By: Paul Cooke
June 3, 1980
It is the first day of Major League Baseball’s annual amateur player draft. For thousands of aspiring professional ballplayers, the next three days are among the most important of their young lives. For some – like Crenshaw High School’s Darryl Strawberry, selected with the first overall pick by the New York Mets – there is little mystery to the day. Strawberry has been on the Mets’ shortlist of top picks for months and as the draft approaches, it is an open secret that New York will take the talented high school outfielder with their first pick. For Strawberry, draft day is simply confirmation of what he knew was coming.
For other Major League hopefuls, the three-day long draft is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and decisions. Some high school players are almost certain to be drafted in the early rounds, but will then be faced with the difficult decision of starting their professional careers or honoring their college commitments. For most, the three-day event is a nerve-wrecking wait to find out whether they will be professional ballplayers or not.
After Strawberry is selected by the Mets, players of all backgrounds and skill sets come off the board. Future All-Stars including Dan Plesac, Chris Sabo, Doug Drabek, and Rick Aguiliera are selected but opt not to sign. In the compensation portion of the first round, Rick Renteria, Terry Francona, Billy Beane, and John Gibbons are taken within a five-pick stretch. All five men will reach the majors, but the entire group is far better known for what they would end up doing in Major League dugouts and front offices then what they accomplished as players. In the 8th round of the draft, the Cincinnati Reds get a steal when they select Strawberry’s Los Angeles area high school running mate and future All-Star, Eric Davis.
251 spots after the Mets select Strawberry, the Detroit Tigers select a left-handed pitcher out of University of California Berkley by the name of Chuck Hensley. The odds of a 10th round pick – particularly a college player – reaching the Major Leagues are slim. There are no $210,000 signing bonuses coming Hensley’s way like there are for Strawberry, but the Tigers have given the tall southpaw an opportunity, which is more than many will get.
After three days of selections, the 1980 amateur draft wraps up on Thursday, June 5th when the Cleveland Indians – making back-to-back picks after the other 25 teams pass on making a selection in the 44th round – take collegiate shortstop Shanie Dugas with the 832nd and final pick of the draft.
With that, disappointment settles in for hundreds of high school and college players who had hopes of being drafted but were ultimately passed by. It is the end of the road for some of these players. Others are not quite ready to give up on their dreams. That group includes standout Ohio University outfielder Kevin Priessman.
As a Bobcat, Priessman slugged his way to three consecutive all-MAC first team honors (1977 – 1979) and set several Ohio University single season and career hitting records. The latter accomplishments are particularly notable given that less than a decade earlier, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt – himself a three-time All-MAC selection – led the Bobcats to their only College World Series appearance (1969) on his way to be taken in the 2nd round of the 1971 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite the impressive track record at Ohio, Priessman goes undrafted in June 1980.
Not wanting to hang up his glove just yet, Priessman opts to go the free agent route and eventually agrees to terms with the Montreal Expos. While it is not all that unusual for a player to go undrafted only to hook up with an organization as a free agent, what makes Priessman’s story unusual is that he joins the Expos organization as a pitcher. There is no indication that Priessman pitched at Ohio and if he did, his exploits with the bat far outshine any work he did on the mound. Yet somehow, the guy with the prolific, record setting college hitting career is only able to find a Major League job as a pitcher.
With dozens of draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart, Priessman is assigned to Calgary of the rookie level Pioneer League. As a 10th round selection, Hensley receives a far more pleasant assignment from Detroit and is sent to Lakeland of the A-level Florida State League.
Working out of Lakeland’s bullpen in the summer of 1980, Hensley asserts himself well pitching to a 3.36 ERA over 59 innings. His numbers are far from eye-popping but respectable considering that he already threw 118 innings for his college team that spring.
Unfortunately, Priessman’s first taste of pro ball does not go nearly as well. The right-hander gets into 16 games for Calgary but pitches to a 5.23 ERA, thanks in large part to walking 4 ½ batters per nine innings. To top it all off, he blows his arm out during the ill-fated season, which effectively ends his pro career. 1980 is Priessman’s one and only season in professional baseball.
