New book – He should have started on opening day at Yankee Stadium, but … I lost that court case

It still fits! Sort of…

Frank Eufemia is the answer to a strange trivia question. Who did Buck Showalter announce as the opening day starter for the Yankees in 1995…but who never pitched for the Yankees?  Frank’s dream — well, my dream — was squashed when everyone else’s prayers were answered, and the 1995 season was rescued from the strike by then-Federal Judge Sonya Sotomayor.  

My friend Mary Pilon is one of the great sportswriters of our time, and I was lucky enough recently to get an invitation from her to write an essay for her new book, Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard.   The book is amazing – it includes stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Louisa Hall, and Gay Talese, with pieces about Bill Buckner and LeBron James and a bunch of other names you know.

Long before I was a journalist, I was a baseball pitcher. Still am, somewhere deep inside. I use lessons I learned playing baseball every day of my life. Like most athletes, my career was cut short by….losing. But not before I had my share of brushes with fame.

Losing is a ripe topic. Our culture is obsessed with “winners,” with championships, as if only a few people really count.  But losing is part of life: Father Time is undefeated, so we all ultimately “lose.” In fact, Covid-19 has taken sports away from us, meaning there really are no winners right now. How should we handle that? There’s often more to learn, and to admire, from second-place finishers, or even last-place finishers.  Now is a great time to hear from some of them, and that’s what we’ve done with the compilation.

My story is about Frank Eufemia, former MLB player and brief teammate of mine who very nearly started opening day at Yankee Stadium, but for a strange twist of fate.  Of course, Frank isn’t a loser  — in this piece, I’m the loser.  And a proud one at that.   Read it below, but please consider buying the book and sharing this with friends.


Click to buy “Losers” at Amazon.

I was born with a baseball in my hand. I spent my whole childhood as a human version of a border collie, begging to play catch all day long. If I couldn’t find a human, I’d find a dog. If I couldn’t find a dog, I’d find a wall. Many baseballs sacrificed their lives, as did many brick walls, so I could hurl a ball morning, noon, and night. Of course, I became a pitcher as soon as any Little League team would have me. I lived for the WHACK and puff of dust that flies when a fastball lands just right. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, not far from the town of Montclair, NJ, that Yogi Berra helped make famous, my life’s dream was to pitch at Yankee Stadium. Like 99.9 percent of baseball players, I didn’t make it.

But I came tantalizingly close—at least vicariously. Back in 1995, a friend of mine was mere hours away from taking the mound as the opening day starter at Yankee Stadium. His name was Frank Eufemia. I spent weeks giddy over the idea, picking through spring training box scores just to make sure he was on target. Then, tragically, Frank’s start was canceled.

All because the Major League Baseball season wasn’t canceled. His dream—well, my dream—died. It was murdered by a current Supreme Court justice. Worse yet, it seemed like everyone in the country was happy about it. Except me.

THE FALL OF 1994 brought the quietest October anyone could remember. There was no yelling for hot dogs, no arguing with umpires, no collective gasps as fly balls soared into the night. Baseball stadiums were empty; bars had no games to show. Decades of rocky labor relations had finally boiled over, and then, the unthinkable happened. On August 12, 1994, the Major League Baseball season was called off. For the first time in almost a hundred years, there was no World Series. The Fall Classic had survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the gas crisis, all sorts of internal strife. But it couldn’t survive this disagreement between millionaires and billionaires.

Everyone lost. Owners lost money; players lost respect; fans lost their summer love. Barbecues lost their soundtrack. Hot dogs and apple pie lost their dinner companion. America lost a bit of its soul.

As the spring of 1995 approached, owners and players weren’t ready to settle; instead they seemed ready for a protracted fight. Americans faced the real prospect of no April Opening Day that year. Sort of.

Baseball’s owners had a trick up their sleeves. They decided to take a page from NFL owners and their handling of the 1987 strike: they would use replacement players to field teams and start the season. So, in late winter ahead of the strike-­ridden season, they began summoning ragtag groups of has-­beens and could-­have-­beens, largely from college ball parks and minor-­league stadiums, to Florida and Arizona for spring training. If the players wouldn’t settle, the season would begin without them.

At first it seemed like a bargaining gimmick designed to get the players to concede. But as March grew late, and the Grapefruit League got into full swing, it seemed all but certain that the season would begin without the “real” Yankees, or Astros, or Dodgers. The “star” pitcher of the Yankees replacement team was a former major leaguer named Frank Eufemia. Yes, that Frank Eufemia—the same guy who had taught me a sneaky right- handed pickoff move before a game at Hackensack’s Foschini Park just a couple of years earlier, when we both pitched for the Hackensack Arrows semipro baseball club.

