Jeff Leatherman had just graduated from Auburn of Alabama in 1991 when he flew to Toronto to begin his professional baseball career.
“The first couple of nights I nearly froze to death,” recalls the Harrisonburg High graduate, whose minor-league stint began in Welland, Ontario after getting a ride from the airport. “I called my parents and told them to bring my car and some warm clothes.”
A standout infielder for the Blue Streaks and Auburn, Leatherman, now 51, began his short pro sojourn in the New York-Penn League as a minor leaguer in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. He hit .271 in 55 games in his first season in the pros.
“We played in Batavia (New York) one night and when we got done we drove all the way to Pittsfield (Massachusetts) and got to the hotel at 7 a.m. and played” that night, he recalls.
Not only is that way of life in the minors fading – so is the New York-Penn League. Welland no longer has a team – the Pirates moved to Erie, Pa., in 1995.
Pittsfield no longer is affiliated with a Major League team. And earlier this month, Baseball America reported that the New York-Penn League could became a wooden-bat summer league for college players.
That is what will happen to the Appalachian League, as Major League Baseball announced earlier this year the former rookie pro circuit will become a summer showcase for college standouts – just like the nearby Valley Baseball League.
“I think they were vital to the economy of these towns,” Leatherman said of pro ball in the rookie leagues. “It is just a pity that these teams are going away. It breaks my heart.”
Leatherman is one of several local products to play in either the New York-Penn or Appalachian Leagues.
Former Turner Ashby, VMI and Virginia Tech pitcher Ian Ostlund, 42, played for Oneonta, N.Y. in 2001 when he was in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system. Oneonta was a farm team of the New York Yankees before the Tigers came to town.
“Oneonta was a really neat experience for me,” Ostlund said. “It kind of harkened back to the golden age of baseball. It just an air of aura to it. I was told the batting cage we used had been used at Yankee Stadium.”
His pitching coach was the late Bill Monbouquette, a teammate with hitting legend and Hall of Famer Ted Williams with the Boston Red Sox. “He would tell us Ted Williams' stories. He would eat a sausage and onion sandwich every day and it would spill out into the dugout,” Ostlund recalled. “He was old-school.”
Ostlund said once Monbouquette was teaching him how to improve his curveball and told the TA product he wasn’t bending his back enough. With no warning, the coach hit Ostlund in the gut – and the pitcher bent his back. “Just like that,” noted Monbouquette.
Tom Bocock, 60, another TA product, was an infielder in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system when he played for Johnson City, Tennessee in 1982 after he was drafted out of JMU. He usually hit second back of leadoff man Vince Coleman, who would go on to steal 752 bases in the majors.
Both were promoted in 1983 to Macon, Georgia and that season Coleman set a minor-league record with 145 steals, again with Bocock batting back of him a lot in the lineup. Coleman gave Bocock a signed bat and wrote Bocock was the best No. 2 hitter around.
Another teammate with Bocock in Johnson City was Terry Pendleton, who would play 15 years in the majors. “He could always hit but he made himself into a good defender,” said Bocock, who hit .249 for Johnson City in 66 games.
Some of the lessons that Bocock learned he passed on to his son Brian, a TA graduate who was drafted out of college at Stetson by the Giants 2006 and played in the rookie Northwest League that summer.
“I told him there were going to be a lot of good players. You have to take advantage of your opportunity and he did,” the elder Bocock said of Brian, who played in majors with the Giants and Phillies.
Johnson City has been in the Appy off and on since 1911 and has been a farm team of the Cardinals since 1975.
The Virginia towns that were to be part of the 2020 season in the Appalachian League, before the pandemic called off the schedule, were Bristol, Danville and Pulaski. The park in Bluefield, West Virginia sits near the state line with Virginia and has been home to a Blue Jays' farm team.
EMU graduate Larry Sheets played in Bluefield in 1978-79 on his way to the majors with the Orioles in 1984. The Staunton native played basketball for the Royals of Park View during his time in the minors and was the Orioles MVP in 1987.
Another Staunton native, the late Jerry May, began his pro career in the Appy with Kingsport, Tenn., in 1961 and broke in with the Pirates as a catcher in 1964. He died in a farm accident in Augusta County in 1996.
MAJORING IN MINORS
Two local products who played in both the Appalachian League and New York-Penn leagues were Spotswood’s Austin Nicely and Larry Mitchell, a Charlottesville High graduate who also pitched for JMU.