May 10, 1986
The San Francisco Giants are in St. Louis for the middle game of a three-game series against the Cardinals.
In the bottom of the second inning, San Francisco’s starter Roger Mason gets Andy Van Slyke to fly out before suddenly losing all control of the strike zone. Three straight walks are followed by a Ray Burris double, which puts Mason and the Giants into an early 3-0 hole. Mason recovers long enough to get himself out of the inning without further damage but stumbles again in the third on the way to allowing three more runs. Having seen enough, manager Roger Craig summons former starter Bill Laskey from the bullpen. Laskey gets his team out of the 3rd inning jam, but expends all he has in the process. Manager Craig goes back to his bullpen for the 4th inning and calls for a 27-year old making his major league debut – Chuck Hensley.
For Hensley, it has been a long and winding road to reach this point.
Despite his solid rookie season in 1980, Detroit made the odd decision to release Hensley that winter. As odd as that decision might have been, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hensley hooked on with the Oakland A’s in short order. Not only did the move put him closer to home (he was assigned to Modesto of the A+ California League), but the A’s afforded the left-hander a chance to start after spending all of 1980 in the bullpen. He excelled in that role in both A+ and AA during the 1981 and 1982 seasons. Hensley opened the 1983 season just a step away from the big time as a member of the Tacoma Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. It could have been the notoriously hitter friendly league, a move back to the bullpen, or a combination of many factors, but Hensley struggled mightily that season. He allowed 5 ½ runs per nine innings and saw his strikeout totals plummet. In 1984, Hensley returned to Tacoma and continued to struggle, prompting Oakland to trade him to Milwaukee. Assigned to the Vancouver team in the Pacific Coast League, the change of scenery did him little good. Milwaukee cut bait after only a few appearances and Hensley found himself out of a job midway through the 1984 season.
Hensley knew he could still play but teams were not exactly lining up for his services. With spring training approaching, Chuck switched agents and shortly thereafter landed a spot with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants assigned him to AA – essentially a demotion – but Hensley didn’t sulk and instead took care of business. His 2.81 ERA at AA in 1985 was the lowest of his minor league career and it earned him a mid-season promotion to the PCL. The third trip through the PCL was the charm and Hensley slayed the league in 1985 to the tune of a 3.15 ERA. He returned to the PCL to start 1986 and fired on all cylinders right out of the gate. When the Giants placed reliever Jim Cott on the disabled list on May 9th, Hensley finally received his long awaited – and well-earned – call to the big leagues.
With his long and winding journey to the majors now officially complete, Hensley takes the ball in the fourth inning. If he is nervous, it is impossible to tell. Facing the top of the Cardinals’ potent lineup, Hensley picks up back-to-back strikeouts on Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith, before getting Willie McGee to ground out to short to cap off the perfect inning. Hensley retreats to the dugout officially a Major League pitcher. In a good news-bad news situation, the Giants get two runners on with two outs in the top of the 5th with the pitcher’s spot due up. Down 6-0 and in the need of runs, Craig brings in Candy Maldanado to pinch hit for Hensley, ending his night after one perfect inning.
Hensley will go onto pitch in five additional games that June posting a solid 2.45 ERA before being sent back to AAA. He returns at the end of June to once again pitch out of the bullpen. On July 2nd in Atlanta – in his 11th major league appearance – Hensley retires all six Brave batters he faces. There is no way of knowing at the time, but it will be the last game he pitches in the majors.
September 1, 1993
The Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons – at the time the AAA affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies – enter the 10th inning of a day-night doubleheader tied with Syracuse 1-1.
Syracuse pitcher Mark Ohlms toes the rubber as newly promoted Red Barons hitter Mickey Hyde steps in the box. Hyde spent most of the 1993 season in AA Reading. In September, the National League East leading Phillies dipped into their AAA club for reserves for a September stretch run, opening a spot for Hyde on the Red Barons. The 26-year old had a good season at the plate in AA, at least from an average standpoint. At the time of his promotion to Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Hyde’s batting average with Reading was a solid .285. At times during the summer, Hyde’s average rose above .300, which was good enough to earn him a spot on the Eastern League all-star team.
