The brief and glorious Minor League comeback of Sports Illustrated writer Rick Wolff
After starring at second base for Harvard -- where he eventually graduated magna cum laude with a degree in psychology -- Rick Wolff was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 22nd round of the 1972 MLB Draft.
Wolff hit .237 over two years in Class A before deciding that it was time to move on from baseball. He wrote several books. He spent seven years as manager at Mercy College, where he turned the team into a perennial power. He took a job in publishing, started a family and moved to the suburbs of New York. And then, in 1989, he got a phone call from the South Bend White Sox of the Midwest League: They wanted to know if he was interested in making a comeback.
Wolff said yes, and that June, he hopped on a plane to South Bend for a weekend series against the Burlington Braves -- his first professional action in 15 years.
Having just flown in, Wolff asked to be left out of the lineup for his first game. But the Baseball Gods were having none of that: In the sixth inning, a hit-by-pitch sparked a benches-clearing brawl, and Wolff was one of the first out of the dugout to calm things down.
Later on, manager Rick Patterson -- himself a former big leaguer -- called on Wolff to pinch-hit, despite not having seen live professional pitching in more than a decade. But Wolff was a ballplayer, and his manager had given him an order. So, he picked up a bat -- "a wooden bat, a genuine Louisville Slugger" -- and stepped to the plate. As he later described in a Sports Illustrated article title "Triumphant Return," it went ... basically about how you'd expect:
Wolff even fielded a grounder in the ninth, at which point his teammates mobbed him as they came off the field. "Look, Rick, it's like this," South Bend pitching coach Rick Champion said later. "The consensus is that you're definitely going to hurt us as a team. The real question is, how badly will you hurt yourself?"
And yet, against all odds, Wolff proved them wrong. Patterson penciled him into the ninth spot in the lineup the next day, and a funny thing happened: In his first at-bat, on an 0-2 count, he laced a solid single to right. "What I remember more than anything else," he wrote, "was that glorious feeling of hitting a pitch right on the money with a wooden bat, that true feeling of a bat conquering a pitch."
In the fifth inning, it happened again: another line drive to right. And in the eighth, a sac fly -- his first Midwest League RBI in 15 years. The Sox won, 4-1, and before long, Wolff had been given the ultimate sign of respect: His teammates had started needling him.
"Hey, old-timer, you better keep your cap on, 'cause people are going to start thinking there are two Golden Domes here in South Bend," shortstop Wayne Busby said. And a personal favorite: "Tell us, Rick, you must have known him, what kind of player was Babe Ruth?"
The next day, Wolff moved up to eighth in the order, and he just kept on hitting: After a walk and a single, Wolff stepped up in the eighth inning and ripped a double into the gap in right-center. Patterson took him out for a pinch-runner, giving Wolff his moment in the sun -- strolling off the field, arms held high, greeted with a standing ovation. His final line: 4-for-7, three RBIs, a 1.270 OPS and just one error. ("That occurred when a pickoff throw from the pitcher literally went through my glove," he wrote. "The ball broke one of the strings between the fingers. Remember -- I had been using that glove before most of my teammates had been born.")
By the end, even his manager was impressed. "Old man," Patterson said, "you just did what every old ballplayer has dreamed of doing. To come back one more time and do it again. By golly, you did it!"