was retiring. I had tried as hard as I could, but it was for the best.
Then a funny thing happened. A sophomore named Steve Compagno got out of my jam with the score held to 4-0. Then we scored a couple runs. Compagno mowed ‘em down one-two-three. We scored a few more. Now I was at least not the losing pitcher. Then we scored a couple more. Now I was not the goat, we would win the game after all.
Compagno sailed through their line-up inning after inning until the bottom of the seventh in a seven-inning game. Leading 6-4, he tired and walked two men. Then the words that changed my life.
“Travers, warm up.”
What? I was still sitting in the corner wearing three jackets. The icicles had formed on my body, which was stiff and sore. But I had already played. How could I go back in?
Blair Bavuso, our 300-pound trainer-equipment manager, whose personality was about as pleasing as Adolf Hitler when told Stalingrad was lost, got about an inch from my face and yelled, “There’s a return rule, you idiot!”
A return rule? Great. They scored their fifth run. I can go back in the game . . . leading by 6-5 with no outs and two men on. I was already the goat, now I was going to be the goat a second time. Terrific! First I had to remove not one but three heavy jackets. Then I jogged to the bullpen, slowly. Every bone in my body cracked and creaked. I was encased in icicles of frozen sweat. Howard stood up and I threw one or two balls to him sort of like a shot-putter. I did not even throw from the slab. Then Compagno walked a man, loading the bases, and the umpire ran over to tell me I was in the game.
Again, while I remember the essentials, the whole experience was part of the “fog of war.” Yet somehow I just released all the tension. How much worse could it get? I had already “retired,” at least in my mind. If I blew the game, so what? I was beyond caring anymore.
I doubt any if my teammates had the slightest bit of confidence in me. The odds were stacked very high against me. Endriss handed me the ball. I do not think he said a word. Why he felt a freezing cold, un-warmed up Travers was better than Compagno, a talented southpaw who had already thrown six scoreless innings, was beyond me, but the man had instincts.
Ohrenschall set up behind the plate and I threw another “shot-put” to him from 46 feet away. He took off his mask and screamed at me to get serious. I toed the slab, wound up and let one fly, a hard fastball. A tremendous shooting pain flared from my lower spine down my right leg, almost to me toes. I ignored it and threw another warm-up pitch. The pain was excruciating but now I was coming to the realization that I had a job to do, so I ignored it again. The exhilaration and adrenaline was building, and with it my mind, even though it knew I was injuring myself, ignoring the pain.
The first man stepped up and hit my first pitch over the left field fence for a game-winning grand slam home run, giving Rolling Hills the title game by a 9-5 score . . .
Except that our left fielder Gary Zunino – who did not much like me, used to pull the parking brake and hide my convertible car when not throwing oranges into it, leaving pulp and seeds all over my inside windshield – raced back and leaped until more than half his body was over the fence.
He somehow caught it on the back side of the fence, disentangled himself, and came up showing the ball. Was it the greatest catch I ever saw? Certainly the best my eyes ever witnessed in person. I would rank it with some catches Kirby Puckett and Jim Edmonds made. The only other comparable catch I witnessed was one made by Bob Skube, a former USC Trojan playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in a 1982 Spring Training exhibition game vs. Oakland at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
The best part was that the runner on third, so sure it was a homer, jogged home and was waiting to high-five everybody for the win, when suddenly he turned and saw Zunino had caught it. He raced like crazy back to third to avoid getting doubled up. Gary made a strong throw but the man barely made it back safely.
Now I had life. God, perhaps, was on my side. Strange, mysterious forces of faith and fate were at play. My back and leg were in agony but I ignored it, like a soldier with a bullet wound rescuing a stricken comrade. The next batter was the great Don Slaught. I threw the three best sliders of my life. He swing and missed all three and now I had two outs.
Jeff Ronk stood in. Another star player. I gave him a dose of the same medicine, each exertion resulting in stabbing pain, but I was on another plane, in a zone. On 0-and-2 he swung and missed on a perfect slider, and we had won. Ross – who like Gary Zunino and most of my teammates was no big fan of mine– came running out to the mound.
So did the whole team. This included an injured outfielder named Mike Lopez, who took disliking me to high art. He made it his life’s purpose for two years to make mine miserable. Even he helped carry me off the field.
I was the hero!
How to describe this? A metaphor for life. An example of how things can turn around? Sure, I suppose so. Looking back, decades later, I believe God simply decided to help me. Why? Because I was suicidal just two hours earlier? Because baseball meant so much to me, to my life, that to quit meant giving up on myself, and once I did that maybe I would never believe in myself again? Can I trace whatever success I have experienced since then to this moment? It feels that way. Did it teach me how to overcome future failures in my life, in which there were plenty? Yes.
Endriss had a smile like I had never seen before, hugging me. My dad came down and did the same. Everybody was milling around me, as if I gave off some aura and they wanted a part of it. Rags to riches. Goat to hero.
Then came the pain, and this time there was no game-adrenaline to diminish it. I knew I was seriously hurt. All I could do was hope I would recover soon, because I was the hero of the San Luis Obispo Easter Tournament and after that the rest of the season would be gravy, like a Vietnam vet who makes it home in one piece.
Coach Endriss did me a favor pitching me. To say it saved my life is an exaggeration, but it was a turning point for the better, for sure. However, that would not come until I suffered through another long test.
I could do nothing physically. Just walking caused great pain. I could not throw, run, exercise, stand, lift weights; nothing. I suited up the rest of the varsity season, but never threw a pitch, which is why I feel partially responsible for Frank Ferroni eventually injuring himself. We had little pitching depth beyond Frank and myself, and Coach Endriss over-used him. Two years later he was effectively through.
Just as I may have inadvertently contributed to Frank’s injury, my injury have cost us not only the NCS title but the 1976 national championship. We used all our pitchers in the title game vs. Pleasant Hill but were beaten in the last inning, 4-3. Maybe I could have gotten the key out or outs we needed to win. Instead, we finished 30-3, but second best.
