Ripken in the Minors

Interview with Stuart Hester: January 2007

Stuart had an instant connection with the 1980 Charlotte O's when his brother, Marshall, joined the team as Clubhouse Manager and Traveling Secretary. An 8th grader at the time, Stuart assisted his brother in the season preparations and the day to day responsibilities of running a clubhouse in professional baseball. Working with the players at such a young age, his insight some 27 years later provides a special look at the AA Southern League Champions of the 1980 season. Not only was Stuart willing to share his memories, he was willing to share some pictures as well.

 

ripkenintheminors.com: How old were you during the 1980 season?

Stuart Hester: 13 years old and in the 8th grade.

ripkenintheminors.com: Obviously you had a connection with your brother, but how did it come about that you started helping with the team?

Stuart Hester: As my brother mentioned in his interview, we grew up baseball fanatics, playing ball every chance we could and gathering as much information from the big leagues as possible. My only source of information was the Sporting News which came in the mail each Saturday. It was a ritual for me to wait by the mail box for the mailman so I could be the first to comb through the fresh unread issue. The only other source I had were my baseball cards which I bought feverously until I completed the sets each year. I scraped up every nickel I could find to buy cards. I would constantly search under the furniture cushions every week for loose change, hoping one of my five brother or sisters had some loose change fall out of their pockets. Once I had enough, fifteen cents for a pack back in those days, I would ride my bike the three mile round trip to the nearest local store just to buy one pack of cards. On the way, I looked for empty soda bottles because I could return them to the store for a nickel. If I found three it was a bonus pack for me. Since my brothers were older than me and getting into things most guys do in high school and college, I spent a lot of time throwing ball against the house, imagining I was Don Sutton throwing against the Reds of the 70's.

With that background profile, you can understand that I was extremely excited when Marshall took the job with the Charlotte O's. I will tell you the first time he took me to Crockett Park, I was extremely disappointed in the condition of the facility, mainly the dugout and clubhouse areas. I thought sometimes that the only thing keeping the ball park together was the multiple coats of paint surrounding the rotting wood. Marshall knew he had his hands full and needed to recruit some help. The obvious choice was me, his younger brother, who he could boss around. This was hard to do since I was in school until June and the clubhouse needed to be ready by April when players broke from spring training. Little did I know he had his solution. Marshall was responsible to take me and my sister to school every morning. On several occasions, he would drop my sister off at high school first and then drive right by the middle school I attended and wouldn’t stop. He would then turn to me and say, "You're not going to school today, I've got work for you to do at the ballpark". Of course I didn't complain, I loved going there and hanging out. What boy wouldn't? School or the ball park? It was a no brainer. Marshall would right my excuse notes every time I missed and forged my mother's signature. Little did he know that by the end of the school year I had accumulated seventeen school absences, one shy of the mandatory requirement that I would have to repeat the eighth grade. When my Mom figured it all out she wasn't too happy, especially since she was a teacher herself. I took the easy way out and told her that Marshall made me do it. Oh well, it was worth it. I did finish with a college degree and have a good career in banking. Vic Rodriguez, a good friend and a third baseman on the team that year said it best, "Hey, sometimes you learn more about life at the ballpark than you do in school". That was true in a lot of ways. It was my education to what really happens inside the daily operations of a baseball team. More importantly, I learned a lot about people from all walks of life, the high's and low's of trying to make it to the big leagues and what the reality of life can be for some.

ripkenintheminors.com: Did you have any regular responsibilities during your time with the O’s?

Stuart Hester: Yes, they were all the duties that Marshall was responsible for that he didn't want to do. Traditionally in most clubhouses, the clubhouse manager allows a few kids to hang out in the clubhouse in exchange for doing all the grungy work. When we started getting the clubhouse ready for the incoming players, Marshall had his own idea of how he wanted to run the clubhouse. He wanted to do it right and upgrade it to the highest professional standards. That was hard to do with the limited budget he was given. We did our best and worked hard to upgrade it to the level we thought the incoming players should have and would appreciate. We painted the clubhouse blue and orange, the team colors, and tried to add some extra amenities and decor. Marshall paid for some things out of his own pocket and tried to get as much help as he could from the owner. Little help there. It was a dive but did have a cozy feel to it at times. No windows and nestled under the stands. When I would sweep the carpet, half the fabric would go out the door.

