It’s a summer pastoral that you don’t see when you buy tickets to a major-league ballpark: a manager standing at the top step of the dugout, flipping his batting helmet before running out to take his spot in the third-base coach’s box; the team’s PR guy on the field, announcing birthdays of season-ticketholders and the winners of giveaway t-shirts; and, yeah, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” blaring over the public address. It’s minor-league baseball, a distinctly separate entity from the major-league game. In this case, it’s the Williamsport Crosscutters hosting the Tri-City ValleyCats at historic Bowman Field, a ballpark that dates back to 1926, the second-oldest diamond in the minors.
This little vignette of small-town Americana has played out here not hundreds of times, not thousands of times, but hundreds of thousands, and featured not just minor-league affiliates and independents, but Negro League barnstorming teams and, of course, Little League teams, given that Williamsport is the original and permanent home of the Little League World Series. From the cheap seats on the first-base side, you can look out over West 4th St. and see the diamonds where the first ever Little League games were played back in ’39.
Everything is what you’d imagine save one thing: That manager waiting to run out on the field, the one who flipped his helmet 10 times in a row without once glancing at it, is Pat Borders, who played on MLB’s biggest stages, who won baseball’s biggest prizes, who stuck around the major leagues into his 40s, hard to imagine at any position, impossible at his — catcher.
With the Blue Jays in their salad days in the early ’90s, Borders played in front of sellout home crowds of 50,000 and national television audiences every night, never mind the millions who watched the World Series when the major leagues were booming. This Friday night the announced attendance is 2,357, just short of a sellout and really a pretty remarkable number in a town of 29,000. The New York-Penn League’s member franchises are abandoning towns for big cities, so with Williamsport standing as its second-smallest market, this is an unofficial Throwback Friday, in the sense that every game on any day of the week qualifies. What boggles the mind isn’t that Borders is out of place here so much as that he’s been here so long.
The minor leagues are all about impermanence. Players come and go every season, especially so in short-season A-ball. The best talents advance, the rest are heartbreakingly abandoned with a this-is-the-toughest-part-of-the-job speech. Likewise, managers make stops in the New York-Penn League, but only that. They’re looking to land positions with affiliates closer to the majors and eventually score something with the big club, but here is Pat Borders in his fourth year in Williamsport and by all accounts around the ballpark, happy with his lot.
Borders had been out of baseball for a few seasons when, at age 52, with kids grown or trending that way, he followed up on a job offer from the Phillies, the Crosscutters’ parent club. “It’s fun to come to the ballpark,” he says during a pause in the procession of coaches and players filing in and out of his cramped office at Bowman Field. “Every day, I’m working with young players, looking for a way to make them better and win games and have more fun. I work at it but if I didn’t like doing it, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t think about what’s next. It’s not on my mind. I like it here. I don’t get too far ahead of thinking about the game tomorrow.”
Think back to those Toronto teams in the early ’90s. In John Olerud and Dave Winfield you had a pair of the rarest players: those who moved directly from college to MLB without ever stepping on a minor-league field. Look elsewhere on the diamond and you had stars who took the steps up to the majors two at a time: Robbie Alomar, rocketing up to the bigs at age 20 after less than three full seasons with Padres affiliates; Kelly Gruber, a first-rounder whose athletic skills were plain to anyone at a glance; Joe Carter, a second-overall pick in his draft year. Go down the line and you had stars who lived up to their billing as top prospects, treasures in the organization. There wasn’t anyone who ranked as an over-achiever. Except Borders.
No player is comfortable with the idea that talent alone carried him to the majors — it’s flattering in a way but damning in another. No player can make a greater claim than Borders to having made the major leagues by dint of hard work and Kevlar-plated resolve. Alone among the fixtures on those World Series teams, Borders feared for his job in the Jays organization. He didn’t lack for talent, but more than any of his teammates, his work ethic dwarfed his God-given abilities. Early on, it looked to him like he might not make it to Double-A. Which is to say that his pro baseball career almost ended at the same level he coaches these days, A-ball.
I asked Borders if he draws on his experience in the minor leagues more than those years in the Show when working with the Crosscutters. “Bit of both, probably,” he said.
