Sunday, November 3, 2002

YOUTH WILL BE SERVED

Maine native Rich Pohle changed his identity and lopped 15 years off his age in order to achieve his dream of playing professional baseball.

By RICK WEINBERG
 Special to the Telegram

His moment had finally arrived.

Standing in the on-deck circle at the quaint baseball stadiumin Lewiston, Idaho, Rocky Perone surveyed the crowd. His dream of playing in a professional baseball game had become a reality.

He glanced up at a ballpark light tower and grinned as the light shined down on him. The stage was his as the public address announcer boomed "Batting second, the second baseman, Rocky Perone."

As Perone walked toward home plate, kicking the dirt with his spikes, he was bursting with joy, yet strangely numb.

"I wanted to laugh like hell," he said many years later. "Someone had finally beaten the baseball establishment and it was me."

On that day in June 1974, Rocky Perone was a scrappy 21-year-old prospect from Sydney, Australia.

Just a few months earlier, he was Richard Pohle, a balding, overweight 36-year-old baseball scout from Lisbon Falls.

Pohle's identity change ranks as one of baseball's most outlandish schemes, embarrassing professional baseball executives who typically drool over 17- and 18-year-old prospects and snub older talent. By becoming 15 years younger, Pohle tricked the San Diego Padres' organization into signing him to a minor league contract. He spent two weeks in the Padres organization before his identity was exposed and he was released.

But Pohle didn't stop there. In the next few years, he went on to change the identity - and ages - of seven other players who signed contracts with major league organizations.

Today, Pohle no longer fabricates players' names, ages and identities. But he still helps overlooked players try to fulfill their dreams at his baseball clinic in Southern California.

"I know what it's like to be left alone on the outside looking in," Pohle said. "I want to give those kids the chance to make their dreams come true, just like I've done for so many players who otherwise never would have gotten a chance."

As a boy growing up in Lisbon Falls, all Rich Pohle (pronounced Pole-ee) ever wanted to do was play baseball.

He was a talented player under longtime Lisbon High baseball coach Stan Doughty. Pohle was a hustling, scrappy shortstop with a great glove, soft hands and excellent range in the field. At the plate, he sprayed line drives all over the field and showed some power.

He was aggressive on the basepaths. But Pohle was 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Professional scouts often looked right over him.

After high school, Pohle suffered through years of rejection by scouts and gave up his dream of playing pro ball. Then, at the age of 25, while playing in a semipro game in California, he caught the eye of a Kansas City A's scout and was signed to a minor league deal. The year was 1963.

He earned a spot on Kansas City's Class D minor league team, but before he was scheduled to report, he caught the flu and was hospitalized. He lost 16 pounds. The A's released him before he ever got to play.

Getting so close to pro ball was a spark for Pohle. For 10 years, he played semipro ball in places such as Mexico and Australia, chasing that one big break.

Eventually, though, he was beaten down and convinced that his dream of playing pro baseball was over. He began working as a baseball scout, looking for talent overseas and throughout the southwestern United States.

Then, in 1974, Pohle's fate changed when he set up a tryout at the Royals' spring training camp in Florida for Barry Stance, an Australian pitching prospect.

"I was watching some prospects hit," said Pohle, "and they were terrible. So I said to one of the coaches, `Man, I can hit better than these guys.' The coach laughed, so I grabbed a bat, hopped into the cage and began hitting line drives to center. He was surprised and said, `Hey, you're not bad. There's probably a few teams who could use a hitter like you.' "

Those words hit Pohle like a fastball in the ribs: "Use a hitter like you."

"I was thinking, `Could I do it? Could I play again?' "I knew I still had the skills," he said. "Heck, I was a better ballplayer at 36 than at 21. My fear was that I would look old. So I thought about ways to make myself look younger."

He began using exotic facial creams. He received mudpack treatments. He used every cream and oil imaginable, even butter. He slept on his back so he wouldn'tsmudge the cream on his face. Within weeks, he noticed a difference.

"I always had a little bit of a baby face, but damn, I did look younger," he said.

While his skin looked younger, his heavy beard posed a problem.

"I began shaving three times a day. I learned how to shave real close without cutting my skin," he said. "Took me about a half hour. I used hot, hot soap and worked it in to open the pores. Then I patted my face with tinted baby powder to cover the pores. When I was done, my face was smoother than a baby's behind."

