Often, it is said the face of a baseball team belongs to the manager.
In the case of the Joliet Slammers, that face comes with the inevitable signs of aging. Bart Zeller’s wrinkle lines and bald noggin speak to his years of experience. He will turn 71 on July 22. He will turn back the clock on occasion, but only to recall some fond memories.
He is a baseball lifer. With that title comes a responsibility, a commitment to pushing forward. He must be a teacher and coach—and more. His job is part Xs and Os, part team shrink and part omniscient in that he is charged with the task of sharing his wealth of knowledge. He has been around the block, as well as around the basepaths, and welcomes the challenge.
“We are faced with—probably on a daily basis—out of 24 players, someone in their life has a crisis,” Zeller said.
“It may not be major to us, but to that young ballplayer, it’s a major thing. We have to take the time—we want to take the time—and make sure we understand what they’re faced with and try to help them out.”
Zeller is a native of south-suburban Chicago Heights. He attended Rich Township High School (what is now Rich East). Back in the day, he was a three-sport standout. He played basketball and baseball as a freshman at the University of Arizona. He transferred to Eastern Illinois and earned all-conference honors playing football and baseball.
He later signed as a catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in one major league game. No, make that one half-inning of one game.
He was inserted to catch in the bottom of the ninth against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 23, 1970. He recorded one putout—that coming after the Cards’ Billy McCool fanned Jim Hutto on a pitch in the dirt. Zeller’s one shining moment faded in a hurry when Tony Taylor drove in the winning run for the Phils on an RBI single moments later.
In June of that same year, Zeller was released by the catching-rich Cardinals. Ted Simmons was a switch-hitting young phenom. He was their man.
Zeller? He remained with the team as a coach through the 1970 season. He spent time in the minors with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees. Then, after he “retired,” he went to work as vice president of Montgomery Ward Insurance Company and later served as senior vice president for Telemarketing USA.
He made enough to feed his family, to live comfortably. He returned to baseball—his first love—as a member of Mike Pinto’s coaching staff with the American Association Sioux Falls Canaries in 2005, but only after his children coaxed him back into the business of baseball. He took the reins of the Slammers in 2011 and led Joliet on a magical run to the Frontier League title.
He did it by infusing his energy into the clubhouse and preaching fundamental skills that he long ago mastered. Of course, it did not hurt that four or five of his players enjoyed career years, including closer Brian Smith, who was superhuman with a 1.20 ERA, 50 strikeouts and four walks. Smith put out every fire the Slammers built in that pitching circle in the center of the diamond.
“We will hustle, we will be aggressive and play small ball whenever necessary,” Zeller said shortly after he was hired by the Slammers. He hasn’t deterred from that tried-and-true philosophy this season, though the team has slipped to 20-28 and fifth place in the West Division standings.
The Slammers trail the Schaumburg Boomers by nine games and will need good fortune and good hitting in order to make a second-half run. Joliet begins with a three-game set at Southern Illinois on Friday night.
Zeller hasn’t thrown in the towel.
“We’re going into the second half with some enthusiasm because we’ve started to get some consistency with our starting pitching,” he said. “But what we’ve got to get is some hitting. We’re just not getting two-out hits.
“I don’t know how you manage it, I don’t know how you coach it, I don’t know how you approach your ballclub to get guys to be able to get up to home plate with guys on second and third, two outs and drive them both in. We seem to be really good at flying out, grounding out, popping out, striking out—doing all the things with two outs that you just don’t like to see happen.
“Baseball is not a game where you can pick the time. If a .300 hitter gets a hit in the first inning but doesn’t drive in any runs, nobody says much because he’s hitting .300. But when you’re not hitting and you’re not driving in runs, it makes a big difference. We’re not hitting for the average (the Slammers are hitting .250 as a team), we’re not hitting with runners in scoring position, we’re not developing that burning desire at home plate to get the job done.”
Zeller can’t push a magic button and make it happen, either. He can keep plugging along. He plans to do just that—for as long as the Slammers will have him as a part of the team and the community.
“I want to manage until I drop,” he said. “Wayne Terwilliger (an ex-Cub second baseman) managed in the minor leagues until he was 85. On his 85th birthday, he was just as enthusiastic and passionate about the game as he was when he was 60. A great deal has to do with what the Slammer organization feels about me, whether they want me to continue to do this.
“But I have no desire, no ambition to pack up my bags and go home and say it was great ride. I want to continue to do this and prove that we can win.”
The truth is Zeller doesn’t have much to prove to anyone in baseball anymore. His life-long journey is one filled with treasures, each one of his stories more awe-inspiring than the previous. He played with and against Denny McLain and Jim Palmer, Dave Boswell and Steve Carlton.
From behind home plate or from his seat in the dugout, Zeller watched the Gibsons and Marchials and Clementes of the baseball world—Mantle and Mays—do their thing. Zeller was fortunate enough to watch a few “no-names” blossom, too. He offered Elrod Hendricks as a prime example of what can happen when the stars align just right.
Zeller speaks here from personal experience.
“When I went from Brunswick, Ga., to Winnipeg, Canada, the Cardinals released a guy by the name of Elrod Hendricks,” Zeller said. “Elrod Hendricks was a catcher in the Cardinals organization. He went to the Orioles and spent 10 years in the big leagues as a regular catcher.
“But the Cardinals got rid of Hendricks so I could catch for Winnipeg. It just goes to prove to you everyone is not right all the time.”
In baseball, right is just as likely the result of a wrong—a seeing-eye single—as a three-run homer. The manager wears a happy face about two-thirds of the time if he is lucky. That computes to a .667 winning percentage.
The exception: Zeller. He puts on a happy face every time he sits down behind his desk and digs into his next assignment at Silver Cross Field. He is the grandest of Slammers.