Life in the Minors
July, 2002 part I

A Tribute to the 1977 International League Champions

by Joe Kuras

The year was 1977 and Pawtucket Red Sox baseball was not something you bragged about. The ballpark was rundown, attendance was poor and it wasn’t exactly the kind of place to bring your girlfriend or the wife and kids.

It was Ben Mondor’s inaugural season in1977 as the new owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox. And the Paw Sox won the International League Championship that year! In true Ben Mondor fashion, the Paw Sox did not celebrate his 25-year anniversary as the owner of the team in 2002. Instead, several players from that 1977 team were on hand one July afternoon, to be recognized in celebration of the 25th anniversary of that championship.

Scheduled to be on hand for the weekend celebration were players Don Aase, Kim Andrews, Jack “Home Run” Baker, Sam Bowen, Luis Delgado, John Doherty, Al Faust, Wayne Harer, Buddy Hunter, Dave Koza, Andy Merchant, Mike Paxton, Bud Poole and Chuck Rainey, along with skipper “Walpole” Joe Morgan.

I spoke at length with several of the players about McCoy Stadium, the fans, the Paw Sox front office and staff, their careers and playing up in Boston. They fondly recalled their memories from 25 years ago with the International League champion Pawtucket Red Sox. And they were amazed at how the ballpark and baseball in Pawtucket had progressed in the last 25 years.

Probably the nicest part of the afternoon was that it only took one glance at my media pass for these players to remember my name. And then to call me by name as they later made passing comments and small talk with me. They were proud to have their dads, wives and children by their side and were eager to introduce them to me. To me, it didn’t feel like an interview. Rather, it was more like men from the same generation, talking baseball. Of course, there is always that folksy, down-home feeling when you talk baseball with someone with a Southern drawl, or that laid-back west coast mentality. But I swear, if they had gone out for beers after the game, they just might have asked me to tag along! That’s how friendly and down-to-earth they were.

Read on for some insight into these former professional ballplayers as they share their thoughts, fond memories and regrets over their careers and as members of the 1977 Pawtucket Red Sox.

Mike Paxton

Mike Paxton was born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 3, 1953. The right-handed pitcher made it up to Boston in 1977 where he appeared in 29 games and posted a 10-5 won-loss record with a 3.83 ERA. He was traded that winter to Cleveland in the Dennis Eckersley trade. Paxton went on to pitch 3 more season with the Indians. His final line in the Major Leagues was:

4.71 30 24 1 99 466.1 536 271 244 146 230

What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the word ‘Pawtucket’?
Well, just a lot of good memories. It really is. We had a lot of fun here. I got called up to the big leagues when I was here, so yeah, it was great.

McCoy Stadium
They have done a wonderful job. This is the first time we’ve been back since I played. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I know everybody is proud of it.

It was a lot different back then than it is now. I tell you what, I looked around last night and saw a stadium full of folks and it took us a month to draw that many people when I played.

I know Ben, after visiting with him this weekend, is so proud of this place. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He’s always been a first rate guy and some things just don’t change. He was that way in 1977 and he’s that way now.

The Paw Sox staff
They’ve done a great job. They have such a wonderful staff and everybody has been so nice to us since we’ve been here. We’ve had a wonderful time.

It looked like everybody (the fans) was having a blast here. They have the right atmosphere and that’s what really good baseball should be all about. Kids are out here enjoying themselves, and the moms and dads too. They (the Paw Sox) really care about you.

I probably did better than I probably deserved. Yeah, I did. I wish I went a little bit further than I did, but it just didn’t work out that way. Staying healthy is a big part of it. Being at the right place at the right time, but no regrets. I had a lot of fun, met some great folks and got to travel. No regrets, I enjoyed it.

