Roger Kahn’s 1972 classic, The Boys of Summer, a nostalgic chronicle of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their teams of the 1950s, elevated him to the heights of baseball journalism. But his love for baseball even surpassed writing about it; “I enjoyed the illusion that the game belonged to nine-year-old right fielders and poets.”1 And after an assault by a pair of muggers outside his Manhattan apartment in 1981 left him with an injured neck, tingling hand, and arm pain that made it too painful to use a typewriter, he began a quest that led him to invest $15,000 and become president of the independent Utica Blue Sox (short-season Class Low-A, New York-Pennsylvania League) for the 1983 season.2
The Blue Sox franchise was the remnant of the Toronto Blue Jays’ affiliate that had represented Utica in the New York-Penn League (NYPL) from 1977 through 1980. Minor-league baseball entrepreneur Miles Wolff kept an independent franchise going through the 1981 and 1982 seasons; Kahn came aboard as an investor and president for 1983.3
After assessment, Kahn thought the Blue Sox would be better named the Ragtags. “They had not become independent on ideological and practical grounds, like the thirteen colonies two hundred years before. They were independent because no major league organization wanted to claim them.”4 At least he was inheriting a manager who had experienced the Utica situation — Jim Gattis, 31, a college third baseman whose own minor-league career had been sidetracked when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a fractured skull.5 Gattis, to whom “baseball was [his] joy, his discipline, his drug,” had been managing the Blue Sox since Wolff took over in 1981.6
Kahn also had a pitching coach with extensive major-league experience in Bob Veale, a two-time National League All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates,7 and a returning general manager in Joanne Gerace.8 Personnel director Van Schley, in place since 1981, was also back; he, Gerace, and Gattis assembled the 1983 team with little input from Kahn.9
Because most of the Blue Sox had been cast off from other organizations, they tended to be older than players on the affiliated teams. Early-season derision throughout the league became vocal irritation about “dangerous ringers” and “overly experienced players” as the team remained competitive through the season.10 As a result the Blue Sox were “motivated by the feeling that the entire league was against them.” The attitude of the affiliated clubs was “how dare you win with the players we let you have?”11
At 29, Barry Moss was the oldest of the Blue Sox. The switch-hitting infielder was a seventh-round draft choice of the San Francisco Giants in 1972 and had been to spring training with the powerful Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s. He had reached as high as Triple A in 1977, but by 1981 was content to leave a lucrative real estate business in California to join his boyhood friend Gattis in Utica.12 Moss filled the combined roles of everyday designated hitter, occasional corner infielder/outfielder, and hitting coach, while helping Gattis mentor the younger Blue Sox. He was also the object of some of the rest of the league’s disdain about overly experienced players, turning in a .359/.458/.601 offensive line in 1983.13
The Blue Sox established an early-season lead in their division, then stumbled — “the season without a day off was grinding on all of us,” Kahn admitted — but by August 25, with the end of the short-season schedule looming, were tied for first place with the Little Falls Mets.14 But Utica’s poorly draining Murnane Field15 cost the team a rainout against the Watertown Pirates on August 31 in the Blue Sox’ last scheduled home game. Little Falls played and won, moving a half-game ahead of Utica in the league’s Yawkey Division.16 The tight schedule meant Utica’s game would not be played.
Complicating the situation further, Utica had to finish the season at Watertown with completion of an earlier suspended game and a regularly scheduled doubleheader on September 1, then the last game of the season on September 2. Little Falls, with its half-game lead, had two road games against the Oneonta Yankees left.17 And when the suspended Utica-Watertown game went 12 innings, September 1 became essentially a tripleheader for the Blue Sox.
Utica stayed a half-game behind when the Blue Sox won the suspended game but split18 the doubleheader while Little Falls won at Oneonta on September 1. The divisional pennant came down to the final day of the season, Friday, September 2; if Little Falls handled 31-44 Oneonta, it would make no difference what Utica did at 21-54 Watertown.
Utica’s must-win game was, like most NYPL contests, a night affair. The site was Watertown’s Alex Duffy Stadium, where 3,632 fans gathered to see what would happen to Utica’s dream.19 Pirates manager Bill Bryk started Rich Sauveur, “a damn slick, skinny left-hander,” in Kahn’s estimation.20 Gattis was set with Roy Moretti, a 27-year-old Canadian native cast off by both the Oakland and San Diego organizations. The slender righty had been the mainstay of Utica’s bullpen through the season, but he had the arm durability as well as the closer mentality to handle crucial spot starts when needed. Gattis got the benefit of his own experience and kept Moss’s veteran bat in the lineup by putting himself in the lineup as designated hitter, only his eighth appearance of the season.21
“The early evening air was cool and clear. It would get cold,” Kahn reported.22 Utica manufactured a run in the top of the first against Sauveur when Rocky Coyle led off with a single, then stole second base. Gattis, batting second, “made a lunging swing and hit a bounder to the second baseman” to advance Coyle to third base. After Ed Wolfe rolled back to the mound and Coyle held, Moss hit a sharp shot to third base that Watertown’s Jim Eurton, playing only his second game of the season there, stopped but threw away. Coyle scored on the error.23
Moretti was “commanding on the mound,” and “worked quickly in the urgent chill.”24 He notched two strikeouts in the first inning and another in the second, when he yielded a harmless bloop single to Felix Fermin.25 The Blue Sox added a run in the fourth inning. Brian Robinson led off with a single and sufficiently distracted Sauveur with his lead that he balked Robinson to second base. Don Jacoby singled Robinson to third; he scored on a sacrifice fly by Mark Krynitsky.
