THE GAME IS CATCHING

The tulips are in bloom, and Bud Biegel is thinking comeback.
Last June he tore a hamstring while diving for a foul pop, and before he could heal, some banjo hitter whacked him on his mitt hand with the bat. Busted index finger. Out for the year. So after getting to the plate only twelve times in 1993, this is an important season. Meanwhile, his year-round regimen remains the same: Four days a week he stretches, then runs a dozen wind sprints on a football field. He makes 130 throws against a wall with the hard rubber ball, then tops off his workout with fifty deep knee bends. Opening Day, the Pirates' catcher will be ready.

Opening Day, the Pirates' catcher also will be 65 years old.
Biegel's teammates on the Pirates--not the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Denver Pirates of the Men's Senior Baseball League, Over-30 Division--call him "Neanderthal Man" and "The Fossil." What these thirtysomethings don't call him is finished. While professional baseball celebrates its 125th year in 1994, retired public school teacher Robert "Bud" Biegel, born in Denver on May 24, 1928, will play his fif-tieth season. He won't be lolling around first base, either. Biegel doesn't love just the game, he loves catching. So once again this student of the art will buckle on the tools of ignorance and squat behind the plate every minute his manager and God will give him.

"That damn Gary Carter got more work in two days than I get in a month," he complained over lunch the other day. "I feel cheated."

Gaze into that windburned, heavily creased face and you see that he means it. Bud Biegel has been cheated. There are not enough ball games in a lifetime, and the ball games don't have enough innings. Take last November. At the MSBL World Series in Phoenix, where Biegel's team of Over-50 all-stars played six games in four days, he was unhappy that he got to catch only 27 innings.

"I'd have played 'em all if they let me," he insisted, taking a bite of BLT and a swig of chocolate milk. Oh, well. He hit .333 in the series.

The insatiable passion for baseball is not rare. But it rarely lasts so long. Biegel saw his first game at old Merchants Park when he was eight or nine and loved it, but what really hooked him was the workmanship of a catcher named Ben Pister. "When I was a kid I never went to bed with a baseball bat," he remembers. "I went to bed with a catcher's mask."

By fifteen he'd developed superb defensive skills, including a rifle arm that kept opponents of his South High School club firmly planted at first base. The kid also showed total devotion. Fooling around one day with friends, he shattered a window with his throwing arm and wound up with 60 stitches. The next day he caught batting practice.

Biegel, by then 6-3 and 180 pounds, played for the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, where a promising right-hander named Ben Flowers (later 3-7 in the majors) threw him smoke and Bud was labeled all glove, no hit. Still, the young catcher might have gone on to the University of North Carolina were it not for a case of homesickness that haunts him to this day.

Instead, he studied education at Northern Colorado, knowing his summers would be free to play ball. He went to two College World Series. These days, heads still turn when the lineups are announced at UNC alumni games: "So-and-so, Class of 1990, So-and-so, Class of 1991, Bud Biegel, Class of 1949." Last year, he even caught ex-Yankee Brian Fisher.

But, yes, there is something missing. What happened to this phenom's professional baseball career?

That same dark question has been hanging around the corner taverns and rec-league dugouts of America since Nap Lajoie's day. To his credit, Bud Biegel offers no alibis. And he traces the turning point in his life to one hot afternoon in Kansas. The year was 1954, Bud was 26, and he was playing for a rough-and-tumble semipro team featuring a couple of pichers who threw so hard he had to stuff a slab of raw beefsteak into his mitt.

"It was probably the greatest day I ever had," he remembers. "Doubleheader. I threw out everybody that moved, picked a couple of guys off, and even though I was never a great hitter I had four home runs and a couple of walks in the two games. Guy came up to me and said: `You're one of the best defensive catchers I've ever seen. Who you under contract to?'"

The guy who'd come up to Biegel was Yankee infielder Billy Martin, then doing his own stint in Army baseball. Bud's reply regarding his contractual obligations was: "Denver Unified School District."

He never called the Yankees. And another bout of homesickness scuttled his successful tryout with the Single A Omaha Cardinals.

"So I didn't go after it," Biegel remembers. "I never tried to sell myself. I can't blame anybody but me. Defensively, at least, I know I could have played in the big leagues."

Instead, Bud Biegel taught school for 35 years. He never married, he says, because no woman could grasp his feeling for the game--although his girlfriend, Beverly, does. He continued to play semipro ball in Kansas and Nebraska, caught future-Yankee-for-a-minute Virgil Jester in Burlington, Colorado, and remembers one unhittable knuckleballer who'd lost two fingers in a farming accident.

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