Stan Fansler stood 60 feet 6 inches away from the picture he had seen countless times while watching Atlanta Braves baseball games on WTBS as a kid growing up in Elkins, West Virginia. There in the batter’s box stood Omar Moreno, while Ken Oberkfell and Dale Murphy loosened up near the on-deck circle.
But this time for Fansler, it was different. Instead of watching the pictures on a television set in the comfort of his home, Fansler was part of the picture as he stood on the pitcher’s mound on September 6, 1986, making his major-league debut on a humid, muggy night in Atlanta as a member of the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I was sweating up a storm, and I was nervous,” Fansler recalled some 25 years after realizing his childhood dream. That dream had been fulfilled four seasons into his professional career, one that began even before he was selected by the Pirates out of Elkins High School in the second round of the 1983 draft.
Born on February 12, 1965, in Elkins, the son of Owen and Carol Fansler, Stan and his brothers, Jimmy and Lonnie, grew up in the community of Crystal Springs on the western edge of Elkins. Lonnie went on to play baseball at hometown Davis & Elkins College, an NAIA school at the time.
As could be expected of a kid whose fastball could regularly top 90 miles per hour, Fansler dominated the high-school landscape. As a sophomore competing in his first year of varsity baseball for the Elkins Tigers, he went 7-1 with 96 strikeouts and a 1.50 earned-run average and earned a spot on the all-Big 10 Conference team. He followed that up with an 11-2 record, 143 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.50. Fansler earned the first of his two conference Player of the Year awards. His second one came in a senior year that saw him go 6-1 with 110 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.20. He also stroked a league-high seven home runs and drove in 23 runs. His .515 batting average was the second best in the league. (Fansler beat out Clarksburg Liberty’s Jimbo Fisher for the Player of the Year honors. After a season of college baseball, Fisher turned his attention to football and went on to succeed Bobby Bowden as the head coach at Florida State University.)
Fansler turned down scholarship offers from Arizona State and Georgia, though he did consider attending Miami-Dade Community College. (No scholarship offer came from “hometown” West Virginia University.) The young right-hander, who had been working out for pro scouts at the conclusion of his senior year in high school, was not offered anything by West Virginia University.
“I wasn’t that much into school,” he said. “I had made up my mind that I was going to go pro. I loved to play baseball, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
The young right-hander, who had been working out for pro scouts at the conclusion of his senior year in high school, attended an invitation-only tryout camp at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh before the ’83 draft. Though he had opportunities to try out elsewhere, his family chose to stick with the Pirates scout who had first noticed Fansler as a sophomore throwing in an American Legion baseball game.
“Scouts hated to come to West Virginia,” said the scout, Doug Robbins, who happened to wander by the game in Bridgeport, West Virginia. “There aren’t too many players. But once word got out about Stan, everybody seemed to find their way there. He had a sinker that was unhittable. I introduced myself to his dad, and I said, ‘Your son is going to pitch in the big leagues one day,’ and his dad looked at me and said, ‘What?’ ”
The Pirates’ selection of Fansler in the second round made him the 34th player taken overall in the 1983 draft, as of 2011 still the highest a high-school player from West Virginia has been drafted. The Pirates took Ron De Lucchi with their first selection that year, and he topped out in the Class A Carolina League. The only other players selected by the Pirates that year to reach the major leagues were pitcher John Smiley, a 12th-round pick, and Steve Carter, a 21st-round selection.
“I would say a reasonable guess would be that Stan is about four years away from the majors,” Pirates assistant director of scouting Joe Neiderer said of Fansler, who signed for $75,000 and was assigned to the Pirates’ Watertown, New York, team in the short-season New York-Pennsylvania League. An 18-year-old who had endured only four losses in high school suddenly saw his success go south as he turned in an 0-10 record with an ERA of 8.05 that summer, though he did strike out 49 in 57 innings. He had relied on a fastball and a changeup until then, because his father would not let him toy with curveballs.
“I didn’t learn to throw a breaking ball until my second year in pro ball,” Fansler said. “I was very raw. I could throw hard. But these guys were the best of the best too. They loved that fastball, the faster the better. The coaches were always encouraging me because I would get down on myself some times. They made it easier to deal with the frustration.”
In 1984 he was again assigned to Watertown, but this time with the newfound knowledge of how to make the ball change directions. Fansler got back on the organization’s radar screen with a 5-1 record, a 2.01 ERA, and two shutouts in his 14 starts. He limited the opposition to just 68 hits in 98 2/3 innings. “I started throwing a sinker, and so I started getting a lot more groundball outs and double plays,” he said.
That increased performance led to a promotion in 1985 to Double-A Nashua, the Pirates’ affiliate in the Eastern League. There, Fansler finished 9-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 24 starts. He tossed two more shutouts, and limited batters to 137 hits in 158-plus innings of work.