To those in the clubhouse, though, their manager is the guy who owns two rings, who won a World Series MVP, who hung around the majors for 17 seasons. Says Ben Pelletier, an outfielder from just outside Montreal: “You look at [your manager] for what he knows … the stuff he learned. I know he played in the minors but, y’know, he’s a major-leaguer.”
There’s no doubt of that, but when shown the numbers, Pelletier said he had no idea that his manager played more career games in the minors (1,159) than he did the majors (1,099). More than any of his former World Series teammates, Borders would have good reason to feel comfortable in a place like Williamsport. He knows his players’ struggles. He has felt that pain. And, yes, he’s known what it’s like to play for his place in the game.
Don Bridges started coaching the high-school baseball team in Lake Wales, Florida back in the ’70s. “I remember hearing about this kid in Little League who was just hitting the cover off the ball, so I went to see him,” he says of Borders. “I knew that this boy was going to play for me down the line.”
The son of teachers who moved from Ohio to central Florida, Borders was the hometown hero by the time he hit high school. He was a quarterback and defensive end on the football team. (Bridges’s scouting report: “He’d sooner run right over people than throw it on offence and he liked to be on the other side of the ball just so he could hit people.”) He was no less aggressive in the backcourt for the basketball team. (Bridges: “He earned every foul and made sure he got his money’s worth.”) On the diamond, though, Borders set himself apart and changed the dynamic of his team, even slotted as DH as a freshman because he had, in Bridges’s estimation, “hands of stone.”
Bridges, who is back coaching the Lake Wales high-school team after a hiatus as a school board executive, tells his players to this day that he never saw anyone work as hard as Borders did. Midway through Borders’s sophomore season, the team’s starting third baseman broke his foot and Borders finally had a reason to bring his glove to games.
Back then, the high-school team played night games at the municipal field but had to practice on a diamond that had no lights, which meant working in the late-afternoon swelter in Lake Wales, an hour’s drive from an ocean breeze. “I’d be throwing to Pat behind two screens because he’d be lining balls back right through the first one and I’d have to tell him that practice was done because the sun was setting,” Bridges says. “He’d come back and tell me, ‘I can still see the ball.’ And I’d say, ‘I can’t see it coming back at me.’”
Florida is the cradle of high-school baseball — like tourism in the state, there is no off-season really, just high-season for players and scouts. Lake Wales made the state final one season and the semis another. Coming out of his senior year, in the spring of ’82, Borders was set to go to Mississippi State on a football scholarship with the understanding that he could play varsity baseball in the spring. But the Blue Jays drafted him in the sixth round that June and any other plans were done. Borders went along with two higher picks — David Wells and Jimmy Key — to the Jays’ rookie-league affiliate in the Pioneer League. “I went from playing ball in Lake Wales one week to packing my bags for Medicine Hat the next,” he says.
To whatever extent Borders’s bat was able to make up for his granitic glove in high school, it didn’t play out that way at the hot corner in the low minors — Borders managed an .826 fielding percentage in the Hat and .881 the next year in low-A Florence. What’s more, the Jays picked up Kelly Gruber, Cleveland’s first-rounder in 1980, in the Rule 5 draft. So much for being Toronto’s third baseman of the future.
In his third year, back in Florence, Borders was tried in the outfield before being planted at first. He had fallen behind his draft class and his offence didn’t suggest that he had much major-league upside. In the second year of his trial at first, in high-A in Kinston, his numbers dropped even further. “I could read the handwriting,” Borders says. “If I was going to be hanging around I had to give myself a better chance. They asked me if I had ever caught. What I said wasn’t exactly true. I didn’t tell them I hadn’t. I wasn’t thinking about the major leagues or anything like that at the time. I just kept thinking, ‘What can I do today?’ I was just looking to do whatever it took to get another year. And really you can’t be focused on the brass ring down the road.”
The experiment looked like it wouldn’t last beyond a disastrous beginning. All the plagues that visit catchers seemed to visit Borders in his first game behind the mask. “First time that I went back there I got a foul ball off my throat and I got a fingernail ripped off by a ball in the dirt,” he says. Borders isn’t one to exaggerate — quite the opposite. When Don Bridges says that Borders’s wounds from that first game were a dislocated finger and a concussion, you have to suppose the truth at least lies somewhere in between the two versions.