The number one team in America that year was Lakewood High near Long Beach. Their coach, John Herbold, told Coach Endriss he had a “nice little program up there, but we play ‘real baseball’ against teams from Orange County, Long Beach, L.A.”
Endriss responded that “we’ll play you anywhere, anytime, Herbold. We’ll play you on the L.A. freeways.”
I believe that was when Al Endriss determined that in 1977 his Redwood team would be the national champions of high school baseball. In the mean time, he was named National High School Coach of the Year, 1976. Aside from Frank, Ohrenschall made the California North-SouthAll-Star Game and earned a full ride to Santa Clara. Tony Guralas was drafted by the Mets. Gary Zunino would eventually get a scholarship to Cal, and would make it to Double-A with the St. Louis Cardinals.
As for me, I sat in street clothes on the bench all summer while my father managed the Italian Club of the Joe DiMaggio League in another 50-game schedule. I went through rehabilitation, saw a chiropractor, saw a back specialist at UC-San Francisco Medical Center, and never dared exercise or do anything athletic. All I could do was hope time would heal my wounds.
Again, my absence may have cost us a title, this time the DiMaggio state championship, held at Albert Field. We lost to the Long Beach Jets when a kid named Tony Gwynn hammered a game-winning double off the right-center field fence. If I had been available? Who can tell?
When fall ball started I was still sidelined. Eventually I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about Joe Namath, who was at the end of his career with the Rams. Injury-prune throughout his career, Namath said the most therapeutic thing was to swim laps in the pool.
So it was that each day, while my teammates practiced or played fall games at San Francisco’s Big Rec Park, I dove into the Redwood High pool and swam lap after lap. It was stress-free, and it worked. Finally around mid-November I was back, pitching in the last few weeks of fall ball. I was able to lift weights, to run, and to throw off a mound.
The prognostications were that my senior year team would be Coach Endriss’s best. We were in fact ranked seventh nationally in a pre-season poll, and Endriss told us to make it our goal to finish number one. The Marin I.J. got wind of this and seemed to think we were getting out ahead of ourselves, too arrogant for our own good.
Perhaps more important, that team had chemistry. We liked each other. We respected each other whether one was a sophomore or a senior. There were cliques and intrigues in 1975-76. To me, in 1977, I was set free. No more Mike Lopez out to ruin my life. These guys were my friends. I even had a car by now and a semblance of a social life. I kissed a girl for the first time.
Finally healthy again, I was convinced this was my big year, my turn to shine as Eddie Andersen and Frank Ferroni had. I had a fine season, but was totally over-shadowed by a hulking 6-5 sophomore named Mickey Meister. To this day, he remains, even 16 years after his passing, an enigma, a mystery, and one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever met, let alone studied.
Mickey had been called up to the varsity as a freshman, a rarity in those days. As a sophomore he was 11-1 and made first team all-league. He had a 94-mile an hour fastball. Rod Dedeaux and USC were already recruiting him, offering a scholarship with two more years to go in high school. In fact, two of my 1977 teammates earned full rides to USC. Center fielder Jim Connor, one of the greatest all-around prep athletes in Marin County history, was an All-American.
In the history of the Marin County Athletic League, I am unaware of any other player getting a full ride to play baseball after their senior year. Bill “Spaceman” Lee of Terra Linda was originally a walk-on. The only two – and USC was at the apex of their dominance in those years – were my teammates in 1977.
Our team did go all the way. Late in the season we played an exhibition game against the Taiwan national champs. Taiwan was reeling from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “one China” policy and under Jimmy Carter were very worried they would be sold out. They sent a baseball delegation to the States, ostensibly to show Americans they were just like us. Instead they dominated the U.S.
They were 8-0, scoring 15 runs a game without allowing a single run, against East Coast competition that included a couple of college teams. They were the same kids who had won the Little League World Series five years earlier. They had guys who were 6-4 or 6-5, grown men. We now know they were not 18-year old high school kids. They were 20 or 21 years of age, just as they had been 14 when they beat 12-year olds at Williamsport.
That did not make them any less intimidating. Before the game they took “batting practice” in the outfield. A pitcher would throw high heat to a batter standing on the left field line, with no catcher. Each pitch was a strike, and struck by the batter. Nary a single ball was whiffed or ended up against the fence. The batter would skillfully stroke each pitch to an appointed fielder. It was a display of skill like few if any I have ever seen, and made me agree with Spaceman Lee, who said “the best teams I ever saw were the 1968 USC Trojans, the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, and any Taiwan little league team.”
I really do not know how many people were at Redwood that day. Some say 7,000. We outdrew the Giants playing at Candlestick, and even though we lost in extra innings, 2-1, the game gave us national exposure and put us in the driver’s seat for a national championship, which came after we atoned for 1976 by winning Endriss’s first NCS title. The Easton Bat Company and Collegiate Baseball magazine ranked us number one in the country! Our record was 33-4.
Meister ended up his career 39-3, a two-time high school All-American. At the time only Scott McGregor of El Segundo had won more prep games in California. He was USC’s ace as a sophomore but his arrogance and lack of work ethic caught up to him. He played a few years in the Seattle organization and was out of baseball, wasting a sure big league career. His story is worth a book in and of itself, but ended with tragedy when he died from liver disease at age 44.
Steve Compagno became an ace at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, then was John Elway’s roommate in the Yankee organization. Pitcher Dave Hoffmeister made all-conference at the University of Pacific, and Jim Jones would later be a prep All-American and star at Pepperdine before a long career, mostly in the Oakland farm system.
Third baseman Greg Zunino hit .510 and later retired holding most of Cal’s career offensive records before signing with the Yankees. Jimmy Connor led USC in hitting as a sophomore. Shortstop Buddy Biancalana was a two-time high school All-American who turned down full rides from every major college in the nation to sign as the first round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1978. In 1985 he starred in the Royals’ seven-game upset win over St. Louis in the World Series, and became a cult hero in K.C. He appeared with Dave Letterman on TV after the Series.