With base runners needed in this tie game, Hyde puts his contact hitting ability to good use and reaches base with a leadoff single. The next batter, Greg Legg, sacrifices Hyde to second base. Syracuse responds by intentionally walking Tom Marsh to set up a double play but those best laid plans are quickly spoiled when Victor Rodriquez reaches on an infield single. Ohlms has no choice but to go right after Sam Taylor with the bases loaded. Taylor responds by bouncing a single up the middle that scores Hyde for the winning run.
While scoring the winning run in a September AAA game in northeast Pennsylvania is not quite the same as doing it in Philadelphia in the middle of a pennant race, the moment is nonetheless a significant one in Hyde’s long pro baseball journey. Simply reaching AAA was validation of what had been an unlikely pro career.
Hyde grew up in Pavilion, New York – a small upstate town that is about a 30-minute car ride from Rochester. He attended Pavilion Central High School where he was a star baseball player before playing at Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York from 1985 through 1987. Hyde continued to excel on the baseball diamond at Genesee and after earning his associates degree he joined the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) baseball team. His tenure at UNLV was short lived. Hyde was cut from the team during the season. As he told the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in 1992, UNLV manager Fred Dallimore did not mince words when delivering the bad news.
“He told me he didn’t think I’d ever play pro ball,” Hyde told reporter Jim Mandelaro. “I was devastated. If it weren’t for my father encouraging me to hang in there, I would have packed it in.”
Hyde heeded his father’s advice and attended an open tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies in Batavia (the home of the Phillies’ New York Penn League affiliate). Hyde did not stand out early in fielding drills and felt his pro aspirations slipping away. He was eventually given a chance to hit and something about the 22-year old caught the attention of Philadelphia scouts. The Phillies signed Hyde to a minor league contract later that night. He was assigned to Bativia of the low-A New York Penn League for the 1989 season and moved to the Bend Bucks, who were also a low-A affiliate of the Phiilies, for the 1990 season.
In 1991, Hyde was promoted again, this time to Clearwater in the A+ Florida State League where he was managed by baseball lifer Lee Elia. He continued to produce just enough at the plate for the Phillies to keep him around. 1992 marked the first season of Hyde’s pro career where he didn’t receive a promotion and instead he was sent back to Clearwater. He made the most of this second go around in the Florida State League. Hyde hit .302 in 147 plate appearances, which was enough to earn a mid-season promotion to AA Reading. He finished well in Reading in 1992 and his hot start to the 1993 season eventually earned him his one and only shot in AAA.
Later in life, Hyde described reaching AAA – which at one point must have seemed to be nothing more than a pipe dream – as his greatest accomplishment in sports. Following his brief cup of coffee at the highest level of the minor leagues, Hyde quietly retired from professional baseball.
September 10, 1995
Chris Bechtold is exhausted.
The left-hander from the Chicago suburbs is pitching his 10th straight game at the North American Wiffle Ball Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has faced more than 200 batters during the grueling three-day tournament and is laying waste to his competition. The Chicago Tribune will later report that Bechtold struck out 214 of the 222 batters he faced that weekend. It’s a feat that seems dubious, but not impossible. Bechtold’s ability to shut down hitters at Wiffle Ball’s premiere event is second only to the almost super human stamina he displays in doing so.
It was just seven months earlier that Bechtold tried out as a replacement player for the Chicago White Sox. With the fear that the labor strike would bleed into the 1995 season, Major League Baseball clubs offered try outs to potential replacement players. The White Sox liked what they saw from the 29-year old left-hander but felt he needed to be in better playing shape. Chicago sent Bechtold home with the instructions to work on his conditioning before reporting to Cominskey Park in early April. Unfortunately for Bechtold and the other replacement players, the strike ended in late March and their services were no longer needed.