MY PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL DREAMS had perished years earlier. I didn’t have it. I had been just good enough to hang on at every level I played at, until I hit the ceiling right below the pros. I kept reinventing myself, kept learning new trick pitches, trying to keep the dream alive. I played in college, and I played a little after college in semipro leagues. Emphasis on the “semi.” Usually, I was a middle reliever, which, until recently, was a kind way of saying I was the last guy on the bench. But I did get to play with, and against, a long list of players who got to The Show. I played against former Red Sox players Mo Vaughn and John Valentin when I was in college. Doug Glanville, who had a great career as an outfielder with the Phillies and is now a TV analyst, played with me on the Hackensack Arrows.

Frank played on the Arrows with me, too.

Most Americans know there’s an elaborate system of minor-­league baseball teams that feed up into major-­league counterparts. They might not realize that there are hundreds of other teams playing in independent leagues around the country. They range from beer leagues up to semipro ball where players are every bit as good as those in the professional minor leagues. Each year, hundreds of baseball players are cut by their pro teams, but they are not ready to give up the dream. They usually catch on with an independent league to stay sharp, build up their résumé, and wait for a phone call.

The calls do come, maybe one a year. Just enough to give everyone else hope.

Frank got one of those calls. In 1992, he was plucked out of our Northern New Jersey semipro league and pitched in eleven games for the New York Mets AAA affiliate, the Tidewater Tides. But he didn’t stick, and back he was, playing independent ball when the strike hit. Frank was much more talented than many of the “wannabe” players who went to replacement spring training that year. In the early 1980s, he had rocketed through the Minnesota Twins’ minor-­league system (“I left them no choice but to bring me up to big leagues”), and had his major-­league debut in 1985. Google him, and you’ll find video of him striking out Don Mattingly; a story about him inducing Jim Rice into a double play. His final stats that year were impressive: he was 4‑2 with a 3.79 ERA in 39 appearances. He gave up less than a hit per inning and held opposing batters to a .250 average.

But free agency acquisitions and other factors beyond his control kept Frank off the Twins’ roster the next year, and soon his path to the majors was blocked.

“The business part is what changes when you get to that level,” he said. “That can make it a little bit agonizing and frustrating. But you learn that baseball is a business.” He returned home and pursued a degree in teaching. But he kept pitching, and eventually got that second chance with the Mets. He was thirty-­two years old. When that didn’t pan out, he figured that was his last shot.

Until the strike.

Legendary New York area sports reporter Bob Klapisch, himself also a pitcher on a New Jersey independent league team, knew the Yankees needed warm bodies and helped make the connection. Yankees General Manager Gene Michael, also known as Stick, showed up to see Eufemia throw.

“Stick was impressed, and I said, ‘All right, I’ll go down to spring training.’ Stick gave me a decent bonus to come down,” Eufemia remembers. Anyone who’s ever put on baseball cleats would jump at an invitation to Yankees camp. Frank had grown up in the Bronx watching Mickey Mantle. But this was no ordinary invitation. Frank would be crossing a picket line.

And just like that, Frank was in pinstripes, pitching in “real” spring training games.

“On a sunny, breezy day that was made for baseball, about 200 fans were at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to watch Frank Eufemia throw a strike past Chris Latham to christen the dawning of replacement games,” the New York Times wrote of his debut.

“I was with five or six other guys with major-­league experience. We were all in the same boat, asking ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” Frank said. Plenty of journalists asked, too. “I was getting ripped by people like Mike Lupica. I almost coughed up my cornflakes every morning.”

One day, then Yankees manager Buck Showalter pulled the “veteran” group aside while they were stretching and offered a quiet warning: “‘Why don’t you guys get lost today,’” Frank remembers. Word was out that protesters from the Teamsters would be showing up. So Frank and the others didn’t practice that day.

“Turned out to be nothing crazy. They just put up a blow‑up rat,” he said.

Frank understood the situation, better than most observers realized. The previous baseball strike had come in 1985, Frank’s only major-­league season. Finally enjoying a real pro salary, Frank had just bought a condo when players walked out for two days. It was a scary time for him.

He says he talked to plenty of players during the ’95 strike and they didn’t take issue with what he was doing. After all, he had learned baseball is a business.

Frank’s time staying sharp in semipro leagues paid off. He arrived in Florida ready to impress. In his first spring start, Frank allowed two hits and one run in three innings. By the end of the spring, he had pitched to a 3.95 ERA that spring and was indeed in line to start on opening day.

