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Crush Ball

[whitespace] Brian Fox
Michael Amsler

Hard ball: Sonoma County Crushers catcher Brian Fox defends the plate.

Sonoma County Crushers set to defend WBL championship

By Bill English

CATCHERS ARE NOT like the rest of us. Maybe it has something to do with all that crouching or the medieval armor they're forced to wear behind the plate, but your average backstop is a breed apart.

Like a lot of other baseball skippers, Dick Dietz, 57--Sonoma County Crushers manager since 1996--began his career as a catcher. In 1970, Dietz was an all-star for the San Francisco Giants. But the fact that he hasn't caught a major league game in over 25 years hasn't kept him out of the line of fire. On a warm afternoon at Rohnert Park Stadium, Dietz is sporting a new Western Baseball League Championship ring and a fat lip.

The wound is pure catcher damage, puffy and unattended.

"I was just standing by the cage watching batting practice," Dietz explains, "and I caught a foul tip right in the mouth."

Such errant baseball shots must recall fond memories for the Crushers manager. Dietz spent eight years behind the plate in the big leagues with the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves, taking his fair share of abuse.

But glory tends to kill the pain.

Dietz homered in his first all-star game at bat, which he played in with the legendary Pete Rose. Rose, who is banned from major league baseball for life because of a gambling habit, has recently signed on as a batting instructor and celebrity mascot for the Western Baseball League's new Sacramento Steelhead's team. Because the league is independent and has no affiliation with the majors, Rose's appointment is not covered under the ban.

Dietz is quick to defend the former major leaguer. "Pete Rose deserves to be reinstated in major league baseball and placed in the Hall of Fame," Dietz says. "He was a man of limited ability who got it done with a big heart. Rose got a lot of base hits, and I admire him. If the Steelhead owners want to pay him all that money, then they must feel he's worth it. I don't think they could have found a finer guy."

Clearly, old-time baseball dudes stick together.

Dick Dietz
Michael Amsler

Managed care: Ex-Giants catcher Dick Dietz has scored a winner.

Last year the Sonoma County Crushers won the Western Baseball League championship after going undefeated in the playoffs. But much of the team was lost in the off-season, and Dietz, who also serves as the team's general manager, has been busy on the phone in an attempt to plug the holes in his lineup.

Bob Fletcher, owner of the Crushers, says Dietz has the perfect baseball job. As both the field and general manager, Dietz can go out and get the players he wants to work with. He doesn't have to jump through any front-office hoops.

"Dick is our baseball guy," Fletcher says. "And we're on the same page as far as the type of players we want for the Crushers is concerned. We want talent, but we also want fan-oriented players. We're not looking for jerks. For us the fans come first."

Bob and Susan Fletcher are the longest-running original owners in the volatile 5-year-old Western Baseball League. Some of the other teams have folded or changed cities, and, despite the emergence of the Sacramento Steelheads, the number of overall franchises will be reduced this year from eight to six.

Going into his fourth year of service, Dietz also has the longest run as a manager in the league. Both he and Fletcher agree that such stability has helped the team to win. "Dick has built a reputation as an honest manager," Fletcher says. "There are no politics here. If you're the best player, then you'll play. That kind of integrity has allowed us to attract the best players."

Dietz is quick to point out that it's the players, not the management, who win championships. "We lost some of our best players to the big leagues this year," Dietz explains. "That tells you something about the kind of quality we're dealing with here."

THIS YEAR, Crushers pitchers Andy Heckman and Tony Coscia signed on with the San Francisco Giants, pitcher Carlos Crawford went to the Cleveland Indians, and outfielder Al Mealing hooked up with the Colorado Rockies.

But help is on the way.

Former Oakland A's pitcher Steve Wojciechowksi has signed with the Crushers and will join one-time Giant Paul McClellan and Todd Blyleven in the rotation. Last season's Player of the Year, Todd Pridy--who hit .408 and had 21 homers--will return and bring with him some impressive numbers.

"I've got a lot of talent to choose from," Dietz says. "Our reputation allows us to get a first look at most of the guys. They all want to play for the Crushers."

The Crushers open their season Friday, May 21, when they host the Zion Pioneerzz out of St. George, Utah--the other new franchise to join the league this year.

"With two fewer teams in the league, the competition is going to be rougher," Dietz says as he sits in the grandstand and watches his team practice. Then a smile curls his swollen lip. "Now if I can just go out and find a right-handed hitter with power, we'll be all set," he adds with a wink.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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