Now seven months, 10 Wiffle Ball games, 70+ innings, and 200+ batters later, nobody could accuse Becthold of being out of shape. With just his older brother in the field behind him, Chris gets his Becthold Bombers team within one run of winning the first ever North American Wiffle Ball Championship. An extra inning homerun to eventual 3-time champions, Team Trenton, is Chris’ undoing. The Championship might have eluded him, but Chris is rewarded for his superhuman efforts with the tournament MVP and CY Young awards.
The man that presents the awards to Chris also knows a thing or two about having his pro baseball aspirations dashed in an instant – it is Kevin Priessman.
After blowing his arm out just a dozen games into his professional baseball career fifteen years earlier, Priessman left the sport behind. He did what most people do when their big league dreams are cut short – he got a job. Actually, he got two of them. Priessman joined the Hamilton County Parks District in Cincinnati as the athletic programs director. The county job kept Priessman on the fringe of the sport he once excelled in. He organized baseball and softball tournaments for many years and was one of the first to bring the Southern California game of Over-the-Line east. In addition to his nine-to-five job, Kevin and his wife ran the family’s Christmas Tree Farm just over the state border in Indiana.
It was at his Christmas Tree Farm that Priessman discovered another sport in the baseball family. Every Independence Day, Kevin invited family and friends to the farm for a cook out and a Wiffle Ball tournament. At first the tournaments were just for fun and little more than a way to pass the time in between meals. As the years went on, the tournament supplanted the barbeque as the main attraction for his guests. Priessman wondered how he might apply the sport of Wiffle Ball to his day job as Athletic Director.
Priessman pitched his Wiffle Ball idea to the powers-that-be in Hamilton County and received the go-ahead to start a program. In 1994, he organized a league that drew teams from around the greater Cincinnati area. The league was successful enough that Priessman was able to lobby the county for $2,500 for a permanent Wiffle Ball complex. He not only had big plans for the league but saw an opportunity to make Cincinnati the center of the Wiffle Ball Universe. His idea was the North American Wiffle Ball Championship – a three-day tournament that would allow players and teams from all over the country to compete for a National Championship.
Priessman believed his tournament to be the first of its kind and although that is not exactly the case, the North American Wiffle Ball Championship had an immediate and indelible impact on the fast pitch Wiffle Ball landscape. The 1995 tournament drew more than 30 teams thanks to an all-out national media blitz, which included a pre-tournament feature article in Sports Illustrated. During a three-year period spanning 1995 to 1997, Cincinnati became the center of the Wiffle universe. The 1995 and 1996 tournaments were the only tournament appearances for Chris Becthold and the Bombers, who finished runner up both years. Team Trenton made their mark as one of the game’s all-time best teams by winning the Championship in all three seasons. The Lakeside Kings re-emerged on the national radar at these tournaments and played well, placing in the top four all three years. The 1996 tournament was the national tournament debut of Hall of Famer Billy Owens and the 1997 edition marked the first time that Owens and Mark DeMasi teamed together as the Georgia Longshotz. It was due to the success of Priessman’s tournaments that Team Trenton member Mike Palinczar reformed the New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association (“NJWA”) in 1996. The NJWA’s annual summer and fall tournaments would go onto be among the biggest and most important in the game over the next several years.
In addition to bringing influential players and teams together, Priessman’s tournaments introduced a game-changing piece of equipment. He devised an all-in-one backstop and strike-calling device that would affectionately became known as “The Hole”. The Hole was a wooden backstop with a rectangular hole cut in the middle to determine balls and strikes. The Hole went onto be the standard piece of strike calling equipment until the USPPBA re-emerged in 2001 and introduced the target strike zone nationwide.
While not as short-lived as his time in professional baseball, Priessman’s time as Wiffle Ball’s top promoter came and went rather quickly. Following the 1997 North American Championship, Priessman left his Athletic Director position to concentrate full time on his tree business. The Wiffle Ball complex remained, but Priessman’s successors showed little interest in continuing the national tournament. Although his time in the game was short, Priessman’s Wiffle legacy lives onto this day. A clear line can be drawn connecting Priessman and the North American Wiffle Ball Championship to Mike Palinczar and the NJWA to Billy Owens and Fast Plastic to present day organizations including the Palisades Wiffle Ball League and Mid Atlantic Wiffle.