Sam Bowen

Sam Bowen was born in Brunswick, Georgia on September 18, 1952. The right-handed slugger had 3 cups of coffee with Boston in 1977, 1978 and 1980. When the cup was finally empty, Bowen played in a total of 16 games in the Major Leagues, all with Boston. His final line in the Majors was:

.136 16 22 3 3 0 0 1 1 6 7 .240 .273 .513

… when you hear the word ‘Pawtucket’?
I played six seasons here and it got to be home. I paid Ben a compliment one time and it was misconstrued where I said ‘if I was destined to be a minor league player all of my career then I couldn’t think of a better place to play than right here, with the fans and the ownership.’ And that was misconstrued to mean that I was content just to be a minor leaguer and I didn’t have the desire or the heart to be a big league player. So when I think of Pawtucket I think of how two thirds of my nine-year career was spent in one city.

Mike Kinch was one of our clubbies (club house attendants), and his dad was the mayor. And I told him if I come back one more year I was going to run for mayor.

It was nice to have the sports writers come along after you played that long. It was like you (the writers) talking to Fisk or Yaz. They wanted to know what you thought about game or what you thought about the season. There was a lot of respect there that you felt like you earned. And it was good! It made you feel good to do that.

And the fans around the league - when you played that long fans in Syracuse, Rochester and Columbus, Richmond and Tidewater knew who you were and it was nice to be cheered there.

Dick Berardino was here yesterday and he was my minor league skipper in Elmira, my first year. And at the end of that year – it’s the only year of the nine that I played - that I had a manager sit down and go over what he felt like you were. He would review your year and the stats. He said, ‘runs pretty well, pretty good pop in the bat, pretty good average, I would rate you an outside chance to get to the big leagues if all the circumstances fall into place.’ Well that’s all I wanted to hear. You have your first year and you get off to a good start.

I used to look up the ladder at the Triple-A guys, and Buddy Hunter and some of these fellows were here when I was coming along, and I thought ‘why don’t those old guys get out of the way?’ They were 25, 26 27, 28 years old. Then all of a sudden you blink, and you’re there. And you’re 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 and then you say, ‘but I’m only this far away. All I’m needing is a break.’

The only regret I have is that I couldn’t have been released or traded. Maybe after that sixth year, that 2nd or 3rd year here... because there truly were some other teams that I could have hooked up with. And I would have re-done, re-thought, re-said some things. But when it’s all said and done, I only remember good things.

I am not ashamed to say I love the game more now and appreciate the game more now than I did when I played. And that’s why I wish some of these guys now out here today could just jump ahead 15 years or 20 years to the days when you can’t go play anymore, even at the minor league level. I’d pay Ben to be able to go throw batting practice or go shag some fly balls or hit some fungos.

Andy Merchant

Andy Merchant was a left-handed hitting catcher who was born in Mobile, Alabama on August 30, 1950. If a southern boy could ever find happiness in stiff-collar New England, Merchant could in this blue-collar city of Pawtucket. He went out of his way to make sure I had an opportunity to meet his Dad. Merchant played a grand total of 3 games in Boston over the course of the ’75 and ’76 seasons in Boston, hitting .333 (2 for 6). His final line in the Majors was:

.333 3 6 1 2 0 0 0 0 1 2 .429 .333 .762

… when you hear the word ‘Pawtucket’?
The people. The people. Some loving people. Some really, really nice people. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every minute of it and I’m glad to be back.

McCoy Stadium
The clubhouse – We were lucky we had a radio. They got this big ole screen TV now with a lounge around it. The facilities are wonderful. …and the old chicken wire cages (lockers) for where we dressed. It’s a big change.

I’ll tell you, I was always one who came early to the ballpark. I used to help them on the field. I used to come and work out. I just loved being around the ballpark. It was my life. I loved it.

The Paw Sox staff
Ben and Mike (Tamburro, President), they’ve done such a wonderful job! These people here (the fans) are lucky to have them. You think of minor league ball or minor league associations, there is such a big turnover. It’s amazing that they are still here. They are wonderful, wonderful people.

1975 & 76, I went up briefly. Plus we had some pretty stiff competition. Maybe I came around at the wrong time, Joe. Who knows? It was fun. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the many times I got the opportunity to throw batting practice in Boston. Carl Yastrzemski and all those players - I think about it often. I enjoyed rooming with Freddie Lynn. He was my good buddy in Double-A ball. We went out fishing together.

