Publish date:

The rarest bird in the bushes

Indomitable Stan Wasiak is now the winningest minor league manager ever

For Stan Wasiak, manager of the Vero Beach Dodgers of the Class A Florida State League, now in his 36th season of filling out minor league lineup cards, the years seem to meld into one long bus ride. Oh, he has won 20 divisional titles and nine league championships, but a mention of 1958 doesn't recall Great Falls, Mont, and the Pioneer League so much as the advent of reclining seats. The 1972 season? El Paso won the Texas League title, but more important, it was the first full year of air-conditioning.

Last Thursday in Vero Beach, Wasiak passed a milestone that made all those bus trips worthwhile. His Dodgers beat West Palm Beach 11-2 for Wasiak's 2,497th career victory, one more than the minor league record held by Bob Coleman, who managed between 1919 and 1957. As Wasiak's wife, Barbara, hugged him after the game, the crowd of 1,518 stood and cheered. Wasiak got a champagne shampoo from his players, and his cap and lineup card were packed up for Cooperstown. Said Wasiak, "This is my finest hour."

Who knows how many hours Wasiak has spent with 17 clubs in 13 states and 14 leagues. To his occasional regret, the only big league city Wasiak ever managed in was Green Bay, and then he was in the wrong sport. The Dodgers, who brought him to L.A. to throw out the first ball at a 1978 game after he won his 2,000th, hail him as King of the Minors. It's a nice title, but he wouldn't have minded being an occasional Foot Soldier in the Majors.

Wasiak also holds the unofficial record for most buses. His current chariot is a 1969 GMC Model 4903, commonly known as the Buffalo. The Buffalo is working on its second odometer and third engine, and driver Bob (Bullet) Francis guesses it has traveled more than a million miles. After triple bypass surgery and a case of hepatitis, the 65-year-old Wasiak thinks he too has covered more than a million miles, and says that his face has worn out three bodies.

There isn't much that can happen on a baseball field that he hasn't seen, like the time the opposing manager bit a hole in his pitcher's ear. Wasiak had a team that made two triple plays in one game. He missed Sandy Koufax, who never played in the minors, but he did manage Drysdale. Unfortunately, it was John, not Don, and he had a 6.00 ERA at Class A Salem, Ore. in 1962.

Wasiak has watched eight no-hitters thrown for him, and as many thrown against him. "Just when you think he's getting old," says Barry Wohler, who on July 17 pitched the most recent one, "he'll mention something to you that was right there that you didn't see."

As a young player begins to realize how much he has yet to learn, Wasiak's quiet way of teaching makes it easy for him to adjust. Says 10-year major league veteran Jerry Royster, a Wasiak pupil, "He had a knack for making me feel special. That's important. The minor leagues aren't an easy time of your life."

They certainly weren't for Wasiak, whose career as an infielder sputtered in 1949 at Double A in Mobile, Ala. after six seasons. At spring training the following year, the 30-year-old Chicago native realized he would never play in the majors and took his first managing job.

On the Dodger ladder to the bigs, Valdosta, Ga. of the Class D Georgia-Florida League wasn't the last rung, but you couldn't get hurt jumping off. Playing second during his rookie managerial season (indeed, he was active until 1959), Wasiak had 91 RBIs, despite hitting only three homers, a statistic he has recited to his singles hitters for 35 years.

There followed a Greyhound schedule of stops: Class C Greenwood. Class B Newport News. (That's where Norfolk manager Mickey Owen charged Newport News pitcher Owen Maguire and bit a 20-stitch hole in his right ear.) Mobile. Valdosta again, this time in the Tigers' organization. Class C Great Falls. Class B Green Bay, under the Dodgers' aegis once more. Salem. For the White Sox, Class A Fox Cities and Lynchburg.

He rejoined the Dodgers for the third and final time in 1970, winning A and AA pennants in two of his first three seasons back. In 1973, he moved to Albuquerque of the Triple A Pacific Coast League. It wasn't the majors, but you could almost see them from there. After all, the Dukes traveled in buses with wings called planes. The best part was being able to call a Royster into his office to say, "You're going up."

Wasiak still held out hope he would get one of those calls himself. But after two years of sub-.500 finishes, Wasiak got bad news on the phone. Farm director Bill Schweppe called to say he was moving him to Class A Lodi in the California League. Schweppe now says, "He was dealing with older ballplayers [at Albuquerque], especially some ex-major-leaguers, who would be inclined to take advantage of Stanley's personality and nature. There was a realization that his greater value was in the role he now has." The very quality that had made Wasiak so valuable worked against him. "They said I was good with kids," Wasiak says with a wan smile. "I got four kids at home. But you can't buck city hall."

So it was back to the buses. Wasiak hadn't gotten used to planes, anyway. "You have to get to the airport so early," he says. He spent three years in Lodi, then went to Vero in 1980. Stan and Barb live on the Dodgertown grounds in what is known as the "honeymoon cottage," a gussied-up trailer that sits a Texas leaguer away from Holman Stadium.

Wasiak missed two months in 1981 after undergoing triple bypass surgery. Then hepatitis, contracted from the blood transfusion done during the bypass, waylaid him in 1982, though he did manage (and win) the final home game of the year to keep his consecutive-season streak alive.

This year erratic hitting has kept Vero Beach hovering around .500, but Wasiak still loves the game so much that the Dodgers will surely have to ask him to leave again. "People have been asking me, 'How come you stayed in so long?' " Wasiak says. "It's a job. It pays well. I used to work in the shipyards near Mobile in the off-season. Regardless of how hard you worked or how good you were, you were just a number. Here you have a feeling of importance."

Last Saturday, at Stan Wasiak King of the Minors Night in Vero Beach, the Dodgers announced they were sending Stan and Barb on a free trip to Cooperstown. It would be only fitting if they went by bus.



In 35 years Wasiak has rolled his act into 17 towns, largely on behalf of the L.A. Dodgers.



Wasiak, who lit up after bagging his 2,497th, has sent more than 100 players to the bigs.