Once the players arrived, my responsibilities really picked up: washing uniforms, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping out the clubhouse, hanging the clean uniforms in each locker, restocking all the chewing tobacco, carrying all the equipment in and out of the dugout, and shining the cleats of each player. Shining cleats took the longest so I always did this right after I started washing uniforms. I always started with Cal's locker first since he was closest to the door and wore so many cleats in one day. I can still remember what brand each player wore. Since Cal's Dad was in the organization, he received free cleats handed down to him from his Dad when shoe companies sent samples to the Orioles. Cal would wear a different pair for batting practice, fielding practice, pre-game warm-ups, and then cleats for the game. A total of four pairs I had to shine for him after each game. I didn't mind so much because he treated me pretty good and liked to horseplay with me.

Once summer came, I pretty much lived at the ballpark. I liked hanging out with the players when they arrived each day so I devised a system to free up my time during the day rather than working up to game time. I started staying at the ballpark at night, working until early morning the next day and would finish all my work. Then I would sleep in the clubhouse until Marshall showed up the next morning. He would be happy all the work was done and go back home until it was time for the players to come in. I didn't mind, I loved doing it. After awhile, the players would feel bad for me, thinking I had nowhere to go. They would bring me back to their apartments to hang out. That was fun.

ripkenintheminors.com: Were you a part of a little league team prior to joining the O’s?

Stuart Hester: Yes, I played starting at seven years old all the way through high school. That summer I missed a lot of games in Pony League because I wanted to be at the ballpark more. The main reason I liked to do my work at night was because I could go out to the outfield and shag balls with the outfielders and pitchers. I liked to camp out beside John "T-Bone" Shelby in centerfield and shag balls with him. He was a great fielder and would give me pointers on how to judge the flight of the ball and how hard it was coming off the bat. We would take turns and make bets on catching the ball. I really believe these fun sessions made me a better outfielder in high school. I like to stay in touch with T-Bone. I admire his dedication to God and his family. He is as good as they get.

ripkenintheminors.com: Obviously it had to be a big thrill to be a young person with the access that you had to the organization. What was the most exciting part of working with the team?

Stuart Hester: Most definitely the relationships I developed with the players. You have to understand, at my age then, these guys were bigger than life to me. I didn't care about their skill levels at the time; I just liked the attention I received from them and the comradery that we shared. They treated me like a kid brother. It made me feel special.  

ripkenintheminors.com: Were there any restrictions placed on you by your brother and/or organization in regards to what you could and could not do?

Stuart Hester: Not really. As long as I stayed out of the way of others and helped out when needed, I became part of the everyday environment of the ball park.

ripkenintheminors.com: Did you receive any regular pay or did you rely on tips? Who was the best tipper on the team?

 Stuart Hester: No regular pay. Marshall would pay me from his salary and I would get occasional tips from the players. The best tipper on the team was Vic Rodriguez. Vic paid me in a different way. Vic has an interesting background. He was signed by the Orioles out of Puerto Rico at the age of 15. Back then it wasn't against the baseball rules to sign a minor at that age. He was called up to Charlotte when shortstop Cat Whitfield was hurt. Vic was put in the line-up at third base and Cal was moved to shortstop. Because Vic and I were closer in age than he was in age to the other players on the team, we sort of gravitated to each other. He was so young compared to the other players. Think about it. How many 17 year old players are in AA now? That speaks a lot about the talent the guy had. He was a natural hitter and great fielder. He would invite me back to the player apartments, where I stayed a lot that summer, and we became fast friends. I think my being with him helped him not feel so alone in a different country and in a mature league. Vic would pay me with his friendship and kindness, always buying my meals for the day. I realize that was not easy for him since the players received very little meal money to live off of. We spent many a night at the Waffle House talking baseball. To this day, he hasn't changed a bit. He still won't let me pay for a meal when we go out to eat. Still the warm hearted good guy who treats everybody like gold.

He is currently the Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator and does a fantastic job for them. On several occasions, Vic has taken me and my son down on the field for practices. When he talks hitting, people listen. He knows exactly what he is doing and has a plan for each player to make them better hitters. After a full workout of instruction to his players, Vic always takes the time to instruct my son. I watch my son interact with him and realize he is looking up to him like I once did a long time ago. It makes me happy that he can experience the same feelings I had a long time ago. You won't find them any better than Vic.

Not many realize, but Vic broke the record for all-time minor league hits. It's not that he hung on too long, it's just that he started so young and teams always kept him around because of the value he offered to other players. He stayed with it because he loved the game and that's all he wanted to do. He did make it to the majors with stints on the Orioles and Twins. In 28 at bats he hit .429. It's a shame he never got a fair shot in the majors. He deserved a better chance. The Red Sox are lucky to have him in their organization.

ripkenintheminors.com: As a young person, I can imagine that it was tough when a player that you got close to moved up or down a level. How hard was it in that regard as a young person inside the game?

