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.
"He just stuck those stumps behind the ball and let it go."
Later, there were rec-league teams, pickup games, hardball in its humbler guises. From 1975 to 1985, Biegel never missed a start in Denver's fabled Felix-Daly Game on Sunday mornings.
"If somebody asked me if I wanted to go around the world," he recalls, "I'd say: `No. Gotta game today. I can go around the world when I'm ninety.' Well, can't I?"
Now baseball's nostalgia craze has given him another life. In 1986, a 38-year-old comptroller from Long Island, Steve Sigler, started the Men's Senior Baseball League with four local teams. There are now 2,200--thirty here in Denver--in 230 cities, giving vent to the dreams of 30,000 players. Even ex-big-leaguers Jim Barr, Jose Cardenal and Dave Parker wanted in.
Now there's a new senior league, with divisions for players over thirty...and forty. Last month, 300 hopefuls paid $3 apiece to try out for new National Adult Baseball Association teams in Denver.
For Biegel, who became an MSBL rookie at the age of 61 and was named to the city's All-Star team a year later, the whole thing's heaven.
"It's a sin to love a game this much," he says. "A sin. In fact, my mother once said, `It's destroyed your life.' And in a way, it has."
But baseball is no relic for Biegel, no mere bag of memories. It's still the here-and-now. As recently as two years ago he shot a 52-minute home video in which the retired teacher/veteran backstop demonstrated the long-neglected fundamentals of catching. It doesn't matter that he still owns the only copy--complete with big trucks lumbering by in the background. Looking ahead to this season--Biegel's comeback season--the new ace of the lowly Pirates staff is likely to be one Tommy James, a 32-year-old North High School product just back from a stint in the Chicago White Sox organization. Biegel can't wait to handle the kid's ninety-mile-an-hour heater.
Last Thursday the team held its first practice. The 21-game season opens next month.
Meanwhile, fellow MSBL catcher Pete Blake, a child of 57, was talking about his move over to the new NABA, where he expects to get more playing time this season. Biegel looked pensive for a moment, then declared: "I might get in that league next year--if I'm still alive."
First things first. There are MSBL base runners to nail in 1994. Young pitchers for the Neanderthal Man to bring along. He also may rip the occasional game-winning double up the gap--as he's done so often over the last half-century.
But even if none of that happens, Biegel will have that big day against Billy Martin to remember. Two College World Series. And he always will have Phoenix. As Blake describes it, the Cactus League ballparks where the Senior World Series was played last year materialized dazzling green and carefully trimmed. The infields proved level and true, and the camaraderie of old ball players from around the country might have warmed Ty Cobb's icy heart.
One afternoon, not even the cruelest of all life's tricks, a rainout, could dampen the spirits of a man who never caught an inning he didn't like. After the umps called the game off, Blake remembers, Biegel found himself outside Ho-Ho-Kam Park, spring home of the Chicago Cubs, when a clutch of younger players--all babies in their thirties and forties--approached him. They'd heard about a 65-year-old catcher from Denver, and now here he was, in the flesh. Amazing. They gathered around him.
"Mind autographing my program?" one player asked. "How 'bout posing for a picture with us?" said another. Standing in the rain, Bud Biegel obliged.
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