Eiterman talks about his time in the bushes –
By Mark Carpenter –
Life in the minor leagues. For most of us, the perception comes from what we have seen in films such as “Bull Durham”, but here in Adams County resides a man who can give you the real lowdown on long bus rides and the dreams of making it to “The Show.” For Cherry Fork resident Tom Eiterman, that dream lasted for four years, before a unique set of circumstances in the spring of 1993, caused him to leave the world of minor league baseball.
Eiterman spent four years in the Cleveland Indians organization (1989-1992), compiling some pretty impressive statistics, winning a battling title at Reno in the California League in 1991, and being named to the League All-Star Team. In that four years on the minor league circuit, the mustachioed Eiterman hit .295 overall with a .381 on-base percentage, but his baseball life began long before that, growing up in the city of Columbus, Ohio.
“I actually started playing baseball at five years old at the YMCA in a fundamental league where you didn’t really play games, but just learned the fundamentals,” said Eiterman. “After that, I went through coach pitch and pitching machines and then into Little League on the west side of Columbus. Believe it or not, I didn’t play junior high baseball because I was scared, didn’t think I was good enough. I played Pony League baseball and then didn’t play again until high school and in the summers, on a select team called the Columbus All-Americans, and played against Ken Griffey Jr.’s Midland squad.”
Eiterman attended high school at Columbus Briggs after he says “he got the baseball bug again”. He recalls being so scared in his first high school varsity game as a freshman, that he threw the ball right over first base and into the stands from his shortstop position, and in a less than auspicious high debut, got plowed over by a runner and broke his collarbone, plus giving up a grand slam on the second pitch he threw when called to the mound. “I had a good start,” he says.
By the time he reached his senior year and recorded a 10-1 pitching mark with an earned run average around 2.00, he was recruited by several colleges, but chose to stay close to home at Ohio State University, recruited by the Buckeyes as a hitter, not a pitcher.
“I grew up as an Ohio State football fan and went to games with my Dad, so the opportunity to play baseball at Ohio State was a dream.” Eiterman only got 12 at-bats his freshman season at OSU, but in his final three campaigns, hit .335, .364, and .337. He says that perhaps his fondest memories of being a baseball Buckeye was when the team played on ESPN against South Carolina, because college baseball games were rarely on national television at that time, but definitely remembers hitting against Michigan left-hander Jim Abbott, who went on to have a fine major league career.
“I hit a home run off of Abbott,” says Eiterman. “It was neat to watch how he transferred the ball to the glove and the glove to his hand.
“I was happy with how I played and was told by the coaches that I might have to opportunity to be drafted, but I was a little surprised that I wasn’t picked.. So I went to three tryout camps and signed with the Indians as an undrafted free agent with no signing bonus by a scout who had seen me play in high school think the pay then was something like $650 a month and meal money for road games only.”
Eiterman’s minor league adventure began with the Indians’ rookie league team in Florida and started well, hitting .324 in 148 at-bats, used primarily in the outfield. “I was happy with how I did but at that level it all depends on what someone else thinks. Oddly, one of the team’s pitching coaches worked with me every day and improved my arm and shoulder strength, though I wasn’t a pitcher.”
The next season (1990), Eiterman moved up to High Class A ball and was off to the California League and a stint with the Reno Silver Sox, an independent team that had players from different organizations pursuing that major league dream.
“At the end of my first season, I was told that I had done well enough to come back,” said Eiterman. “Reno was one of my favorite years.” He hit .331 with seven home runs and 73 runs batted in, a solid season by minor league standards, winning the league’s batting title, a Player of the Week Award, and compiling a pair of 10-game hitting streaks.
An outsider may wonder what it feels like to make contact with a 90 mph pitch and see it sail over the outfield fence. “A couple of balls I hit out felt great, no-doubters, and some others I had no idea they were going out, and others I don’t even remember the swing, even the swing against Abbott. You just react, swing, and don’t think about it.”
At the end of the 1990 season, he was sent to the Kinston Indians in the Carolina League, but only briefly. “We didn’t make the playoffs in Reno and Kinston did, and two of us were moved to Kinston for their playoffs, where I did actually hit a homer in limited action.”
