My baseball career ended when I was 15. I spent my last season in the Falls Church Babe Ruth League on a team sponsored by a local bank that no longer exists. My fondest memories of that final fling with our national pastime are, in order, getting drunk with the manager before games and playing catch with Rich Sauveur, easily the best kid on the team.
He didn’t throw much harder than the rest of us, but he could make the ball move any way he wanted, up or down or left or right or any combination thereof. During warm-ups, his tosses broke so sharply that, even when there was no pregame beer, it seemed like a magic trick. I’d have killed to get a Wiffle ball to drop like one of Rich’s curves. By the end of that season, I had established my abject lack of potential and quit the game I loved most. For good.
Rich, bless him and that magic left arm, still hasn’t quit. At 34, he’s now in his 16th season in pro ball.
“I’ve still got my curve,” he told me over the weekend, an hour or so after he got his first save of the year, pitching relief for the Indians. No, not those Indiansthe Indianapolis Indians, a Class AAA farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. Sauveur’s Indians toil in the American Association, the same minor league as the Durham Bulls of Bull Durham renown. He could have been a character in that movie.
Sauveur, you see, is a burgeoning minor-league legend. He’s played in too many cities to name, but suffice it to say he’s done hard time in every minor-league level from rookie league to AAA. He’s been through seven major-league organizations. Through three surgeries. Through two marriages. And two divorces. And he’s still in the minors.
He’s been down so long, he’s starting to break records. Sauveur is already past the 1,000-strikeout markan unheard-of total for a minor league relieverand that leaves out all the K’s he notched in winter ball in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America over the last 10 years. He also recently found out that his 2.89 career earned run average is the lowest ERA in minor-league historyfor hurlers with at least 1,000 innings. That news didn’t exactly make him puff his chest with pride.
“Your first thought is, ‘Hey, great, I’ve got a record! But then you think, ‘Well, it’s a minor-league record.’ I mean, 1,000 innings means I’ve been in the minors for a really long time,” Sauveur chuckles.
Sauveur almost quit once, and only once. That was in 1990, when Vinnie Castilla drilled a line drive and splintered
a knuckle on the middle finger of Sauveur’s pitching hand
during a winter game. It was Sauveur’s third serious injury in two years (a torn rotator cuff and a bone spur on the elbow were the others), and he thought it was over. But a call from Mike Veeck, now owner of the notorious independent minor-league St. Paul Saints (and Bill Veeck’s grandson), convinced Sauveur to get back to the minors.
“When Mike called, I told him about all my surgeries and how bad my arm was,” Sauveur says. And when I was finished, he said, ‘Can you still throw? I said, ‘Yeah, about 60 miles an hour.’ He said, ‘That’s OK! Come play for me!’”
So back he went. Even George Will would splutter trying to romanticize such a long career down under. The work schedule is killer: Spring training kicks off at the beginning of March, the regular season runs from April through September, and winter ball goes from October through January. Minor-leaguers get to take February off, and then they start the vicious cycle all over again. Worst of all, minor-leaguers are far less sure than their major-league counterparts where and for whom they’ll be playing next week, let alone next year. Which is why Sauveur lists his mother’s address in Florida as his permanent home.
The pay, even in AAA (the level just below the major leagues), isn’t great, and the accommodations aren’t great, either. To stretch out the per diems, at the beginning of each season every guy chooses two roommatesone for when the team is at home, one for the road.
“If you see the same guy’s face every night before you go to sleep, that ends up causing problems,” Sauveur says.
Sauveur isn’t putting up with all the minor-league crap just to get more minor-league marks or another year’s worth of minor-league money. Like everybody not in the majors, he’s playing for a shot up there. The next level. The show. The bigs.
Sauveur has worn big-league uniformshe’s been called up five times in his 16 yearsthough never for very long. There were even Rich Sauveur baseball cards produceda sports memorabilia collector puts his card’s value at about 13 cents. His career stats while upstairs (0-1, 6.56 ERA, 0 saves, and 21 strikeouts in 24 appearances) won’t even get him a discount admission to Cooperstown.
Sauveur, however, rates his experiences in the bigs as priceless.
And he wants more.
More of that day in July 1986 when the Pittsburgh Pirates called him up from their Hawaii affiliate and gave him a start against the Philadelphia Phillies. Late in his major-league debut, Sauveur, then just 22 years old, faced Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman in the history of baseball, with the bases loaded. And he struck him out.
He wants more of that night in Kansas City in 1992 when the Royals called him up from Omaha in time to be in the dugout when George Brett, another Hall of Fame third baseman, got his 3,000th hit.
“I ran over to congratulate him at first base, just like everybody else on the team,” Sauveur says. “Why not? I was in uniform.”
He even wants more pep talks like the one he got this spring from Pete Rose, the best player not in the Hall of Fame. Rose, who is banned from baseball, took some heat for giving a rousing address about the joys of the game to everybody at the Reds training camp in Sarasota. “Great speech. Loved it,” says Sauveur.
And, most of all, he wants more of playing with Bonds and Thomas and Galarraga and all the other stars of his generation he’s been privileged to share the field with. Though not for long enough.
The game, he says, has kept him young, but even Sauveur realizes he’s getting a little old for it. So as much as he wants another shot, he’s not banking on getting one. And he can live with that.
“Baseball has been everything that I thought it would be, really,” he said. “I mean, I can’t say I stayed up there. But I have been up there. And they can’t take that away.”
At the end of our conversation, I told Rich how proud I was to have once played with a guy who made it to the big leagues and struck out Mike Schmidt. They can’t take that away from me, either. Dave McKenna