That team featured players who made prep All-American six times; eight received division I college scholarships; almost all played college ball of some kind; six played professionally; and one was a World Series hero.
In 1978 Redwood won a second straight NCS title and this time were ranked number two in the nation behind Overland Park, Kansas. The Marin I.J. ranked our Taiwan game the greatest athletic event in Marin County history. The Sporting News rated Redwood the National High School Baseball Program of the Decade, which had to irk John Herbold of Lakewood. In later years, MaxPreps.com and Student Sports magazine rated the 1977 Redwood Giants the 13th and 15th best high school teams of all time (number one was the Fresno high program that produced Tom Seaver). Most of the stars of that team are in the Marin and Redwood Halls of Fame, including myself and my ‘77 teammates.
I finished with an 8-1 record and 2.71 earned run average. I set a school record by pitching in 26 of our 37 games, about eight or nine of which were starts. It was a solid performance, but I was not a star. Rather, I was surrounded by stars. I received a few letters of interest, but no firm scholarship offers. My teammates were off to places like the University of Southern California, the University of California, Pepperdine, Hawaii, Cal Poly, Pacific, UC-Davis, Cuesta Junior College and L.A. Harbor J.C. I desperately wanted to be a Trojan, as both Connor and Meister would become, but received no love.
I was 6-5 and weighed 180 pounds. My fastball was still in the low 80s. The good news is that, since my father managed our summer team, he knew all the scouts in the area, and they consistently told him that I would be a “late bloomer,” that I would gain strength and put on weight as I moved into my 20s, just as Jess Payan predicted when I was a skinny freshman. If I stayed on the weights, remained dedicated, out-worked my competition, and kept a positive attitude, I had a future in this game.
In my four years at Redwood we had competed with such stalwarts as Rickey Henderson (Oakland Tech), Gene and Jeff Ransom (Berkeley), Marshall Brant (Rancho Cotati), Allen Trammell (San Diego Kearny), Don Slaught (Rolling Hills), and Tony Gwynn (Long Beach Poly).
It had been a tough four years under Al Endriss but I had survived, and in the end he respected me. He told several coaches I was the hardest-working athlete he ever coached. I never gave him any guff, played by his rules, and most important, competed to my utmost whenever I took the hill. I was by no means his best pitcher, but I had no quit in me.
While my more ballyood teammates were off to glamorous colleges on full rides, or entered the professional ranks, I ended up at Santa Monica College. How did I end up there?
I played summer ball in the Colorado Collegiate League. We traveled all over the Midwest; Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, even as far south as Texas. At season’s end we competed in the prestigious National Baseball Congress in Wichita. Several future big leaguers played in our circuit, among them Bud Black (Dodge City A’s).
I recall some strange events from that summer. First, the club was run and managed by a local sporting goods owner. We were called the Colorado Springs Merchants, and played in a minor league stadium that had been home to the White Sox’ farm club, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
The manager had a son who had been a star high school pitcher and teammate of Goose Gossage. He had not made it into organized ball but was still pretty good. He had a friend of the same age who was nor particularly good, but since he was best pals of the manager/owners’s son, he was allowed to play. It was supposed to be a collegiate summer program for players still in college, yet both of these dudes were in their mid-20s, long out of school.
One time I was on the road in the car with these two guys on a road trip. I was just a kid, but they seemed determined to blow my mind with wild, crazy sex adventures. Then before a game one of them sidled up to me in the dugout and pointed out a gorgeous blonde sitting in the stands, wearing tight stretch pants. A real looker.
“You know what we’re gonna do with that chick after the game?” he said. I did not.
“She’s gonna take a dump on my chest and piss in his mouth,” he said.
“This time I’m gonna even swallow some of it,” the other declared.
Who knows whether these characters were serious?
On another occasion I was in the car with two players from San Diego. One, Chris Jones, was a star center fielder fielder at San Diego State who would reach the big leagues with Houston. The other was a stud right fielder at Grossmont J.C. who was on his way to SDSU on a full ride.
He was a handsome, typical Southern California kid, with matty blonde hair and a dark tan. He loved surfing the beaches of San Diego. For two hours in the car all that guy did was complain. There were no chicks in Colorado Springs. Lousy bars. It rained too much. The manager of the team was stupid. The road trips in the “middle of no where” were way too long.
“Man, I’m gonna quit and go back to ‘Dago’ to get in some surfin’ and screw some babes before summer’s out,” he stated. “I ain’t goin’ to Wichita for the NBC.”
He was a far bigger prospect than me, a star on the team while I was a bullpen guy who probably did not throw 10 innings all summer. I was just happy to be on the ball club, to enjoy the adventure of travel and baseball. To me I was re-living Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, seeing America for the first time really.
This guy did not recognize what a privilege it is to play the great game of baseball, and it occurred to me as I listened to his litany of complaints that my love and respect for the game would garner for me greater success than his entitled attitude. I would turn out to be right. He would flop at San Diego State and never get as far me, even though he possessed far greater natural gifts.
Several of my teammates were junior college players from Southern California. At first I was interested in playing for coach Skip Claprood at Citrus J.C. Then I visited Cerritos J.C. Cerritos was without question the best J.C. baseball program in America at the time.
Under legendary coach Wally Kincaid, they were arguably the greatest sports dynasty going; the baseball version of John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. Since the mid-1960s they had utterly dominated California juco competition. Because the state is so huge, we have a state play-off separate from the national junior college championship that schools in other states compete in.
Cerritos had won almost every state title over the previous 13 years, and on at least one or two occasions had actually featured undefeated seasons, virtually impossible in baseball. It was the program to play in. College and pro scouts flocked to their games. Their facilities were magnificent. It would also be super-competitive. My teammates would be among the best high school prospects in the Southland.
At first I was sold on the program and half thought I could room with Frank Ferroni at nearby Cal State, Fullerton. After the visit my dad and I had time on our hands before catching a nighttime flight out of Los Angeles Airport.
