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Sunday, March 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fly by night

Seattle Times staff reporter

"You know the thing about the Pilots is that they're a team nobody claims. (Seattle) doesn't claim them as their team. They're a one-year team that nobody recognizes as their own."

- Gabe Paul, Seattle Pilots team traveling secretary.

If the Seattle Pilots had looked more closely, maybe they would have seen the storm clouds gathering beyond the desert horizon, the clouds that would throw their next weeks into chaos. But they were baseball players, and baseball players live for the moment, for the sun that beams down from the sky. A cyclone was coming to tear their spring apart, but they never saw it coming.

The Seattle Pilots who congregated in February 1970 in Tempe, Ariz., for what would become their second and final spring training as an organization, could only feel the warmth. Sure, there were rumors of financial turmoil that followed the Pilots through their first season in the American League. When are there not hints of a team staring at money problems?

Yet even though newspapers carried daily updates on the precarious condition of Seattle's first major league baseball team, the players were enchanted by the blissful days. The horde of young men, delighted by their meager $30,000 salaries, gathered around new manager Dave Bristol and paid little heed to these tales of trouble up north.

Until it was too late.

Had they watched, they would have known the troubles of Max and Dewey Soriano, the two brothers who owned the club and who were running into debt. Within a matter of weeks, Seattle's major-league team would cease to exist. It would break camp as a new club - the Milwaukee Brewers. And the players packed their lives and their wives and their careers and headed across the country to begin again, barely remembering the blip their previous franchise made on American League history.

Even now, 30 years later, the last spring of the Pilots remains one of the most bizarre months in baseball history. For no team in the modern era has ever been uprooted just days before the first pitch of the season. Such things were never supposed to happen.

The end came on April Fools' Day, in the bankruptcy court of Judge Sidney Volinn, who ruled that the Soriano debt was too massive to be revived in Seattle. The Pilots' fling here was brief. Their eventual departure was all about business.

"For me, I didn't feel like I lost major-league baseball; I had lost baseball," remembers Charles Kapner, a Seattle school administrator who was 13 when the Pilots departed. "I think there's a parallel now. We've suffered a loss this year. And I think the kids who grew up on baseball and liking Ken Griffey Jr. will be sad, just as I was."

This is the story of that tumultuous time.

Players got blindsided

The worst thing was that they never expected it.

Just the year before, the Pilots had been a collection of castoffs and misfits, trying hard not to become the laughingstock of the league, yet failing miserably. They lost 98 games, hit just .234 as a team, committed more errors than anyone else and had the worst earned-run average in the majors. But General Manager Marvin Milkes had restocked the team with new talent, turning over nearly the entire starting lineup and bringing in Bristol, who had been successful with the Cincinnati Reds.

So it was almost a completely different club that started that spring under Bristol. The manager did a good job of diverting attention from the occasional story about the rumored bankruptcy of the team and instead kept the focus on the games at hand. It wasn't difficult because there were plenty of other distractions.

Like the presence of country music star Charlie Pride, a friend of Bristol and a huge baseball fan. Long before Garth Brooks pulled on major-league jerseys and played in spring-training games, Pride dressed up in a Pilot uniform and took part in the daily drills as a first baseman.

"He wasn't a bad ballplayer," recalls Bill Sears, the team's public-relations director. "I think he even played in a few of the games, too."

At night Pride put on impromptu concerts at local country music halls around Phoenix. The players loved it, filling the evenings with guitars and song and drink.

It was a happy time, an innocent time, a cocoon from the anti-Vietnam war protests that were rocking the country. Bristol scribbled the number 004 on his shoes, an oblique reference to James Bond. Pitcher Gene Brabender entertained his teammates by telling them how he lifted 150-pound crates of carp in the offseason to stay in shape. And the players were thrilled to get $84 a week in meal money.

Life was good.

So when the word came from Seattle that the team was moving, the players were completely unprepared. For some, the announcement was about the first time they had heard there was any trouble.

