Rich Donnelly has come full circle from his 1972 managerial debut with the Greenville Rangers.
He spent several years on Jim Leyland's staff at Pittsburgh and Florida, including the Marlins' 1997 World Series team. After 28 years in the majors, he's now manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones in the New York-Pennsylvania League. The ballpark is located on Coney Island just off the Atlantic Ocean.
Ironically, the radio broadcaster for the Cyclones is Warner Fusselle, who was the radio voice of the Spartanburg Phillies in 1972. Fusselle took some film of Meadowbrook and later used part of it for a feature on ESPN in 1988.
"We were on the bus (to a game at Vermont during the 2011 season) and popped in that tape," Donnelly said. "The kids were dying laughing. I told them 'I want you to appreciate where I managed my first year a long, long time ago.' They couldn't believe it.'
Fusselle said that week's episode also included a segment on Frank Viola – the Cyclones' pitching coach – and then first-base prospect Rico Brogna. It included comments from Brogna's then-manager Frank Magnante. Magnante was the manager at Vermont.
"When I look at that video and I look back, I think 'My Lord, how did we not quit?" Donnelly said. "When I showed that video to the kids we were struggling; we were 9 ½ games out. I showed that video to the kids on the bus ... We won 20 of the next 21 and made the playoffs.
"When they're complaining about everything, I wanted them to see this field," Donnelly said.
Prior to becoming the voice of the Spartanburg Phillies Fusselle worked at a radio station with Marty Brennaman – now with the Cincinnati Reds – and Bob Rathburn – now at Fox Sports South – at the same radio station in Salisbury, N.C.
He replaced John Gordon in Spartanburg. Gordon recently retired after a long career with the Minnesota Twins.
The makeshift press box at Meadowbrook Park was a couple of small rooms built to the first-base side of home plate.
"That press box was a little tiny shack," Fusselle said. "It was very hard to see, because you were on ground level. Things hit to the outfield you couldn't really see that well."
Then, as now, the Reedy River was prone to flooding in that area. Former player Charlie Bordes e-mailed a Polaroid photo himself and teammates Ted Savia and Buddy Caldwell in the dugout in water up to their necks.
"(Team owner) Verner (Ross) called me and said 'you've got to come down here,'" Donnelly said. "The guys were swimming in the outfield.
"I started thinking about it. I wanted to go to Florida to see a friend, so I called off the games for Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Donnelly said. "I went to Florida.
"While I was in Florida I got a call from my pitching coach, Ed Nottle," Donnelly said. "He always wanted to pitch and I wouldn't let him. He called me on Saturday night and said 'Rich, I've got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is you weren't here and we played the game. The water receded. The good news is I pitched, we won 5-2 and I was the winning pitcher. I went seven innings.'
"He was the acting manager; he said the field was too bad for one of these young kids to pitch on, so I'll pitch on it."
Charlie Bordes, who led the Western Carolinas League in batting that season, signed near the end of the first half. "The scout who signed me said 'we need for you get to Greenville, North Carolina," Bordes recalled during a telephone interview from Mesa, Ariz.
"I'm driving up through Atlanta and I'm looking at the map and I said '( North Carolina ) can't be right. Spartanburg, Charlotte, Gastonia (are in the WCL). Greenville, N.C., is way over on the east coast. That's too much travel for one team.
"I tried to call my scout," Bordes said of the pre-cell phone era. "I had to stop along the road on pay phones and all I got was his wife, because he was out on the road. I just took a wild guess and went to Greenville, S.C.
"I went to the gas station – and that time they were still pumping your gas – and I asked the attendant 'Do you know if they have a team here, the Greenville Rangers.' And the guy said in his best southern drawl – and I'm from New Orleans – 'Ahh, I don't know if we have a team or not."
So, I grabbed a newspaper and saw where Greenville lost to Charlotte or something like that, so I knew I was in the right place. I got a room at the Holiday Inn.
"The next day I found (team owner) Verner Ross's tire place and said 'I stayed at the Holiday Inn last night and asked for reimbursement. He said 'Son, that's too much to spend. You should have stayed at the Poinsett Hotel. We have an arrangement there."
Bordes recalled his first meeting with Donnelly. "He said 'I don't have many rules, but I think if you get your hair trimmed people would take a better liking to you. I just had my hair over my ears. It wasn't hippie-long or anything like that.
"The next day was a Monday and most of the barbers were closed," Bordes said. "I went to the Poinsett Hotel and (the haircut) looked like somebody just put a bowl over my head and just white walled me.
"I go into the clubhouse the next day and I hear all this snickering behind my back as I'm walking in, saying 'Yeah, this is the new guy all right.'"
Bordes' son, Brett, pitched for the Delmarva Shorebirds of the Sally League and told his dad about Fluor Field at the West End.
"Ross was the best," Donnelly said. "He used to take us to Charlie's Steak House if we'd have a real rainout. Best steak and french fries I've ever had in my life to this day."
Donnelly lost a teen-aged daughter to a brain tumor in 1993, but her memory endured and led to a touching moment in the Florida Marlins' 1997 World Series victory. The story is available on Youtube.com by searching for "The Chicken Runs at Midnight."
Donnelly said there have been discussions about a movie treatment of the story. "It's one of the greatest stories you'll ever see in your life."
Rudy Jones (Published Feb. 12, 2012)