Down on the Farm: A Long Look at Jerry Reuss & the Iowa Cubs

The Diamond Angle Webzine
June 8, 2002

The Boys of Summer looked a bit chilly as they trooped out of the clubhouse for a Saturday afternoon practice on a windy April day in Des Moines. The Iowa Cubs, triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, formed a large circle in left field in preparation for stretching exercises.The weather had shifted dramatically. After a brief spell of unseasonably warm temperatures earlier that week, the mercury had dropped 40 degrees overnight. Many of the I-Cubs had adjusted their uniforms accordingly. Half of the squad sported knit caps (either Cubs red or Cubs blue), several wore woolen jerseys, and most had on gloves.

At the edge of the infield, manager Bruce Kimm calibrated a pitching machine, aimed at a steep angle towards the left field wall.Swinging a bat like a walking cane and strolling among the players was Jerry Reuss, former big league star now in his second season as their pitching coach. Tall, with a relaxed but erect bearing and a striking head of white hair, Reuss resembled a genial but dignified senator, greeting constituents and engaging in cordial discussion here and there.

The Iowa Cubs, including its three-man coaching staff, are a youthful collection, and Reuss, 53, is literally the elder statesman of the bunch. In his prime, Reuss, a lefthander who won 220 games with eight different teams, looked like a prototypical power pitcher, but he actually owed his success to pinpoint control and a great deal of savvy. At 6 feet 5 inches in height, he remains a quietly imposing figure, with a studious air well-suited to his new role as a mentor of young pitchers.

Reuss took his first coaching job with the Montreal Expos’ double-A affiliate in Harrisburg (Pa.) three years ago, somewhat later in life than most minor league coaches and managers. This was largely due to the fact that his playing career — 22 seasons spanning four decades — lasted so long.

More typical in the minor leagues are the resumes of the I-Cubs’ two other coaches. Kimm, an Iowa native, is two years younger than Reuss but has been either a major league coach or minor league manager for 20 seasons. After garnering fame his rookie year with the Tigers as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s personal catcher, he spent three more seasons in the majors during the late 1970’s. Upon ending his 12-year playing career, Kimm entered the coaching ranks in 1982 at the age of 31.

The team’s batting coach, Pat Listach, 34, was AL rookie of the year with the Brewers in 1992 — two years after Reuss retired. Nearly two decades younger than Reuss, Listach, a versatile, speedy utilityman whose six-year big league career was shortened by injury, is only three or four years older than many of his players.Unlike Kimm or Listach, Reuss also worked as a radio broadcaster and play-by-play announcer for several years before deciding career opportunities in that field were too limited.

On the field, Kimm finally had the pitching machine set to his satisfaction. Baseballs shot up in a high arc towards the back of the warning track, barely scraping the wall after a steep decline. Kimm conferred briefly with his coaches, while the team trainer moved around the circle, loosening the squad’s collective muscles and joints. After stretching had been completed, the circle became two rows, and some toss-and-catch ensued, leisurely at first and then faster as throwing arms warmed up. The wind carried a pleasant whiff of leather from several duffel bags filled with gloves, most of which appeared quite new.

Kimm began tormenting a cluster of five outfielders with his machine. Running each of them, in turn, to the left field wall, he was training them to feel for it with their throwing arm, while looking back for the baseball. “You have to be able take your eyes off the ball and run to the spot you know it’s going to be,” he instructed. If the skies had been clear, those fly balls would have also been dropping directly out of a high afternoon sun, giving outfielders practice in shielding their eyes with their gloves, as well. Kimm’s charges hadn’t been squinting up into the sun very much lately, but the notoriously erratic spring weather of central Iowa would change all that soon enough.

The previous week, the late-ending Canadian winter had forced games originally slated in Calgary and Edmonton to be shifted to Des Moines. But by the time the I-Cubs had gotten back home from Canada, the bad weather had followed them. After a rain-suspended series opener with the visiting Sacramento River Cats that evening, overnight downpours would cancel Sunday’s game, as well. Kimm, Reuss and their 12-man pitching staff were now looking at a string of make-up doubleheaders.

