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When he was about five years shy of qualifying for Medicare, Evan Katz decided he’d like to play professional baseball.
He’d gotten a late start on the dream. He didn’t play as a kid.
"No, I didn’t play," Katz says. "The family legend, which I think is true, is that Hebrew school conflicted with Little League practice."
Scheduling wasn’t the only thing that kept Evan off the diamond.
"When I was going to elementary school," says Katz, "I was younger than all my peers."
"You were the little kid," I say.
"Yup, the slowest kid, the littlest kid — never liked playing tag on the playground."
Giving Baseball A Try
But though he didn’t play the game, Evan Katz loved watching baseball. And when he was 45 years old, having helped two of his kids navigate Little League, Evan found the opportunity to give it a try. A friend who was playing in an over-30 baseball league with an “anybody can play” policy invited him to join the team. He learned something right away:
"It’s a lot harder than it looks on TV," Katz says.
But Katz was not discouraged. Even when they told him what position he’d be playing.
"It was right field," he says.
(Where, as everybody knows, you always put the kid you want to hide.)
"And as time went on, I moved to left. And after a couple of years, I decided I wanted to try to pitch. I wasn’t good enough to play the real skill positions in the infield — I wasn’t quick enough. So I figured if I could pitch, it might also extend my career."
That was in 2005. Katz was nearly 50. And the plan to extend his career got off to a rough start.
"My mechanics as a pitcher weren’t that good," Katz says.
"That's astonishing to me," I say, "given that you didn't start playing until you were 45."
"And I decided I needed to do something a little bit different, just to make it harder for the hitters. And what I decided to do was teach myself how to pitch sidearm."
Katz found a website called "Sidearm Nation." Eventually that would prove to be important to his baseball career, but at first it was just a source of information. And the information, combined with a lot of lonely days throwing baseballs to a backstop, built Evan Katz into a pitcher of some renown – at least in the over-30 league and at the adult baseball camps he attended each winter in Florida, where they grow such things as grapefruit, oranges and delusions.
"And it was about a year and a half ago at the baseball camp in Florida, we had a bunch of rainouts," says Katz. "I was driving around one day, and I said, 'Boy, what if I could find some minor league team that would let me play professional baseball for a day, just so I could say I played professional baseball?' And that’s where the germ of the idea formed."
'I Was As Excited As Any Of Those Draftees And Pro Players That Get Signed'
Evan Katz knew he wasn’t going to make the roster of a minor league outfit affiliated with a Major League team. Even at the rookie league level, that’s serious business. So he started contacting teams in the independent leagues — the teams stocked with college kids who hadn’t ditched their baseball dreams when they hadn’t been drafted. The initial results weren’t promising.
"'Evan, it’s a really interesting idea,'" Katz remembers team officials saying. "'But if we’re going to do a promotion like that, you need to get more people to come to the game. How are we gonna get some gate?'"
Another team told Evan …
“'We did have a banker pitch for us once, and he paid $20,000, and we let him pitch the first inning,'" Evan recalls. "But that was beyond my budget."
So enter – or rather, re-enter – that website, Sidearm Nation. Evan contacted the website’s founder, Geoff Freeborn. He suggested Evan focus on the Empire League in New York State. Or maybe, if he didn’t mind traveling, the Pecos League, which has teams in California and New Mexico, among other places.
"And, amazingly enough," says Katz, "when I called the commissioner of the Pecos League, Andrew Dunn, I ran my idea by him. We talked for a little while, and he said, 'You really wanna play?' I said, 'Yeah, I do.' He said, 'OK. We’ll start working on it.'”
While Commissioner Dunn was working on it, Evan Katz was working at his day job as the budget guy with the public school system in Swampscott, Massachusetts. And a Pecos League team called the White Sands Pupfish was working on a wretched season in Alamogordo, New Mexico, during which they would finish dead last.
"Well, I was in the superintendent’s office, going over the budget," says Katz. "And, sure enough, my phone rings. I say, 'Excuse me,' to my boss, pull out the phone, and it says ‘Pecos League. Chris Stout.’ And that was him, calling me to tell me I was going to be joining the team. I was – just like on TV – I was as excited as any of those draftees and pro players that get signed."
'He Looked Like An Athlete'
The signing is not, perhaps, quite as weird as it might seem. The Pupfish were about a thousand games out of first place. In the low minors, players come and go all the time as young men and very young men discover that they aren’t quite as good at baseball as they thought they were. What difference would the very temporary addition of one more player make?
But how would the rest of the Pupfish take the news?
"When we were in Alpine, Texas, in a series, we get a call from our manager," says Brandon Torres, one of Evan's teammates. "He was telling us that we would most likely gonna have a guy come down."
Torres is a 23-year-old New Jersey guy who hit over .300 for the Pupfish this summer.
"And then our manager goes, 'And by the way, he’s also, like, 60-something years old.' Like, 'oh, man,'" Torres recalls.
The risk was that these young guys, each of them hoping to play so well at the lowest level that he’ll be noticed by somebody at a higher level and then at a level a little higher than that, would feel as if the organization was being treated like a joke, right? But that’s not how Brandon Torres responded to the arrival of Evan Katz on July 28.