We had amused ourselves attending an Angels game and now I wanted to see Santa Monica. The coach at Santa Monica College, Eric Swanson, had heard I was shopping around for a juco program and wrote me a nice letter in Colorado. He wrote that he knew who I was, had a good scouting report on me, and that if I came to Santa Monica I would “lead the state in innings pitched.”
So Dad and I swung over without an appointment, and luckily Coach Swanson was in his office. He was very happy to see us. He was a young man, still in his 30s if not younger. He explained that he was also a “bird dog” scout for the Houston Astros and would the next summer be managing their rookie league club. The school still had a nice on-campus field, which was subsequently torn down to make room for a library.
He told me I could stay in his house in Studio City until I found an apartment, and also painted a great portrait of life in Santa Monica, which of course included lots of “pretty girls.” Music to my ears. Suddenly the smog and overcrowded freeways of Cerritos did not compare to the refreshing ocean breezes of Santa Monica’s bikini-laden beaches. I agreed to come play for Coach Swanson at Santa Monica College.
Before heading to the airport that evening, Dad took me to dinner at a restaurant right on Santa Monica Pier. One gorgeous swimsuit maiden after another walked past, and I was in Heaven. This was the place for me.
A few weeks later I loaded up my 1967 Plymouth Fury convertible and drove to Santa Monica. I parked the car in the parking lot and proceeded to Coach Swanson’s office. He had agreed to let me stay at his home. I knocked on the door and a pudgy little guy with curly out-grown hair answered.
“Hi, I’m Steve Travers,” I said. “I’m here to play baseball for Coach Swanson.”
“Coach Swanson resigned,” he told me. “I’m Marty Berson, the new coach.”
This was not good news, and not just because I suddenly had no place to stay. Berson had coached at Savannah High School in Anaheim. Man, listening to him, you would have thought that baseball was invented and re-invented in Orange County. They had the best players, the best coaches, the best facilities and the best programs. On and on. Therefore, since he was willing to grace Santa Monica with all of his Orange County polish and luster, Berson acted like he was God’s gift to baseball.
He had coached winning teams and two of his players were the Hoffman brothers, Glenn and Trevor. Glenn would later manage the Dodgers and of course Trevor would become a Hall of Famer with San Diego. But whereby Swanson had recruited me and told me I would be his ace guy, I received no such assurances from Coach Berson. On top of that, he had brought a number of Orange County pitchers with him to SMC, and favored them for sure.
Right off the top my experience in Santa Monica was a rocky one. Without Coach Swanson I had no place to stay so I used my dad’s credit card to stay the night at a hotel. The next morning I discovered my wallet was missing. I went to the car and it was not there. I spent the night “homeless,” sleeping in my car, desperate.
Then, as if a gift from God, I found my wallet under some suitcases in my trunk. Relieved, I found an apartment, started classes, and playing fall ball for the Santa Monica Corsairs. That was where I met John Gabruk. Man, what a character, a cross between Rasputin and Ernest Hemingway, or maybe Hunter S. Thompson.
John had played baseball at Venice High, which in those days had a highly-respected coached. They were an L.A. City power. John then got in some trouble with the law, and a judge told him he could avoid jail time if he joined the Army, which was in post-Vietnam disarray under Jimmy Carter.
Gabruk was stationed in Alaska and had an affair with a woman who was the wife or girlfriend of a fellow soldier. An altercation ensued and John pulled a knife, and may have injured the other guy although not seriously. He was thrown out of the Army, although they still sent him a check, perhaps part of the G.I. bill. He enrolled at Santa Monica College to resume playing baseball, and was 22 or 23 compared to the rest of us, who were 18 or 19.
He was a big, burly dude, probably 6-2 or 6-3, 220 or 230 pounds. He had excellent mechanics and threw a 90-mile per hour fastball. Had he possessed heart and desire he had the potential to have a career of some kind in baseball. John had a big beard and red hair. He resembled Jim Morrison late in his life, when he was making “L.A. Woman.”
Speaking of L.A. women, in my life I have never known a better pick-up artist than John Gabruk. I have known very handsome guys who were magnets for hot girls. I have known guys who just never took no for an answer, and seemingly wore girls down until they acquiesced. I have known guys who would stand outside a bar, and as each girl who turned them down walked out would hiss, “Slut!” or “Whore!” until one of them would say “I guess I’ll have to prove it to you.”
John was a combination of all three. He was handsome, no doubt, but his “rap” was his greatest gift. He had zero fear of rejection and was never tongue-tied. He was as smooth as cat dung on a linoleum floor.
We became friends out of convenience, really. I had a car and he did not. I wanted to meet girls and he knew where the girls could be found. One Friday after practice John asked if I would like to attend a UCLA-Arizona football game that night at the Coliseum. I was all for that. I picked him up in my Chevy Fury convertible and he said we had to swing over to UCLA to pick up his girlfriend’s roommate. His girlfriend was already at the game. She was a Bruins cheerleader.
The roommate was a magnificent blonde, an absolute stunner. She was my “date” for the evening. Now we’re talkin’. We watched the game and afterwards picked up the cheerleader-girlfriend, dressed in her costume. She was another total babe, of course. I had two of the hottest girl in town, tooling down the L.A. freeways in a 1967 convertible. It was awesome.
John cheated on his hot girlfriend every chance he got. I had a fold-out couch in my apartment for John to bring girls home to and he did, practically every night. Monday night, 10 P.M.? John would go somewhere and find something. Half the time he would wake me up and we would double-team whatever chick he brought to the apartment.
His girlfriend of course knew he cheated on her, and she got him back. Once when she spent the night at her apartment and John was sleeping off a hangover she crept into my room and gave me some wet love.
For the first time in my life I had a girlfriend and was having sex. My most steady girl was a pretty blonde I met in class at Santa Monica College. She was an aspiring actress living with another actress in a trailer out at Pt. Dume, near the Malibu/Ventura County line. The other girl had dark hair and was stunning. She played Bruce Willis’s wife in The Last Boy Scout, but I never saw her in anything else.
