In 2016 a writer named Richard Bak wrote a story for a website called “Detroit Sports History” about Ashtabula native and resident Mark Wagner, who played for three Major League teams from 1976 to 1984.
Perhaps the name of the site should be “Detroit Sports Fiction,” since the premise of the story begins with a lie.
According to Bak, Wagner’s grandfather, Joe Scott, was invited to try out for the Tigers by player-manager Ty Cobb in 1925. When he was late for spring training, Cobb was “miffed” and wouldn’t give him a tryout.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Here’s what really happened, according to Wagner:
“My grandfather wrote a letter to Ty Cobb saying he wanted a tryout,” Mark said. “Ty Cobb wrote back and said he was sorry, the roster was already full. He was never invited to try out.”
Wagner still has Cobb’s letter, nearly 100 years after it was written.
“When I was eight, my dad and I went up to Ypsilanti, Michigan, to my uncle’s,” Wagner said. “Then my dad, my uncle, my grandfather and me went to watch a Tigers-Indians game at Tigers Stadium. Twelve years later I got back to Detroit (as a player).”
Influenced at a young age to favor the Tigers, Wagner could not have asked for more when Detroit drafted him in the 19th round in 1972 and brought him to Detroit in 1976 to replace an injured Tom Veryzer. He spent the next nine years in the Major Leagues, the seoond-most of an Ashtabula County native (to Geneva’s Brian Anderson). Of the three countians who spent multiple years in the Majors (Williamsfield’s Jim French is the third), Wagner is the only one to return to Ashtabula County for good.
He began playing baseball in Ashtabula’s Little League, where he played from the ages of seven to 15.
“Every fall I’d go back to school and the teachers would ask us to write about what we did that summer and what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Wagner once said.
“Every year I wrote the same thing, I played baseball in the summer and I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I grew up.”
He moved seamlessly into a varsity position at Harbor from his freshman year on. Though he played other sports, he was ideally suited, size-wise at 6-1, 165 or so, for baseball, particularly for shortstop, the position he spent the most time at.
At Harbor he earned four letters in baseball and was an All-City and All-County selection as a junior and senior. Meanwhile, he played with the Ashtabula Rubber Co. American Legion team for three years.
It was while playing in the Legion state tournament that he caught the eye of Tiger scouts, there to check out two other players. They saw something in Wagner they liked.
“The next day we had a doubleheader and they stuck around,” Wagner said. “I was drafted by Detroit (in the 19th round) and after the draft a scout contacted me. I was thinking about going to Ashland College on a partial scholarship. But I didn’t have the money to go to college.”
The Tigers sent him to Florida for spring training, then to Bristol, Va. He moved up to Class A Clinton, Iowa in 1973, when he was voted MVP. The following year he was promoted to Class A Lakeland Florida, but broke his leg a month-and-a-half into the season.
Back at Clinton in 1975, he once again won MVP for the team as a shortstop, the first time in team history anyone won it twice.
In 1976 he was playing for Triple A Evansville, Ind. when Veryzer injured his leg and he was called up to the Majors on Aug. 20 at the age of 22.
“The trainer came in (at Evansville) and said, ‘I think you’re going to Detroit.’ The manager (Ralph Houk) called me and said to get here for a doubleheader. I got a base hit my first time up and hit safely in my first seven games.
“It was a dream come true. And it just happened to be at Tiger Stadium.”
It looked as if Wagner had a position and a team for a long time. But reality intervened.
“It’s never easy,” he said. Though he hit a very respectable .261 while playing shortstop in the 39 games that remained that season, the job was thrown open to competition.
With Veryzer fully recovered, the two battled for the position in spring training and the early part of the season, In June, 1977, Wagner was sent back to Evansville, where he batted .303.
He became the utility infielder for the Tigers in 1978, playing in 39 games at short and second and hitting .239. For the rest of his career he backed up the starting infielders at Detroit (five years), Texas (three years) and Oakland (1984). He actually played the most games (82) of his Major League career in that final season, But he got just 87 at-bats and hit .230.
When he got called up to Detroit in 1976, he roomed with Mark (“The Bird”) Fidrych, the eccentric pitcher who had a brilliant but brief career before an injury ended it.
“It was great playing behind him,” Wagner said. “When he got the ball, he was ready to throw it.”
Among others Wagner played with were Aurelio Rodriguez, Pedro Garcia, Rusty Staub. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Willie Horton.
“It was something, getting to play with some of my heroes like Willie Horton and Bill Freehan.” he said. “And it was fun playing with Mark Fidrych.”