October 9, 2004
It is early in the day on the first day of the 2004 Fast Plastic National Championship Tournament in Cedar Park, Texas. The day begins with an abbreviated two-game round robin that will reduce the overflowing 33-team field to a manageable 28 teams. For the most part, these first round games lack the excitement and intensity of the later rounds. A team must simply avoid being one of the bottom five in the field during the first round – by both record and run differential – to survive. Moving onto the next round is all that matters, whether that is accomplished with two wins, one win, or no wins. That reality leads to a slate of games that are relatively mundane by National Championship Tournament standards.
A couple of the first-round games rise above those circumstances by sheer force of talent. The best example is the matchup pitting New York region champions and long-time Wiffle Ball power house In the Box against the second-place finishers from Northern California, Oldies but Goodies. The talent on the two teams is enough to make for an interesting game, but there is another story lying below the surface. The matchup is a rare Wffle Ball occurrence where a pair of professional baseball players turned competitive Wiffle Ball players compete against one another.
Following his two 1986 call-ups with the San Francisco Giants, Chuck Hensley bounced around the minor leagues for three more seasons without ever getting recalled. After throwing 22 innings in 1990 for Seattle’s AA-affiliate, the 31-year old called it a career and retired from pro baseball. Six years later, he returned to the game as a west coast scout for the New York Mets. Baseball was never far from Hensley’s mind and he continued to look for ways to play.
While scouting for the Mets, Hensley heard about the Fast Plastic wiffle ball organization, which in 2004 had regions spanning coast to coast, including one based in Northern California. Hensley grabbed a friend and entered an early season qualifier in the Northern California region. His team – dubbed the Oldies but Goodies due to both players being in their mid-40’s – split a pair of games against the Gunners before losing to Make Ya Whiff in the tournament finals. Not satisfied with the second-place finish, Oldies but Goodies returned later that season and eventually took the second spot in the highly competitive region.
Following his cup of coffee in AAA in 1993, Mickey Hyde left professional baseball behind for good, satisfied with what he had accomplished on the diamond. Hyde entered the world of financial services, a career that soon took him out of New York and down to Florida. It was while living in Florida that Hyde first discovered competitive Wiffle Ball. In 2002, Hyde’s team – The Toadkiller Dogs – ran through the competition in the USPPBA Southeast region and earned a spot in in the four-team national championship series. Although he did not pitch as a pro baseball player, Hyde turned himself into quite the Wiffle Ball pitcher and earned Most Valuable Player honors in the southeast region that season. The Toadkiller Dogs came up short against the New Jersey-based State of Mind in the national semi-finals in 2002. The following year, Hyde’s team made it the final eight at the Fast Plastic NCT before running into the Joel DeRoche and the eventual second place finishers, the Shockers.
2003 was Hyde’s final season with the Toadkiller Dogs as he and his family had already relocated back to New York. When In the Box captain Tom LoCascio – who had an inimitable knack for making great player acquisitions – heard the news, he quickly signed Hyde to play for his team. The move paid immediate dividends. The 2004 In the Box team of LoCascio, Joe Nord, and Hyde had one of the best regular seasons of any team in the history of the game, going 31-1 on the way to the New York region title. Hyde continued to pitch but with Nord on board he did not have to shoulder the load like he did with the Toadkiller Dogs. It was during the 2004 regular season that Hyde established himself as one of the game’s greatest hitters.
Now, the two former pro baseball players find themselves across the field from one another at the 2004 National Championship, vying for a chance at Wiffle Ball immortality. Hensley takes the ball for the Oldies but Goodies against In the Box, as he will for every single game his team plays in Cedar Park. The big bats of In the Box win out over Hensley’s talented left arm, as the New York club edges outs the California duo by a score of 2-1.