My blonde girlfriend became frustrated at how I would spend more time with John and was hanging with chicks on the side. She left me. I had gone from a lonely boy without a girlfriend to a “player,” all courtesy of John Gabruk.
Sadly, my girlfriend did not find roles and I discovered she did porn, although a Facebook search indicates she has lived a good life. That’s L.A. for you.
As for baseball, our team was very inconsistent. We played in the Southern California Conference, one of the strongest J.C. leagues in the state. It featured defending California champion L.A. Harbor, who had wrested the title from Cerritos after years of domination.
Golden West was another strong team, and we also played against powerhouses L.A. Valley and El Camino. We participated in an Easter tournament in San Diego in which I made the all-tournament team.
We would beat L.A. Harbor or some other power, then lose to a chump team like L.A. City College or L.A. Southwest. We featured several players who were drafted and had plenty of talent, but overall played .500 ball. I was 5-6 with a 1.97 earned run average. In the end, I did as Eric Swanson predicted I would, and led the state in games pitched, 27 out of our 36 played. I made all-conference, and was confident I would be drafted. Several colleges, such as Loyola Marymount, half-recruited me.
But the big reason I had chosen Santa Monica College, aside from its proximity to the beach and suntanned blondes, was its proximity to USC. I knew we would play the Trojans in fall ball and that if I pitched well I would be on their radar screen.
Sure enough, we played them in the fall and I was given a “showcase” start. My old teammate Jimmy Connor was on their team and we caught up before the game. To say I was “on” that day would be an understatement. I was on fire.
I pitched five innings . . . five perfect innings. No runs, no hits, no errors, no walks, no men on base. 15 men up, 15 men down, against the USC Trojans! They were the defending national champions. God bless him, Connor talked me up to his coach, Marcel Lachemann, who handled a lot of the coaching duties under the legendary Rod Dedeaux. After the game, Coach Lachemann told me he would keep his eye on me and I was walking on a cloud.
Sure as heck, when the season ended Coach Lachemann contacted me and invited me to the Trojan baseball offices at Dedeaux Field. That was a thrill in and of itself. He told me he did not have any scholarships available, but if my parents could afford tuition, he wanted me as a “recruited walk-on,” and that he believed I could help the program.
I was on top of the world and told him yes, I was in. Luckily for me my father’s law practice was going great guns and he assured me he could afford to pay my way. Then a weird thing happened. Coach Lachemann told me there would be a roster spot for me on USC’s team in the California Collegiate Summer League. They were known as the Charter Oaks club and played their games at historic Quigley Field, a kind of miniature Wrigley Field built in the 1930s by William Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, who owned a great deal of property in L.A. Quigley Field was the park used for some of the baseball scenes in A League of Their Own.
Then I was told try-outs for Charter Oaks would be held at Dedeaux Field. I had been told a roster spot was reserved for me, so I figured it was just a formality, but when I got there I realized I was not going to make the Charter Oaks roster. All I saw were green-and-gold uniforms; the uniform of the Cal Poly, Pomona Mustangs. Their coach was the Charter Oaks coach, and he stacked their roster with his players. I hardly even threw a ball that day and was summarily told I was not on the team. Now what?
Biggest Little City in the World
So I called my dad. “If they don’t have a spot on their summer roster, what makes you think they will have a spot on their varsity when all those All-Americans come back after playing this summer in Alaska or the Cape Cod League?” he asked me. “Here’s what I recommend. Move out of that apartment on Venice Boulevard. That will save money. Come up to our place at Northstar and spend the summer here. You won’t pay rent and all your expenses will be paid for. I can arrange for you to get a job with the landscaping company here, and they have a gym where you can lift weights. Reno is only 45 minutes away and you can play in their Casey Stengel League.”
My folks owned a condominium at Northstar-at-Tahoe, and practically lived there full time since my father had retired from teaching at City College of San Francisco and as a Commander in the Naval Reserves. Most of his practice consisted of preparing taxes, wills and estates, and he did that from his office at Northstar.
The Casey Stengel League was a fast semi-pro league that played four nights a week at Moana Stadium, the pro park that also housed the Reno Silver Sox of the California League. A lot of college and ex-college players from the University of Nevada or other programs played in that league. This solved my first problem, which was to find a place to play ball that summer. I would still have to deal with USC, where I no longer felt as welcome.
I found a team and in no time was playing very competitive baseball on a well organized club. At Santa Monica our pitching coach had been Jay Tatar, who had played in the Giants’ organization. He told me I needed to make use of my naturally sinking fastball. I had put on weight since high school and was heavy on weight training, but I lacked the overpowering heat the scouts were looking for, which was why I had not been drafted that June.
Coach Tatar asked me if I had ever thrown a sinker, and I said I did not know how. He showed me, and it was quite simple, just a slight turn of the wrist rightward and suddenly I was getting tailor-made double-play grounders.
In the Reno Casey Stengel League one of our pitchers was Stew Colton, a former University of Nevada ace who had played in the Chicago Cubs’ chain. He was about 30, and really knew baseball. He saw my sinker and approached me.
“Did you know that in the past 10 years two pitchers have won Cy Young awards throwing screwballs: Mike Cuellar and Mike Marshall?” he said. “Christy Mathewson and Carl Hubbell got to Cooperstown throwing it. Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers is the hottest prospect in baseball throwing a screwball. Willie Hernandez throws one. Bill Lee and Juan Marichal had great screwballs. The screwball is just like your sinker, but with more radical torque. If you can master it, that is an ‘out’ pitch that can get a guy to the big leagues.”
Stew took me to the bullpen and we began working on a screwball. Instead of just a slight rightward turn of the wrist, the screwball requires a complete opposite rotation of the entire hand at release point, to the point where a right-hander like myself follows through with his arm flowing to the right of my right leg, instead of following through to my left leg.
