His name was Jim Spencer, and if you have an affinity for slick-fielding first basemen of the 1970s, then you might remember him.
James Lloyd Spencer spent 15 seasons in the major leagues; he even made the All-Star team once. He could pick anything on a short hop. On his way up, he also played first base for the El Paso Sun Kings of the Double-A Texas League, which probably is where he learned to snag objects on short hops.
Jim Spencer played first base in the first minor league ballgame I ever saw.
It must have been 1968, Dudley Field, El Paso, Texas. I don’t remember who the El Paso team was playing — it probably was the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs or the Shreveport Captains. Maybe the Arkansas Travelers. I remember that Dudley Field was quaint and charming, the perfect place to hold an American Legion tournament.
The “Dudley Dome,” as the public address announcer referred to it, had those old field lights that attracted moths. It smelled of a Texaco station on the interstate; the El Paso Zoo was right next door. The grandstand was yellow and red, like a hot dog stand, and each section back was painted with a giant letter, and those letters spelled out “BASEBALL.” The letters were so big you could see them in Midland-Odessa.
I don’t remember why I remember Jim Spencer. Perhaps he signed my program. Maybe he went 3-for-4 with a homer and five RBIs.
In El Paso, they had this tradition where guys who hit homers would pass their batting helmets through the crowd, and fans would stuff dollar bills inside. Anybody would have remembered that.
But most likely the reason I remember Jim Spencer playing first base for the El Paso Sun Kings is because a little while after that, he broke in with the Angels. And then one day, my old man probably was reading the box scores before work, and then he probably came upon Spencer’s name in small print, with a little “1B” after it, and then he probably said “Spencer — isn’t that the kid we saw play in El Paso?”
So Jim Spencer was the first “see tomorrow’s stars today” guy I ever saw play in the minor leagues. “See tomorrow’s stars today” is a refrain minor league ballclubs use to drum up attendance. Another is “free schedule magnets Tuesday against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.”
Only I don’t remember Spencer in that context. The reason I remember seeing him play in the minor leagues is because he went on to play 15 seasons in the major ones. And because my dad probably mentioned his name that one day at breakfast.
(For some reason, I also remember a guy on that El Paso team named Jarvis Tatum, who hit .232 in 102 games for the Angels. Rudy May, who won 152 games in the majors, pitched for that El Paso team. I do not remember that. He must not have been pitching the night we were there. Vern Geishert probably was pitching the night we were there.)
The point is this: People do not pay money to “see tomorrow’s stars today” play minor league baseball. At least not intentionally. Case in point: Zachary Harrison Wheeler. Ol’ Dry Balls.
Highly acclaimed Zack Wheeler made his major league debut with the Mets on Tuesday. He was fantastic, pitching six shutout innings against the Braves while striking out seven. (Must have been the moist baseballs in Atlanta). He is scheduled to make his second start Tuesday, against the White Sox in Chicago.
Wheeler made 12 starts for the 51s. Six were at Cashman Field. In those six games, the 51s attracted an average of 4,970 paying spectators and a few freeloading media from New York. For the season, the 51s are averaging 5,202 paying spectators and a few freeloading media from New York.
This, I believe, proves my point: That people do not pay to watch “tomorrow’s stars today,” unless one of tomorrow’s stars is in the lineup on 51s Bat Bag/Boy Scouts Night, as Zack Wheeler was on May 11.
On that night, a Saturday, a night that is alright for fighting and minor league baseball, 8,393 turned out to watch Wheeler throw 97-mph gas with dry baseballs, or at least they stayed through the fifth inning after having acquired a nifty bat bag and the knowledge of how to tie a square knot.
The next-largest crowds to see highly acclaimed Zack Wheeler pitch were 5,178 on April 25 against Tacoma and 5,218 on June 13, also against Tacoma, in his farewell to Las Vegas. Both were on Thursday, which is dollar beer night at Cashman.
Mostly, there is only one type of person who likes to watch tomorrow’s stars play minor league baseball today. They’re called scouts. They don’t pay to get in.
A few years from now, when he’s an established big league star, 9-1 at the All-Star break with a 2.39 ERA and one of those real low WHIPs, Zack Wheeler might tweak something in his rotator cuff, and then he might be sent to Las Vegas for a rehab assignment. Then, and only then, will a few thousand extra spectators pay to see him pitch.
Especially if it’s on Thursday night, when beers cost only $1.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski