-
Thursday, September 16, 2021

OPINION:

When Stan Cliburn was a 21-year-old kid from Jackson, Mississippi, playing Class A ball in the California League, he faced a team managed by a man named Stan Wasiak, who had been managing since 1950 and had 2,000 wins on his resume.

Cliburn marveled at that accomplishment — and Wasiak wasn’t done yet. By the time he left the dugout in 1986, Wasiak had managed 4,844 games and won 2,530 of them — the most in minor league history.


“I told myself that if somehow I ever wind up managing in the minor leagues, my goal would be to get to 2,000 wins like Stan Wasiak,” said Cliburn, who’s now 64.

He’s getting closer.

Last week, Cliburn won his 1,800th game as a minor league manager, leading the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs to a doubleheader sweep over the York Revolution. He’s managed 3,631 games total, and those numbers have him on the brink of cracking the all-time top 25 for minor league managers.

The road for Cliburn began 29 years ago in Watertown, New York, and it has gone through towns like Augusta, Georgia; Salem, Virginia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Alexandria, Louisiana.; Davenport, Iowa.; Rochester, and other cities — all the way to Waldorf, Maryland.

“That is quite a lot of years of dedication to minor league baseball,” Cliburn said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

And he is hoping to lead the Blue Crabs to the Atlantic League playoffs and perhaps win his seventh minor league championship. “We’re battling for a playoff spot,” Cliburn said. “We got a great bunch of guys here.”

Cliburn was once one of those “great bunch of guys” managers refer to when he was a minor league catching prospect for the California Angels, a fifth-round selection in the 1974 draft. He may have seen himself one day in the dugout as a manager, but he intended on becoming a major league catcher.

He had his moment, in 1980, playing 54 games for the Angels, with teammates like Rod Carew and Don Baylor. But coming off an American League West title the year before and the departure of free agent pitcher Nolan Ryan, the Angels struggled that year with a 65-95 record.

Cliburn was a defensive replacement behind the plate, but he remembers the two home runs he had — one against Ross Grimsley and the other against Jerry Koosman. And that was the end of Cliburn’s major league career.

He would be sent back down and spend the rest of his playing career — 517 more games, some of them with Triple A Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League. “I spent a lot of years at Triple A and a lot of those years in Hawaii,” he said. “Being in Hawaii wasn’t a bad place to play minor league ball.

“I was fortunate enough to play 14 years, most of those at Triple A, but those 14 years were worth every bit of it for the chance to play that one year in the major leagues,” Cliburn said.

He would get his start managing with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and it was there where he managed a hotshot college slugger who couldn’t make the transition to professional baseball.

“Tim Wakefield was my first baseman in Watertown in 1988,” Cliburn said. “He really couldn’t get used to the wooden bats, so we turned him into a knuckleball pitcher, and the rest is history.”

That “history” was a major league pitching career with the Pirates and Boston Red Sox, two World Series championships and 200 major league victories.

He (Wakefield) was a big hitter in college, but he could never get used to that wooden bat,” Cliburn said. “He was always messing around with that knuckleball during infield practice. I used to get on him all the time, ‘Timmy, you’re a first baseman, throw the ball straight.’ He asked us to send him to extended spring training so he could work on throwing that knuckleball, and we did that.”

Cliburn has seen a lot over his years in the minors. One day sticks in his mind — Sept. 10, 2001.

“I was managing New Britain, and we were playing the Norwich Navigators,” Cliburn said. “Michael Cuddyer hit a walk-off home run for us in that game that put us in the Eastern League championship game against the Reading Phillies.

“We had a pitcher named Brad Thomas from Australia who had just gotten engaged,” Cliburn said. “He was scheduled to fly out the next morning on Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles.”

American Airlines Flight 11 would wind up hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

“If Michael Cuddyer does not hit that home run, Brad Thomas and his fiancée are flying out the next morning on Flight 11,” Cliburn said.

“Hitting that home run put us in the championship, but it also saved the life of one of his teammates. Brad showed me the ticket the next morning. He said, ‘Stan, look at this. If we’re not playing today, Kylie and I are on this flight that just flew into the World Trade Center.’”

Cuddyer would go on to be a two-time All-Star for the Minnesota Twins and the Colorado Rockies.

“They once asked Cuddyer what was the most memorable home run he ever hit,” Cliburn said. “And he said it wasn’t a major league home run. It was the home run he had the night of Sept. 10 in New Britain Connecticut because it saved the life of one of his teammates.

“That’s something you never forget.”

Cliburn’s baseball journey has seen the memorable and the forgettable.

It’s a journey only a handful of men in baseball have made. It continues with a group of young players who haven’t been on this earth as long as Cliburn has been roaming minor league dugouts — and plans on continuing to do so.

Stan Wasiak awaits.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.


Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.