Stuart Hester: That question brings us back to Vic. After Cat Whitfield came off the disabled list, the organization decided to send Vic back down to Miami. I remember it like it was yesterday. He called me one morning at my house and gave me the news. I started crying like a baby on the phone because I didn't want him to go and all the fun to disappear.

ripkenintheminors.com: I was told that the team had a young person that would wear an oriole costume at the games. Did you ever have a chance to be the oriole? If so, how’d it go?

Stuart Hester: Yeah, the kid’s name was Sam. It was a poor excuse for a mascot uniform. It was supposed to be an Oriole bird. It looked like a big piñata. I never was involved with that nor did I want to.

ripkenintheminors.com: I would think that players enjoyed occasionally having good natured fun at your expense during the season. Who especially enjoyed trying to play tricks on you?

Stuart Hester: The clubhouse was always the fun house, a lot of horsing around. As you have seen in other interviews about Cal, he liked to wrestle. I tried to stay clear from him as much as possible for one reason: Every time I got close to the guy, he would grasp me and wrestle me down. I was an easy target for him being smaller and younger. He enjoyed it but after awhile he would get rougher and it hurt sometimes when he would pin me or put me over his knee and spank me for fun. I got it a lot growing up with my brothers but he was a lot rougher so I tried not to get near his locker too often.

ripkenintheminors.com: Who was the one person in the organization that you especially enjoyed seeing at the park?

Stuart Hester: There were many: Vic Rodriguez, Brooks Carey, T-Bone Shelby, Cal, Kurt Fabrizio, and Jules Gonzalez were the ones I felt closest to. In all honesty, I enjoyed being with my brother the most. We have been through a lot together and he always included me in all he did which was always fun and a lot of great memories. He is a good brother to share the experience with me and I am always indebted to him for that.

ripkenintheminors.com: Did you ever attend any of the road trips? If so, how’d that go?

Stuart Hester: No, and that was probably a good thing based on the stories I have heard.

ripkenintheminors.com: Was there ever any concern from your family about being a young person around professional ballplayers?

Stuart Hester: Not really. My Mom had met some of the players and felt pretty good about them. Plus, I was always with Marshall or Vic Rodriguez. My Mom had six kids to try and keep up with. We were all over the place. As long as I was with someone she trusted, it was okay.

ripkenintheminors.com: Favorite memory from 1980?

Stuart Hester: I have two really good memories. The first involved one of those tirades you usually see in the dugout when a player goes ballistic. This incident didn't involve a player, it involved my brother. Marshall had been working the grandstands all summer trying to meet girls. He found one he liked and was really trying to make an in with her during a ballgame. During the game many balls get fouled off so the umpire will request new balls. Marshall is the only one with keys to the clubhouse where we kept the extra balls. At this particular game, there was an unusual amount of balls fouled off so we kept having to ask Marshall to open the clubhouse. He was starting to get really irritated with the multiple requests. He was making no progress on a date with this girl because I kept interrupting. Finally, on the last request, he comes to the clubhouse door, opens the clubhouse and goes ballistic tearing the place up. He turns over the food table, punches a dent in the aluminum coffee maker, and kicks the laundry basket of sanitary socks out the clubhouse door. The laundry basket rolls out the door right into the feet of one of the front office personnel. I'm sure he told the owner about it.

It was almost as good as any tirade I saw that year but it still doesn't beat the Memphis Chick fight. I was in the clubhouse when Drungo came in and yanked the bats Marshall and I nailed decoratively on the wall at the beginning of the year. He twisted a bat with a two hand grip and snapped it in half like a tooth pick. It was the most awesome display of power I had seen up to that moment in my life. It was a really thick bat too. I just stood there with my mouth wide open. I could tell he wanted to kill someone and I got out of the way quick. He stuck the sharp handle end of bat in the back pocket of his pants uniform and took off out of the clubhouse and a few of the players went out after him. He ran through the concourse of the stadium to the other end of the ball park to the visiting clubhouse. He banged on the door repeatedly, demanding for the instigating player from the Memphis team to come out and meet his challenge. Other players as well as the police came to the scene and convinced Drungo to return to the O's clubhouse. Lucky for the Memphis Chicks. Drungo would have easily handled any of them. Cal was pretty strong for his age but nobody on the team had the raw natural power that Drungo had. It's a shame he never advanced further in the majors. All the potential and skills were there.

ripkenintheminors.com: I would think that you probably had the chance to receive various items, either in the form of unwanted items or items offered/given to you by the players. Did you keep anything from that season?

