BY KEVIN KERNAN
What a trip around the sun minor league baseball was back in the days of Woodstock.
Here at Baseball or Bust we don’t just write about today’s game, we remember yesterday’s game and pay homage to players from decades ago.
Never underestimate the value of that and what it means, not only for the players but for the game itself.
There is also the benefit of a lifetime of experience after the games have ended and the pieces of the puzzle have been put together. A life beyond baseball develops. It is a joy to bring all that home.
Such was the journey of Marvin Sherzer, a right-handed pitcher with an incredible memory. Earlier this year at BallNine, I wrote about the exploits of former Major League GM Mike Port and his first GM job back with the 1969 Key West Padres, one wild ride.
It was a tremendously well received column and eventually made its way to Sherzer, who does not own a TV or a computer. That alone makes him different. He reached out to me and here is his story from that summer when there was a full house at Wickers Stadium every night and the rabid fans not only watched those games with passion, they placed their bets on the players and the game with passion, too.
This was FanDuel long before it became a reality in Rob Manfred’s betting world.
Sherzer pitched at the University of South Florida so he knew about fun in the sun baseball but he had no clue what was awaiting him in Key West after being selected in the 25th round of the June Amateur draft by the expansion Padres.
“[Zimmer] just was rubbing the ball, and you don’t leave until the relief pitcher comes and he says to me: ‘I would not let them take the bread off my table without knocking someone on their ass!’”
Don Zimmer was waiting.
The expansion Padres finished with a 52-110 record. Zimmer drove that young Florida State League team to a 67-63 mark and was managing the Padres by 1972.
Sherzer turns 75 in a month but still talks with the enthusiasm of youth.
“It was an interesting time because the college was just starting up and the president of the school John Allen wanted to make it like the Little Harvard of the South and baseball was almost like an intramural sport,’’ Sherzer told BallNine. “In fact if the girls had an intramural volleyball game we had to get off the field. They didn’t even have a field when I went there my freshman year, we shared just a flat playing surface. We only played on the weekends. I was the first person, who attended that school as a freshman who signed a professional baseball contract.’’
Red Barber spoke at Sherzer’s college sports banquet. By that time the scouts found the 6-2, 200-pound right-hander and Sherzer was on his way to pro ball.
“It was a different world and really to go from that relaxed atmosphere to Don Zimmer, who was probably the most intense competitor whoever played, was quite a transition,’’ Sherzer said of the 38-year-old bulldog of a manager.
“I had the utmost respect for him and when the game was over he was a gentleman, he was the nicest guy in the world,’’ Sherzer said of Zimmer. “I remember we finished the season in Ft. Lauderdale, we got releases so we didn’t have to ride that damn bus all the way back to Key West, and Zimmer hopped in the Corvair with the shortstop and me and we got a case of beer, it was about a four-hour trip back to St. Petersburg … Padres ownership had no money, no wonder the bus had holes in it and no air conditioning.’’
Zimmer simply did not like pitchers. After the beanings he took as a ballplayer that was understandable.
“He finally came to realize that I was a baseball fan and not the pitcher, in his words who was the enemy, the guy who was trying to take the bread off the table,’’ Sherzer explained.
Marvin Sherzer with the Key West Padres, 1969. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Sherzer)
Yes, it wasn’t too long ago that baseball players were such fierce competitors.
Between an afternoon doubleheader when the Padres did not play well in the opener, Sherzer remembers Zimmer storming into the clubhouse like a man possessed. “All of a sudden I hear this screeching on the concrete, you could almost see the spikes throwing sparks and Zimmer yelled, ‘I was the best competitor whoever played and if that was professional baseball there isn’t a cow in Texas.’ ’’
Again, this was long before the days of mental skills coaches and not hurting a young ballplayer’s feelings.
“Then Zimmer went right down the list,’’ Sherzer said, “and he told the shortstop, ‘You could cut your head off, throw it in the toilet and you’d be a better ballplayer.’ ’’
Imagine saying that to a Gen Z player.
“That’s when I knew, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore,’’ Sherzer added with a laugh.