His hair - or lack thereof - also posed a dilemma. So he bought a wig that resembled Pete Rose's moptop hairstyle. By the time he was through with his makeover, "I looked like the All-American boy."

He refined his body and his game, too. He worked out for hours every day, running, lifting weights, hitting, fielding, throwing. "I was in better baseball shape than I was five or 10 years earlier," he said.

When Pohle departed for Florida to sell his new self, he realized that looking the part was only half the battle.

"I had to act the part, too," he said. He had to be a complete unknown, someone major league scouts had no way of tracing. "I had been overseas enough to know the way (Australians) talked and acted," Pohle said. "I realized this thing might not be as hard to pull off as I thought.

"I knew it would be impossible for teams to check my background." He needed a new name. He decided on Rocky. Rocky Perone, from Sydney, Australia.

"I knew I had to act naïve, even dumb, to pull this off," he said. Pohle began playing the role of Rocky Perone as he crossed the country. Shopping for food, he was Rocky Perone. At restaurants and banks, he was Rocky Perone.

"I'd say, `Hi, mate,' to everyone," Pohle said. On the trip to Florida, another problem dawned on him: how was he going to contact teams and get a tryout? Then it hit him: "I'd use my normal voice and pretend I'm a former minor leaguer who's worked as a free-lance, roving scout."

He concocted the name of Bill Kerns. His plan was to say he just returned from Australia, where he had seen an exciting, young player named Rocky Perone. Kearns decided to tell scouts that Perone was in town looking to attend Florida Southern University, but that major league clubs should take a look at him first.

Pohle checked into a hotel in Bradenton, spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and overheard that the Pirates were looking for middle infielders.

So, pretending he was Bill Kerns, Pohle called the Pirates' scouting department. Lo and behold, "the team agreed to give me a tryout," he said.

The next morning, Pohle arrived at the Pirates' camp wearing worn out spikes, tattered pants, a faded old sweatshirt and a Dutch Boy painter's hat.

"I was quite a sight," he said, "but I had to play the role.

Everyone was laughing. There was no doubt they knew I wasn't one of them. Which is just the way I wanted it."

Rocky impressed the Pirates, but not enough to get a contract offer. Then Pohle heard that Padres scout Jim Marshall was in St. Petersburg. Bill Kerns called Marshall and scheduled a tryout for the following day at Florida Southern University.

Pohle showed up in his laughable attire, prompting Marshall to nearly choke on the cigar dangling from his lips. "He was wondering what he had gotten himself into," Pohle said. But Pohle put on an impressive show, digging out ground balls and ripping line drives.

"Afterward, Marshall put his arm around my shoulder and said, `Son, I like what I see. Meet me at the hotel cafe in the morning.' "

The next morning in the hotel lobby, there was Marshall, contract in hand. Nearly unable to contain his emotions, Pohle signed.

"I'll never forget it," he said. "Marshall pulled the cigar out of his mouth and said, `Son, welcome to the Padre family.' "

Pohle was assigned to the Padres' Class A club in the Northwest League based in Walla Walla, Wash. His time had indeed arrived.

Despite his excitement, not a moment passed without Pohle worrying about getting caught. His biggest fear was a roommate. Where would he keep his creams? How would he explain the wig?

Pohle's roommate was a quiet 18-year-old named Bill deLorimier. "I spent about 30 minutes in the bathroom, but deLorimier didn't ask any questions," Pohle says. "He was happy to be left alone."

When practice began, "I was pretty nervous my cover was about to be blown," he said. "I felt like everyone was staring at me the whole time."

Walla Walla manager Cliff Ditto sensed something was fishy about his Australian middle infielder, according to Boston Red Sox general manager Mike Port, the Padres' minor league director at the time of Pohle's contract.

"Cliff told me, `Something's not right here. I'm not so sure this guy belongs here,'" Port said.

Port met Pohle when he was invited to work out at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium before a Padres' game against the Cincinnati Reds a few weeks before Walla Walla began its season.

"I didn't think anything of it," Port said of "the dark featured, short, stocky fellow" he had met.

On Opening Day for the Walla Walla Padres, Pohle was penciled in to start at second base and bat second in the lineup in the second game of a doubleheader at Lewiston.