But Borders loved the new position, and not simply that it was extending his stay in pro ball. Prior to that, managers had been like his coach back in Lake Wales, looking for a way to hide his glove. The unlikely solution turned out to be sending the ball at it on every pitch.
I crossed paths with Pat Borders a couple of times when he was trying to hang on in the game.
The first time was in Knoxville, where the Jays had their Double-A affiliate, back in 1986. In his first full season behind the plate, Borders spent the bulk of the season in high-A before being called up to a level just two steps removed from the major leagues. That might seem like headier stuff than it was in reality. In the dog days of summer, the Jays were simply taking a bit of the workload off their everyday catcher, 21-year-old Matt Stark, Toronto’s first-round pick in ’83.
The team’s farm system was the envy of MLB, in particular that Knoxville club with its hyped prospects in the outfield: 20-year-old Dominican Sil Campusano, who had been ranked alongside or just ahead of Jose Canseco by Baseball America; Rob Ducey, a 21-year-old from Kitchener, who was hyped as that elusive grail long chased by the big club, a Canadian star; and Glenallen Hill, a Rule 5 pick who spent the previous season in Toronto and racked up 31 homers and 97 RBI back in Double-A.
All around the clubhouse there were more heralded prospects — not just the players who’d land in the big-league lineup (David Wells, Manny Lee, Todd Stottlemyre and Nelson Liriano) but also younger prospects, drafted higher and more recently than Borders. The Jays were fresh off their first division title and it looked like the core of future contending teams was in Knoxville, but Borders might well have been the last name to come up in conversation. I sat down with the manager, Larry Hardy, and went through the organization’s jewels one by one — and he never mentioned his backup catcher.
Borders’s statistical line from that season in Knoxville doesn’t look like much (12 games, a couple of homers and three errors) and he probably worked more in the bullpen than he did in game action; nonetheless, it became the most important stint of his career given that he met his future wife, Kathy, a Knoxville native with whom he’s formed a very effective battery for three decades and counting.
Their paths crossed by chance in circumstances that truly capture the glamour of minor-league life: They met in line at a Pizza Hut while he was cashing in a voucher he had won as part of a promotion. It was — wait for it — love at first slice. “Kathy understood me and understood sports,” Borders says. “She had been a real athlete, recruited by colleges in basketball and softball. There was nothing I had to explain to her and when I needed to get my butt kicked, she was always there to do it.” If anyone could match Borders’s work ethic it was the woman who’d eventually become the mother of their nine children. And somehow, in the midst of all that child-rearing, managed to fit in time to work her way through nursing school.
Neither Kathy, nor anyone with a more impartial eye, could have imagined that Pat Borders was two seasons away from making his major-league debut. But I got a peek a bit down the line in the Dominican Republic.
I was in the D.R. because those were the days when the Jays and the Dodgers could just about call the nation their territory. The head of Toronto’s operation in Santo Domingo was Epy Guerrero, the scout who signed Tony Fernandez and Damaso Garcia and provided the key intel on Dominican talent in other organizations the Jays eventually scooped, like George Bell and Juan Guzman. While Guerrero’s focus was on players who came through the complejo, the Jays’ training complex, he raved about this raw catcher playing for San Cristobal in the Dominican winter league. “Unbelievable how he works,” Guerrero said. “And tough.”
Winter league baseball in the Caribbean sounds like a vacation; this was not the situation that Pat Borders walked into. Housing was pretty humble and creature comforts non-existent, and nowhere was worse on those scores than San Cristobal. Los Caimanes, the Gators, had a tough time making payroll, never mind winning games, so they managed to attract players turned away by other winter-league outfits. Thus did Pat Borders have the worst possible job in the game: crouching behind home plate for a team that was done and dusted most nights by the top of the second inning. He caught nine frames in double-digit losses night after night. In that winter-league season, he doubtlessly got a full minor-league season’s worth of work.
