Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Former players recollect on playing at Wahconah Park
The smile on Vance Wilson's face was pretty bright, and it wasn't just because his Kansas City Royals had beaten the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.The bullpen coach of the Royals was smiling because he was asked about the first time he walked into Wahconah Park.
"I thought it was awesome," Wilson said.
Wilson was one of countless pro baseball players who called the ballpark home from 1985, when pro baseball returned to Wahconah, through the current day with the Futures League's Pittsfield Suns.
It was the Suns who spent this summer honoring the park's history, and celebrating 100 years of baseball there.
So I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the players who spent parts of the past four decades playing baseball here.
Wilson made his pro debut with the Pittsfield Mets in 1994, where he was a teammate of — among others — Jay Payton and Scott Sauerbeck. The latter two spent some time with the Red Sox.
Wilson is the bullpen coach for the Royals. He has worked in their organization for nine seasons, managing at Class AA for four years.
In Pittsfield, Wilson hit .307 with 2 home runs and 20 runs batted in. He worked his way up from a 44th-round draft choice to a major leaguer. He played eight years in the bigs.
"I was coming from a junior college [Mesa CC]. I wasn't coming from a big Division I [team] that had a real nice stadium," Wilson said when we met in the Royals clubhouse after Tuesday's win over the Red Sox. "I thought it was incredible. I thought it was neat, the way the fence was — deep in right center, shallow in center, a metal fence, the sun delays."
Oh yeah, what did he think about his first sun delay?
"You hear about it," he said. "It's kind of one those things, it's like telling somebody what it's like to have a kid. Until you experience it, you don't know. The first time we had it, I thought 'Wow, this was a thing.' The first couple of times, it's kind of strange. Then, it's really cool. It's the mystique of the stadium."
Phil Stephenson made his Wahconah Park debut nearly a decade before Vance Wilson did, playing in the Eastern League.
His first thought?
"That it was a very oddly shaped ballpark," Stephenson said. "If I'm not mistaken, I believe it had maybe the deepest right-center field I've ever seen in my life."
Of course, it didn't help Phil Stephenson that right-center was 420 feet from home plate and he was a left-handed hitter.
Stephenson hit .272 with the 1986 Pittsfield Cubs, with 12 home runs and 68 runs batted in. Just three years earlier, with the Albany-Colonie A's of the Eastern League, and had a .280 average with 19 home runs and 77 RBI at old Heritage Park.
"I don't know if it was a good park to hit in, because it was so deep to right field, and me being a left-handed hitter," he said, when I reached him at his office at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, where he just finished his 14th year as the head baseball coach. "It had its challenges, I would say."
Stephenson was a fifth-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1981, but stayed at Wichita State, where he played for his brother Gene. Phil was drafted by Oakland in the third round of the 1982 draft, signed with the A's, and was traded three years later to Chicago along with another former P-Cub Gary Jones.
Three years after he played in Pittsfield, Stephenson was traded to San Diego, along with former Pittsfield Cub Darrin Jackson and ex-Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi.
I didn't have to press him about the sun delays.
"If we played doubleheaders, we would have to start one game early and then have a break," he said, "and start the next game after the sun went down."
Stevenson arguably played on the most talented team to call Wahconah Park home in the last 35 years. Those Cubs were 76-64 in 1986, and finished third in the Eastern League. The Cubs had 14 players reach the majors and one, pitcher Greg Maddux, made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"When you go back and look at it, down the road, so many guys on that team played in the big leagues. We had Maddux and Moyer and they weren't even there for very long. They were there for only about a month or so, before they got called up to Triple A," Stephenson said during our conversation. "That team, realistically, could have been a whole lot better if those guys had stuck around."
Greg Beals is coaching in the Power 5 area of college baseball. Beals, who played on the first Pittsfield Mets team I covered back in 1991, is the head baseball coach at Ohio State.
Beals led the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title this year, finishing 36-27, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. He received a contract extension through 2023.
"We appreciate Coach Beals and the leadership he brings to the Ohio State baseball program with our student-athletes, alumni and the entire state of Ohio," Shaun Richard, senior associate athletics director for sport administration at Ohio State, said in a release. "He led a young, talented ball club to a championship season and another NCAA Regional appearance this spring. We look forward to him continuing to push this program as we strive to achieve the next step in advancing to a Super Regional and beyond."
That's the same Shaun Richard who grew up in North Adams and played his college baseball at North Adams State, where he graduated from in 2003.
What did Beals remember when he arrived in mid-June for his first pro season?
"Oh my goodness. It was my first experience as a professional, and after the draft, that's where I reported," Beals said, when I reached him in Columbus. "I had so many thoughts. I was in pro ball, Jim Thrift was my manager, and Jerry Koosman was my pitching coach. I thought we had a great staff. Thrifty was fun to play for.
"He was a young, fireball manager at the time."
Beals spent three seasons in the Mets organization, and then went into college coaching. He spent nine seasons as an assistant at Kent State, where former Pittsfield Met Jeff Duncan is the coach. He was the head coach at Ball State before moving to OSU. Beals said that ultimately this was his goal.
"That was my plan all along was to coach," Beals said. "I knew I wanted to stay in the game. Even in high school, I wanted to coach. I thought I would be a [physical education] teacher and a high school coach. I got to pro ball, and I stuck with the idea of coaching at the college level. I had some opportunities to be on the pro side, but the pro side is a lot different than the college side. Not one better than the other, but different."
Those are just a couple of the hundreds of stories that came out of Wahconah Park.
Hope you all enjoyed the 100th birthday celebration all year. Year 101 won't be that far away.
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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