Jack “Home Run” Baker

Jack “Home Run” Baker was born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 4, 1950. The right-handed power hitter holds the distinction of being Pawtucket’s single-season home run champ with a league leading 36 round-trippers in 1976. Baker appeared in 14 games for Boston in 1976 and 1977. In 26 at-bats, he had one home run and 2 RBIs. His final line in the Majors was:

.115 14 26 1 3 0 0 1 2 1 6 .143 .231 .374

There were some fine memories. You can’t think of Pawtucket without thinking of Joe Morgan. He was such a character. You think of some of the guys you played with.

Living in different areas, this is different than living in Alabama. The temperature was a lot better for playing ball. The humidity was less. April – I remember staying behind the plate in the old locker room and we’d come running in if we weren’t up at bat, we’d put our hands in the whirlpool and look through the window to watch how the game was going.

I remember waking up in May and going to Rochester and between here and Rochester, twelve inches of snow on May the 12. I mean that was hard to believe. All in all, this is a great place – a great place to play ball.

We lived in different places. For the three years I was here we lived in East Providence, we lived in Attleboro and lived in Cranston. So we got to see a pretty good part of the city from different directions that way. And I’ve taken my daughter to show her this pizza place we ate at here, that we absolutely loved the pizza. I could talk for several hours about all the memories.

But most of your memories are tied in to guys like Buddy Hunter, Ramon Aviles, Andy Merchant, Ernie Whitt, guys that you came up the ranks with. Just six to eight years of real friendships.

McCoy Stadium
I stood over there by the third base line (on a visit back in 1993) talking to Tim Naehring and it was just like it was when I left. To come back and see this! Last night while watching the game, it was hard to believe I played in this ballpark.

I had some awesome memories. I remember the first time talking with Carl Yastrzemski about hitting in spring training. When I got called up, Cecil Cooper and Carlton Fisk buying my meals for me a couple of times, just to help out the rookie.

Having been a walk-on in college, rather than be a scholarship player, just to play pro ball in itself would have been a dream. And once I started playing and having a little bit of success, my hopes were to get to the big leagues. And to actually have a cup of coffee (in the major leagues) so they say, … and there were times when I thought ‘what if I had been given a full-time chance, just what might have I done?’ But I had a great chance to play here full time and had some success here and to look back and see some of the clubs the Red Sox had in the mid-70’s, it was going to be hard to break that lineup (in Boston).

Buddy Hunter

As the oldest player on the Paw Sox in 1977, Buddy Hunter was the de facto player-coach on the team. But playing in 130+ ballgames in a 140 game season didn’t leave much time for coaching. Hunter was born on August 9, 1947 in Omaha, Nebraska. Although he was a member of the Paw Sox ’77 championship team, he got his cups of coffee up in Boston in 1971, ’73 and ’75. He appeared in all of 22 games, with 17 at bats in the Majors. His final line in the Majors was:

.294 22 17 5 5 2 0 0 2 5 2 .478 .412 .890

McCoy Stadium
Actually, this is not my first time back. Casey, my son, was married on Martha’s Vineyard two years ago. So we came back and got the grand tour from Ben Mondor and Mike Tamburro and I was really impressed with the new facility. I wish I had the opportunity to play on this. …big difference, not only from the playing field – that’s better than any big league playing field – the surface. And the locker rooms! God, it’s got to be better than most big league locker rooms. Definitely better than Boston.

I played in Boston parts of three years. I just wish that everybody who ever put on a baseball uniform could get that opportunity to go and play in the big leagues. It’s just the ultimate. Even though I only had a cup of coffee up there, I had seen what it was like and bounced around with the big boys a few years.

I wouldn’t do anything different. I learned how to play the game. When I first started playing professional baseball I didn’t know how to play the game. But with some excellent coaches… I wasn’t a very good hitter but I turned out to be a very good hitter, thanks to Ted Williams and Joe Morgan. I met Joe Morgan six years after I started playing professional ball and I wish he would have been there from day one because he’s actually the man who taught me to play the game. I was with some very good, big-name managers that didn’t do that. And until I met Joe Morgan, I really learned how to play the game. Then it was very rewarding for me, knowing how to play the game the last six years.