“I actually made the Triple-A team coming out of spring training,” he recalled. “But on the last day of spring training, Pittsburgh picked up John Henry Johnson, and that pushed me back to Double-A.” Fansler did earn a late-season promotion to Triple-A, going from the Northeast to sunny Hawaii, where he was 1-0 in three games. In 1986 he returned to the Hawaii team, on which he and his teammates were subjected to a rather strange schedule. “They set it up where we would play 14 or 15 days at home, and then we would fly to the mainland and play for two weeks,” he said. “I didn’t like all the flights, but Hawaii was a dream. It’s a beautiful place. We all stayed at the Outrigger Surf, right in downtown Waikiki. It was a fun experience, but very expensive.” He finished 8-9 with a 3.63 ERA, again limiting opponents to fewer hits than innings pitched. The record was a bit deceiving, considering his season was plagued by hip and back problems which doctors believed were caused by one leg being slightly shorter than the other. The problem was corrected by placing an insert inside one of his shoes. He also battled the winds blowing in from the Pacific Ocean. “If you were pitching to a lefty, you could just throw it up there and let them crush it and the second baseman would catch it,” he said. “But a righty, they would hit a popup, and it’s gone.”
Fansler was one of seven minor leaguers summoned to the Pirates at the end of August as part of the September roster expansion. Fansler said his parents knew of the promotion before he did, probably having heard it on the radio or television broadcast of the Pirates game back in Elkins. After three seasons of riding buses in the low minors and another season of enduring long plane rides and time-zone changes, Fansler reached “The Show” exactly on the schedule predicted by Joe Neiderer, the Pirates’ scouting official.
“It’s what you play for. A lot of people only dream of it,” Fansler said of making the big leagues. “A lot of good players – first-round draft picks – never make it for some reason and the 30th-round guy does.”
He joined the Pirates in Atlanta, where he learned he would be starting on Saturday, September 6, against the Braves. “He has a great arm,” Pirates manager Jim Leyland said of Fansler. “He’s a good individual, and we’re very pleased to have him. I know he’ll do a fine job for us.”
Fansler got out of his debut inning allowing only a walk to Ken Oberkfell, who was erased when Dale Murphy grounded into an inning-ending double play. He recorded his first big-league strikeout to start the second inning, whiffing slugger Bob Horner, and despite giving up two walks, he kept the Braves off the board for the inning by striking out Ozzie Virgil. The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning when Sid Bream doubled and scored on an error.
Fansler surrendered his first big-league hit, a bunt single by Glenn Hubbard, to start the third inning. After an out, walks to Omar Moreno and Oberkfell loaded the bases for Horner. Fansler to this day still believes he had Horner struck out for the second time. But given a second life, Horner launched the baseball over the left-center-field fence for a grand slam. “The pitch before, I threw it on the outside corner, and I thought it was a strike,” Fansler said. “Even Bob Horner thought it was strike three because he started to walk back to the dugout. But the ump [Eric Gregg] called it a ball. I thought I might have been squeezed a little bit. I threw the next pitch right down the middle, and he crushed it.”
Fansler held the Braves scoreless in the fourth inning and was removed for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. He had given up just two hits but surrendered seven walks and took the loss. He returned to the mound a week later, against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh in front of a crowd that included several hundred well-wishers from Elkins. His mound opponent was Greg Maddux, also a brand-new major leaguer. Leyland had decided that Fansler and Bob Patterson would split the pitching duties that day. Fansler allowed four hits in five innings and walked just two batters. When he was lifted after pitching five innings, the game was tied, 2-2. The Pirates went on to win the game, 5-2, but Patterson got the victory. Doug Robbins, the scout who first noticed Fansler and was at the game, felt Fansler had outpitched Maddux, a future 355-game winner.
Fansler’s high-school coach, Dick Casey, said watching Fansler in his home debut “was a good feeling, a feeling I’ll never forget. … On every pitch, it was like I was coaching him. I felt for him on every ball, and I rejoiced with him on every strike. That’s what every kid played sandlot ball for – to get where Stanley is. Seeing it all fall into place for him was my reward. I coached 16 players who went on to play college baseball. They all meant something to me, but this one moment was the ultimate. It was like going to heaven. Stanley was in heaven, but we were there with him.”
In his next start, on September 18 in Montreal, Fansler was pitted against Expos ace Dennis Martinez. He allowed five hits and two walks in six innings and was losing 1-0 when he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh. Pittsburgh rallied in the ninth to win, 3-1. Fansler was tagged with a 3-1 loss on September 26 in Pittsburgh against the New York Mets, who won the World Series that year. He allowed just one earned run in five innings. He faced the Mets again in New York eight days later, getting roughed up for six hits and three runs in four innings in what was his final game in the majors. In his month with the Pirates he went 0-3 with a 3.75 earned-run average in five starts. In that final game he recorded his only big-league hit, a single off Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda.