"I was in dreamland," Pohle said. "It was too good to be true. I thought about all those times I didn't make a team, all the times some coach, scout or manager told me that I couldn't play, that I wasn't good enough, that I was too small. I thought about all those front-office types who would choke on their checkbooks if they knew I was 36.

"Then I realized, `Hey, get your head together. You gotta hit.'"

Pohle drew a walk in his first at bat. Next time up, he drilled a solid single to center field and then stole second. "When I dusted myself, I looked at the light tower shining down and I felt like I was on stage,'" he said.

He wound up going 1-for-2 with a walk and the Padres won 2-0.

However, before he could pick up the morning paper to read the box score, the Padres had released Pohle.

Pohle's true identity and age were discovered when his roommate, deLorimier, caught a glimpse of his driver's license.

"He conned us, no question about it," Port said. "We could see the first day of camp that something didn't add up. But we didn't suspect he lied about his age.

"His roommate happened to get a look at his driver's license and said he was born in 1938. That made him 36. We were taken in by this guy."

Pohle had no regrets. "I did what every guy in America dreams about," he said. "I got signed by a major league organization and I played. It's all right there in the box score. I wasn't angry I got released. I fulfilled a fantasy. After all the letdowns I had in my career, I felt satisfied."

Rocky Perone, the fictional character, died that night in Idaho. However, Rich Pohle's con on baseball continued.

Too old to continue playing at such a high level, Pohle turned his attention to other players who were on the outside looking in.

"There are thousands of guys out there just like me. Guys who were always turned away for one reason or another. Too small. Can't run fast enough. Holes in his swing. But they were guys who could play this game.

"I was determined to beat the baseball establishment, to show them that it overemphasizes youth and size and neglects to look at the most important characteristic - a player's heart."

The first two players Pohle took under his wing were Tom Rowan, a 24-year-old Arizona native, and Mark Worley, a 31-year-old former University of Arizona player.

The year was 1977.

"I saw them playing in a semipro game in Arizona and I was impressed," Pohle said. "Afterward, I asked them, `Ever play pro ball?' They said no, that they have would loved to, that it was their dream."

Pohle convinced them that he could help fulfill that dream. The players decided to go for it, so Pohle gave them new identities: Rowan became 21-year-old Tom Anthony from Hull, England; Worley was transformed into 21-year-old Nick James, also from Hull.

Pohle contacted the Giants' scouting department and arranged a tryout. The next day, the club's Triple A skipper, Rocky Bridges, a former major league player and coach, pitched batting practice to Rowan and Worley and put them through infield, outfield and running drills.

"Afterwards, Bridges called the Giants' scouting director, Jack Schwartz, and said, `Hey, we need to sign these kids. They're major league prospects,' " Pohle said.

Rowan was assigned to play for San Francisco's minor league team in Great Falls, Mont. All he did was bat .331, seventh-best in the league, knock in 62 runs in 63 games and tie for the league lead in triples. He wound up playing four years in the Giants' chain. Worley was released after one season.

Not long after the Rowan scam, Pohle changed the identities of Rick Brown and Joe Parga, who wound up playing with the Braves and Angels, respectively.

According to Pohle, the Braves were so fond of Brown's knowledge and ability that he jumped three levels in three seasons, going from rookie ball to A to AA. Parga, a 26-year-old from the West Coast who was transformed into 22-year-old Jose Hernandez from Jalisco, Mexico, hit .286 in his first season in the Angels' organization.

"And there are hundreds of other guys like (Parga), guys who could be playing pro ball. But the system is a joke. Older guys just aren't given the chance."

Even today, Rich Pohle still swings a pretty mean bat. Just this month at his baseball clinic in California's Orange County, Pohle was putting on a show for his 15- and 16-year-old students, ripping 320-foot line drives.

No longer fabricating identities, Pohle has shifted his attention to the "politics" of high school baseball, taking players who have been snubbed and turning them into pro prospects. Just this year alone, Pohle has taken several players who were "buried" by high school coaches and has helped them get into college baseball programs.

"My heart bleeds for those kids," said Pohle, whose sister, Jean Hill, still lives in Lisbon Falls. "But I tell them that they can't let it stop them, that they can't let it prevent them from reaching their dream."

Pohle should know.

 

 

Rick Weinberg,a Southern California based-writer , can be

reached at rick_weinberg@msn.com.

You can contact the Maine Sunday Telegram sports department at

phsports@pressherald.com