Don Aase

Don Aase, along with John Tudor and Glenn Hoffman, went the furthest in the Major Leagues. The right-handed hurler from Orange California was born on September 8, 1954. He pitched one year (1977) in Boston, followed by 7 seasons for the Angels and 3 seasons with the Orioles. Aase wrapped up his Major League career with the Mets (’89) and Dodgers (’90). His final line in the Majors was:

3.80 66 60 82 448 1109.1 1085 503 468 457 641

Playing here – I played three years here. It’s the most I spent in any minor league city. I got called up (to the majors) from here. Also, I had hurt my arm early in ’76 so it was kind of up and down, rehabbing and getting my arm strength in ’77. So it’s something that brings back a lot of the memories. A lot of good friends came up and went through the minor leagues so it was a really great time.

McCoy Stadium
It’s beautiful. I can’t imagine playing in any better facility in the minor league than this one here. There have been tremendous changes and it really looks good.

I’m sure we didn’t draw as many fans as they do now. The ballpark wasn’t in as good a shape as it is now.

The best thing about that was the fact that I pitched the first day I came up. I didn’t have time to sit around and be in awe of everything. But it was terrific.

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I’ve had some poor seasons, some good seasons. It’s just something that you want. You go out there and do the best you can. Trying to put goals on yourself can sometimes put too much pressure on yourself trying to reach them. I always wanted to do the best I could and I thought at that point I had reached the goals that other people had set for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to play in the big leagues and have a career. It’s been a great career for me.

Chuck Rainey

Chuck Rainey was born on July 14, 1954 in San Diego, California. The right-handed pitcher played for the Boston Red Sox from 1979 – 1982, the Chicago Cubs in ’83 & ’84 as well as the Athletics in ’84. He appeared in 141 games in six Major League seasons. His final line in the Majors was:

4.51 43 35 2 141 669.2 738 383 335 287 300

McCoy Stadium
I was here a couple of years ago, right after they had finished the addition here. But I didn’t know it had been remodeled. I was here in awe, and I was shocked to say the least. And then yesterday, I got a chance to see the inside of the stadium and all the things they have done underneath. It’s pretty impressive.

They’ve taken the old McCoy Stadium and turned it, kind of on par with a lot of the other newer stadiums. I’ve been around to a lot of the newer minor league stadiums that are pretty slick places too and they have kind of brought this place up to par with some of the newer stadiums. And it’s really nice.

I don’t remember the field being this smooth and this green. The playing field is really nice.

Boston was a lot of fun. A lot of pressure. It was a good place to play for a lot of reasons, it was a tough place to play for a lot of reasons. But all in all I feel really fortunate I got to play in two really good baseball cities. When I went to the Cubs I got to play in Wrigley Field. I got to play in both leagues so I got to play in every stadium in the major leagues. So I got to see a lot in the almost six years that I was in the big leagues. And to play in Fenway, and to play in Wrigley Field, if you were to sit down and say ‘what two places could I play if I had my choice, ‘ - that’s pretty fortunate.

I’ve got a lot of good memories of Boston. But it was a tough place to pitch. The people up there, the great fans are very discriminating. When you do good they love you and when you do bad, they’re all over you.

I have a lot of great memories. But I’d do some things differently. I’d pitch differently. I’d handle myself differently. I tell people that playing baseball, from the time I was 20 years old to the time I was 30 years old, was such a great way to not have to grow up. I have a lot of fun memories.

Joe Morgan

This article would not be complete if Joe Morgan didn’t have a story to tell from that 1977 championship season:

We were in Toledo one day and Sam Bowen hit a ball you wouldn’t believe. I knew the ball went at least close to 500 feet when it went out of the park. So I sent two guys out to find out where it ended up. I came back and measured it the next day. It was 572 feet.

I told Ted Williams and he wouldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You’re jealous because the ball you hit in Fenway Park was only 519 (feet).’

The fence was 390, then there was another 25 feet to the back wall, which was higher than the Green Monster, which is 37 feet. This wall had to be at least 45 feet high and that ball looked like a golf ball going out. I couldn’t believe it.

1977 Pawtucket Red Sox photos, now and then