Monday morning looked unpromising, but by noon the skies cleared and the temperature rose. The first order of business, Saturday night’s suspended contest, was resolved in the Cats’ favor, and the remainder of the series was played in balmy conditions. The bright sunshine, as it turned out, was the occasion for a couple of sunstruck adventures at the wall by left fielders of both teams, demonstrating the wisdom of Kimm’s mechanized drill.But that prior Saturday afternoon, Reuss and Listach, with pitchers and infielders in tow, set up shop under darkening clouds. “We’re going to work on pick-off moves and other timing plays,” Reuss explained. “The guys here come from different places, different systems, and we want everyone on the same page.”

Later, after throwing some batting practice, he worked individually with his starters, including two journeymen with big league experience, Pat Mahomes and Alan Benes. “This is just maintenance,” Reuss said, standing behind the bullpen mound. He offered an occasional pointer as each pitcher threw a two or dozen pitches, making brief suggestions about pace or mechanics. “You’re dropping your arm a little,” he said to Mahomes, a 10-year veteran who spent the 1998 season pitching for the Yokahama BayStars in Japan.

As a coach, Reuss’ style is understated. His approach is also tempered by the fact that his staff has some seasoned hurlers who don’t need a lot of micromanagement or rah-rah, in his view. For example, Benes, 31, who is attempting a comeback after missing more than two seasons with a shoulder injury, has made 59 major league starts.”Some of these guys have been around for a while, and there’s only so much I can tell them,” said Reuss, noting that Mahomes has pitched six years in the majors. “I just say to them: ‘I’ll be your eyes.'” Before practice, Reuss had taken time to discuss his career, his son Jason, and the unique nature of triple-A baseball. Conversing with him in his clubhouse office, it soon becomes apparent just how visual-minded Reuss is.

One gets to his office in Sec Taylor Stadium through a door in the stadium’s left field wall, leading into the main locker room. From there, hallway leads to the coaching staff’s headquarters. Several players, in various stages of suiting up, were watching the Chicago Cubs on television. For these aspiring young athletes, it was more than just another major league game. Three of their former teammates from last year’s squad were playing in Wrigley Field’s friendly confines that day — outfielders Corey Patterson and Roosevelt Brown, as well as catcher Robert Machado (traded to Milwaukee later in the season).

While Reuss conversed on the phone, players in the trainer’s room across the hall availed themselves of the various remedies and devices offered by modern sports medicine. Except for the regular beat reporters from the local newspapers, young minor leaguers are generally unaccustomed to sportswriters roaming their clubhouse, and some seemed a bit skittish about having an unfamiliar journalist in their midst.

Not so with journeyman third baseman Kevin Orie, who has played with the Cubs and Marlins. He came down the hallway dressed in boxer shorts, both elbows wrapped in huge plastic bags of ice. Playfully taking a swipe at Jeff Lantz, the I-Cubs’ public relations director, with one elbow and the Unknown Journalist with the other, he exchanged a friendly greeting and continued down the hallway to the main dressing room.

Reuss said good bye, hung up the telephone and turned from his desk. Next to his his laptop computer was a VCR and television set, also tuned into the Chicago game. Kerry Wood was staring down a Milwaukee Brewer. “That was Jason on the phone,” he explained to his visitor, referring to his son, a senior at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The younger Reuss is a highly-regarded outfielder who was drafted out of high school by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He opted instead to go to college, first attending Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., where he chalked up big numbers as a slugger, then transferring to UNLV.

Lantz isn’t surprised by Jason’s ability as a power hitter. “Jerry regularly hits balls over the scoreboard in right during batting practice,” he said. Reuss, who spent most of his career in the National League, compiled a .167 batting average, considered respectable for a pitcher. He vows to make a splash landing in the Des Moines River, which winds its sleepy way past the stadium just beyond right field. “This year, I’m going for the river … even if it’s on a bounce or two,” he promised with a smile.

