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    Glory days

    He spent nine seasons in the big leagues and still holds the major league record for saves in a season. But these days, Bobby Thigpen's athletic exploits take place on a softball field in St. Petersburg.

    By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 24, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- So it's come down to this.

    Bobby Thigpen played major league baseball in front of 30,000 people at Comiskey Park in Chicago, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and at dozens of other big league parks. He earned slightly more than $10-million during his nine-year career, and he got all the perks: four months off every year, the finest gloves and shoes for free and expert medical care.

    Reporters sought him out for interviews, and kids begged for his autograph.

    Now -- on a chilly Wednesday night in mid October -- as the Giants and Angels play the World Series, Thigpen is playing third base at Woodlawn Park. He has temporary use of one of the mailbox-sized wood cubby holes in a dugout that has a tin roof, an aluminum bench and no walls. If you speak to it gently, the drinking fountain works. Sometimes.

    The single metal grandstand is empty. As usual. There is an occasional roar from the outfield, but it's from the traffic on I-275.

    Thigpen's team, the Crows, is losing to the Outsiders in a men's C league slow pitch softball game. But there is hope. Thigpen has just driven in a run with a line drive single down the leftfield line.

    "If he didn't have a (bad knee), he could have made it to second," says a teammate on the bench.

    "Hey!" another player replies. "He's got one good one, doesn't he? That's enough. Should have been on third."

    The bench jockeys laugh, but it's going to be another long night for the Crows. Although Thigpen gets three hits and drives in four runs, the Crows lose again -- this time 18-12.

    "Our team is probably ... how do I put this ... " Thigpen pauses and looks out at the field. "They're a great bunch of guys. We're out here to just have a good time. Don't get me wrong. We want to win. It's just that it's at the bottom of the list."

    This is a long way from Comiskey Park.

    Thigpen smiles.

    "Yeah, it is," he says. "But in a lot of ways, this is just as good."

    * * *

    Bobby Thigpen learned to play baseball on a field like this in Jefferson County in the Florida Panhandle. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1986 and got good in a hurry. He saved 16 games his second season and 34 in his third and fourth.

    But something happened in 1990. Thigpen had a season that bordered on miraculous. Although he finished with a 4-6 record, he saved 57 games, a major league record that still stands.

    Injuries eventually cost him his 95 mph fastball. He left the White Sox, played in Japan and in 1996 got one last chance to resurrect his career. But less than a month into the season, while pitching in Nashville, his comeback was over.

    "I threw a ball, and I felt it," he says. "My back just started burning. Like if you put Red Hot on it. I threw one more inning, walked off the field, and two weeks later had surgery.

    "That was it."

    Thigpen had a displaced vertebra. At age 32, he was finished.

    But as many injured or aging athletes find out, there's always softball. And sometimes you can go back to when playing ball was fun.

    It doesn't matter now that the crowds and the attention and the money are gone. That some nights it's so hot and the air is so still that he's wringing wet before the first pitch. That his knees ache or his back stiffens up or one of his teammates misses the cut-off man. It's okay.

    "See, I've been playing with these guys a long time," Thigpen says. "I even played when I was playing. Because we had spring training in Sarasota, I commuted every day. If I didn't have a game, I'd be the designated hitter.

    "It's getting on the field. It's putting in a chew and getting out there and sitting with the guys. Wednesday is a night we all look forward to."

    At first, hardly anyone on the other teams knew who he was. But word spread quickly that the Crows had the major league save leader on their team.

    "Guys go up and talk to him now and then," said teammate Jim Fischer, a St. Petersburg trial attorney who has been on the team for 20 years. "But it's not a big deal. They don't intentionally walk him all the time. Sometimes someone will ask him for an autograph, and he always signs."

    The Crows started as a group of law school students in 1976, and have played in the league ever since. Among the former players are federal Magistrate Tom McCoun; and circuit Judges Philip Federico, Mark Shames and Peter Ramsberger.

    But the boys are showing their age. Second baseman Doug Williamson had to get a pacemaker, and Fischer had operations on both knees and is undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. Yet they play on.

    "Those guys . . . " Thigpen says as he shakes his head and smiles. "Whenever I'm about to complain about some little ache or pain, I think about them."

    * * *

    Time seems to fly now. Thigpen's two children, ages 12 and 10, are growing up too fast. But life is good. He didn't squander the money he made, so there's no need for a 9-to-5 job. He is the pitching coach at Shorecrest Preparatory. He plays golf and fishes. And he waits for Wednesday nights.

    It's been said that more than the money, many pro athletes miss the cheers of the crowd when they retire. The adulation.

    "It is tough when you first get out," Thigpen says. "Everything about being a big league baseball player is all good. Then, all of a sudden, it's over. They don't wean you out.

    "But it doesn't bother me. I never wanted to stand out. I just want to be one of the guys.

    "I'm 39. I'm not as flexible as I used to be, and I can't move as well. But as long as I can stay active, I'll be here when I'm 59."

    When the last out is made, the players disappear into the darkened parking lot. Some are going to a sports bar, some are headed home.

    They'll all be back next week.

    "I'm gonna miss when the guys I play with now aren't able to play anymore," Thigpen says. "That would be more depressing than not playing myself.

    "It's just not going to be the same when they're not here."

    Save rule

    Bobby Thigpen saved 201 games in his nine-year career, including a major league record 57 in 1990. A pitcher is credited with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:

    1. He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team.

    2. He is not the winning pitcher.

    3. He qualifies under one of the following conditions: (a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning. (b) He enters the game -- regardless of the count -- with the potential tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck. (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings.

    -- Source: Major League Baseball

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