EDITOR'S NOTE: In the second of a five-part series published last month, long-time Hauser educator and baseball coach Jerry Schoen reached a crossroad in his life at the ripe old age of 22.
That road led him on a summer trip to the East Coast of the United States.
Fresh from several weeks of intense therapy on his recently repaired shoulder --Schoen had a dream and knew the time was right to go in full pursuit.
"Loaded down" with a bit of cash, a gas card and a free spirit, the young Cincinnati native headed out for New England looking for a Major League Baseball scout he might be able to impress. After a pair of stops in the Boston area and one in Maine, Schoen headed back to Ohio with a bunch of advice but no professional contract.
Two days after arriving back in Western Hills, the phone rang. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Angels was on the line. Ty Brown was on the other end. He said the Angels were interested in signing him to a contract. Schoen's dream was, seemingly, a mere signature away from becoming reality.
"As I remembered the scout, he was the first person that I had spotted back at the (baseball) complex in Wooster (Massachusetts)," Schoen recalled. "He was a small guy with a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, sandy-blond hair and a mustache. And if I remember right, he walked around with a lawn chair in his hand."
That combination of things -- some matching and some random -- had caught Schoen's eye.
"I definitely remember, there wasn't anything about him that showed any team affiliation," said Schoen.
Not all of the news was good news, but it was good enough. Schoen was told that all rosters had been filled but the organization still wanted his name on the dotted line for the following spring training.
"He told me they understood my injury and wanted me to get healthy," he said.
Were there promises?
"They promised me a plane ticket to Arizona and $500," Schoen said. "That was it."
Except for one unusual request.
"He wanted me to come out East to do the signing," Schoen said. "He claimed he wanted to officially meet me and meet my dad."
Head to the East to start a career in the West? It made perfect sense to Schoen. At least he didn't question the request. After all, he was chasing a dream across a map. Being asked to go a little out of the way seemed perfectly reasonable.
"So of course, I said 'yes.' Two days later, dad and I were on our way to the Northeast," said the dream-chaser.
After arrival, son and elder Schoen were taken out to dinner. The dotted line was located.
Schoen's mind was awash with logical thoughts.
"He could have sent that contract through the mail," he reasoned. "Should we have done all of that driving? Was this trip a waste of time?"
Easy question. The answer was a bit blurry and very irrelevant.
"I knew this guy was giving me a chance and I wanted to shake his hand," said Schoen. "I wanted to thank him in person."
Had the call not come, Schoen had developed a backup plan for the immediate future.
"I was going to return to EKU and finish up taking classes for my degree," he explained. "With the transfer (from Creighton to Eastern Kentucky), I had gotten a little bit behind."
Those plans went unaltered. The contract was signed. Classes were taken. And at the end of the semester, Schoen went back home to prepare for his second trip (first was during NCAA Regional) to Mesa and his first spring training opportunity. Back home, Schoen worked out some with the University of Cincinnati baseball team while awaiting the next change in seasons.
Was it a patient wait? Probably not. But the day came, and the chase restarted.
"I had no idea what to expect," said Schoen.
What he received included very sore hamstrings.
"They put me in a group that worked out in the morning and scrimmaged in the afternoon," he described. "I worked out with a group that included Jim Abbott and Chad Curtis."
For baseball aficionados -- Curtis played 10 years in MLB for six teams. He played all three outfield positions and hit 101 home runs.
Abbott's career was a bit more note-worthy. The Michigan native was born without a right hand but overcame his disability with flying colors.
The left-handed pitcher played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 and helped the U.S. to a gold medal. As a pro, he played 10 seasons in the majors, and while a N.Y. Yankee in 1993, he hurled a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.
Back to the main subject, early to rise -- "They bused us to the field each morning at 7," Schoen said. "There always seemed to be a couple of major leaguers (including catcher Brian Downing and third-baseman Doug DeCinces) that I would recognize walking around camp in the mornings."
It was the middle of March. The daily routine was quickly fixed. One memory of that camp has recently been revisited in high definition.
"Joe Maddon was there," said Schoen. "He was the roving hitting instructor for the Angels. He was a great guy then. Everything said about him today was true back then. Seeing him was pretty neat."
And now, only a caveman should claim ignorance of Maddon. Recently, Maddon became the 54th manager in Chicago Cubs' history. Only months ago, he led the Cubs to the World Series Championship.
Back then, Maddon gave up trying to be a player after four years and gave in to being a coach. This is an event to remember later in the story of Jerry Schoen.
In early June, the major league college draft was held. The Angels No. 1 pick was Eduardo Perez. Some quick facts -- He was the son of MLB Hall of Fame great Tony Perez. He was getting paid (not $500, but around $2 million) for signing. Perez was a third-basemen who (ironically) was born and being raised in Cincinnati.
This did not increase Schoen's chances and he knew it.
"They probably were going to give him a few more looks than they were going to give me," guessed Schoen. "But, when camp broke, they kept me in Arizona for what they called extended spring training. It was kind of like rookie ball. It was for guys they wanted to look at more closely."