In addition to baseball, father and son Reuss have a common interest in photography. Jason, a communications major, is also an avid surfer and has expressed interest in pursuing a career as a photojournalist in that field. Jerry is an accomplished sports photographer whose work has appeared in magazines and on Upper Deck baseball cards. As he showed off a game picture of his son batting, he exhibited pride both in the subject and the photo itself, mentioning the meticulous setup that had gone into shooting it. Crisp and well-balanced, the photograph shows Jason taking a big home run swing aimed at the left field scoreboard looming in the background. “I have an affinity for scoreboards,” commented the proud papa.

Reuss the Elder is a bit concerned that Jason will not have enough credits to graduate this year. “He lost some credits when he transferred to UNLV. I’ve been suggesting that he think about taking out a student loan in order to finish his degree” said Reuss, sounding very paternal. (A few weeks later, Jason was selected by the Houston Astros with the 341st overall pick in the 11th round of the ’02 MLB draft, after hitting .271 (42-for-155) this season for the Rebels with 13 doubles, six home runs and a triple, driving in 35 RBIs with a .484 slugging percentage).

Jason and his Rebel teammates had been scheduled to play Southern Utah State College that afternoon in Cedar City, but the game was rained out. That same rainstorm eventually affected his father’s game as well. It rolled eastward across the Colorado mountains and Nebraska prairies during the I-Cubs’ afternoon practice, arriving in Des Moines shortly before game time that evening. “It’s going to be a real shitty day for practice,” said Reuss. “I tell my guys that they have to try to take something positive from each day, even one like today.”

Reuss is well aware of the long odds faced by his players, most of whom will never secure a solid big league career. Reuss was referring to The Dream that drives them, the thing that drove him as a player and now as a coach. “I tell them this is a day they can look back on and remember what it was to be young, getting paid to play baseball, and to have that hope — of getting to The Show.”

He knows that many are called but few are chosen, especially in the Cubs organization. Some commentators like Chicago sportswriter Dave Spector have remarked on a “rather extreme preference for experience over youth” on the part of Don Baylor and his staff. As a prime example of this philosophy, Spector points to Julio Zuleta, a promising first baseman Baylor sent back down to Iowa last season despite good numbers with the big club, choosing instead to go with the rather undynamic duo of Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer. Over the winter, Baylor and the Cubs pursued Fred McGriff, effectively relegating both Zuleta and Hee Seop Choi, a promising first baseman from South Korea, to another year down on the farm.

Last fall, Cubs pitching coach Oscar Acosta had a falling out with Baylor, and they parted ways. Acosta took a job with the Texas Rangers, and Baylor hired Larry Rothschild to replace him. This has led some to conclude that the Baylor regime also prefers experience over the potential benefits of new faces among its coaches as well, and they suggest Reuss may have a better shot with another organization.Reuss himself doesn’t seem overly concerned. “There’s no timetable,” Reuss has stated. “Somebody will know when the time is right for me. I’ll know when the time is right for me. And, hopefully, we run together on that.”

A batter flailed away at a Wood curveball, just as Reuss was making a point about labor issues in baseball. Reuss interrupted himself and turned to the TV. Out of the corner of his eye, something had caught his attention. “He overthrew the hell out that pitch, but he got away with it,” Reuss commented, as he watched the slow-motion replay.

Wood buzzed the next Milwaukee player with an inside fastball, spinning him out of the batter’s box and dumping him on his backside. A batters finding himself in this ignoble position make instant calculations. Bearing in mind the events of preceding innings, as well as the game situation at the moment, he also factors in personality clashes and unsettled grievances between both teams and individuals. Using this complex and subtle calculus, he tries to discern intent (legitimate brush-back, something more malevolent, or just an accident?). His options include muttering a quiet admonition to the catcher, barking a challenge to the opposing dugout, and charging the mound.

On this occasion, the Brewer batsman confined himself to glaring at the pitcher while dusting himself off. “That was shoulder-high,” said Reuss, watching the replay. “Technically, I guess that’s considered permissible, according to ‘The Code’ — but that code is pretty subjective,” Reuss added. “And things look different when you’re on the field than they do on TV — as a player, you can smell it when somebody’s headhunting.”