"It was almost hilarious," pitcher Lew Krausse recalls. "We had just had a baby and were living in Kansas City and I got word that winter that I had been traded (from Oakland) to Seattle. I thought I would try to get ahead of the game and we shipped a lot of stuff to the ballpark in Seattle - baby stuff and things you needed to start a household.

"We thought we were being cool and sending our stuff ahead. How silly that turned out to be."

Krausse pauses and then begins to laugh.

"Think about it," he says. "I got traded to Seattle and then I never played in Seattle. It was a mystery. But then my career was a mystery, I guess."

There were rumors, sure, but baseball players live among rumors that turn out never to be true. Some had even heard the stories about the team being sold to a group of Milwaukee businessmen headed by a car salesman named Bud Selig. But there were just as many reports of potential buyers in Seattle, people who vowed the team would never leave the Northwest. Baseball officials were telling players and administrators alike that the franchise was staying right where it was. Certainly things would work out. Major-league teams just don't pick up and leave town in the middle of the night. Right?

"When we left for spring training, we felt the club wouldn't leave," former first baseman Mike Hegan says.

That's why Hegan and his wife bought a house in Bellevue that winter. It was to be their first home, "a $30,000 dream house," he calls it - a three-bedroom ranch with a yard that ran right up against the back of an elementary school. Hegan pondered the layout and figured it was where his children would eventually wind up going to school.

They never spent a day in their dream house.

None of the players did. They left Tempe's Pilots Stadium after an afternoon of games on April 1 only to return the next morning and find the sign out front had been changed to "Brewers Stadium."

Making do in Milwaukee

The night before, Judge Volinn had ruled the Sorianos' $8.1 million debt was too large to be reclaimed. With the Bank of California demanding the full repayment of a $3.5 million loan, the only solution would be to approve the sale of the team to Selig and his group for $10.8 million.

"The fact that the debtor is incapable of carrying on is obvious," Volinn said in his ruling.

Even though the players had wanted to believe they were staying in Seattle, and even though Bristol had tried to force them to concentrate on baseball, there were indications that something was wrong. Players started to worry about the deposits they placed on homes and apartments in Seattle. Their wives, many of whom were in Arizona that spring, fretted that living arrangements once considered solid were now falling apart.

When the players were handed maps of Milwaukee in the waning days of March, they had reason to be concerned.

"It was very unsettling," catcher Phil Roof remembers. "We didn't know if we were going back to the Northwest or to Milwaukee. So toward the end of spring training we all got together and the determination was made that the wives and children would start caravaning up toward the Canadian border, and when they reached I-90, we would tell them which way to go."

Fortunately for them, word of the move to Milwaukee came just in time. Not that the news was much of a salvation. As the team still trained in Tempe, the wives were left to fend for themselves. Even when players and wives were reunited in the new city, there were too many other demands on the new Brewers' time. One day, right before the start of the season, a public workout drew 35,000 fans into Milwaukee's County Stadium.

Several families set up in motels far from downtown Milwaukee. There are stories of as many as three couples living in one room as everyone scrambled to find a place to live.

Roof's wife, Marie, located an apartment some 20 miles out of town, moving into the same complex as outfielder Mike Hershberger and his wife, Judy.

"And on the day we moved in, the guys left on a road trip," Marie Roof says. "We had nothing with us. We had to put sheets over the windows. For us it just seemed the best thing was safety in numbers. We made Kool-Aid and bologna sandwiches."

Hegan, forced to find a new place in Wisconsin, immediately threw his new home in Bellevue on the market.

"Of course, the reason I was able to get such a great deal on my house in the first place was because some 70,000 people had been laid off at Boeing," he says. "It wasn't so easy selling it again."

It took him two years before he was able to unload the home.

Seattle doomed from start

Looking back, it is easy to see there was no other way the spring of 1970 could end for the Pilots, even if the players didn't realize it until it was too late. History has not treated the Sorianos well, but they were only partially to blame for the failure. So many factors worked against them making major-league baseball work in Seattle.