And just as important, Schoen was getting paid to play. And hitting .320 and a fixture at third base, Schoen was playing well.
"Things were great," he said. "I loved it. Practice at 7. Play a game and be back in the motel by 2. Six days a week. I was getting $250 per week. I didn't have a car or much money so I got a part time job at Burger King. I worked Saturday nights and most Sundays."
So slightly a year after the chase had officially commenced, had the dream now been caught?
"Uh.....yes and no," said Schoen.
When spring camp had ended, the Angels had sent a group of its young aspirants, to Boise, Idaho. Schoen was not in that group. It was a mixture of players from different organizations that were combined to form an independent team.
"They hadn't gotten rid of me, so they obviously were seeing something in me," he said. "They wanted me to keep playing every day."
So after a short stint in Boise, Schoen and for a few others (in the same boat) were going to be shipped to a team in Bend, Oregon. Schoen was still getting paid to play, but the Angels also had made it clear that with prospects as old as 23 or so, the organization was primarily interested in pitching. Schoen was to meet his new team in Pocatello, Idaho.
"I had no idea where that was," said Schoen. "I didn't care. I was anxious to get to Bend. A couple of guys I had known said Bend was a special place."
So in Pocatello, Schoen met his new coach -- Bill Stein. Stein had retired as a player after 14 MLB seasons split between the Cardinals, White Sox, Mariners and Rangers. Stein's assistant was Jim Fregosi, Jr. whose father was a six-time All-Star Player before he assumed a managerial career that included head jobs with the Angels, White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Fregosi, Jr. was our hitting instructor," said Schoen. "We did a lot of working out. I was hitting it well and fielding it well."
Then, something went wrong. It may have been the beginning-of-the-end of the "dream chase."
"I had probably fielded a million ground balls without problems," he said. "Then something happened to the middle-finger on my glove hand."
But Schoen-being-Schoen, the reality was ignored. He played a game in Boise that night. He did well.
"I was 2-for-4, scored a run and we won," he recalled. "We then boarded the bus for Bend. We were going to play Boise in a two-game series."
Schoen was in the starting line-up. But he was forced to grab the pine in the fourth inning.
"I couldn't grip the bat," he said. "My finger was so sore. And it was cold!"
An x-ray the next day revealed a crushed knuckle. There was a pair of choices. Insert a pin and live life with a deformed finger OR let it heal on its own. Schoen chose alternative No. 2.
"I continued to live that life," he said. "I took ground balls and hit off a tee when I could."
After six weeks, Schoen was inserted back into the starting line-up. Apparently, he wasn't fully healed.
"Seeing live pitching -- I couldn't pull it together," said Schoen. "I could see how things were going."
Just like in most team sports at any level, cuts are made. Some make the team. Some don't. Unless one lives and competes in a totally 'feel good' program, reality is that ALL don't make it. The Angels final cut of this summer season was impending. Odds were fully stacked against the Midwest Dreamer.
"I had been playing beside a 19-year old, in whom they had a ton of money invested," Schoen said. "I was a 24-year old in whom they had been investing $250 per week. I should have been playing in Double or Triple A by this point.
"They wanted to make a utility player out of me, so I played a little second base," he continued. "Just like now (at the high school level), if it comes down to playing (and investing time) a senior and a sophomore... it came down to the last cut. I ended up hitting .215 or .220."
On the last day, each player had a blue or pink ticket placed in his locker. Schoen couldn't remember which color he found in his that day. The color didn't matter. The meaning behind the color did.
"I was peeved," he said. "I did not want it to end this way."
The straw that broke the camel's back? Schoen's finger.
"So I had to go meet with (General Manager) Bill Bavasi," said Schoen. "And when I went in there, I was not thinking right. I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get my stuff and go home."
After delivering the predicted news, Bavasi asked the disappointed Schoen a question the irritated player didn't consider too appropriate.
"He asked me if I had thought about coaching," said Schoen. "At that point, that wasn't close to what I wanted to hear. I was a player. Had I been thinking, I might have figured out that Mr. Bavasi was trying to give me an opportunity to stay in the organization. (A similar question may have been offered several years earlier to Joe Maddon). But I told him no and told him I would just try somewhere else. He advised me that it wouldn't be easy at my age, but he wished me luck. I expressed my appreciation, left and headed for home."
Not all thoughts of Bend that Schoen took home were negative.
"(Wife) Becky and I have fond memories of that area," Schoen said. "Crater Lake -- that area was absolutely beautiful. We've been back twice."
Schoen also took back home a new appreciation for professional baseball players.
"Now I understand why they act the way they act sometimes when they aren't at the ballpark," he said. "They have very demanding schedules. And when they are away from the game, they want to rest. I understand and respect that."
Schoen made it home safely. Had the broken knuckle spelled the end of the professional dream? Had the (pink or blue) ticket signaled the end?