Larry Ferguson was drafted in the 14th Round by the Texas Rangers after his sophomore year at State. State was a powerhouse in the Appalachian Conference and Larry pitched well enough to get some regional and spotty national attention. Many in Westfield applauded his accomplishments on the mound and Larry received tons of local and state recognition in the various media outlets. His high school teammate, Alvin Danger and his high school coach, Eric Rasmus, both thought Larry should have played in the Cape League one more year, had one more collegiate year at State, then he most likely would have gone much higher in the draft, maybe even the top 5 rounds. Despite the unwelcome advice from his high school coach, Larry signed his professional contract at age 20 and headed to the Gulf Coast League.
During his stint with the GCL Rangers, Ferguson got a reputation for having a bark as big as his bite. Ferguson often called out players who made physical errors in the field while he was pitching. He would scream at batters coming back to the dugout if they did not lay down a sacrifice successfully or got caught stealing a base. His coaches had to break up several fights in the locker room with Larry and other players, even his own catcher. On the mound, Larry was a bulldog, performing well above organizational expectations. His fastball command was eye catching and he had developed a nasty change-up to go with a devastating slider and 12-6 curveball. Larry’s first season in professional baseball produced a winning record of 4 – 1, and several black eyes registered against other teammates as well as to himself.
After the GCL Rangers were knocked out of the playoffs, Ferguson applied for and was granted permission to play in the Panama Winter League. The Rangers would have preferred that Ferguson go to their extended training facility in Enid, Oklahoma to work with their physical therapists and sports conditioning specialists. But, once again, Larry Ferguson had his own plans and wanted to set his own course and ignored advice from his GCL coaches, one of them being Willie Clemente, a former star pitcher with the Cuban National Team. “You don’t want to play in Panama, Senor Larry,” Clemente begged as he drove Larry to the airport, “they play a different brand of baseball down there.” Larry shrugged his coach off and smugly replied “this coming from someone who couldn’t make it himself except for the Banana Boat League.” Clemente reared up to reply in Spanish because he couldn’t come up with the right response in his broken English, but instead just shook his head and kept quiet. As he pulled up to the departure area of Fort Myers International Airport, Clemente purposely parked 5 gates away from the JetBlue entrance, just so Larry would have to walk with his luggage a bit further than expected. “Adiós Buena Suerte, Señor Burro!!” And with that Larry Ferguson departed the car, grabbed his luggage, and headed south to Panama.
Those 2 months playing in Panama did change Larry, for the worse. The Panama League was filled with opportunists, back stabbers, greedy players desperate for attention from traveling scouts, and manipulative locals who bet on games. Larry’s reputation had not preceded him, but he quickly got up to speed with his antics. On the mound, he was dominating hitters and calling them out as they walked back to the dugout. If his fielder’s made an error, he would kick the dirt on top of the pitcher’s mound in disgust and wait for them in the field and walk them back to the dugout to berate them for their mistakes. Although there were many American players in the Panama League, it was mostly Latin American players, some of whom were merely teenagers looking to get scouted. Ferguson would flip their hats off their head and kick the hat before it hit the ground to embarrass them. He would grab the back of their shirts and sometimes even push them to the ground as they walked back to the dugout. The crowds at the games would boo him and some would even cheer for him when he acted up. Larry Ferguson was becoming a nuisance in two countries and word got back to the Rangers about his behavior.
About 11 games into the season, The Rangers sent an organizational scout to observe Ferguson and report back to the main office. The scout was due to arrive in time for a big rivalry game between Larry’s Aguilas Nationales and Los Jefes. Larry was scheduled to pitch in relief of Aguilas #1 starter, Jose Munoz, at or around the 4th inning. Larry, through admirer and local Panamanian bookee Hector Lindo, got tipped off to the scout’s trip to see him pitch. “We can put on quite a show for your friend and make you look like a hero. But, you can’t forget your friend Hector, you dig?” spoke Hector Lindo in pretty good English. He was well known in the Panama Winter League as being a sleazy booster for players, providing them with cars, women, guns, drugs, whatever they needed in exchange for favors to be cashed at a later date. Larry, the focused optimist was always up for advancing his career, even if it meant ruining someone else’s. “I’ll tell Angelo to grease up the baseball when Jose is on the mound. He won’t be able to throw the baseball within 5 feet of the strike zone,” laughed Lindo and soon Larry was joining in on the laughter. “Never heard of that trick, does it really work?” “Trust me, Senor.” Lindo and Ferguson shook hands and went over the details. The plan was for Panama Catcher Angelo Ruiz to swipe a small dollet of vaseline on the baseball, which was strategically located on the back of his catcher’s glove. Larry Ferguson watched in the bullpen, giggling to himself, “if this really works, I am going to show this scout ‘Larry the Angel of Panama.’”
The devious plan had worked exactly how Lindo had forecasted it. Jose Munoz was so erratic he didn’t even make it through the 2nd inning. Walk after walk, hit batters, 2 home runs on changeups thrown right into the heart of the plate. Jose was done and the call went down to the bullpen to bring in Larry Ferguson. Angelo Ruiz took a bathroom break just as Larry was coming in to the game, mostly so he could switch gloves and discard the greasy one. Larry wasn’t just impressive, he was darn near unhittable. One by one, batter by batter, until he was lifted in the 7th inning, Larry spun strike after strike, mixing in four pitches with accuracy. When the ball was hit in play, Larry would energetically encourage his teammate and congratulate him when the play was made. If an error occurred, Larry would run over and tap his glove to the player’s glove and tell him to “keep your head up, you’ll get the next one.” Larry had done his best acting job and the scout bought it. After the game, the scout introduced himself to Larry, who acted surprised to know that he was even in attendance. The scout told Larry that he had been flown in to see a “problem” in the organization, but instead was reporting back to the Rangers that he had found a “solution.” Larry, in his best fake behavior, thanked the scout and promised to continue working towards his and the Ranger’s organizational goals. After the scout had left the ball field, Lindo picked up Larry and the two partied on Calle de Rio until 4 in the morning, breaking Larry’s curfew and thus ending his tenure in the Panama Winter League.
The morning of Practice 3, the rain came down in sheets and just about flooded Prospect Field. According to the commitment letter, practice would happen “rain or shine,” thus no amount of weather was to prevent Larry Ferguson and his Westfield 12 from getting in some work. The facilities at Prospect Field had been ranked #3 in the country by a national Parks and Recreation magazine and featured 6 baseball and softball fields, clay tennis courts, flag football and lacrosse fields, and an indoor mecca sports and conditioning center. The group text came in from Coach Ferguson around 4pm. “Today’s practice will be moved indoors. We will be working on pitchers and catchers and situational baseball, baserunning.” Angie perked up when Bonnie read her the text about practice focusing on pitching. Angie was an overwhelming fan favorite to lead the Westfield District pitching staff back to the Regionals, and hopefully beyond. A fan favorite to most everyone in Westfield, except for Larry Ferguson, who had packed a small tub of Vaseline in his baseball equipment bag for his team’s indoor pitching practice.
To be continued…