Rob Conway's pro baseball career as a player seemed over in January, when he was released by the Cook County Cheetahs, an independent minor league team based in Chicago.
Conway, a 1996 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, considered a college coaching gig this spring while he waited tables and led youth baseball clinics in Palm Springs, Calif. But his Anchorage Glacier Pilots baseball contacts helped him land a spot back on the playing field.
Now, Conway is on his way to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he reports today to play for the Kelowna Heat of the new Canadian Baseball League. The CBL season opens on May 21 and runs through September.
"It was unexpected, but there are rules on how many two-year (players) and veterans each team is allowed," Conway wrote in an e-mail about his release by the Cheetahs of the Frontier League. "So, being a two-year guy I knew it was a possibility.
"I was about ready to hang 'em up and use my degree to start a career-type job, when I was told by (current Cal State-Long Beach assistant coach and former Glacier Pilots assistant coach) Don Barbara that Terri 'Yogi' Cox was going to manage a team in the Canadian Baseball League. Cox was the pitching coach for the Pilots the summer that I was up there (1999) and had a hand in me going to Iowa State University."
Conway contacted Cox, who will manage the Heat. But Cox said he didn't have the power to sign Conway. Conway said he spent two months playing "serious phone tag" with Cox and CBL head of baseball operations John Harr before he was offered a deal to play for Cox in Kelowna.
"I was thinking about going to Greeley (Colorado, home of the University of Northern Colorado) to get my masters and be an assistant for (former Glacier Pilots manager) Kevin Smallcomb, but I still have an itch I need to scratch," wrote Conway, who also played for Smallcomb at Mendocino Community College in Ukiah, Calif.
"That is a window that I would like to keep open, though, since I credit Smallcomb with a lot of my success and opportunities and (making me) the ball player I am today. He is doing some great things down at UNC, and I would like to teach the things that I have learned to younger players."
Conway played baseball and football at Juneau-Douglas High School, but concentrated on baseball when he got to Mendocino C.C. After two years there, it was Cox who helped get Conway a scholarship to play for the Iowa State Cyclones. Conway, a third baseman-shortstop, led the Cyclones in RBIs for two years and in homers as a junior. He wasn't drafted in the 2001 Major League Baseball Draft, so he signed with the Cheetahs, where he played third, shortstop and second base.
In Kelowna, Conway will be reunited with Cox, a former captain and catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Canadian Baseball League, whose commissioner is former Chicago Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, has eight teams for its first year - the Montreal Royales, the Trois-Rivieres Saints, the Niagara Stars, the London Monarchs, the Saskatoon Legends, the Calgary Outlaws, the Victoria Capitals and the Heat.
The league is based entirely in Canada, which means teams can pay players in Canadian funds instead of being forced to use American dollars like they do with teams that play in leagues with American teams. This U.S. vs. Canadian funds discrepancy has led to financial problems with the two Major League teams in Canada - the Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos - and with some of the country's minor league teams. The league also is designed to help develop Canadian baseball players and coaches that might be overlooked by the Major League Baseball scouting system.
"To be a part of the Canadian Baseball League is a privilege," Cox said in a story in the (Kelowna) Daily Courier. "I am very excited to be able to manage at the professional level. I have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I feel my work ethic and knowledge of the game will be key ingredients to bringing the Jenkins Cup to Kelowna."
Bentz leads Eastern League in ERA
It was an eventful week for 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate Chad Bentz, a left-handed pitcher for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators of the Class AA Eastern League.
Bentz was sent to the emergency room early last week after he woke up on Monday, April 29, with a case of cunjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye. "I was blinking blood," Bentz told the (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.
Bentz was told to stay away from the team for a couple of days, but on Thursday, Bentz threw two innings of scoreless relief to earn his first save of the season, as Harrisburg beat the Bowie Bay Sox 3-0. Bentz wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam, finishing the game with a full-count strikeout. Harrisburg manager Dave Machemer almost replaced Bentz, but let him finish the game.
"I saw some fire in his eyes," Machemer told the Patriot-News. "Of course, he couldn't see out of one of those eyes ..."
Bentz, who said he had sweat trickling into his inflamed right eye and blurring his vision, finished up the week on Sunday with his second save of the season. Bentz picked up a rare three-inning, blowout save as his team won 10-1 over the Erie SeaWolves.
Bentz allowed four hits, one earned run and one walk in Sunday's outing, which raised his Eastern League-leading ERA to 0.83 for the season. For the year, Bentz is 0-1 with two saves in 21 2/3 innings, allowing 18 hits, eight walks and striking out 12.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.