The story Guerrero told that most stuck with me goes like this: Borders was behind the plate in one of the late innings of one of those blowouts, maybe having called 180 pitches at that point and seen a slew of journeymen and single-A hurlers trotted up and lucky to get out of innings without bleeding to death. That game alone would have had even the hardest cases questioning their life choices, and that was before one of his pitchers reached back for something he didn’t have and sent a wild fastball towards a batter’s grill. When the batter got up off the ground, he paused and then charged the mound. Before he reached the terrified pitcher, the batter was taken down by Borders with a textbook open-field tackle and then pinned for a three-count.
When Guerrero finished the story, I told him I was impressed by the young catcher’s team spirit. Guerrero laughed and said: “No, when I asked him about it, he said, ‘We didn’t have anybody left in the pen.’”
When the Jays signed Borders for the month of September in ‘99, it looked like nothing more than a curtain call, a chance to finish his career where he had his run among the stars. He was 36, the Indians had just released him and he had played most of the season with Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. Borders managed to get into six games and, short of presenting him with a rocking-chair, it all felt like a formality. He had gone from making $2.5-million a season in those headiest days in Toronto to deals hovering around the major-league minimum.
In the run-up to the 2000 season, he wound up signing a minor-league deal with Tampa Bay; in a case of life imitating art, the Devil Rays assigned Borders to their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls. Yeah, a veteran catcher reporting as the player to be named later to the cradle of minor-league baseball — all you needed was a Baseball Annie and you had yourself the film that made Kevin Costner famous. “I felt like I still had something left to give the game and I still loved to play,” Borders says.
When the ’00 season was winding down, Borders received an offer from far beyond left-field: a chance to play for the U.S. team at the Olympics in Sydney. His first instinct was to pass. The 96 games he’d caught that season in Durham were the most he had worked since the Jays’ second World Series run. He was down to 195 pounds, maybe 15 fewer than his comfort zone, and it didn’t look like a promising scenario: The Sydney Games were the first to open baseball to professional players but the tournament was in direct conflict with the major-league season and most organizations didn’t see any upside in loaning top prospects. The roster included minor-league journeymen who were looking for a sniff from MLB clubs as much as Olympic glory. And the team had only time enough for one practice and five tune-up games before Olympic play. “I wasn’t gonna go, but Kathy kicked my butt and said I should just go do it,” he says. “And she was right.”
The manager was Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ Hall of Famer who had last filled out a lineup card four years earlier. He saw Borders as an important piece. “He’s like a coach out there,” Lasorda said, though many just put that down to his trademark bluster. It was, however, exactly as Lasorda billed it.
After going on hiatus from the Olympics following the 2008 Games in Beijing, baseball will be back for 2020 in Tokyo. The sport could stay on the schedule for another century but wouldn’t see more unlikely gold-medal winners than the Americans in 2000, nor a less likely star than Borders.
International amateur baseball competition was then dominated by the Cubans, the defending world champions and professionals in all but name. The Americans lost to that powerhouse 6-1 in the opening round but then went on an improbable run. A 13-inning win over Japan landed them in the semi-finals where they came from two-runs down and waited out a two-hour thunderstorm to beat South Korea in the bottom of the ninth. That set up a rematch with Cuba for the gold-medal. Borders caught Ben Sheets’s three-hit shutout and added a single, a double and a walk in a 4-0 win. “It was an amazing experience, like I never could have imagined,” Borders says. “I’ve always had fun playing the game and just being at the ballpark but I’ve never had more fun than that time. It really was not like anything else I had ever been a part of.”
It would have made a great final act but Borders wasn’t done playing. He’d stay in the game six more seasons, first back in Durham, then on to the Mariners organization, with just a few brief call-ups from the Triple A affiliate in Tacoma. Minnesota acquired him down the stretch in 2004 as positional insurance for a playoff run. The next season he was back with the Mariners and, at age 42, he caught 39 games. “I just wanted to leave it all out there,” Borders says.
The last he left out there was in 2006. Signing with the Dodgers organization, he logged 21 games split between high-A and Triple-A before giving his notice. He felt the pull of home, of family. Despite job offers in baseball, he became a full-time father and rancher in Lake Wales. It seemed like he had walked away from the game entirely.