"You know, I just talked to him," Torres says. "He told me what he's trying to do, and this was his dream. And I respected it a lot. And really just tried to do everything possible to make him have fun those couple days and just enjoy the game of professional baseball."
It might be an exaggeration to say Evan Katz impressed his young teammates with his skills. But he’s a guy who’s in shape – he didn’t embarrass himself when he pulled on a uniform.
"He looked like an athlete," 28-year-old Pupfish manager Chris Stout says.
Coming from him, “looked like an athlete” meant something. Before his first game as a Pupfish began, Evan, who’d been told he’d be a late-inning replacement in the field, asked Stout if he could warm up in the bullpen, just to see what it was like. He must have looked OK. Stout changed the plan. Katz would pitch to the first batter in the seventh inning.
A Discouraging Debut
"I felt great," Katz says. "Top of the 7th came, and I went out to the mound.
"The first pitch — that pitch was crushed. It was a fastball, right over the middle of the plate. He crushed it down the right field line. And this hitter was used to seeing guys throw in the 80s and low 90s and he was getting my 60-mile-an-hour fastball. So he pulled it foul, and I said, 'Great! There’s a strike. That was fine with me. I got the ball over.'”
Next Katz wasted a couple of pitches he didn’t mean to waste.
"I went 3-1. I think I threw him something high, and he swung and missed. 3-2."
"He had the guy two strikes," Torres recalls. "And everybody was hoping that he struck the guy out, including me. You know, I was like, 'Oh, man, I hope he strikes this guy out.'”
Brandon Torres’s teammates in the dugout were so excited that they’d conspired to run out on to the field if Evan got that 'K.' Cool, right?
"OK, the tension rises," I say to Katz. "Then what?"
"Ball four," Katz says.
"And the manager came running out to the mound and said, 'OK, Evan, forget it. You’ve had your experience. This is over,'" I say.
"Well, actually, I got a mulligan."
Katz faced a second batter, probably at least in part because the players, Brandon Torres among them, were urging the manager to leave him in. But Katz plunked the second batter he faced with his first delivery. His pitching line would read: One walk, one hit batter.
"I went home that night and was discouraged," Katz says. "But it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that the team was really behind me and they were supporting me. And this was something a little bigger than pitching and striking guys out."
First At-Bat — And A Strategy
On July 29, in the final game of the season, Pupfish manager Chris Stout found another spot for his rookie. Evan Katz was sort of back where he started.
"We put him in the outfield," Stout says. "And it’s one of those things that we always say, 'You know, as soon as you put somebody new in the field, the ball always seems to find him.' And it definitely found him. And the ball was hit pretty good."
Katz fielded the ball and hit the cut-off man.
"He's no Mookie Betts out there," Katz's sister, Emily, said as she watched from the bleacher.
So big deal, right? The old guy chased a ball that was hit over his head, picked it up, and hit the cut-off man, who’d come about 50 yards out of the infield to take the throw. You could have done that, right?
"I realized that the team was really behind me and they were supporting me. And this was something a little bigger than pitching and striking guys out."Evan Katz
But what about when it came around to your turn to hit against somebody who could bring it at 90-plus miles an hour? Chris Stout saw Evan’s only at-bat as the rookie’s opportunity to earn some respect.
"Anybody that can stand in on 90 is all right with me," Stout says. "Because that’s – 90's pretty quick."
"Pitch number one was a ball," Katz recalls. "It was high. And the second pitch was a strike."
"Taken?" I ask.
"Taken. I got ahead, 3-1. Hitter’s count. And I had a very difficult decision to make: Which has more of a chance of happening? Him throwing two balls or me hitting one of his pitches? And I ended up leaning toward — I’m gonna go for the walk. Because there’s no way I was gonna hit this guy’s fastball. And he’s got strike two. And the third pitch was really good. It was in the upper 80s on the outside corner. And called out."
You like to think that, in Evan’s cleats, you’d have gone down swinging, right? I mean, you get the chance, take your cuts. I like to think I’d have done that. But Chris Stout defends his hitter.
"He had a strategy, and that’s what he tried to accomplish," Stout says. "I tell the guys all the time, 'Go up there and have a plan. And if that’s his plan, then I’m glad he had a plan, because that means somebody out of the team listened to me that day, so that’s good."
'Hey, I Played Professional Baseball'
After the game, Evan thanked his teammates for their support.
"What I said to the team was that I thought this was about getting at-bats, and getting a hit, and pitching and getting the stats," Katz says. "But the experience was much more than that. It was sharing our passion of baseball, and supporting each other, and how they supported me, and how that was something that I didn’t expect."
In that locker room, after the last game of the season, there may have been some Pupfish who were still puzzled about why this 61-year-old school administrator had shown up to play and why, now, he was shaking their hands and thanking them. But Brandon Torres understood.
"For somebody to live their dream, to play professional baseball, you know, everybody in that clubhouse and on that team also has the same dream," Torres says. "Why not share it with somebody who definitely really wanted to do it, and experience it, and try to live it? Now he can say, 'Hey, I played professional baseball.' Not a lot of people can really say that."
Nope, not a lot of people can. But Evan Katz can. And at the end of the 2017 Pecos League season, he had the White Sands Pupfish box score to prove it.
This article was originally published on September 29, 2017.
This segment aired on September 30, 2017.
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