Fansler was on the Pirates’ 40-man roster going into spring training in 1987, but was assigned to Triple-A Vaancouver. Fansler went 12-7 with a 3.80 ERA, his winningest season in the minors. But he was sent to the Instructional League after the season instead of being recalled to Pittsburgh. Syd Thrift, the Pirates’ general manager, was concerned that Fansler had walked 107 hitters during the season, and he wanted the 22-year-old to work on changing his delivery in an effort to have better control of his pitches. That move proved to be the turning point of his career. “Syd didn’t like it that I threw across my body,” Fansler said. “He wanted me to open up. Jackie Brown (a Pirates’ minor-league pitching coach) said he knew what Syd was going to do, and should have stopped it because that’s when I hurt my arm.”
Fansler split the1988 season between Double-A Harrisburg (4-6, 3.55 ERA) and Triple-A Buffalo (3-7, 5.67 ERA). His baseball card that year with Buffalo showed him as a left-hander, an error the photographer failed to catch. “The picture was taken the day after I had pitched,” he said. “My arm was sore, so I was out shagging flyballs as a lefty.”
His arm problems resulted in two surgeries in 1989, as he found himself going back down the same ladder he had earlier climbed. “I think Syd Thrift ruined him,” said Robbins, the scout. “Stan threw across his body, and by doing that, he had a great, great sinker. Syd wanted to change him. It was “My way or you’re out of here.’ The poor kid had no option but to do what [Thrift] told him. He had a sinker that was practically unhittable. I wish they would have left him alone.”
In 1989 and 1990 Fansler was back in Class A ball in Salem, Virginia, trying to battle his way back up. Over those two seasons, he combined to go 0-8 in 17 starting assignments. “That was tough, but I knew what I was there for,” he said. “Rocky Bridges and Spin Williams knew me, and that’s one of the reasons I went there. I didn’t mind it because it was closer to home. I must have thrown thousands of bullpen [sessions].”
He did work his way back to Double-A in 1991, pitching for the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League, where he was 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA in 19 games. That same year, he married Janie, a former basketball player at Davis & Elkins College. The two have lived in her hometown of Beckley, Vest Virginia, ever since. Fansler pitched again at Carolina in 1992, going 7-12 with a 4.18 ERA and a career-best 107 strikeouts in 140 innings. He was released by the Pirates after the season. His 11-year minor-league career saw him finish 55-73 with a 3.89 ERA. “I had been with Pittsburgh my whole career, and they finally gave up on me,” he said.
After a season out of baseball in 1993, which he spent working for his father-in-law’s company, Fansler was given the opportunity to get back into the game he loved. He was offered a pitching coach’s position with the Gulf Coast League Rangers, the lowest rung on the minor-league ladder for the Texas Rangers organization. He proved he still had a little life left in his arm, throwing six innings of relief over four games late that summer. “That was during the time of the lock-out,” Fansler said. “Tom House was the pitching coordinator for the Rangers, and he kept saying, ‘Your arm still works. Give it a try.’ ”
Fansler moved to the Montreal Expos organization in 1995, taking a job as the pitching coach for the Albany (Georgia) Polecats in the Class A South Atlantic League. For the 1996 season, he was the pitching coach for the Vermont Expos in the New York-Pennsylvania League. With the league’s top pitching staff, the Expos won the league title. Fansler retired from baseball after that season so that he and his wife could start a family under less than nomadic conditions. He returned to his job at American Electric, a company that manufactures high-voltage switches for coal mines and electrical substations. The couple welcomed their first child in 2000 when a son, Hunter, was born. Daughter Kacee was born in 2002.
“I miss [coaching professionally], but not the travel so much,” he said. “That traveling gets old real quick.” He still found time to tutor young players, among them his son’s Little League team. He even learned a lesson as he looked back on those years of playing professional baseball. “I wish I could have made it last longer,” Fansler said. “I tried to throw too hard all of the time,” he said. “You need to stay under control so when you need that extra four or five miles an hour, you have it. I could not have thrown it any harder if I had to.”
November 20, 2011
Personal interview with Stan Fansler, July 16, 2011
Personal interview with Doug Robbins, August 3, 2011
“Fansler Named Player of the Year in Big Ten.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, June 3, 1983
“Stanley Fansler Signs with Pittsburgh Pirates.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, June 9, 1983
“Pirates Call Stan Fansler.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, August 29, 1986
“Stan Fansler Will Start At Atlanta.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, September 3, 1986
“Horner Spoils Fansler’s Debut.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, September 8, 1986.
“Stan Fansler Special to Former Coach.” The Inter-Mountain, Elkins. West Virginia, September 16, 1986
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Cooperstown, New York