The Tigers traded Wagner to the Texas Rangers in 1981 for relief pitcher Kevin Saucier. In 1982 he was playing well, beating out Mario Mendoza for the starting shortstop position, when he suffered a muscle tear in his stomach. The Rangers traded for Bucky Dent to take his place. Wagner missed most of the following year, 1983, getting just two at-bats with no hits. He was signed by the Athletics for the 1984 season.
He was a late-inning defensive replacement that year, batting .230, while playing mostly as a shortstop but seeing time also as a third baseman (15 games) and second-baseman (8 games).
His most memorable moment of that final Major League season came on the mound, though. Wagner had never pitched in the Majors before, but Oakland had burned through two pitchers in falling behind the Tigers in Detroit, 14-1. Manager Jackie Moore didn’t want to waste another pitcher so he asked for volunteers from the position players. Dave Kingman said he’d pitch, but he was too valuable a commodity to risk his arm.
“After (the sixth) inning I went up and told (Moore), ‘I’ve got a couple of innings in me,’ ” Wagner said.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to play for the Tigers and pitch in Tiger Stadium. “I was thrilled to death. I had fun. I was pumped up to go out there. I’m definitely going to save the box score.”
It was worth it. The box score will show that Wagner retired with the lowest possible earned-run average for a pitcher, 0.00, zero runs allowed, though in this case in only one and two-thirds innings of work.
When Wagner went in with runners on in the seventh he gave up a sacrifice fly (the run was charged to Chuck Rainey) but retired the side on a pop-up. Then, in the eighth, he surrendered a couple of hits, but got a double play and actually struck out John Grubb to end the inning.
“Hey, I have to admit it, I’m embarrassed,” Grubb said at the time. “You don’t like striking out against an everyday player. He threw a curve down in the dirt. I swung at a bad pitch.”
Oakland didn’t re-sign Wagner in 1985 and he was out of a job. That had never worried him.
“I think it was a dream (to play in the Major Leagues), but even when I was playing in the minors I didn’t think about it much,” he told this reporter in 1982. “I put it out of my mind. It was a goal I wanted to reach, but I decided to just do my best and take what happens.
”I’ll find something to do, dig a ditch or something after I get out of baseball. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
And he did. He worked with construction companies around Detroit for a few years. Then, in 1989, a real-estate developer named Jim Morley had a brainstorm: To form a senior league of former Major Leaguers.
Thus, the Major League Senior League was born, with eight teams playing a 72-game schedule, mostly in Major League spring training facilities. Players like Rollie Fingers, Fergie Jenkins, Luis Tiant, Bobby Bonds and Vida Blue signed up.
So did Wagner, who had approached Dick Williams about a construction job and was informed of the league. Curt Flood was the commissioner of the league and Earl Weaver one of the managers. Teams included the Orlando Juice, the St. Petersburg Pelicans and the West Palm Beach Tropics, Wagner’s team, among others.
“I asked (Williams) if I could try out,” Wagner said. “He asked me if I could catch. I caught and made the team. After the Christmas break (in early 1991) it was cancelled. But it was a lot of fun.”
Williams used Wagner at every position on the field, including pitcher.
The Tropics played 72 games in 1989-90. Wagner remembers them going 55-15, an approximation. Fingers and Dave Kingman were teammates.
The league needed about 2,000 fans per game to break even. It averaged slightly over 800 and folded after a year-and-a-half.
That put Wagner out of work again, but only briefly.
Williams helped him get a job as first-base coach with the Toledo Mudhens, Detroit’s Triple-A team in 1991. In 1992 he became a manager for the first time, with Bristol, Va., a rookie club. He moved up to Class A Fayetteville and Lakeland in 1994 and to a Cincinnati-sponsored Class AA team, Chattanooga, from 1996-1998. In 1997, he actually played one game at third base, going one-for-four, a double, with an RBI at the age of 43.
In 1999 he returned to Ashtabula and went to work for Severino Construction. He is now retired.
Now 66 he enjoys golfing in the KP (Kenny Petrocello) League. He admits he has good days and bad days in that sport.
“I do a lot of working around home, a little painting on the side,” he said. “I have a garden this year. I like to go to my grandkids’ (Michael and Madelyn’s) baseball games. They live in Kingsville and play at Jefferson and Cederquist.
Of the Major League’s current situation, he said, “I didn’t even think they’d have a season. Sixty games is better than none. But what happens if a team member or a member of another team gets the virus? What are they going to do?”
Which is exactly the question the Major Leagues are asking themselves right now.