Stuart Hester: The pitcher Will George was a good guy. He received a new pitching glove during the season and gave me his old glove since I was left-handed too. It was a Rawlings and was in great shape. I used it all through high school and still have it. I also have a 1980 O's ball with all the player’s signatures. It's special not just because Cal is on there. It's special to me because John Denman and Jules Gonzalez signed it, two good guys who are no longer with us. And of course, I have my 1980 WBTV card set. I wish I knew then what I know now about what those cards are worth. We threw away so many of those sets after the giveaway.ripkenintheminors.com: Your brother gave his account on the night that the WBTV card sets were given out. What is your recollection?

Stuart Hester: It was a sparse attendance that night. As a result, there was a large amount of promotional card sets left over. At the end of the night, the sets were gathered into a large grocery cart. The cart was overflowing and heavy and my help was needed to push the cart to the dumpster. I did manage to keep my one set.

ripkenintheminors.com: Who in the organization have you kept in contact with over the years?

Stuart Hester: Vic Rodriguez, John "T-Bone" Shelby, and Brooks Carey mostly. I did see Cal at a book signing in Charlotte the past year. Vic I see most often as he comes through Charlotte on occasion going to the Red Sox farm club in Greenville, SC. T-Bone I always would go see at Vero Beach when my brothers and I would take annual trips to go see the Dodgers. He's a great host and always hooked me up when I went to Dodgertown. He is now the first base coach for the Pirates. Taking a line form his book, he is an "outstanding" guy. Brooks Carey is another story. We haven't talked probably since 1980. I called him out of the blue almost a year ago and we have talked so much since then I feel like we never missed a beat. He personifies what loyalty to friends is all about. Probably one of the most sincere, honest, forthright individuals I've been associated with in my life. He's the kinda guy you can talk to for hours and never get bored with the conversation. A heck of a guy I hope to spend more time with in the near future.

I have seen Cal only twice since 1980. I saw him at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1987 and spent some time talking to him and former O's manager Jimmy Williams. This past year, I took my son, Ben, to meet him at a book showing. He was very conscious to speak with me and Ben and reminisced a little bit on the old days. I would think he probably misses some of that simplicity. It is a strange feeling to see him now because so much has changed for him since I knew him at age 19. It is unrealistic for me to think he is the same he was when I knew him in 1980. I think it's hard for anyone to understand all the demands that come with success and fame. It would change anybody. I think it's not all glamour being so demanded by everyone all the time. I'm happy for him and the career he had. It's incredible when you think about what he accomplished.

ripkenintheminors.com: Who in the organization do you wish that you had contact information for?

Stuart Hester: Drungo Hazewood and Kurt Fabrizio. Drungo was a pillar on that team and was a good-hearted guy. Kurt dropped out of baseball and I never heard much from him after that. Good caring individual.

ripkenintheminors.com: How did the experience enhance your relationship with your brother?

Stuart Hester: Our experience that year created a common bond of good memories that we shared together and talk about often.

ripkenintheminors.com: Your brother said in his session that he was fired in front of you. Can you recall the experience? That had to have been an awkward situation to say the least.

 

Stuart Hester: Yeah, it wasn't a good night because there went my ballpark pass for the rest of my life. I was there only through my brother. It was tough to give up that lifestyle and the contact I had with everyone in the ballpark. I am indebted to Marshall for the great experience and the lasting friendships that came from it. It's not the way I wanted it to go but I knew based on Marshall's relationship with the owner that our situation was not stable.

ripkenintheminors.com: How did the experience of working with the team help you in adulthood?

Stuart Hester: I think it made me more conscious of providing the right experiences for my own children. I've realized how special that time was in my life and want to make sure my children experience similar things that they will reflect fondly on years later in their lives. That was my magical summer that I would enjoy living through again year after year. It was just a lot of fun.

ripkenintheminors.com: What are you doing today?

Stuart Hester: I am a Vice President for Bank of Commerce in Charlotte. I have been in banking since I graduated college in 1989. I am married to a wonderful Upstate New York Italian girl and have been blessed with three healthy children.

 

All images in this interview are courtesy of Stuart Hester. The pictures in this interview are as follows (In order of appearance):
1. Stuart Hester in the 8th Grade
2. Vic Rodriguez & Stuart Hester, 1981
3. Vic Rodrigues & Stuart Hester at the 20 year team reunion, 2000
4. Charlotte Observer Newspaper Clipping
5. Ben Hester with Cal Ripken, Jr., 2006

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