“Frank has shown us the ability to throw his changeup for a strike in any situation,” Showalter said to the Times, “and that’s important. He’s done a good job for us this spring.”

I watched all this avidly from my perch as the night sports editor at the Missourian newspaper in Columbia, Missouri. I was in graduate school getting a journalism degree, and I helped pay my tuition by running the sports desk at night.

Although the baseball strike horrified me—the Yankees were in first place when the season stopped on August 11— the chance that Frank would pitch wearing the iconic uniform delighted me. By the end of March, there seemed no path for a settlement. The brinkmanship bargaining going on seemed to have no end. It looked like the strike would likely take out the first month or two of the season, and maybe the whole 1995 season.

Then, in fifteen minutes, Sonia Sotomayor dashed my dreams. In a now-­famous ruling, just hours before the “real” replacement games would begin, Judge Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction against the baseball owners, essentially ending the labor fight. She said she didn’t need to hear from witnesses, which would have caused a delay (and would have meant the replacement games would go on).

When she was nominated to the Supreme Court fourteen years later, President Obama said Sotomayor has “saved baseball.” Maybe. But she also extinguished my last chance at my childhood dream.

Notice I said my dream, not Frank’s.

As Gene Michael had promised, Eufemia was offered a minor-­league contract, but it seemed clear there was no way forward for the thirty-­five-­year-­old.

“I called Stick and said I was going home,” he remembers.

HE WENT ON TO baseball greatness in other ways. He led Yogi Berra’s Jersey Jackals, playing in Montclair, to the first independent league championship as a player coach. He was the pitching coach at Montclair State University when it won the Division III national championship. He finished his teaching degree and has spent seventeen years teaching at Pascack Hills High School in New Jersey, helping hundreds of young players follow their dreams.

When we talked recently, it seemed I was more frustrated by his near miss in pinstripes than he was.

“When I was done, I was done. I had no regrets. It wasn’t like that,” he said. “Maybe if I didn’t make it to the big leagues at all, it would have been different. If I died that death as a AAA player knowing I should have been promoted, maybe it would have felt different. But having pitched in the big leagues, and having success in the big leagues, it meant I could sleep at night.”

They say athletes die twice, and it’s true. At some point, childhood dreams give way to real life. It’s true of everyone— some people trade in dreams of working at Yankee Stadium for a real job working at Rockefeller Center, like me, or being a dad, or something else. Eventually, everyone’s body breaks down. Life number one ends and life number two begins. Even the winningest athletes eventually lose to Father Time, who is undefeated.

I WOULDN’T TRADE MY career writing books and fighting for consumers in exchange for a few years of playing at Yankee Stadium, but I’d sure pause for a moment to think about it. My baseball life petered out the way most do; the Arrows disbanded and I couldn’t find another team to pick me up. Perhaps because I couldn’t really make a catcher’s glove WHACK anymore by then. But that actually freed me to eventually move for graduate school, and move on with life number two. In some ways, that’s what happened with Frank, too.

I did have my moment, however. In my last full season with the Arrows, we had our best team, and we added some talented pitchers, which pushed me far down the depth chart.  I appeared almost exclusively doing mop‑up duty, taking the mound mostly to save other pitchers when games were out of hand. I didn’t appear in a single meaningful game that year.

Except for the championship game.

We were two innings away from winning our league championship and earning the right to play a regional tournament at the Toronto Blue Jays’ AAA park in Syracuse. Baseball tournaments can get pretty hairy, with a lot of games compressed into a short span, and as we fought through a series of tough opponents, the bullpen ran dry. By the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and our pitcher out of gas, there was no one left. No one but me.

Summoned from the pen, I promptly surrendered our one- run lead, but then I induced an inning-­ending double play that Arrows players still talk about. It was a rocket line drive right back at me. All those years reacting to bounces off Mount Pleasant Elementary paid off. I stabbed the liner with my glove, perhaps saving my face in the process. I then doubled off the runner at first. We scored in the top of the ninth, and I muddled through the ninth inning to get the last three outs. I got to do that whole throw-­your-­glove‑in‑the-­air thing as I was tackled by a swarm of men on the field. We then went to Syracuse, and for once in my life, I got to play in a professional baseball park. I immediately bought a Syracuse Chiefs T‑shirt. We were eliminated in short order, but I was smiling.

My final pitching won-­loss record that year: 1‑0.

That means I can sleep at night, too. Sometimes, I even sleep in a Syracuse Chiefs shirt

 

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About Bob Sullivan 1470 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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