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Angels in the outfield

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A week before he was due to join Mickey Mantle in the Yankees outfield in September 1956, Sam Suplizio broke up a double play sliding into second base during a minor league game in Nashville. He broke his right arm in seven places.

“It didn’t heal properly,” said Bobby Richardson, a former teammate and longtime friend. “The next season he couldn’t throw 10 feet.”

But Suplizio’s long reach was felt in the sport for over 50 years, until his death in December 2006. He was a coach, a mentor and a baseball promoter. And his impact was felt Wednesday at Pawleys Island when the first games were played at a ballfield dedicated to his memory at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church.

“Sam lived and breathed for the love of the game,” said Caroline Suplizio, his widow. “I’m so glad it was able to come to fruition.”

Sam coached outfielders for the Brewers, Angels, Cardinals and Mariners. He was a mentor to Baseball Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount at Milwaukee, and to Anaheim star Tim Salmon. Another longtime friend, Rich “Goose” Gossage, will be inducted into the hall this month.

“I know of nobody that’s got more friends in baseball than Sam Suplizio,” said Richardson, who played 11 seasons with the Yankees at second base. He and Suplizio signed with the Yankees the same year and played together on the Binghampton, N.Y., farm team.

Three years ago, the Suplizios, who lived in Colorado, visited friends at DeBordieu. They fell in love with the area and bought a home.

Although baseball was his passion, Suplizio was an avid fan of many sports. That was something he shared with the Rev. Patrick Stenson at Precious Blood.

“They watched every game they possibly could,” Caroline said.

And they talked about the sports field that the church was developing. They thought it would be ideal for a diamond, and even a baseball school.

“Sam really looked forward to bringing some major leaguers in,” Caroline said. “He and Bobby were actually going to give instruction to the kids around here.”

But then Sam became ill. He died of heart failure at 74.

Suplizio’s career could have ended as a bit of baseball trivia. Had he joined the Yankees as center fielder, they wouldn’t have traded for Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61 homers in a single season.

Sam Suplizio loved baseball too much to walk away.

He moved west, to Grand Junction, Colo., where he had played a season of semi-pro ball. He knew the area from his days at the University of New Mexico, where he was an All-American baseball player. One of five brothers from the coal-mining town of DuBois, Pa., he got a football scholarship to the University of West Virginia. When the coach took a job in New Mexico, Suplizio followed.

He sold insurance in Grand Junction and became a minor league coach and manager, starting out with the Dodgers team in the Texas League.

He was also player-manager for Grand Junction’s semi-pro team, the Eagles. One day in 1965, Suplizio had three home runs off the visiting team.

Friends recalled that game because it was Tom Seaver who pitched for the visitors, just three years before he led the Mets to the World Championship.

Gossage, a record-setting relief pitcher, grew up in Colorado Springs, and said he had heard of Suplizio long before he met him as a major league player. He recalled how Suplizio made a special effort to meet him one day in Milwaukee just because of their Colorado connection. That’s the kind of man he was.

“Baseball is a family. It’s a very tight-knit family,” Gossage said. “There wasn’t a better ambassador to the game of baseball than Sam Suplizio.”

They shared an interest in getting more kids involved in the game. “Sam was involved in every part of baseball,” Gossage said. “He had a passion for helping other people.”

Suplizio helped start the Junior College World Series, which is still played in Grand Junction, at Sam Suplizio Field.

Sam was something of a frustrated architect, his wife said. “He modeled that field after Yankee Stadium,” she said. He was always planning improvements.

He was successful in business, too. He became the president and principal shareholder of the company, Home Loan Insurance and Investment. Employees recalled that he ran the business the way he managed a ball team.

Suplizio co-chaired the commission that brought Major League Baseball to Colorado and built Coors Field and Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos.

But even Suplizio admitted that his real strength was his ability to teach and inspire young players.

“It was his life,” Richardson said. “He would be out there trying to coach those young players.”

That took him to the World Series with the Brewers in 1982. He was with the Angels in September 1995 when they played at Baltimore. Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. Suplizio kept a picture from that game on his desk, prominent even among a collection of memorabilia that would make any fan’s knees go weak.

There were quieter moments, too. Caroline Suplizio recalled the time Sam was invited by President George W. Bush to a game at the White House, held for disabled children.

A 12-year-old told him, “this is the first time anybody asked me to play.”

A letter from the president was sent for Wednesday’s ceremony.

“He was a real giver,” Richardson said. “Everywhere I go I run into people who say, Sam Suplizio was my closest friend.”

Caroline said that’s because her husband’s integrity and values found their metaphor in baseball. “He wanted to impart those to others,” she said.

Sam explained that in a 2003 interview with his college alumni magazine:

“With a ball, bat, and glove you can take a young man and turn him into a good citizen with baseball as the vehicle.”

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