Meanwhile, “Moretti was performing magnificently.”26 He got two more strikeouts in the fifth inning, struck out the side in the sixth, and fanned two more in the eighth. “Going into the ninth, inning, Roy had himself a two-hit shutout and our 2-0 lead looked lovelier than spring.”27
But with two outs in the ninth inning, Moretti made a mistake. Fred Yoder28 “whipped his bat into a high fast ball and slammed it 400 feet over the center-field wall. There was a moment of shock.” Kahn writes that he “bellowed” to Moretti to “forget it; all you gotta do is get the next man.” Moretti calmly did, on a groundball to shortstop, and “we had won another ball game that we could not afford to lose.”29
The 2-1 win kept the Blue Sox alive, and baseball fate swung their way; Oneonta ran up an improbable 7-0 lead against Little Falls and held on to win, 7-5.30 That flipped the half-game to Utica and gave the Blue Sox the Yawkey Division pennant, sending them to the best-of-three games NYPL championship series against the Newark Orioles. Both teams had finished 48-26, although Newark had a comfortable 10-game edge on the second-place Jamestown Expos.
The NYPL’s game-a-day grind continued without a break as Newark won the first game at Utica on Saturday. The Blue Sox were once again facing elimination as the series moved to Newark for the Sunday game and, the Blue Sox hoped, the third game on Monday.
On Sunday, Gattis started Mike Zamba on two days’ rest. He gave up two runs in the first inning; Utica tied the game 2-2 in the top of the second. Zamba held on until, with Newark runners on first and third and one out in the fourth, Gattis once again called on Moretti to relieve, on a single day of rest. Moretti got out of that jam and, as Utica scratched out two more runs in the top of the ninth, finished the game by striking out the side, sealing a 4-2 win for the Blue Sox. Over 5⅔ innings of elimination-game pressure Moretti struck out eight and didn’t allow a hit. Kahn said he had an arm “that belonged in the Museum of Natural History.”31
There less drama in the winner-take-all final on Labor Day, September 5; Moretti even got some rest. James Wright (1-2, 4.32, in only three starts during the regular season) pitched a five-hit shutout as the Blue Sox coasted, 7-0, taking the 1983 NYPL title.32 Kahn’s “magical, conquering team was suddenly history.”33
Sources and acknowledgments
In addition to the specific sources cited in the Notes I used the Baseball-Reference.com website for general information and the B-R Minor League Encyclopedia for details on the 1983 Utica Blue Sox, the 1983 Watertown Pirates, and the 1981-1983 New York-Pennsylvania League. The StatsCrew.com website was also useful for information on standings and league leaders.
My SABR colleague Kurt Blumenau provided digital scans of newspaper articles not available through Newspapers.com. He was able to locate a box score for this game which, unfortunately, was so blurred in its digitized state to be essentially illegible. Roger Kahn’s book about the 1983 Utica Blue Sox remedied that with sufficient play-by-play details to make this account possible. I extend my appreciation to Kurt and to the memory of Roger Kahn, who passed away in February 2020.
1 Roger Kahn, Good Enough to Dream (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1985), 71. The book recounts Kahn’s search to experience baseball in the low minor leagues, culminating with his presidency of the 1983 Utica Blue Sox, the Blue Sox’ season, an improbable division pennant, and a league championship.
2 The StatsCrew.com league summary page has a useful overview of the geography and team affiliations of the 1983 NYPL. All the teams were in New York State except the Erie, Pennsylvania, club. https://www.statscrew.com/minorbaseball/l-NYPL/y-1983, accessed May 7, 2021.
3 Kahn was initially interested in taking on an expansion franchise the NYPL was considering for Cooperstown, New York, and later signed on briefly with the Mets’ Sally League affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina. Both fell through — Cooperstown because of the absence of lights at Doubleday Field; Columbia because Kahn “wanted a situation where I ran the club instead of taking orders from the major league front office.” Scott Pitoniak, “Writer Roger Kahn Heads Utica Club,” The Sporting News, June 20, 1983: 52.
4 Kahn, 96-97. Of the 12 NY-P teams in 1983, only Utica was not affiliated with a major-league club. In fact, the Blue Sox were the only independent team in minor-league baseball in 1983. Paul Lomeo, “Grist for the Kahn Book Mill,” The Sporting News, September 19, 1983: 25.