Eiterman remained in A ball in Kinston for the 1991 season, again accumulating solid numbers- .273, eight homers, 66 RBI’s, 13 stolen bases. “I think I was fifth in the league in RBI’s but I was a little disappointed because of the year I had in Reno.” The performance at Kinston was good enough for the Cleveland brass to move him up to AA Canton/Akron for the following 1992 season.
“Interestingly enough I started the first 13 games of the season, which was very surprising because the team’s outfield included future major leaguers Brian Giles and Lee Tinsley, two highly ranked prospects, and then me. After the first 13 games, the manager called me in and said that he had been told not to play me. I told him that I didn’t understand and was told that the team didn’t feel like they had spent enough money on me as a prospect. In hindsight, I appreciate the fact that they started me over some of their top prospects. We ended up with an outfielder getting hurt, so I played 16 games in a row at one point, but basically I was a sub if some one got hurt or tired, and a pinch-hitter, especially after some of those 10 1/2 hour bus rides. The coaches really tried to find me a new position, knowing that I wasn’t going to be playing outfield, but I saw the writing on the wall.”
For Eiterman, the bus rides were memorable and he says they do resemble what fans could see in “Bull Durham” and other baseball films. “Some people would play euchre the entire time just to stay awake and the find a cheap restaurant before they went to the park, but the bus rides were always an adventure.”
Eiterman’s final stint in the minors was short-lived in 1993, where at 25 years old, he began in spring training with the Indians’ AAA team.
“I asked them what I should do with my career, asked them if I should ask to be traded. I just wanted to know where I fit.”
Two days after that on March 23, tragedy struck the Indians’ camp, when pitchers Tim Crews, Steve Olin, and Bob Ojeda were involved in a serious boat accident, killing Olin and Crews and seriously injuring Ojeda.
“I knew Steve and he was a really good guy, but Bob and Tim had just come over from the Dodgers,” said Eiterman of the incident. “They were night fishing and hit a dock that was extended out into the water. It was a mess and it got worse for me the next day when I was hit in the head in a spring training game, and the day after that I got released.”
“It was three bad things in three days for me and you get the same speech you see in the movies, ‘Son, the organization has decided that it’s time to make a change’. Everything stops then, your pay, your insurance, and they have you on a plane home in about two hours. I am thinking ‘I need to find a job’.”
Eiterman called a few organizations and even got some help from former Red Buddy Bell, but he decided that it was just time to get on with his life, though the Indians asked him if he was interested in staying on as a coach.
“I told them I though that would be fun, but I didn’t know if I could put that many hours in. I felt it might be hard to get some of the players to listen to me after I had just played with them on the field.”
After baseball, Eiterman went back to Columbus and helped manage the Columbus All-Americans, and got paid to work on the field, before selling insurance and investments and then when I got married and moved to Adams County in 1998, I joined Fifth Third Bank as a commercial lender. Today, he works as a certified residential appraiser and in recent years was an assistant coach with the North Adams High School baseball squad, and now can be spotted as a “Dad in the stands” following the athletic careers of his daughters, Alaina and Lauren, and assisting with the Lady Devils’ softball team.
Recently, Eiterman and his daughter Alaina did some math and deduced that he had played with or against 250 future major leaguers during his career, with the top of the list being 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Jim Thome, whom he played with in 1990 and 1991.
“Jim was a quiet guy, a hard worker, and I never saw him get mad. He was always polite and courteous, just a great person. He was just one of the people who you are glad to see make it to the big leagues and succeed. When I knew him, he wasn’t a Hall of Famer, he was just a normal person in the same situation I was. I’m really happy for him.”
Eiterman says the toughest pitcher he faced was former Dodgers closer Steve Howe, whom he faced late in Howe’s career as he was attempting a comeback to the majors. “He was an unbelievable talent and it was a shame that all the off-the-field issues derailed his career.”
Eiterman has so many memories to look back on, but says that two things will always stand out.
“One would have to be the battling title in Reno and two pinch-hit home runs I hit, one of them being a grand slam,” he says. ”I hit a walk-off pinch hit homer in 1991 off a guy throwing upper-90’s and the grand slam clinched the first half league title in 91 off of Greg McMichael, who eventually became the Braves’ closer.”
“Those things and just the fun that I had for those years will always be part of me.”