Wild Things manager finds true calling after brief MLB career


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Four hours before game time, Bart Zeller sits in the first base dugout as rain patters on the roof above him. His players loosen up in right field. Zeller wears a black Washington Wild Things cap with sunglasses atop the red bill. Looking at the diamond-studded ring on the third finger of his right hand, one might think he has won a World Series.

“This is the greatest group of young men I’ve worked with in nine years,” Zeller says, nodding toward the players stretching in the rain. “We’ve had a championship team, but these guys are special.”

In his second season as the Wild Things manager, Zeller is referring the championship he won in 2011 while managing the Joliet Slammers. The ring is for a Frontier League championship, not a World Series title.

Zeller, with help from his coaching staff and the general manager, assembled this year’s edition of the Wild Things. The 72-year-old manager devotes four to five hours each day in the offseason to researching players and talking to scouts. Each spring, he makes his rounds to the 15 major league teams with spring training facilities in Arizona — where he has a home with his wife of 27 years — and asks teams which players will be released, trying to get a head start.

It’s a year-round job, managing this independent league baseball team that plays 96 games in the summertime. And Zeller’s looking for a certain type of player.

“The question I ask a guy when he comes out of affiliated baseball is: ‘Why do you want to play?’” he says. “If he says, ‘I love the game,’ I’ll say, ‘Go find another team.’”

It’s not about loving the game, it’s about the dream. The same dream he once had.

These players don’t dream of this field nestled along Interstate 70, with ads lining the outfield walls. They dream of the field 31 miles up I-70 nestled along the Allegheny River, they dream of Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.

Now in its 21st season, the Frontier League has had 24 former players reach the majors. Many sign minor league contracts, but few make it to the big leagues. Some return to independent teams. Others give up the game. Zeller knows how tough the journey can be.

“I don’t talk about it a lot,” he says. “I tell them, ‘It’s about you guys, we’ve had our day.’”

May 21, 1970. That was Zeller’s day: Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, St. Louis Cardinals at the Philadelphia Phillies. Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst used a pinch-runner for catcher Joe Torre in the ninth. The Cardinals scored three runs to tie the score, 3-3. Schoendienst needed someone to catch. He called on Zeller, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer.

One inning — two-thirds of an inning, technically — is all Zeller played. It took five batters for the Phillies to win the game, and Zeller never played in another major league game.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he says in the Wild Things dugout. “If I told you my knees were shaking, I wouldn’t be far from the truth.”

The rain comes down harder now, and the Wild Things players head for cover in the right field clubhouse.

***

Zeller was born in 1941 and grew up in Chicago Heights, Ill., idolizing Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. When he first played baseball, his Little League coach asked each player which position he wanted to play. Everyone picked a spot, and Zeller was left standing by the dugout. No one had volunteered to catch.

“Since nobody wants to be a catcher, we’ll make you a catcher,” he remembers his coach saying. He played the position the rest of his career.

Zeller went to Rich High School in nearby Richton Park, Ill., and played college ball at Arizona for a year before transferring to Eastern Illinois.

After graduation in 1963, Zeller did something few ballplayers could imagine doing nowadays: He picked up the phone, called Cardinals general manager Bing Devine and told him he wanted to play. Devine told Zeller the Cardinals had a tryout camp coming up. Zeller had been to tryout camps; hundreds of ballplayers would be trying to catch scouts eyes.

“Nope,” Zeller said to Devine. “I don’t want to go to a camp where they’ll slap a number on my back. I want a real chance.”

Zeller still doesn’t know what it was that convinced Devine to offer him a personal tryout in St. Louis. Days later, he was on the infield at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis taking infield and hitting batting practice. Zeller smacked a few pitches into the left-field stands.

When he was done, he was told to shower and meet the club executives upstairs. The Cardinals offered him a contract that day, and he accepted it on the spot.

“I had to take advantage of the opportunity,” Zeller says. “All I ever wanted to do when I was playing in high school and college was get a chance to play pro ball.”

***

Jim Vahalik once gave up on the dream. At the end of last season, he called it quits and took a job at an accounting firm in Nashville.

The 25-year-old from Ohio played college ball at Toledo and had a chance with the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, but was cut after spring training. After another season with the Wild Things, he hung up the cleats in favor of a suit and tie.

Now, as Zeller walks from the clubhouse to the dugout 15 minutes before the first pitch against the Schaumburg Boomers, Vahalik is back, warming up starting pitcher Scott Dunn in the Consol Energy Park bullpen. Vahalik is in his third season catching for the Wild Things.

“He’s one of the big reasons why I came back,” Vahalik said of Zeller. “Mainly because of Bart, and I know the team this year is special.”

