Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Frank Dascenzo: Hebner on Life, Career

The Durham Herald-Sun
May 25, 2005 : 12:28 am ET

Richie Hebner is spitting everywhere. Near his shoes. Near my shoes. On the top of the dugout steps, then near the bottom. Then into the well-ground dirt in front of the Bulls dugout at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

It is an hour and a half before the Bulls hitters will face the best pitcher in the International League, Zach Duke of the Indianapolis Indians. To say Hebner, the Bulls' hitting coach, is nervous would be ridiculous. He was more nervous while watching his daughter, Elizabeth, graduate from Massachusetts over the weekend.
Hebner, who never will lose his Boston accent, tells this neat story about all these balloons which filled the Amherst skies as new UMass grads were about to enter the working world.

"Elizabeth and five friends watch these balloons go up in the air and they all went in separate ways," Hebner said.
Right, balloons go where people go -- in separate ways. It's life. It's the real world. You realize things change and you must change.
"It was almost kind of sad to watch the ballons go different ways," Hebner said.

No philosopher, not even close, Hebner isn't to be sold short. He has a memory to kill for. He saw Roberto Clemente throw guys out at first base -- from right field. Hebner got a World Series ring in 1971 when the Pirates came back after trailing Baltimore, and its four 20-game winners, 2-0. He can tell you where he was when news reached him Clemente had died in a plane crash in the Caribbean.

"I played third base and so many guys tried to go from first to third on his arm. I'd say 'Here comes another sucker. Don't they know this guy?' I could have had a five-course meal sometimes waiting for the guy to slide into third. I mean, Clemente's arm was tremendous. I never had to move my glove when he threw to third -- right on the money.
"I played a year and a half at Forbes Field and he threw two guys out at first base on a base hit to right field. I remember saying to myself, if that ever happened to me, I'd crawl back into the dugout. I'd never seen that before. He was only 38 when he died. He could have played three, four, more years."

Hebner, careful not to swallow that tobacco juice in the right corner of his jaw, spits again.
Of today's players: "They're stronger. When we played, in the 1960s and 1970s, you had a one-year contract. If you didn't perform, you were looking for another job."
Of digging graves and playing hockey, which Hebner did: "I loved it. I loved digging graves and I was a bleeping better hockey player than baseball player. We'd get five people for a high school baseball game and 5,000 for a hockey game. I could hit, sure, but I could score goals. The Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings offered me a contract in 1966."
On playing 18 years, mostly with the Pirates: "I was on the DL once. You were afraid to go on the DL. Somebody could take your job."
On money in baseball: "Money is an awful big thing in this business. It has ruined some players."
On guys who get sent down to the minor leagues: "They have to know to get back, they've got to play well. To me, you've got to earn a big-league uniform"
On job happiness: "I am happy. I missed a lot of recitals, a lot of little league games but I told my wife, if I don't like it, I'll come home and see what Cape Cod looks like in the summer."

And after the game where Zach Duke recorded his 8th IL win: "He keeps it down, is consistent. Let me wait and see what he does. He's 8-2, right? Don't put him in the Hall of Fame yet."
It was almost 10 p.m. on Monday and Richie Hebner spit for the final time -- until the next game.

Have a comment or a suggestion for a column? You may contact Frank Dascenzo by phone at 419-6609 or by e-mail at

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