Snagging a spot in pro ball

Dick Tess, who's never worn a uniform, is a key player for Major League Baseball teams.

Published April 4, 2007

Yogi Berra was on the phone. Something was wrong with the new pitching machine Dick Tess sold him.

You don't keep a legend waiting. Tess flew immediately from St. Petersburg to New York, caught a cab to Shea Stadium, and pointed out to Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees who at the time was managing the crosstown rival Mets, that the machine wasn't broken, just set incorrectly.

Coming from the clubhouse, Tess was mobbed by Mets fans wanting his autograph. He was in his late 20s and could easily pass for a shortstop or leftfielder.

He insisted he wasn't with the team. But these were New York fans. They insisted he was.

So somewhere out there are a dozen or so baseballs signed by Tug McGraw, Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones and ... Dick Tess.

"Thirty-five years later," Tess said, "people are probably still wondering, 'Who the heck is this Dick Tess guy?' "

His name can't be found in any box score, but there's a saying in sports about leaving everything on the field. That's what Tess has done.

Out of a 14,000-square-foot workshop off Ulmerton Road in Clearwater, Tess runs what may be the last family-owned baseball field accessories business in America.

Tess Enterprises - which consists of Dick, wife Sharon and their son Rich - sells and installs residential and commercial batting cages, pitching machines, and the screens and netting that stop balls from beaning spectators or players. They sell similar netting for golf courses.

The net result is on display at Legends Field, Progress Energy Park, Shorecrest Preparatory, the University of South Florida, Palm Harbor High, Huggins-Stengel Field and in hundreds of other diamonds, driving ranges and backyards.

That screen over the 10,000-gallon Touch Tank beyond the centerfield fence at Tropicana Field that protects fans who pet the rays during a Rays game? Dick and Rich put that up.

The script should read that Tess was a former major leaguer who parlayed his contacts to became a major vendor.

But the closest he came to the big leagues were the Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron baseball cards he collected while growing up on a farm near Colgate, Wis., about 30 miles from Milwaukee.

His love of machinery led him to a job with Earl Halstead, inventor of the Tru Pitch pitching machine. Unlike machines that use a mechanical arm, the Tru Pitch delivers the ball by shooting it between two rubber wheels placed close together. By varying the speed of one or both wheels, the machine can throw fastballs, curves, sliders and knuckleballs.

Halstead sent Tess to St. Petersburg in 1971 to push the product in Florida, and seven years later, Tess bought the company and added batting cages, screens and other products to the line.

Every February, he would visit all the major league clubs in the state and get the equipment ready for spring training. But large national companies, including Jugs and ATEC, began to chip away at his business.

"As the older fellas passed away, the loyalty kind of passed away, too," said Tess, 61, referring to the team officials he did business with. "You can't blame the kids coming in. They're looking for the best deal.

"But the Internet hurt us more than anything because of the variety of things offered and so many imports."

That's not to say the company is hurting. Although he relies mostly on word-of-mouth advertising, Tess is booked solid until July.

"All the local teams still go to Dick because he has a different touch that's hard to find today," said Eckerd College baseball coach Bill Mathews, another Tess client. "I'm convinced that's why he kept the family business going so long even though there are much bigger companies out there.

"He doesn't just hand you stuff in a box. He and his son set it up and they shoot the breeze. My guys love listening to his stories."

Like the one about the autographs outside Shea Stadium.

"I never made a big salary," Tess said with a smile. "But I sure had a good time."

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or 727 893-8247.


A heavy-hitting lineup of clients

Among the Major League Baseball teams Tess Enterprises has installed equipment for their spring training sites are the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets.

Among the college teams are the University of South Florida, Eckerd College, University of Tampa, St. Leo University and the University of Louisville.