There was this side of Zimmer, too.
“We did play in Tampa, the Reds were in Tampa and St. Louis was in St. Pete,’’ Sherzer recalled. “Zimmer lived on Treasure Island and he took the whole team over to his house. He put out a spread on the table. He lived on a canal and he had someone with a boat give us ski rides and everything. He was the finest person I could imagine, but when the game started it was life and death.’’
That is the way it was once in baseball.
Sherzer was first sent to Rookie League Salt Lake City but Zimmer did not like one of his pitchers and swapped out that pitcher for Sherzer.
Sherzer finished 5-5 with a 2.59 ERA in 14 games that summer and had a few highlights, including a big win in Orlando. “That is where I went to high school,’’ Sherzer said. “so they gave me a nice write up because I was a local kid. Zimmer was so nice that the next night after I pitched he told me I could just go up in the stands and sit with my family.
“I was in Key West for all of July and all of August,’’ Sherzer said. “I remember Mike Port came out and gave an inspirational speech, something to the effect, ‘Boys, they are not going to bring the mountain to you, you have to go to the mountain and really produce.’ ’’
Don Zimmer managing the San Diego Padres. (Getty)
There were no days off in the Florida State League but Sherzer made the most of his day. “I went to the beach every day,’’ he said. “I’ll never forget one time I got on the bus and Zimmer said, ‘You know what, you have the best tan in the Florida State league.’ ’’
This was a much different Key West than the playground that is Key West today.
“There was only one restaurant open at night and I remember Zimmer telling me, ‘If you wander into a bar on Duval Street late at night you’re liable to get a knife in your back. It was a wide open place, definitely a different place. It was some journey.’’
This was long before the days of Duval Street Pub Crawls.
“In 1969 the bridges were not wide,’’ Sherzer said. “I remember one night we had to sit on the bridge in Islamorada where the Seven Mile Bridge is and it is 11:30 at night and the Highway Patrol comes the other way and had stopped us because a semi was coming the other way, we have to sit there, there is no air conditioning in the bus. The bridge was not wide enough for the bus and the semi and I can still remember Zimmer, he had hair in those days, running his hand through his hair and he had to open the door to get some air and the mosquitoes are swarming and Zimmer is going, “Twenty-three years in this game and I am sitting in a damn bus in the middle of the night.’ ‘’
Sounds a like a line from manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own.
“When we finished the season in Ft. Lauderdale, Zimmer called everybody into the locker room and honestly he couldn’t finish thanking everyone, he got teared up because he said he knew the sacrifices, he knew the hardships and he really couldn’t finish talking. He was a wonderful man … He was so intense and you could imagine if he was charging the field with Pedro Martinez when he was 72 years old, you could imagine how tight he was wound at 38.’’
I was there at Fenway Park in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS when Zimmer, the Yankees bench coach, charged Pedro and was rag-dolled to the ground. Don Zimmer never lost his fighting spirit.
Marvin Sherzer (r) with Don Zimmer. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Sherzer)
Zimmer had a long career managing and coaching in the majors. In 1989 he was named the Manager of the Year with the Cubs.
Sherzer remembers being taken out of a game by Zimmer and at that point the pitcher had not yet had a decision that 1969 season.
“When I got to the bench I just kind of tossed my glove up on the rack a little disgusted that I could not get a win,’’ Sherzer said. “Well, he thought I was showing him up and he came running down there, threw the glove at me, told me to get up into the locker room. Another time, and I can remember like it was yesterday and this was 53 years ago, I was getting lit up against the Montreal Expos farm team, there were line drives going everywhere and he came out to the mound to take me out of the game and you know this was a guy who was beaned twice and he kept his head down, he just was rubbing the ball, and you don’t leave until the relief pitcher comes and he says to me: ‘I would not let them take the bread off my table without knocking someone on their ass!’
“I never threw at a guy in my life.’’
The intensity of the fans in Key West, many of them who had escaped Cuba, was legendary.