5 Kahn, 98. Gattis was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the third round of the June 1972 draft, but did not sign. https://www.baseball-reference.com/draft/?year_ID=1972&draft_round=3&draft_type=junsec&query_type=year_round, accessed May 9, 2021.
6 Kahn, 99.
7 Veale had a 120-95 record in 13 major-league seasons pitching for the Pirates and Boston Red Sox.
8 Kahn describes Gerace as “thirty-one, single, attractive, Catholic, liberated, and one of only two women to be employed as a general manager in American professional baseball during 1983.” Kahn, 45. She inspired the title of Kahn’s book when, standing in the “drying mud and shaggy weeds” of Murnane Field with him before the season, Kahn asked her if the players returning for 1983 were really major-league prospects: “How good are they?” Gerace pondered for a moment. “Then she said, ‘They’re good enough to dream.’” Kahn, 102.
10 Kahn, 199. Gattis, who managed the first independent Blue Sox team in 1981, brought them home comfortably over .500 in both of his first two seasons. Using older, experienced players that organizations had found wanting, Kahn and Gattis took a positon that traditional baseball people found “suspect” and “fraudulent.” “We were out to win the pennant at all costs.” Kahn, 199.
12 Kahn, 17.
13 Utica second baseman Don Jacoby, a castoff from the St. Louis Cardinals organization, was only 23, but had an even better season. With a .386 batting average, he missed winning the league title by one point. Teammate Rocky Coyle was third at .381. Moss’s .359 was good for only fourth. The 1983 NYPL league batting average was only .261. Utica hit .313 as a team.
14 Kahn, 285.
15 The ballpark, substantially upgraded from Kahn’s days in Utica, is now called Donovan Stadium at Murnane Field. It still hosts the Utica Blue Sox, but the team is now a member of the 15-team Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. See https://www.uticabluesox.net/, accessed May 8, 2021.
16 Kahn, 316-317.
17 “Pennant on the Line,” Auburn (New York) Citizen, September 2, 1983: 13.
18 Utica lost the first game, 4-3, then won the second game, 8-4. “Pennant on the Line.”
19 “A Last Chance — and Sox Win It,” Auburn (New York) Daily Press, September 3, 1983: S1.
20 Kahn, 324. In 1983, his first season in professional baseball, Sauveur, 19, was 7-5 with a 2.31 ERA for a club that finished 34 games under .500. He made the majors with the 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates. He won 91 minor-league games but never got a major-league win in six seasons. Sauveur, “a baseball lifer,” pitched in the minors until 2000 and then became a minor-league pitching coach. Rich Sauveur entry, BR Bullpen, Baseball-Reference.com, accessed May 12, 2021.
21 Gattis had pinch-hit occasionally during the season.
22 Kahn, 325.
23 Play-by-play details are from Kahn, 325-327.
24 Kahn, 326.
25 Fermin, one of only four players from either team to reach the majors — all were from Watertown; none of the 1983 Blue Sox ever got the call — played in 903 games over a 10-year career in both the NL and AL.
26 Kahn, 327.
27 Kahn, 327.
28 Kahn’s recollection differs from a contemporary news account of the game, and the unavailability of a completely legible box score complicates the situation. An Associated Press story in the Salamanca (New York) Press (September 3, 1983: 6) reports that Fred Yoder hit the Watertown home run. Kahn recalls that it was hit by Ron DeLucchi, a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1983 draft who was in his first season of professional baseball and having a decent (.255, 6 HR, 30 RBIs) season with Watertown. Yoder, who had started the 1983 season in High-A, played most of 1983 with Watertown and hit nine home runs. The author chooses to accept the contemporary report against Kahn’s recollection. It may well be that Kahn saw only a 400-foot home run and his team’s season in jeopardy in the “moment of shock” and, writing two years later, cared little for the identity of the batter. Further, the blurred box score is sufficiently legible to ascertain that the only Watertown player with a hit, run scored, and RBI had a name with five letters, commencing with “Y. It also fails to indicate any Watertown player with a name as long as DeLucchi commencing with a “D.”
29 Kahn, 327. Moretti struck out 12, gave up three hits, walked only one, and pushed his combined relief-starting record to 7-2 for the season. He led the league with 10 saves and 116 strikeouts, and his 2.19 ERA was second best in the 1983 NYPL. But he never caught on with a major-league organization and finished his professional baseball career at age 28, still in Class A, with Hagerstown of the Carolina League in 1984.
30 The Little Falls-Oneonta game was still in progress when Utica won. The Blue Sox listened to the final innings through a telephone link to a radio broadcast picked up in Utica.
31 Kahn, 338-340.
32 “Newark Bows to Utica in Championship Series,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, September 6, 1983: 24.
33 Kahn, 350.
Utica Blue Sox 2
Watertown Pirates 1
Alex Duffy Stadium
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