CARS HOMES JOBS

Union professor pens baseball book

Interviews include former teammate, Tigers manager Leyland

Thursday, October 25, 2012
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— The Yankees are out. The Mets and Red Sox were never even close.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone to root for locally in the 2012 World Series.

Connections running through the minor leagues have some locals watching the series closely — because they once watched participants up-close themselves.

In one case — San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence — many locals got the chance to watch him twice, as a collegiate player in 2002 with the then-Schenectady Mohawks and as a professional player two years later, as a member of the Troy-based Tri-City Valley Cats.

Another local fan, Union College anthropology professor George Gmelch, has his own connection to the series. Years ago, before he was an anthropology professor, Gmelch was a minor league baseball player in Jamestown. One of his teammates there was current Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

Gmelch’s connection goes beyond that. He’s interviewed Leyland multiple times over the years for books on baseball, most recently this past summer for a future book on minor league baseball in the 1960s.

On top of that, Gmelch grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and splits his time between Schenectady and there. The team he normally roots for is the Giants. Game 2 of the World Series is scheduled for this evening in San Francisco.

“I want them to be successful,” Gmelch said Wednesday by phone from the Bay Area, where he also teaches at the University of San Francisco. “But then again, I think, bottom line, I’m mostly for the Giants. I wouldn’t be too upset if the Tigers won.”

The Giants’ Pence is originally from Texas, but for two seasons a decade ago he played with both the Mohawks and the Valley Cats.

Pence played for the Mohawks while still in college, then happened to be drafted by the Astros, the team whose short season Class A minor-league affiliate, the starting point for many draftees, happens to be in Troy.

Pence’s appearance in the World Series with the Giants marks the Mohawks’ first alumnus to make it to the Fall Classic. The franchise has been active for two decades.

“We’re rooting for him for sure,” Mohawks president Brian Spagnola said Wednesday before Game 1.

The Mohawks moved to Amsterdam the year after Pence played and have had success there. The year Pence played with them, the team actually played in Colonie at old Heritage Park.

“What’s nice about Hunter was I think every baseball fan likes him,” Spagnola said earlier. “He plays the old-time way to play. He dives, plays hard and kind of goes about his business and doesn’t say a word.”

For the Valley Cats, Pence’s appearance in the World Series marks the second team alumnus to make the World Series. Ben Zobrist, who played with Pence on the 2004 squad, made it there in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Valley Cats began play in Troy in 2002 and have always been affiliated with the Astros.

Union College’s Gmelch’s connection to the 2012 World Series goes back much further, to 1965. That’s when he and Leyland were members of the Jamestown Tigers, in the Detroit Tigers system, as well as the 1966 Rocky Mount Leafs of the Carolina League.

Neither Gmelch nor Leyland amounted to much on the field. Gmelch eventually went on to anthropology and arrived at Union College in 1980.

Leyland went in another direction, first managing and coaching in the minors, then, in 1986, managing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the major leagues. Leyland is now in his 21st season as a big league manager. He won the 1997 World Series with the Florida Marlins and got back to the series in his first year as Tigers skipper in 2006.

Gmelch remembers Leyland as a bit of a jokester, including playing one prank on Gmelch that ended with Gmelch covered in liquid in the clubhouse. But he was also a teammate who was able to pull the team together on the field.

“He was just kind of a loose, fun-loving guy who played hard,” Gmelch said. “He was a real student of the game.”

Gmelch, 67, has written nearly a dozen books on topics ranging from wine tourism in California’s Napa Valley to Caribbean migrants. Gmelch wrote the Napa Valley book, “Tasting the Good Life,” with his wife, Sharon, also an anthropology professor at Union. The two have one son.

Three of his books have been about baseball. In his 1998 book, “In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People,” which he wrote with J.J. Weiner, Gmelch interviewed Leyland for a chapter on the life of a major league manager.

More recently, Gmelch interviewed Leyland this past summer when the Tigers visited Oakland. Gmelch was working on his latest book, tentatively titled “Wild Pitch: Coming of Age in Baseball,” a book he describes as part anthropology and part memoir. No release date has been set.

Gmelch provided an excerpt from his nearly complete manuscript. He writes about how the organization viewed Leyland even then as a future manager in the minor leagues.

“None of us back then, however, would have predicted that Leyland, whose greatest talents then seemed to be smooth talking women and thinking up clever practical jokes,” Gmelch wrote, “would go on to become a highly successful and well-loved big-league manager: a three-time Manager of the Year, and lead the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship in 1997.”

 
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