It is not an easy pitch to master and if done improperly can result in an injury, but if it is done correctly it indeed turns a suspect like me into a real prospect. Properly thrown it should not cause injury. Incredibly, I seemed to master it immediately. I do not know how or why, it just came naturally to me. The ball acted like a slider from a left-hander, appearing hittable to a left-handed hitter, then fading away – that was what Christy Mathewson’s was called – from the swinging bat. To a right-handed hitter it buckled him on the inside corner, taking away the fullness of his swing. The best part is I mastered it so well that it went for called strikes even when taken, since it invariably crossed the plate only to dip magically out of the strike zone into the catcher’s glove.
Equally great was since I was six-feet, six inches tall, my release point was generally six inches higher and closer to the plate than from the average pitcher. Batters would just wave at it, utterly discombobulated. Not only that, it screwed up batters so much they would go in slumps after facing me, and could not hit our other pitchers.
I immediately dominated the Casey Stengel League. It was ridiculous. My ERA was below 1.00. I was unhittable. I hit the weights hard that summer and improved the velocity on my fastball as well. Then fate took a very nice turn in my favor.
The University of Nevada had won the NCAA Division II championship with Stew Colton under a coach named Barry McKinnon, but had recently moved to division I in a very strong league, the Northern California Baseball Association, with powerhouses such as Fresno State, Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s, Pacific and San Jose State. They had fared poorly during this transition, and that summer McKinnon was fired.
The new coach was Del Youngblood. A member of Fresno State’s 1959 College World Series team, he had been an assistant coach at the University of California and then was general manager of the Reno Silver Sox when they were a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate. In fact my father introduced me to him when I was in high school, since we would occasionally drive from Northstar to Reno to watch games.
Since he was hired late, several committed recruits walked away from their scholarships and come late July there was still one or two left. Coach Youngblood met his players in his office, and one of them was center fielder Jim Gray, a great athlete. He asked Jim if there was anybody in the Casey Stengel League he thought could help Wolfpack baseball.
“There’s this one guy,” Gray said. “We call him the ‘monster of the mound.’ He’s unhittable. I think he played J.C. ball in California and has eligibility. Steve Travers.”
So it was that Del Youngblood called m into his office and asked where I was going to play ball come fall and spring.
“I’m a recruited walk-on at USC,” I replied.
“They didn’t offer you a scholarship?”
“They didn’t offer you a spot on their summer team?
“Well, USC won the College World Series. They are filled with All-Americans. If you go there you can get lost in the shuffle. I want you and need you. I have one scholarship left. I know all the scouts, you’ll be seen and have a chance to prove yourself in a great league. We also play Cal, Stanford, Hawaii, BYU, UNLV in non-conference; all the top programs. If you have what it takes you can show it here.”
That was all I needed to hear, I shook his hand and was now part of the Wolfpack. My dad was pleased; he did not need to pay tuition at USC, but more importantly, I was wanted and recruited by a solid program and a respected coach. All of a sudden my future was bright.
Then came the best part. In those days my father bought up relatively inexpensive property, which had included the Northstar condo. He owned a three-bedroom house in Reno, the “biggest little city in the world,” less than a mile from the University of Nevada campus. I would live there rent free, with roommates from the baseball team. All my luck had changed dramatically.
But I had an enormous challenge on my hands. This was division I baseball. My competition, on my team and in the games, would be scholarship athletes, many of whom had been drafted and turned down bonuses to play collegiately. I had been a solid high school player but not a star. I had sat in the bullpen in the Colorado Collegiate League and while I was all-conference at Santa Monica College and was ranked one of the 100 best prospects in the Southland, I was far from a surefire star.
Most of the Nevada pitchers threw heat; certainly harder than me. In reading the media guide, they had better resumes. But ever since high school, I would read about the pitchers I competed with and against, often players with impressive high school records (Long Beach Press-Telegram Best of the West; San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro Area; MVP of the Freeway League, etc). Just at Redwood I had played with five prep All-Americans and most of my teammates received full rides to places like USC, Cal, Cal State, Fullerton, Hawaii, Pepperdine, and UOP. Yet for all the ballyhoo of these other players, I always had confidence that I was just as good, and that I would in time prove it. Now I had my scholarship, to the University of Nevada, and it was my chance to prove it.
I worked like crazy all fall, particularly hitting the weights. I also began a 16-year addiction to chewing tobacco, either Copenhagen, Red Man or Levi Garrett. When “spring traing” started in Phoenix, Arizona, I was in terrific shape. I sized myself up against the other pitchers. There was plenty of talent, but I was talented too. However, when we opened the season with a three-game stint at Cal and Stanford, I was not in the starting rotation.
I did not let that get me down. I was determined to be ready when my opportunity presented itself. Pitching in relief at Stanford I induced the great John Elway into hitting a double-play grounder. After that, I did not have to wait long for my big chance. It came in an unlikely place, against Chico State on the road.
We started a guy named Fred Cook. He was typical of what I am talking about. On paper, he had been MVP of his team at Delta J.C. He had been all-league this and player of the year that. In the media guide he was better than me. On the field he was not, and I knew it. Fred was a big ol’ roly poly country boy, giant legs, a constant dip of Copenhagen in his mouth. He had a surly disposition and never said two nice words to me.
I had a sneaking suspicion Chico was gonna rough him up. Watching Chico take batting practice, they did not seem very disciplined, but they were country boys all the way with the lumber, swinging from the heels and knocking balls out of their picturesque little stadium.
When the game started I thought I was in a pinball arcade. Bing, boom, bam, like a Batman episode, with liners ricocheting off walls, our outfielders constantly picking up doubles and throwing the ball back, line drives all over the place. In no time flat the score was 6-0, bases loaded, and I was warming up when Youngblood called me in.
“We’re gonna score on these guys,” he told me. “Just throw strikes and compete.”