First, they had to rely on outside investors, namely a Cleveland man named Bill Daley who dropped close to $1 million on the team but soon felt disconnected with the franchise located all the way across the country and panicked at the debt it was building. When this newspaper ran a column lambasting him for being an outsider meddling in local business, topping the piece with a headline that suggested he go back to Cleveland, Daley did exactly that, proclaiming he was through with the Northwest.

The problem was, he was the team's most important investor, with enough capital to finance the franchise for years to come.

Then there was the stadium problem. Plans were in place to build a domed field at Seattle Center; it was the reason the city got the team in the first place. But the project kept running into snags, perhaps a harbinger of ensuing decades, leaving the Pilots looking at at least five years in the rundown Sicks' Stadium, the Class AAA ballpark on Rainier Avenue.

The American League, eager to have a team in Seattle, had been willing to wait until a stadium was built before expanding in the early 1970s. But Kansas City, which had also been awarded an expansion team, was not so patient. It was desperate to replace the A's, who had left for Oakland after the 1967 season. Kansas City already had a usable stadium and wanted to be big-league again. Royals executives called in favors. So when Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington phoned American League President Joe Cronin at 3 a.m. demanding the new teams be admitted for the 1969 season or he would introduce a bill challenging baseball's antitrust exemption, Seattle's fate was cast. Seattle and Kansas City would play in 1969.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The team opened its lone season with workers still pounding nails into the final seats at renovated Sicks' Stadium. Fans did not respond, and the team drew only 650,000 people - less than 10,000 a game.

With losses mounting, the Sorianos met with Selig during the first game of the 1969 World Series. They sat in a room beneath the stands of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium and hammered out an agreement to transfer ownership to the Milwaukee group. Then, for the rest of the winter, potential local buyers appeared and disappeared.

The last real hope, a bid by local businessman Eddie Carlson to run the team as a nonprofit organization, fell a vote short of passing in a poll of American League owners. Kansas City's Ewing Kaufmann, the Pilots' partner in expansion, missed the vote because he had to return to Kansas City to tend to personal business. He would have been the deciding yes vote.

Within days, it was clear the Pilots would not be saved.

Public-relations nightmare

Sears, the public-relations director, left Tempe halfway through the 1970 spring training to begin a publicity campaign for the team in Seattle. That turned into troubleshooting. Every day brought a new rumor, a new clamor for reaction, which was a nightmare for a PR man. He had no answers.

One day, a moving van was spotted outside the stadium. KING-TV raced down with a camera crew hot to capture the breaking story of the team leaving town. It turns out the van was there to transfer a shipment of souvenir bats for a promotion.

"It was a strange time," Sears says. "Nobody knew where in the hell we were going. That made things pretty awkward."

When the team moved, there was almost no time to rewrite history. Along with the 1970 Seattle Pilots went the packages of the 1970 Pilots media guide and the 1970 Pilots yearbook, both fresh from the printers and unable to be changed. Reporters around baseball spent that season covering games featuring the Milwaukee Brewers but using a Seattle Pilots media guide to get information.

On the field, things were just as makeshift. The new owners didn't have time to buy different uniforms, so the Brewers were sent onto the field in their first few days wearing jerseys in which the name "Seattle" had been pulled off and replaced by "Milwaukee." The old Seattle stitching still showed under the new letters.

"We were almost humiliated," Krausse says. "More than anything the whole thing was embarrassing for us - we were the team that went bankrupt."

Recalls Hegan, now a broadcaster with the Indians: "We looked at our uniforms, and they said `Milwaukee', and we said, `Wow,' and for a day we were the story of baseball."

Seattle in state of shock

Back in Seattle, people took the news of a lost baseball team hard. Mike Fuller, a one-time stand-up comic and radio host who has put together a Web site dedicated to the Pilots, was devastated. Just a boy at the time, he still remembers running outside with his friends to play one last game of catch as kids in a big-league city.

They talked about betrayal, of being robbed, of having a team stolen from them and not understanding why.

"I just felt a sadness," he says. "There was this tremendous feeling of having something being taken away from me. I think that's why it stung me years later when the Mariner owners threatened to leave. I really feared some poor kid would feel the same sense of loss as I did."