“The fans were just incredible and I didn’t know the difference,’’ Sherzer told me. “It was my first year in professional baseball. I was like: ‘Wow, everybody loves minor league baseball.’ There’s 4,000 people a night there. Zimmer always had a forceful stride when he would come to take the pitcher out and all 4,000 people with each step he took would start clapping, he would get so pissed off.
“A lot of great memories.’’
Key West was so happy to have a pro team after so many decades without one that the mayor gave every Padres minor leaguer a certificate making them “Honorary Conch Republic Citizens.’’
Sherzer still has that certificate.
The next season Sherzer pitched in the California League in Lodi and it was a completely different experience with paltry attendance figures. “I did strikeout 14 batters though one day against the Visalia Mets,’’ Sherzer said.
“The average attendance in Lodi was 79 people,’’ he said.
The team stunk, compiling a 43-97 record. “It was a nightmare, really gruesome, we didn’t just lose 4-3, it was usually 15-2. It was all downhill after Key West,’’ Sherzer said.
Photo courtesy of Marvin Sherzer
Sherzer had three of those 43 wins. “I was the only pitcher who left spring training with the team that was there the whole year. Everybody else was either released or whatever. But I survived.’’
In 2009 Sherzer got the chance to reunite with Zimmer at the Trop when Zimmer worked for the Rays. “My heart was pounding through my chest,’’ Sherzer said of being on the field with his former manager.
Zimmer was in pro ball from 1949 until his death in 2014, a span of 65 years across eight decades. “I did play for two of the three men with the longest consecutive careers in professional baseball: Don Zimmer and Dave Garcia, who I played briefly for in Salt Lake City,’’ Sherzer said.
Jimmy Reese totaled 77 years in pro ball.
The Padres held spring training in Yuma, Arizona.
“You could walk down the street and you are in the middle of the desert,’’ Sherzer said of Yuma. I covered the Padres in Yuma as well in the late ‘80s. My favorite thing about Yuma is the high school nickname is Criminals or Crims for short.
Sherzer’s minor league career lasted only two seasons, a back injury plagued him and he lost velocity. He got into the non-standard auto insurance game for 31 years to make a good living but his real love was playing handball andwas quite good at it and moved to Miami Beach to play at the famed Flamingo Park handball courts.
Much later in life he came back to music as a classical pianist, another beautiful reunion.
Sherzer grew up a huge baseball fan, his grandfather owned a restaurant right outside Connie Mack Stadium.
His father George Sherzer was a composer. “My parents sat me down at a piano when I was six years old and said, ‘You are going to play.’ I did not have a passion for it, but I had some DNA, my mother (Beatrice) was a musician also. But my father also saw all the heartache of being a musician.’’
Eventually the family moved to Florida.
Baseball again came into his life when “Mudcat Grant came over to my house because he wanted to be a singer and my dad played at the Hilton in Orlando where a lot of the Twins hung out in spring training,’’ Sherzer said.
“My mother was the disciplinarian; she was the one who said you are not going out to play until you practice. I hated it. So when I was 16 I went to them and said, ‘No more piano.’ On one hand they said well, Vladimir Horowitz who was the Babe Ruth of virtuoso piano or Sandy Koufax? So they said, ‘Go play baseball.’ The family did love baseball.’’
From that rebellious period, Sherzer did not play piano for 46 years. Then after his mom passed away he one day sat down at the piano and started playing.
“I was interested in using it as a healing genre,’’ Sherzer explained. “I actually got certified and I am a health care professional today and I am certified in therapeutic music and I play at Halifax Health so that’s what I do now.’’
Still a certified Conch Republic Citizen and also a certified therapeutic music professional the last seven years.
“Thankfully music came back into my life,’’ said Sherzer, who lives in Ormond Beach, Florida and. “I did 3,000 patient therapy sessions, I wound up making a CD the patients enjoyed the music so much.
“I do play all classical as therapeutic but I do improvise,’’ Sherzer said. “I don’t play all the chords, all the arpeggios, I actually just play one note at a time because therapeutic music is all based on vibrations.’’
The sounds of the piano soothe not only the patients at Halifax Health, but Marvin Sherzer’s soul as well.