'Moonlight' and his successors have no regrets
Like Graham, three dozen have played in Majors but never batted
"Well, you know I never got to bat in the Major Leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once."
-- Burt Lancaster, as Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams."
Fred Marolewski came close.
It was Sept. 19, 1953. Marolewski entered a tied game in the 12th inning as a defensive replacement for the Cardinals. The visiting Cubs scored three runs to go up, 5-2, and St. Louis came to bat in the bottom of the inning.
After a leadoff walk, Stan Musial flied into a double play. Enos Slaughter singled, before third baseman Ray Jablonski struck out to end the game.
Marolewski was left standing on deck in his Major League debut.
It was the last time he would be on the field during a big league game.
"It happens. You get a chance, and if you're lucky you get to play. If you're not lucky, you don't," said Marolewski, now 83. "Sometimes you've got to be in the right place at the right time. That's it."
Archibald "Moonlight" Graham's story was featured by W.P. Kinsella in his novel "Shoeless Joe," which was later adapted to the big screen as "Field of Dreams." Kinsella did this to highlight a player who came close to achieving every boy's dream of batting in the Majors. Graham was the first of 36 players since 1901 to appear in only one game but never step up to the plate.
Several of those players are still alive. They are not only connected in baseball history as recipients of the ultimate "cup of coffee." They also all made it to the sport's pinnacle, if only for a moment.
"A lot of guys never get a chance," said John Lickert, who caught a half-inning for the Red Sox on Sept. 19, 1981. "So many guys get looked over."
Joe Hietpas doesn't remember much from Oct. 3, 2004. He entered the ninth inning of the Mets' season finale, with New York trailing the Expos, 8-1. It was a blur, the now 33-year-old admits, but it's not like he could see much anyway. It was late afternoon at Shea Stadium, and the shadows didn't always provide the clearest picture.
"The umpire, Angel Hernandez, came up to me and said something like, 'If you can't see the ball, no one can, including me. Good luck,'" Hietpas recalled.
Marolewski remembers standing at first base and being overcome by the enormity of Busch Stadium.
"I'd been in big parks, but never in a Major League park," Marolewski said. "I turned around and said, 'Oh, my God. What a place.'"
Jack Feller caught Hall of Famer Jim Bunning for a half-inning on Sept. 13, 1958. Feller, now 73, believes the Tigers were playing the Orioles (they were). That's about all he remembers.
The same goes for Bob Hegman, who appeared with the Royals on Aug. 8, 1985.
"It was so long ago. You don't really remember much of anything," Hegman said. "Running out on that field in the ninth inning was fun, but it was kind of anti-climactic because I didn't get to bat. It sure ended quick."
For many, their stints in the Majors lasted less than a month. The moment they realized they made it is something they'll never forget. But it's just one in years' worth of playing professional baseball.
Unlike most of the 36 players, Bart Zeller opened a season in the Majors, doing so in 1970 with the Cardinals. His only action came on May 21, when he played a half-inning behind the plate, but his favorite memory was Opening Day.
"It was the biggest thrill in baseball I ever had," Zeller said.
|"When I played Little League, all I -- all everyone -- wanted to do is play baseball, and I was lucky enough to do that."|
|-- Bart Zeller|
But those are personal memories. Baseball is a team sport. It takes a team to attain the ultimate prize: winning a championship.
Feller's Augusta Tigers won the South Atlantic League title in 1958. The city was buzzing, and by the time the Tigers finished batting practice, fans were lined along the left- and right-field foul lines because there weren't enough seats. Police officers were called to clear the bullpen area so the starting pitchers had room to warm up.
Hietpas made the playoffs twice in the Minors. The first time, in 2003, his St. Lucie Mets won the Florida State League. Current Major Leaguers David Wright and Angel Pagan were on that team, which Hietpas said had a "ridiculous pitching staff" led by former first-round Draft pick Scott Kazmir.
The American Association's Columbus Red Birds needed a right-handed-hitting first baseman for their playoff push in 1950. Marolewski was called up from Allentown, hit pretty well, and helped lead the team to the championship.
"I got a ring and a bonus check and that made me feel pretty good," Marolewski said. "More than anything, that's probably more pleasing than being called up to the Cardinals."
Most of the players remained in the Minors for another few years before injuries or the realization that they would never return to the Majors ended their playing careers.
Then their second lives began.
Lickert spoke on the phone from his home in North Scituate, R.I., balancing an interview and a rambunctious three-year-old daughter. He coached high school basketball for 10 years and college baseball for one. He thought about getting into professional coaching before opting against it.
Feller went back to school, got his teaching degree and coached high school football, basketball, baseball and golf in Litchfield and Quincy, Mich. He coached both of his sons before retiring in 1991.
Although Feller didn't become a big league star, his grandchildren often ask him to sign various pictures from his playing days. He sometimes even gets autograph requests in the mail. He obliges both.
Marolewski spent four more seasons in the Minors after his game with the Cardinals. Two weeks after getting an offseason job at Western-Southern Life Insurance Co., he got a call from an agent. There was an opening in the Texas League and the agent wanted the 29-year-old Marolewski to go for a workout.
"I said, 'If you would've called a month earlier I'd go, but I'm not going,'" Marolewski recalled. "I'm done."
He retired in 1988 after 32 years with the company.
Hietpas graduated with a law degree from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. He then accepted a job with SNR Denton, an international commercial law firm.
Hegman and Zeller remained in the game. Hegman is a scout for the Twins, while Zeller manages the Joliet Slammers of the independent Frontier League.
Although none of them dug into a Major League batter's box, all are thankful they made it on the field.
"When I played Little League, all I -- all everyone -- wanted to do is play baseball, and I was lucky enough to do that," Zeller said. "I stayed in baseball a lot longer than others and I enjoyed every moment of it. Getting paid to play baseball was a dream come true."
One game. Zero at-bats. No regrets. The numbers that forever bond Graham and his 35 successors in baseball history.