I had no real pressure on me, nothing to lose. I struck out the first guy on three pitches and now we had life. The next batter hit the first pitch on a perfect two-hopper to shortstop Don Biehle, who flipped to second and just like that I had a double-play and we were out of the inning.
We scored three runs and I ran out there and gunned them down in the second, one-two-three. We scored two more and again I mowed ‘em down. Then we took the lead and inning after inning I kept throwing no-hit, no-run, no-walks ball. We won and I got credit for the victory.
In the showers after the game Coach Youngblood gathered us all together. A devout Christian, he started with a parable about the Apostle Paul being ready when his time came on the road to Damascus. “Today Steve Travers was ready when his time came,” he said. “He did not complain, he just bore down, worked hard, and when preparation met opportunity he was up to the challenge. Steve is now in our starting rotation and will pitch against USF when we open league play this weekend.”
Oh, Nellie! I was riding high after that. I was riding even higher after I shut down the University of San Francisco. My screwball was literally unhittable and practically overnight I went from unknown to a legitimate prospect. I beat Fresno State, one of the best teams in the country, but the highlight of the season was when the University of Santa Clara came to play us in Reno.
Santa Clara’s coach was Al Endriss, my old Redwood High coach. He had been hired by Santa Clara after their legendary, longtime coach, Sal Taormina, passed away suddenly. The night before the game my dad invited Coach Endriss to our house in Reno. He came with Gary Powers, a rising high school coach in Reno at the time, who would later go on to coach the Wolfpack after Del Youngblood left.
Coach Endriss was nice to me and offered me encouragement, happy I had come into my own at Reno, but the next day it was all business. It was our first home series of the season. Because of the cold weather in the Sierra Mountains, we played all our games on the road, mostly in California, until mid- or late March. It was still cold, and in fact had snowed the night before.
When we arrived at Moana Stadium, the field was covered in snow. When Santa Clara arrived, Endriss when to Coach Youngblood and declared the field unplayable. Just then three helicopters from the local armory descended on the field, their propellors drying the snow. Youngblood explained that Reno was indeed in the league, and therefore Santa Clara was obligated to play the schedule whether they liked the weather or not. I could see Endriss and Youngblood arguing. Then Youngblood came back to our dugout.
“I don’t like your old coach,’” he told me. “I do not want to lose to this guy!”
I had my marching orders and fortunately for me, I was on that day. I came with my A-game. I mowed down a very talented Santa Clara Broncos team and we hammered their starter. Around the third or fourth inning we were pounding them pretty good when our star third baseman, Mike Wallace, came to bat and was hit by a pitch, obviously intentionally. A scuffle followed, and as I headed out to pitch the next inning Youngblood yelled, loud enough for me and Endriss to hear, “You know what to do, Travers.”
“If he hits him there’ll be a riot, Youngblood,” Endriss screamed across the field.
Sure enough, I threw one right at the first batter’s head. I’m sure he knew it was coming, and easily avoided getting hit, but the message had been sent. The hitter then charged the mound but my catcher, Tony Shanks held him back. The benches cleared but it was a typical baseball “fight,” with no real punches thrown.
But Endriss was beside himself. What really gnawed at him, more than anything, was losing to me. He wanted both Youngblood and I tossed, ranting and raving at the umpire, who in turn threw him out of the game!
I stayed in and tossed a magnificent three-hit shutout. Endriss had to sit in the Santa Clara bus, which was parked down the right field line, where he watched from a distance. As it happened that weekend, my old Redwood catcher Howard Gibian was at the game, and he went down to sit in the bus with Al, who was beside himself and told Howard, “If Travers beats us I can fly!”
To me, after years of hard work, of being the “second fiddle” on teams where other teammates were bigger stars, this was finally my moment, not just of glory, but of redemption. Bud Biancalana played in the 1985 World Series, but I trold him, “This was my World Series!” I beat all the top teams that season: Santa Clara, San Jose State, Fresno State, Pacific, etc. I finished with a 7-2 record, making all-conference and Regional All-American.
I was on the top of the world, but there was more to come. That summer I played for a top collegiate summer team in the Western Canadien Baseball Association, the Kamloop, B.C., Brewers. I pitched a perfect game up there, finishing with a 9-2 record and 1.93 eraned run average, earning International Pitcher of the Year honors.
Everything I had ever aspired to be, all that I had ever hoped to accomplish; well I was accomplishing it and there was more to come. I had little doubt in my mind I would some day be a Major League ball player.
The next season I started off like a house afire. I was on the All-American watch list again and at mid-season sported a 6-1 record with a 1.90 earned run average, a strikeout per inning, and two shutouts. After beating Saint Mary’s at Moraga 1-0, I was walking to the bus after the game when a scout approached me.
“My name is Dick Johnson,” he said. “I’m a scout with the Boston Red Sox. I’ve been scouting you and I project you to be a 10th to 12th round draft pick, and we’ll be offering you around $12,000 to sign. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like, ‘Welcome to Fenway Park,’ ” I replied. We shook hands when no sooner was I approached by Bart Johnson, an ex-big leaguer now with the Chicago White Sox. He had been the first man to scout me when I was a 16-year old high school sophomore. I told him that and he pretended to remember. He told me more or less the same thing.
It took me half an hour to get to the waiting buss, since after Bart Johnson scouts from Oakland, Pittsburgh, and a “bird dog” from the Cardinals, Roy Roth, spoke to me. Roth was also an umpire who had watched me ever since I threw that one-hitter in the Joe DiMaggio State Tournament after my sophomore year at Redwood.
I got on that bus and it was not gas that propelled us to Reno; it was my fantasies coming true. I stared out that window and saw Fenway Park for 180 miles.
Then a strange thing happened. In the remaining two months of the season, I could not get anybody out. Why? I have no explanation. My arm was sound, I was healthy, my work ethic was strong. Did I let my success get into my head? Did I let the pressure of the draft and my impending bonus get to me? I still cannot say.