Nicley played in the New York-Penn League with Tri-Cities and in the Appalachian League with Greenville, both in the farm system of the Houston Astros. The pitcher was 2-6 with an ERA of 3.88 in 2014 in the Appy League and 5-4, 6.80 in 14 games with seven starts in 2016 with Tri-Cities.
Nicely saw the economic importance of minor league teams in the two leagues.
“I think both leagues … they are positioned in some towns where that is the only team they have to support,” said Nicely, who played for the Grottoes Cardinals this past summer. “I felt like everyone loved their home team. It was unique and fun to play in. Every team had great fan support, for the most part.”
“The Appy League is like that first taste of pro ball to get your feet wet,” Nicely added. “The New York-Penn League, that is where a lot of higher draft picks start their careers.”
Tri-Cities was based in Troy, New York, not far from capital Albany.
“It was a great ballpark and great fan support,” said Nicely, who hopes to play in the independent Atlantic League with York, Pa. in 2021. “There were a lot of sellout games.”
He said the longest bus trips in the New York-Penn League were about six or seven hours, including trips to Lowell, Massachusetts – north of Boston and the home of a Red Sox farm team.
Nicely, 25, lived in an old apartment in downtown Troy with other players. In the Appalachian League, he played in Greeneville, Tennessee and stayed in a motel.
“Some of those towns really relied on the team as a point of interest,” he said of the Appy league. “Pulaski, that was one of my favorite places to play. For one, it was closer to home” in Grottoes.
Rick Croushore, 50, was a non-drafted free agent out of JMU when he headed to Glen Falls, New York, in the Cardinals’ farm system in 1993. He eventually made the majors and pitched for St. Louis in the game that Mark McGwire hit a record-setting 62nd homer in 1998 against the Cubs.
“They let me do my thing,” Croushore said of pitching in the New York-Penn League. “They did not have anything invested in me.”
Now the pitching coach at Division III Shenandoah in Winchester, Croushore was roommates on road trips with Glen Falls teammate Alan Benes – a first-round pick who would pitch in 115 big league games. On off days, players with Glen Falls would head to Lake George in upstate New York.
But the New York-Penn League is more than those memories that to the former JMU pitcher. “That is where I became a prospect,” said Croushore, who threw in 31 of 77 games out of the bullpen for Glen Falls then headed to the Instructional League in Florida later in 1993. A few years later he was in the majors.
NOT GETING RICH
Leatherman, Ostlund and Croushore said they each made $850 per month in rookie ball.
Ostlund said he received a signing bonus of just $1,000 by the Tigers when he signed out of Virginia Tech. Despite some struggles in the New York-Penn League, he made it all the way to Triple-A in 2007 with the Tigers.
And the living arrangements were not very luxurious in the low minors.
“They put us up at the Oneonta" hotel, Ostlund noted. “The first night there was orange shag carpeting and I had fleas all over the place.”
Later, he and some teammates piled into an old house to live – only to have a racoon and pigeons fall through the ceiling.
The ballparks were not so great either – and those spartan conditions, according to MLB, is one reason some of the small cities are losing their affiliation with a big-league club.
“There was chicken wire around the backstop in Oneonta,” Ostlund said.
Starting in the rookie leagues was a family affair for the Knicelys.
Alan Knicely began his career in the Appalachian League with Covington soon after graduating from TA in 1974. He eventually made it to the majors with the Astros in 1979 and lasted until 1986 in The Show.
His son, Jeremy, a Spotswood graduate, played in the New York-Penn League with Auburn in 2003 while in the minors with the Blue Jays. Another player with Auburn in 2003 was EMU graduate Erik Kratz, who reached the majors in 2010 and just retired after playing for the Yankees this past season. Auburn has been a farm team of the Nationals since 2011 but that relationship is on thin ice.
Baseball America reported earlier this week that MLB hopes to announce early next month which towns will have minor league affiliates in 2021. Published reports have the list of minor league towns dropping from 160 to 120.
Even for local products who didn't make the majors, the low minors was a chance to be teammates with future stars.
Leatherman, the HHS product, was teammates in the New York-Penn League was Tony Womack, a Danville native who help Arizona win the 2001 World Series over the New York Yankees.
Bill Leatherman, the father of Jeff, is a former basketball coach at Bridgewater and JMU who took his family on summer trips to see Major League games and has written books about baseball.
But the pro career of Jeff Leatherman ended far from the bright lights and huge salaries of the majors. After playing in Ontario, he was promoted to Augusta, Georgia in the low Single-A South Atlantic League in 1993 and hit just .179 before being released a few months later. He is now a physical therapist in Alabama.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Leatherman said of his two years in the minors.