On April 2, 1984 he was the Opening Day pitcher for the New York Mets. On April 12, 1985 he again got the opening-game nod, this time for the Miami Marlins, who play in the Class A Florida State League. In 1984 he was paid more than $275,000. Now he's earning $1,500 a month. And, whereas 46,000 people packed Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium to watch him face guys named Concepcion, Parker and Soto, only 864 came out to seedy Miami Stadium to see Mike Torrez pitch against such players as Mo Ching, Felix Perdomo and Roberto Kelly—kids almost half his age. Larry May, retail operations superintendent for a Miami supermarket chain, threw out the first ball.
Torrez is with the Marlins as part of a scheme devised by general manager Mal Fichman to revitalize minor league baseball in Miami by stocking the team with as many former big-leaguers as the rules would allow. Torrez has been joined by pitcher Eric Rasmussen, utility man Derrel Thomas and a handful of other exiles. What Fichman told them was this: Come to Miami, an independent team, where you can play every day or pitch every five days, get exposure, share a little wisdom with the kids and stay in top shape until a major league team calls you.
When Rasmussen, 33, who pitched for the Cardinals, Padres and Royals for nine seasons, heard what was going on, he hopped in his car in San Diego and drove straight to Miami. "I've still got those baseball Joneses," says Rasmussen, who left a job in real estate development for another fling at baseball. "Some people think they're too good to do this sort of thing. Obviously, if it's good enough for Mike Torrez, it's good enough for me."
"To get back, you have to start somewhere," says Torrez, 38. "It's nothing to be ashamed of." Torrez, who has a 185-160 major league record, is one of only two active pitchers who have beaten every team in the bigs, but not one of them would even take a look at him in spring training, and all he wanted was a tryout. Miami, a team that finished 15½ games out last season and averaged less than 650 fans a game, was the best he could do.
"The only thing Class A about this place is the league," says Fichman, 42, a little guy (he's 5'6") with big ideas. "This is a big league city," he says about every five minutes. He had spent the last 19 years in all the mole holes of the minors as, variously, manager, owner and general manager. He was hired in December by owners Joe Ryan and Ron Fine to rescue the Marlins franchise, which had lost its working agreement with the San Diego Padres in 1984.
When Fichman read that Vida Blue couldn't find work, he hit upon his novel plan. It took him a week to get up enough nerve to call Blue's agent to see if the pitcher wanted to be a Marlin. "Thanks for thinking of us," said Dick Moss, who explained that Blue had other plans (with the Giants, as things developed). Next Fichman tried Greg Luzinski's agent. But the Bull was set on retiring. Fichman kept dialing. His third call was to Torrez's agent.
After he signed the 38-year-old pitcher on March 21, agents, scouts, reporters and yes, other big-leaguers, started to call Fichman. "I've created a monster," he says. "A lot of people are out of work, you know." If it weren't for the seven-player limit for former major-leaguers set by the Florida State League, he's convinced he could field a starting lineup of all ex-big-leaguers.
The Marlins have come up with Torrez, Rasmussen, Thomas, 34, reliever Ed Farmer, 35, starter Juan Eichelberger, 31, first baseman Broderick Perkins, 30, and outfielder Terry Bogener, 29. Combined, these players have 68 years and more than 3,000 games of major league experience. Catcher Jim Essian, 34, is an injured reserve.
"Beats sitting at home," says Torrez. "It could've been a blessing for me not being picked up. I'm not locked into one organization here. Anyone can call up and ask, 'Is Torrez available?' " The pay is about $600 a month for players with no big league experience and $1,500 for the seven veterans. "They could make more working at Burger King," says Fichman. "It just shows how much they want to play." If a veteran's contract is bought out, Fichman and the Marlins keep 40%; the player gets the rest.
Until some big league team comes calling, Torrez is doubling as player/ coach. Torrez the coach pulled Torrez the player out of the opener after Mike pitched five no-hit innings, with two walks and six strikeouts. His stats after getting shelled in his third game: 17 innings, 14 strikeouts, 10 walks and a 4.23 ERA.
By some fishy twist of fate, Torrez pitched against the team of old nemesis Bucky Dent in the opener. Dent, who put a Torrez fastball over the Fenway Park wall to help win the 1978 division title for the Yankees, now manages the Fort Lauderdale Yankees.
There are no major league egos among the veterans. While Torrez works the pitchers, Thomas, a 14-year big-leaguer with six teams, runs infield practice like a human fungo machine. Perkins—Marlin Perkins?—helps the clubhouse man gather dirty laundry. Rasmussen pins Marlin pennants all over Miami.
Even manager Tom Burgess, 56, has taken a few giant steps backward after managing four Class AAA clubs and coaching for the Braves and the Mets in the majors. "What these players had is gone," Burgess says. "What I've had is gone. We have to show them up there that, hey, you made a mistake."
Most of the ex-major-leaguers admit they don't plan to stick around for the entire 140-game Marlin schedule. Perkins is giving it six to eight weeks and then he might try Japan. "This is a big step down," he says. "I was no slouch. I got beat out by the youth movement in Cleveland." Torrez has the same excuse for his decline in 1984, when he was released by the Mets and again by Oakland.
Torrez says he's going to practice patience until the All-Star break. "I just hope someone needs a pitcher and looks my way," he says. "I won't embarrass them, that's for sure." If it doesn't work out, he has a job lined up in New York, selling office furniture.
Fichman's recruits (left to right): Thomas, Eichelberger, Perkins, Torrez and Rasmussen.
It's a little early yet, but Rasmussen is already bringing the pennant to Miami.