Fangraphs: The Rocky Mount Pines, a baseball disaster
BY SAMUEL EVERS
Saturday, December 22, 2018
(This story originally appeared at The Hardball Times and appears online with permission from The Hardball Times and Fangraphs.)
It was nostalgia that brought the Pines to Rocky Mount.
It was simple logistics that made them the worst team in minor league baseball history.
And it was an unpaid outgoing bill, a 24-114-1 record, and a Sports Illustrated article that made them infamous.
The Pines lasted one season, 1980, in the High-A Carolina League, as an independent team with no major league affiliate, loaded with a revolving door of castoffs trying to catch a scout’s eye one last time.
Technically, the Pines were brought to Rocky Mount — a town with a minor league history that includes players like Bobby Thomson, Johnny Pesky, Jim Thorpe, Tony Perez and Buck Leonard — by a minor league lifer named Mal Fichman and another minor leaguer turned businessman named Lou Haneles. Haneles, who died in 2006 and was still threatening legal action against the Carolina League for the way things ended up in the early 2000s, had played in the Eastern League in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and made his relative wealth running baseball camps for kids.
Fichman was to manage, and, by the end of the season, do everything else, while Haneles, the phantom owner, was to bankroll the operation, though he never did see the Pines play; he was busy with his work in Florida. The two had previously teamed up with the independent Newark Co-Pilots in the Low-A New York-Penn League, and were looking for a step up in the Carolina League.
And they found it — in a disastrous way. The Pines cycled through dozens of players, suffered comically low attendance, lost 18 games in a row and 36 of 38 overall, were no-hit, went bankrupt and nearly folded several times. Toward the end of the season, the Carolina League had to prop them up financially in the interest of fielding home games for other teams. Players weren’t paid. The local paper took particular delight in the team’s demise.
In September of 1980, the Pines packed up and left town, leaving, according to reports, a $7,000 unpaid debt.
But plenty happened between the misguided start — first chronicled by the Rocky Mount Evening Telegram in October of 1979 — and the disastrous finish a year later.
This is the story, told by players, bat boys, writers and trainers, of that season. Fichman declined numerous requests to be interviewed.
Mal Function…er, Fichman
He was the short-tempered, umpire-heckling champion of independent league baseball, and he was just as likely to blow up at a player for missing a sign as he was to pay a player from his own pocket after a bounced check. The team had another person working in a front office role — communicating with the league offices and filling out paperwork — but she quit early on, meaning Fichman was essentially running a one-man operation for the whole season.
Neil Avent, bat boy and seventh grader, now a scout for the Oakland A’s: Mal was different. Mal was old school. He was tough. He was one of those old school guys that reminded you of a Billy Martin. Real no nonsense. Tough guy.
Ernie Suggs, bat boy and seventh grader, now a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I wouldn’t say Mal was mean, just kind of old school. He wouldn’t be a guy who’s into analytics now.
Steve Swain, Pines first baseman, now a director of a scouting agency in Florida: The thing I will say is that Mal could argue with an umpire with the best of them. He was a short guy and he had the high socks, had his pants rolled up to his knees. To see him run out there and argue whether it was a play at the plate or arguing balls and strikes from the dugout, he was just a character, really feisty. A lot of fun to play for.
Al Myatt, Evening Telegram sports editor, covered the Pines: Mal is a little guy, he coached third base. I think he knew baseball, but he was limited. He was prone to a blow-up.
The quintessential Fichman story from that year came after a loss during a particularly bad streak late in the season, in Alexandria, Virginia.
He addressed the team during a meeting at the hotel and gave the players an ultimatum: Come to the bar and drink on my tab, or be fined.
Shortly after, the bar was full of Pines.
Jim Gabella, Pines infielder, selected for the Carolina League All-Star Game, now a scout in Florida for the San Francisco Giants: That was the only time we were going to be able to drink some beers for free, so everybody made sure they were there.
To start the year, Fichman told the Evening Telegram: “We’re not going to win the pennant but we’re going to win some ball games.”
Through 31 games, they were 7-24.