While they watch former wunderkind Kerry Wood, the entire Chicago Cubs organization — from McPhail and Baylor to the fans — have also been intently watching Mark Prior, their newest phenom prospect this season. During spring training, in fact, Prior actually received more fan mail than Sammy Sosa. At the time of this interview, Prior was pitching for double-A West Tennessee, and Reuss said he expected him to make a brief appearance in Des Moines on his way to the Big Club. (A month later, Prior would pitch three games for the I-Cubs, going 1-1, compiling a 1.65 ERA and a 3-to-1 strikout to walk ratio, while hitting two home runs in one game and a triple in another. In mid-May, he made a spectacular debut in Wrigley Field, generating an evening of what was dubbed “Prior-mania” — a sort of “Kerry Redux” celebration — by long-suffering Cubs loyalists).

The conversation turned to the peculiar nature of triple-A ball, described by one Des Moines sport reporter as a “unique brand of pinstripes.” The I-Cubs belong to the Pacific Coast League, comprised of 16 teams scattered across the western United States and Canada, The PCL, acknowledged Reuss, is similar to the Continental Basketball Association or arena football in one key sense: players, coaches, and even umpires would all prefer to be somewhere else — and make no attempt to disguise it. (One of the first things many casual fans notice about triple-A games is that there are only three umpires, instead of the usual quartet they’re accustomed to seeing in the big leagues).

Distinctions between the majors and the minors begin in the front office, according to Sam Bernabe, general manager of the I-Cubs. Referring to Andy McPhail, his counterpart with the parent club, Bernabe, who has been the GM since 1983, said, “He’s in the baseball business; I’m in the entertainment business.” Bernabe explained that player (and coach) salary levels are decided in Chicago. While some players have big league contracts with the Chi-Cubs, the minor league contracts are handled by McPhail’s office, as well. “His job is to put together a strong ball club and win a World Series,” Bernabe continued. “Mine is to persuade people to get up off the couch and drive to the stadium, buy an $8 ticket, a $4 parking space, a $2 hot dog. If the team wins, that’s extra.”

That definitely isn’t the case in the major leagues, one might well add, where very few general managers, not to say coaches and managers, last in one job for 18 years. (Within weeks, Acosta was sent packing by the Rangers, and in early July — largely as a result of increasingly listless nonperformance by key veterans — McPhail and Baylor were sacked. Kimm was called up by the new Chicago GM to replace Baylor, and Lisatch became the new I-Cubs manager).

“Major league organizations have a combination of needs, short-term and long-term,” said Reuss. “Here, we’re a holding ground for the short-term needs, and a proving ground for the long,” he elaborated. Those needs are subject to change without notice. The capricious nature of early spring weather in Des Moines parallels the mercurial fortunes of those who play professional baseball there. Kevin Orie — who had taken so much pregame care of his elbows — would abruptly go down with a bizarre injury to his right knee. After hitting a grounder during Monday’s game, he staggered awkwardly out of the box and was unable to take more than a couple of steps before dropping to his knees. Described by the I-Cubs as a “knee strain,” the injury prompted the recall of outfielder Mark Budzinsky the next day — from the nearby Greater Des Moines Airport.

Budzinsky, who’d been sent down to the Cubs’ double-A West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, was waiting to catch a flight to Memphis when informed that short-term needs of the organization had changed. He returned to Sec Taylor, just in time to suit up for the second game of that day’s doubleheader. The next day brought another reversal. With Orie, an infielder, on the disabled list and and expected to miss 3-4 weeks, Budzinsky didn’t figure into the I-Cubs’ long-term needs. They promoted an infielder from the Diamond Jaxx to take Orie’s place, and sent Budzinsky to West Tennessee, after all. And Orie, who had once been viewed as Chicago’s third baseman of the future, now faced another hurdle in his struggle to revive a faltering career.