That type of low scoring, close game becomes the theme of the day for Hensley and the Oldies. They drop their second first round game to Arizona’s Cuatro 2-0, but their low run differential secures them a spot in the final 28. In the 3-game round robin that follows, Hensley blanks Massachusetts’ champions the Blue Sox (New England) 3-0, is edged by eventual champions The Swingers (New Jersey) 2-1, and triumphs over Pacific Northwest champs The Rolling Blackouts 3-0. In the day’s final game, Hensley allows a single run to New England’s Doom Gone Wild, which eliminates the Oldies in the round of sixteen.
In a marathon pitching performance that even Chris Bechtold would find impressive, Hensley throws every single inning (46) of every single game (6) for his team. The seven runs he allows are good enough for a 0.91 ERA, but it’s the strikeout and walk numbers that are truly mind-boggling. The San Francisco Giants reliever turned Wiffle Ball ace strikes out 128 batters (16.7 SO/6 IP) while walking only 6 batters (0.8 BB/6 IP). For every batter the southpaw walks on the day, he strikes out more than 21 of them. The performance is so undeniably brilliant that Fast Plastic takes the unprecedented step of awarding the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award to Hensley rather than a player on the championship winning team. Not too bad for a 45-year old.
For Hyde and In the Box, the tournament goes just as planned up through the semi-finals. Box goes a perfect 7-0 to reach the final four, including two victories over DeRoche and the Shockers. In the semi-finals, Nord – who carried the pitching load for the team that weekend – goes down with an arm injury. Playing as a two-man team, Hyde and LoCascio take down the 2002 and 2003 champions, The Vipers, before being shut out by the Swingers in the finals.
For Hyde, the disappointment of the finals loss would prove temporary.
The following year he returned to Cedar Park once again as a member of In the Box, but this time playing the entire tournament as a two-man team with Nord as his only teammate. In one of the game's greatest two-man performances, the duo stunned the competition and captured the title. In doing so, Nord and Hyde became the only two-man team to win a National Championship Tournament in the history of the sport. That accomplishment places Hyde in select company and forever etches his name in the Wiffle Ball history books.
Two years before winning the national title, Hyde - who in addition to baseball and wiffleball, dabbled in softball, bowling and golf - was asked by his hometown paper which sport is his favorite to play. "Wiffle Ball," he told the Democrat and Chronicle, "because it is the most challenging." From an athlete that reached the highest level of the minor leagues and once bowled a perfect game, Hyde's words offer an important insight into unrestricted, competitive Wiffle Ball. The sport - when played at its highest levels - doesn't take a back seat to any other in terms of competition and skill level.
The Major League Baseball season kicks off this week and full season minor league organizations get underway next week. When you are out at the ballpark this summer, take note of the players. You might just be watching the next Wiffle Ball star.
The competitive Wiffle Ball career of Chuck Hensley was short lived his 2004 MVP performance serving as his Wiffle Ball highlight. Hensley later joined a pre-Bill Owens version of GSW in 2006 which was his final year in competitive Wiffle Ball. That same year, he switched sides in his day job going from scouting to player representation. In 2008, he returned to scouting, this time with the team that brought him to the Majors, the Giants. Hensley was on the Giants scouting staff for the organization’s 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series victories. In 2014 at the age of 55, Hensley pitched a perfect game in the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MBSL) in Arizona. It is not entirely out of the question that he could pick up the plastic ball one more time at a future Fast Plastic event.
Despite some efforts to convince Hamilton County Park District to resume the North American Wiffle Ball Championship in the late 1990’s, the facility has not been used for a major tournament championship since 1997. Kevin Priessman has not been heard of in Wiffle circles since, although he still runs his Indiana Christmas tree farm. Chris Bechtold disappeared from the Wiffle Ball scene along with the North American Championship, but his accomplishments in the 1995 tournament are forever immortalized in the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
Winning the National title as a two-man team in a highly competitive field solidified Mickey Hyde’s as one of the game’s all-time great players. In the Box morphed into the post-Tom LoCascio New York Knights in 2006 with Hyde still on board. The Knights made it to the finals of the 2007 Fast Plastic NCT but came up short against GSW. According to Tom LoCascio on a recent FP Radio broadcast, we could see an In the Box reunion with Hyde, Nord, and himself, at a tournament later this year.