In May, two games later, the Pines had to wait for Rocky Mount Senior High’s team to finish its game. They started theirs against Kinston at 8:45 p.m. Some 12 innings of play later, it was 12:45 a.m. and the score was 7-7. Fichman put his foot down, and play was suspended.
The headline in the next day’s paper?
“Hey! The Pines didn’t lose”
A Final Shot in Rocky Mount
Mike Morgal, a pitcher, who made the Pines roster on a tryout in spring training after going undrafted out of Lamar University: A friend of mine who was on the Pines, Joe McCann, who I played college ball with for four years, played with Mal for an independent team up in the New York-Penn League. When he went down to spring training, he called me and asked what I was doing. I was just working, I wasn’t doing a whole lot. I went over to Florida to try out and made the team. We drove up to Rocky Mount right before the season started. It was awesome, because I just figured I didn’t get drafted, so I was done.
Jim Gabella: I had just gotten released by the Mariners and the Alexandria team which played in the Carolina League, and I was trying to get hooked up. I was familiar with the league because I had played there the season before, but I was not familiar with Rocky Mount because they didn’t have a team. What I remember is obviously that time of year it was cold as heck. The city was nice, it was a small town. The people were friendly for the most part although they didn’t like us losing all the time.
Steve Swain: I bumped around a little bit. I started out in Utica, New York, then I went to Helena, Montana, Butte, the Peninsula Pilots of the Carolina League. Someone there in the Phillies organization let me know they were looking to put a team together in Rocky Mount. I tried out for them, made the team, and the rest is history. Most players who made the team in Florida road-tripped up for the start of the season. I remember I found an older couple that had a small apartment behind their house. They were kind enough to rent that to me for virtually nothing — maybe $100 a month.
David Littlefield, VP of player development for the Detroit Tigers, former Pittsburgh Pirates GM, who joined the Pines midseason: It was a shoestring budget looking back. I couldn’t even remember what we were getting paid. I don’t think it was what players at that level normally got — but that’s how it worked, we had no leverage, we were just looking to get hooked up.
(According to the Sports Illustrated article written on the season, players were making the minor league minimum of $325 a month.)
Mike Morgal: I can remember one thing — we had a day off and I went to the beach with a couple guys and a couple girls and I got sunburnt on my back real bad. I was getting changed in the locker room and Mal just came up and slapped me on the back. He asked if that hurt. I said, ‘Nope’ even though it hurt like hell.
The fun wasn’t limited to off days.
Mike Morgal: One of the pitchers — Nick Baltz — he was the best pitcher we had. He used to play pranks all the time, put shaving cream in your shoes, in your glove. One day, he’s about to warm up. And myself and Joe McCann, we grabbed his glove and took it out to center field and ran it up the flagpole. He’s going nuts looking for his glove. When he went out to the mound to warm up — he had borrowed somebody else’s glove by this time — I said to him, “Hey Nick, during the national anthem, be particularly conscious of the flag.” So he’s looking at me suspicious, and he looks up at the flag, and he’s just shaking his head. I know he was saying to himself, “Aw (expletive).”
David Littlefield: I don’t remember any really serious morale issues. It seems a little odd to say, and I know the team had a terrible record, but that’s my memory.
Jim Gabella: I do remember there was a place called Wally’s which had penny beer night. We didn’t do much partying but that’s where we went when we did. I remember going there a couple of times. Dan Donovan — he was a catcher, he had false teeth. One night at Wally’s he went up to meet a girl and he pulled his teeth out. That didn’t go so well.
Neil Avent: A lot of times the guys would go out to bars and stuff. If they had a problem, if they needed a ride, it wasn’t exactly like they could easily get a cab in Rocky Mount at one or two in the morning. We’d have phone calls, and my mom would get up and pick guys up at one or two in the morning. If that phone rang late, late at night, we knew who it was that needed a ride. My mom has since passed a few years ago but she was probably 40, 41 years old. She was fairly young. She didn’t mind getting up and doing it. That was always neat.
This is Part One. Part Two will run in next Sunday’s paper, on Dec. 30, and appear online here on Dec. 29. Part Three will run on Jan. 6 and be online here on Jan. 5.