This mid-April weekend would mark the second home stand of the early ’02 season for the I-Cubs and Reuss, who has his own perspective on home stands. Along with Des Moines, one of the 15 other cities fielding a team in the Pacific Coast League is Las Vegas, where Reuss and his third wife, Chantal, have lived for the past eight years. “I like Vegas. It’s a lot like living in a Los Angeles suburb,” he said, “but you don’t have the state income tax.” For Reuss, it also means that when his team plays an ‘away’ series against the Las Vegas 51’s, he’s at home.

Local sports writers have found this intriguing, Las Vegas being what it is. Despite being the fastest growing city in the country, it’s often referred to as “Sin City,” and most people think of it in recreational, rather than residential terms. In an article for Las Vegas Review-Journal headlined “Home Trip,” Mark Anderson wrote that “[w]hile the other I-Cubs probably were looking forward to exploring Las Vegas nightlife after the game, pitching coach Jerry Reuss was more interested in sleeping in his own bed for a change.”

Discussing his retirement 12 years ago, Reuss recalled how, like nearly all professional athletes, saw his injuries lingering and his numbers dropping. He pitched for five different division winners and one World Championship team, was never a 20-game winner, but won more than 15 games several times during his career. His best season was probably 1980, when he won Comeback Player of the Year honors and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. He also pitched a no-hitter than year.

“I felt my performance was slipping; I still had the ability, but the consistency wasn’t there” he recounted. “The bell curve was flattening — in the wrong direction — and I didn’t want to come splashing down in a pool of mediocrity. I wanted to finish on my terms.” Reuss protested a bit when told he has long been regarded as one of baseball’s Free Spirits. “Many, many other players are known for their sense of humor,” he said, singling out Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson and Joe Torre. He smiled, however, when it was suggested no one in that esteemed trio had quite his propensity for practical jokes.

Signed as a $30,000 bonus baby by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969, Reuss was called up from their triple-A affiliate Oklahoma City the following season, where he quickly began to acquire his quirky reputation. It wasn’t all lighthearted, either. In 1972, after going 14-14, Reuss became embroiled in a contract holdout dispute with Cards owner Auggie Busch, who ordered him traded to Houston. Reuss proceeded to win 16 games for the Astros the following season. At the time, some baseball pundits suggested that Reuss had decided to hold out because his teammate and fellow leftie Steve Carlton was doing it.

Reuss came of age as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid-’70s. In his first two years as a Pirate, he won 34 games and helped them win consecutive division titles.But it was in Los Angeles, with the ever-excitable Tommy Lasorda, that Reuss found his perfect foil. There, he also found an ideal comedic partner, Jay Johnstone, another leftie then regarded as the undisputed Clown Prince of baseball. Johnstone’s exploits included painting Dodgertown (L.A.’s spring training camp) green, running Steve Howe’s underwear up a flagpole, and visiting concession lines in full uniform with the game in progress.

Lasorda once fined Johnstone and Reuss for putting on overalls between innings and dragging the infield with the grounds crew. Dodger fans, considerably more amused than the manager, took up a collection to pay the fine. Having caught Lasorda’s attention, Reuss would later remove all of Tommy’s beloved celebrity pictures from his office, replacing them with pictures of himself. Reuss and Johnstone took it a step further on another occasion, locking Lasorda in his Dodgertown hotel room for hours by tying the doorknob to a palm tree — after disassembling the phone so Lasorda couldn’t call for help.

At the time, one baseball writer noted that these two pranksters (one a starting pitcher and the other a pinch hitter) did not play every day, so they routinely experienced periods of enforced idleness, a condition seen by many as the Devil’s workshop. Lasorda, a devout Catholic, was inclined to agree. “I thought I’d apologized for my sins,” said Lasorda after the 1981 World Series, “but I guess the Lord is paying me back. He gave me Johnstone and Reuss.”

Obviously, Reuss is a man with a well-developed sense of fun. However, it is just as obvious that he is very focused on his new career as a pitching coach. This focus is readily seen during a ball game. He is not one of those coaches who kicks back on the bench, chewing sunflower seeds and trading Good Ole Boy anecdotes with the team trainer. Whenever the I-Cubs are in the field, his tall figure rises above the top of the dugout, right elbow draped over the concrete endwall, which he uses as a writing desk for a spiral notebook, in which he tracks opposition batters and pitch counts. With his intent gaze and distinguished crown of white under the bill of his cap, Reuss evokes the image of an eagle peering over the edge of his roost, surveying the landscape, watching over his brood.