The Wild Things were in first place at 16-7 going into a game against the defending Frontier League champion Boomers, who were struggling at 12-11.

There’s a decent crowd, mostly parents and their children, as Vahalik and Dunn head for the dugout. The public-address announcer introduces the “Field of Dreams Team,” a group of children who take the field with the Wild Things. Music drowns out the buzz of the highway a couple hundred feet behind the first base dugout.

The first few innings are a breeze for Dunn. Zeller stands on the top step of the dugout, No. 29 on his back, the same number he wore with the Cardinals in 1970. The Wild Things pick up a run in the second, but the Boomers answer with two in the third and another in the fourth. In the bottom of the fourth, as the Wild Things are rallying to tie the score, 3-3, the rain returns.

The crowd of 3,138 scatters. Some pull out umbrellas and ponchos, some head for cover, others head for the parking lot. The teams play on.

The last few innings are a rain-soaked affair. Because it’s a doubleheader, they’re only playing seven innings, but this one is tied and heads for the eighth. The crowd is gone except for a small contingent under the press box overhang.

The dream is still there, but, with the score tied, winning takes center stage, even if hardly anyone stays to watch. The Boomers pick up a run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly, and the game ends with Vahalik grounding into a fielder’s choice.

Vahalik will attribute the loss to poor hitting with runners in scoring position. But, really, he’s just happy to be back under the lights.

“I like managing people out here not in the workplace,” he says.

What would Vahalik give for one inning in the big leagues?

“My left leg.” He laughs. “No, but maybe a toe or a finger.”

***

Zeller was invited to the spring training with the Cardinals in 1970. Joe Torre was a lock to start at catcher. His backup was a 20-year-old named Ted Simmons, but military duties meant Simmons would miss the early part of the season.

The Cardinals signed Carl Taylor, but realized he wasn’t the defensive catcher they needed. A day before the team broke camp, the Cardinals told Zeller they were bringing him north.

On opening day 1970, Zeller stepped onto the field at Jarry Park Stadium in Montreal and thought to himself, My God, I didn’t have to pay to get in.

Zeller warmed up starter Bob Gibson and watched the game from the bullpen. He would spend a lot of time in the bullpen, warming up relievers and watching his teammates.

Torre caught every inning in Simmons’ absence — until that ninth inning May 21 in Philadelphia. With Zeller behind the plate, there was a leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk, a strikeout, and a walk-off single. Zeller caught three pitchers: Frank Linzy, Billy McCool and Sal Campisi. Campisi surrendered a single to Tony Taylor, allowing John Briggs to score, and the game was over.

“It happened that fast,” Zeller says. “I just got done saying, ‘Wow, I’m really here,’ and everybody’s walking off the field.”

There were other chances. Once, he was in the on-deck circle with one out and a runner on second. Then, the center field made a shoestring catch and doubled a runner off second.

Soon, Simmons returned, and the Cardinals gave Zeller a choice, remain with the club as a bullpen coach, or head back to Class AAA. Zeller stayed with the Cardinals, helping out in the bullpen.

He played minor league ball again in 1971 for the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees. At some point, he was run over at home plate and injured his knee. After that year, he called it quits and returned to Illinois, where he went into telemarketing for about 30 years.

“I’m not angry or bitter,” Zeller says of never getting a major league at-bat. “I’m happy. I lived my dream and was able to get into the game.”

***

After the loss to the Boomers, Zeller heads to the clubhouse through the rain, head down. After his postgame routine, he’ll head across the street to the Comfort Inn, where he stays during the season. He will be back the next afternoon, getting ready for another game.

After Zeller retired from telemarketing, he was offered a job as a bench coach in Sioux Falls, S.D. He turned it down.

His children questioned the decision. When they asked why he declined, Zeller didn’t have a good answer. So he called up the manager and asked if the job was still available. It was, and he took it. “I told my wife I wasn’t going to sit in the rocking chair on the porch and let time go by.”

Zeller throws batting practice to stay in shape. The game keeps him mentally sharp. He often tells people he’d love to drop dead waving a runner around third.

“I don’t mean that to be funny. What a fulfilling life that would be,” he says.

He has lived his dream. Now he wants his players to do the same.

The Wild Things haven’t had a winning season since 2007, but they are 24-15 now and in first place in the Frontier League’s East Division, a game ahead of the Evansville Otters. Zeller will say winning matters, but he will also say the opposite.

“We want these players to get out of here,” Zeller says. “That’s what this kind of baseball is all about. The guy who built this park, he had a dream, too. And maybe his dream’s fulfilled, or maybe he wants to win the championship. I don’t know.

“But these guys have a dream, and we can’t stand in their way.”


Sean Hammond: shammond@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1466 and Twitter @sean_hammond.

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