Pat Borders never chased the spotlight. He says he “always respected” the media but he didn’t seem to enjoy talking about the game. Even during the public celebration of the ’92 championship at the SkyDome, when players in turn were handed the mic to offer a few words, Borders looked like he was holding a live grenade. Being one of the last ones up on stage didn’t help. In so many words he suggested those who voted on the MVP award had got it wrong and that it rightfully belonged to a pair of free agents signed in the off-season. “These two guys helped us more on the bench and in the locker room before and after games than anyone can on the field,” he said. “I’m talking about Jack Morris and Dave Winfield. Those two should be the MVPs.”
Pat Borders still doesn’t chase the spotlight — this is a man who once agreed to speak at a fundraiser in Lake Wales and then expressed disbelief that anyone would pay $25 to hear him — but he’s a little more likely to open up now. He says his role in the dugout, first as the coach of his sons’ high-school team in Winter Haven and now as manager in Williamsport, made him work on his communication skills. A bit, anyway. He’ll admit that he’s changed over the years. And that seeing the oldest of his kids through college and even graduate studies has inspired him, likewise his wife going back to school to become a nurse. That steeled him enough to open up more than all the brutal physical and mental challenges he endured to make the major leagues and hang around in the game.
“Now I stop and smell the roses like I didn’t before,” Borders says. “It was before what I was pretty sure was my last major-league game. I looked around and just took it all in. I didn’t do that along the way. People would tell me, ‘You get to see so many places travelling around in the majors.’ You know, I played so many times in New York every season — I never went to the Statue of Liberty … But in the time that I was away from [baseball], the time I spent with my wife and kids, watching them grow up, going to school, I got to see outside [the bubble]. I got away from the game. I didn’t watch on TV, didn’t follow it. You walk in my house and you wouldn’t know that I ever played the game. There aren’t trophies or pictures. I didn’t take souvenirs from the games. I only ever asked for one autograph in my life and that was Nolan Ryan — I sent a ball over to their dugout and got him to sign a ball for someone I know but that’s it.
“I think I appreciate things now that I didn’t. I’m more aware about things. You know, here in Williamsport you get to know people over time. It’s small. It’s a community. There’s one fellah who somehow has a deal on coffee beans, real nice fresh coffee beans and he brings them to the ballpark and just gives them to me — I got I don’t know how many pounds of ’em I’ve got. And we’ll talk when he brings them. [Williamsport] is a quiet place. There aren’t a lot of distractions. And you get to know people in a way that you couldn’t in the majors.”
By the end of this Friday night, the home team has a 3-1 win over Tri-City and Pat Borders has to like what he saw: a lanky 18-year-old Venezuelan right-hander, Francisco Morales, going five strong innings, giving up just one run for his third win against no losses in his fifth start; a leftie, Keylan Killgore, lights-out the rest of the way for a super-sized save.
The Crosscutters aren’t going to be a playoff club but that’s not what this is all about. A bunch of his players did the little things right and the big things fell into place. There was the ordinary stuff: The season-ticket-holder with the coffee beans dropped off another bag. There was the little out of the ordinary: The league confirmed that Borders would be managing in the New York-Penn all-star game. It was, in the end, a good night. While the equipment managers pack up for a weekend road trip, coaches check in and out of Borders’s office while he types up his reports for the big club, going through his lineup, player by player, and seeming content with his lot.
Seeming. It’s Borders’s fourth season in Williamsport and maybe, maybe, his last. Says Don Bridges: “[Pat] Gillick knew Pat could be a good manager, a good coach, when he was asking him to take a job in the Phillies organization. Pat has a lot of knowledge about the game to pass on to his players but there was stuff that he had to pick up about managing … He had to put in time managing just like he had to learn how to be a catcher. And he’s probably ready now. He can work at a higher level. He can work in the big leagues. And the time is right now. Short-season in the minors was great because it gave him a chance to see his sons playing at [the University of South Florida] but they’re done there now. That frees him up for bigger things.”
Borders acknowledges the idea that Williamsport might not be his last stop. “I’m happy here but it’s not like I’m not taking calls,” he says. “I enjoy this town and this team. Would I like to be part of something bigger? I’ve been in those things before and I know what it feels like. Anyone would.”
The weekend’s two-game series is in Brooklyn, and I ask Borders if he’s going to get time to see the Statue of Liberty. “Maybe,” he says, though that would be a bigger outlier than he ever was.
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