This vantage point accomplishes several things for Reuss. In addition to getting him as close to home plate as possible, it also puts puts his eyes at the same height as the strike zone. It further allows him to keep an eye on his bullpen, down the left field line. There is no phone: in the minors, coaches don’t make a call for a reliever; they wave their arms and point. With his head above the dugout roof, Reuss is also able to sweep the entire stadium with an occasional scan of the crowd during breaks in the game.

Tuesday’s afternoon doubleheader was played in glorious weather, warm and cloudless. Beyond the barely-rustling flag in center field and across the river, the bright golden dome of the State Capitol, circa 1886, gleamed in the sun. Three years ago, as part of a badly-needed renovation, the dome, 186 feet in diameter, received a new application of gold leaf — 100 troy ounces in all, worth $400,000. Seen from the stands, atop a hill commanding a broad panorama of the city and the river, it is quite impressive.

Seen from home plate on a sunny day, it is also quite distracting, according to Reuss. “At two in the afternoon, if you’re a left-handed batter facing a left-handed pitcher, the ball comes right out of it,” he said. One journalist, hearing of this, noted that big league stadiums routinely adjust the hitter’s background, particularly if enough complaints are heard from players. “If the players here had a union, maybe something would be done about it, like some sort of temporary screening,” he said. “But in their minds, these players are all just passing through, and they just see it as another temporary annoyance of life in the bush leagues. They don’t really want to get comfortable playing in this stadium.”

In the crowd, as one might expect on a gorgeous spring afternoon, were several groups of teenaged boys who were obviously skipping school, somewhat older fellows who were obviously skipping work, and yet older gentlemen, who looked like they didn’t have to worry about school or work any longer. Many female fans (and some male ones, as well), looking to get a start on their early season tans, had rolled up their pant legs and sleeves to catch some rays. From the pressbox, one could see a number of kneecaps, shoulders and bald spots that were already beginning to glow bright red with the year’s first sunburn. Behind home plate, two or three clusters of dressed-down feminine glamour indicated the seating areas reserved for players’ wives and girlfriends.

As the ground crew groomed the infield dirt, Reuss looked about the stadium. Like many other people-watchers, he is struck by the prevalance of cell phone activity by spectators at modern sporting events. A trio in business attire in particular, seated directly behind the I-Cubs’ dugout, caught his attention while groundskeepers finished freshening up the diamond. One of the three had gone through virtually the entire first game with a beer in one hand and a cell phone in the other, chatting away happily to parties unseen. Occasionally, his attention was brought back to the game he was allegedly watching by a foul ball dropping into the seats behind home plate. “Give it to the kid!” he would command, briefly glancing in the general direction of boys and men scurrying after a souvenir, underlining his authority with a vague wave of the phone. Doubtless, his sense of himself as Arbiter of Disputes derived further support from the series of cold beverages passing through his other hand.

All told, he was a difficult fellow to ignore, and Reuss had noted the fact that he wasn’t really taking in too much of the game, in spite of his choice location — a sort of conspicuous nonconsumption. For Reuss, who lets nothing distract him when a game is in progress, who spends hours getting his camera just right for a game shot, who lives and breathes baseball, this utter lack of attention is difficult to fathom. Agreeing that the whole point of going to a baseball game on a sunny weekday afternoon was to get away from the office, he wondered aloud, between games, “Why bother coming to the game, if you’re going to bring your cell phone?”

In the nightcap, Angel Echevarria (who played with the Brewers in 2001) hit three-run homer in the bottom of the 6th to give the I-Cubs a win. Afterward, despite the nice evening weather — and the pleasant atmosphere that comes from winning three straight — Reuss politely declined to linger and discuss the game. “I’ve got two hours of paperwork to do,” he explained. He then turned and walked down the third base line towards the clubhouse door, with his notebooks under one arm.