On Opening Day, as the new Brewers faced 37,000 people in County Stadium, Seattle's business leaders had another celebration. They rented out the ballroom at the Olympic Hotel, set up chairs and pulled out a tablecloth. The team was gone but, by God, they were going to have their season-opening banquet, as scheduled. Twenty people showed up and were handed Pilots caps as door prizes.

Mayor Wes Uhlman said: "I think I should have been invited to throw out the first ball in Milwaukee."

Baseball was gone. And it would take a lawsuit against baseball and another six years to get it back. In the meantime, the players and their former city had a glimpse into the future of professional sports.

The storm clouds had arrived.

And the innocence would be gone forever.

1969 Seattle Pilots

Player, pos Avg HR RBI

Ron Clark, ss .196 0 12

Wayne Comer, of .245 15 54

Tommy Davis, of .271 6 80

John Donaldson, 2b .234 1 19

Mike Ferraro, ph .000 0 0

Gus Gil, inf .222 0 17

Greg Goossen, 1b .309 10 24

Jim Gosger, of .109 1 1

Larry Haney, c .254 2 7

Tommy Harper, of/inf .235 9 41

Mike Hegan, 1b/of .292 8 37

Steve Hovley, of .277 3 20

John Kennedy, ss/3b .234 4 14

Gordon Lund, ss .263 0 1

Jerry McNertney, c .241 8 55

Don Mincher, 1b .246 25 78

Ray Oyler, ss .165 7 22

Jim Pagliaroni, c .264 5 14

Merritt Ranew, c .247 0 4

Rich Rollins, 3b .225 4 21

Dick Simpson, of .176 2 5

Fred Stanley, ss .279 0 4

Sandy Valdespino, of .211 0 2

Frederico Velazquez, c .125 0 2

Jose Vidal, of .192 1 2

Danny Walton, of .217 3 10

Steve Whitaker, of .250 6 13

Bill Williams, of .000 0 0

Pitcher W-L ERA

Jack Aker 0-2 7.56

Dick Baney 1-0 3.86

Steve Barber 4-7 4.80

Dick Bates 0-0 27.00

Gary Bell 2-6 4.70

Jim Bouton 2-1 3.91

Gene Brabender 13-14 4.36

Darrell Brandon 0-1 8.40

George Brunet 2-5 5.37

Bill Edgerton 0-1 13.50

Miguel Fuentes 1-3 5.19

John Gelnar 3-10 3.31

Bob Locker 3-3 2.18

Skip Lockwood 0-1 3.52

Mike Marshall 3-10 5.13

Bob Meyer 0-3 3.31

John Morris 0-0 6.39

John O'Donoghue 2-2 2.96

Marty Pattin 7-12 5.62

Gary Roggenburk 2-2 4.44

Diego Segui 12-6 3.35

Jerry Stephenson 0-0 10.13

Fred Talbot 5-8 4.16

Gary Timberlake 0-0 7.50

Dooley Womack 2-1 2.51

Did you know?

-- Dick Bates, a 23-year-old right-hander, pitched in one game for the Pilots. It was the first, and last, game of his major league career.

-- Gary Timberlake, a 21-year-old left-hander, didn't have much more of a career than Bates. He started two games for the Pilots, throwing six innings. He never made it back to the majors.

-- Miguel Fuentes, a promising 23-year-old pitcher, died in the off-season in a car wreck in Puerto Rico, two weeks before he would have reported to 1970 spring training.

-- Billy Williams, a 36-year-old outfielder, played in four games for the Pilots, going 0-for-10 at the plate. It was the end of his major league career.

-- Mike Ferraro, who later managed the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, appeared in five games, all as a pinch-hitter. He was 0-for-4 with a walk.

-- Diego Segui, the Pilots' opening day starter, also started the first Seattle Mariners game.

-- Ray Oyler, the Pilots' shortstop, was one of the worst hitters in major league history. He hit .165 for the Pilots, and finished his major league career at .175, with 15 home runs. He hit above .200 just once, .207 for the '67 Tigers.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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