By Bob Elliott
TAMPA, Fla. _ As the Blue Jays near the half-way point of their exhibition schedule you have two choices.
These are either the dog days or the story time telling days of spring.
Stump Merrill, 72, the former New York Yankees manager, was telling the one about managing the Nashville Sounds in the 1980 double-A Southern League playoffs.
The opponents were the Memphis Chicks, a Montreal Expos farm club, managed by legendary pitching coach Larry Bearnarth.
“Memphis had all these fast guys, we’re playing for the marbles, our grounds keeper comes over and asks ‘hey skip, want me to wet it down at first?” Merrill said before the Yankees hosted the Blue Jays.
Merrill said yes since Memphis led the loop with 187 steals.
That would slow down the speedsters.
The hose came out. Water was poured onto the first base path at Herschel Greer Stadium in Nashville.
“Larry takes a look at it and asks ‘Stump might you be bringing me an iced tea and an umbrella if I am going to sit on the beach?’” laughed Merrill.
Memphis had Tony Johnson who stole 60 bases, plus Tony Phillips (50 steals), Mike Gates (23), Glenn Franklin (13) and future super agent Pat Rooney (10) were all in double figures. We remember them all except we don’t recall Rooney being so fast.
“One of their guys gets on and the diamond is soaked,” Merrill said. “Larry complained. They cart off seven wheel barrows of slop and mud. Seven!”
Memphis had future major leaguers in Brad Mills, Wallace Johnson, Terry Francona, Bryn Smith, Charlie Lea and Joe Hesketh to finish 83-61.
“Our club was OK,” deadpanned Merrill, whose team went 97-46. “We had Brad Gulden behind the plate, Steve Balboni at first, Pat Tabler at second, Brian Dayett at third, Rafael Santana at short, with Willie McGee and Ted Wilborn in the outfield.”
Besides the Jays broadcaster at second, ex-Jays Don Cooper and Tom Filer pitched for Merrill along with Andy McGaffigan, eventually an Expo.
Merrill said the greatest compliment he ever received came from north of the border, when former Montreal farm director Jim Fanning stopped by.
“Jim told me ‘Stump when I evaluate our players, I come to see them play against your team -- your guys play the right way,’” said Merrill, his chest sticking out a little.
Memphis beat Merrill’s Nashville team 3-1 in the best-of-five semi-final, but lost to the Charlotte O’s and Cal Ripken in the 1980 final.
Balboni earned MVP, McGaffigan pitcher of the year and Merrill Southern League manager of the year.
Merrill’s Nashville teams was selected 69th on Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright’s top 100 minor-league teams to celebrate 100 years of minor league ball.
A close friend with Brian Butterfield, the former Jays coach, Merrill played for coach Jack Butterfield with the Maine Black Bears.
“Second year I couldn’t afford school so I lived with the Butterfields,” he said. “He was standing on a box to see the pool table ... and he beat me. He’s like a son.”
Of course, one can never stop with one Bearnarth story. Managing class-A West Palm Beach in 1978, he had a team meeting on the first trip to St. Petersburg, a few miles away from his home in Seminole.
Bearnarth asked for a little extra against the Cards farm team since his wife, children and relatives were coming to see him manage for the first time.
Hal Lanier, who now manages the Ottawa Champions, was running St. Pete’s. Tito Landrum was on his way to swiping 68-bases. And the way Bearnarth tells it, they were still stealing in the eighth when the score was 21-3. A no-no, according to baseball etiquette.
Bearnarth had a post-game meeting, chewed out his team, headed to the manager’s office and slammed the door.
Later there was a knock.
“Mr. Bearnarth, I wanted to tell you that you will not be embarrassed tomorrow,” said Bill Gullickson, 19, who beat the first-place Cards with a three-hit shutout, striking out 16 in a 2-0 win.
And in 1983, Clifford Young out of Willis, Tex. (Pop: 2,100) was the best arm on the staff during instructional league workouts. So, Young was selected to pitch first when the hitters stepped into the batting cage at West Palm. The protective L screen was set up in front of the mound and Young went to work.
After five pitches - three which missed the cage altogether and two which bounced - Bearnarth rushed to the mound to see what the problem was after Young had been so dominant in the bullpen.
“Mr. Bearnarth,” drawled Young, “I never done throwed from behind a fence before.”
Bearnarth died New Year’s Eye 1999.
There are still a few around like Merrill who remember the good ones.
Others in the top 100 teams: The 1921 Toronto Maple Leafs (108-46) with Hall of Famer Hugh Duddy, Andy Anderson and Eddie Onslow were 21st.
Next were the 1926 Leafs (109-57) with Jess Doyle, Claude Satterfield, Mickey Heath. Ownie Carroll and Jim Faulkner were 39th.
The 1918 Leafs (88-39) were 45th with Fred Lear, Robert Heck, Fred Herche and Harold Justin.
The 1902 Leafs (85-42) were 76th with Buttons Briggs, Duke Esper, Yenser Weidensaul and Lou Bruce.
And the 1960 Leafs (100-54) with Al Cicotte, Riverboat Smith, Steve Ridzik, Ron Negray, Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, Steve Demeter, Jim King and Tim Thompson were 87th.