Finally, the Major League players added to my woes by going on strike just before the draft. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced the draft would be cut in half and bonuses would be reduced or eliminated except for those at the top of the draft. I felt I had blown my chance, and the greedy players on strike had done me no favors. Finally St. Louis selected me, at far less than the money Dick and Bart Johnson had spoken of that day in Moraga. I was off to Johnson City, Tennessee of the Appalachian League.
1981 was one of the strangest, best and weirdest years of my life. When I got to Tennessee, I counted the players in uniform. There were around 28 or 29. The roster was 25. That meant several signed players would be cut. On top of that, top local players from nearby East Tennessee State University kept coming around for try-outs.
Finally, the day before the opener, the manager, an ex-Major Leaguer named Johnny Lewis, announced the starting line-up and pitching rotation. I was a starter. I pretended to take it all in stride. Inside I was jumping up and down.
I played a lot of practical jokes on my teammates and was known as an “intellect.” Two of my teammates, Danny Cox and Curtis Ford, would become big leaguers. Cox would become a star.
In my first game I defeated the Kingsport Mets, 3-1. Kingsport was made up of many of the players who would fill the roster of the 1986 World Champion Mets, including Kevin Mitchell. After the game, walking the empty streets of this small Tennessee town, Jesus Christ spoke to me and told me I was loved. I kid you not!
In another game I struck him Mitchell out three times on my way to fanning 15 Mets. In the first seven weeks of that season, I was an ace, leading the league in ERA. My screwball was a legitimate out pitch, Roving pitching coach Darold Knowles told me I had the best stuff in the St. Louis farm system. Pitching against the Bluefield Orioles, I struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches, all strikes either called or swung at and missed. There was no so much as a foul tip.
“I played 10 years in the Show,” Knowles told me on the bench. “I played with Catfish Hunter. That’s the best inning I’ve ever seen in my life.”
After games I could hear Lewis tell Lee Stevens, the director of player development back in St. Louis, that my screwball was an out pitch on par with Mike Marshall or Mike Cuellar, and I was now a legitimate prospect. I was sure I was heading to the Major Leagues, sooner rather than later. It was an incredible high, an experience I cannot truly describe other than I lived it.
Then it all came crashing down on one fateful day. It was the first week of August and I was scheduled to start at Kingsport against the Mets, who I had already beaten twice and it would have been three times had my bullpen not blown our lead. The game was scheduled for 7:30 P.M. Lewis had us take batting practice at our home park, then bus the 20-minute drive to Kingsport. Arriving at seven, I would have plenty of time to stretch and warm-up for a 7:30 game, except the umpire met the bus to tell us the game was not at 7:30, it was at seven!
Rushed, discombobulated and disconcerted, I quickly laced up my cleats and headed to the field. We were already at bat in the top of the first. Lying on my back stretching a rubber-faced man stooped down to talk to me.
“Hi, I’m Max Patkin,” he said. “I’m a ‘baseball clown.’ ”
He was the guy from Bull Durham, but that was seven years later. Still, I knew who he was. “I read about you in The Sporting News.”
He explained he was doing his act, and asked that I not get the “red ass” when he interrupted my game. What he was doing was delaying my warm-up. Finally I got up and started throwing too hard to soon. Something popped in my shoulder. I am pretty sure I tore my rotator cuff.
I should have shut it down then and there, but tried to pitch through it. I had nothing and was driven off the mound. That was my season. From prospect to suspect over night.
When the season ended I went with a teammate to Greenwich, Connecticut, took in a game at Yankee Stadium and visited Tom Seaver’s farm house (he was not there). When I got to Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Cardinals released me. They should have sent me to the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in L.A. for laser surgery. I was discarded like a piece of meat.
I went to Spring Training in Phoenix and Oakland signed me, but my injury made it impossible to throw effectively. Still I saw two extraordinarily strange events that season. The first was in Medford, Oregon. I was walking to dinner when I saw a line of mostly black and Latino players standing outside one of the motel rooms. I inquired and was told, to put this delicately, a couple of girls were, uh, entertaining the team. These guys were waiting their turn. I told somebody I was not cutting in line but, “I have to see this with my own eyes.”
Indeed, the son of a former Major League player was directing the “action” like a porn director. Our first baseman, who had played against me with San Jose State, invited me in, emphasizing that it was “free.”
It was interesting but the angel on my right shoulder out-shouted the devil on my left, emphasizing I was the son of a lawyer and this would not end well. I split and when I came back there were cop cars everywhere. Half the guys were in handcuffs. The blonde girl was 16, and the mayor’s daughter.
In Idaho I played with Jose Canseco and a good friend to this day, Dave Weatherman. Dave was the star of the 1979 College World Series with Cal State, Fullerton. A well-dressed girl would come to our games. She was dubbed “the librarian.”
I was not there but was told she finally was ready to party, and it was like the events in Medford. There was one “slip-up” that I think is best left to the imagination, but at least law enforcement was not involved.
Injured, I was eventually released by Grady Fuson, the man who told Billy Beane “f—k you” in Moneyball, and that was that. I went back to school at the University of Southern California. I had moved on with my life but baseball stayed with me forever. I was a graduate assistant coaching the USC J.V. baseball team, earning my bachelor’s degree after two years there. I briefly volunteered under Coach Endriss at College of Marin, was on Bob Milano’s staff at Cal when the Golden Bears went to the College World Series in the early 1990s, and managed a team in Berlin in anticipation of Germany’s attempt to host the 2000 Olympics. Eventually I became a writer and authored 33 books, many on baseball.
Life is good. I also have a workers’ compensation case with MLB and my attorney expects me to be paid between $60,000 and $120,000 for the injuries I sustained, mainly sciatica and a torn rotator cuff from the day Johnny Lewis stupidly forgot the time of our game in Kingsport, Tennessee.
In 2011 I attended the Moneyball premier and met Grady Fuson, who apologized for releasing me. I told him I had finished school at USC and had no regrets. As Chico Escuela once said, “Beisbol been bery, bery good to me.”
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.