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A little-known career with a remarkable ending10/03/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history, dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our "Cracked Bats" feature. Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
Mark Lee wasn't about to be bullied out of baseball. He wasn't going to be told he was no longer needed and he certainly wasn't going to let a team's front office decide when he would peel off his uniform for the final time.
So he decided that he would walk away from the game he loved on his own terms. And since that August day in 1982, he hasn't regretted his choice or the manner in which he chose to punctuate his playing career.
Lee was a big right-hander who had moderate success throughout his Minor League career and through portions of four seasons in the Major Leagues. But when the Pittsburgh Pirates decided near the end of the 1982 season that Lee was no longer part of their future, the then-29-year-old figured that it was better to jump off the bridge than be pushed.
He had spent all of the 1982 season in the Minor Leagues, beginning with Pittsburgh in Spring Training. Detroit, however, purchased his contract from the Pirates that March and assigned him to Evansville of the Triple-A American Association. But the Tigers released Lee after he went 1-2 with a 7.25 ERA in 18 appearances.
Pittsburgh reclaimed him and sent him to Portland, where he fared slightly better, posting a 4.19 ERA in 27 innings. But on the morning of Aug. 17, Portland manager Tom Trebelhorn told Lee that he was being designated for assignment after the game. It was just a fancy way of saying he would be released.
Given the option of staying with the club for one more game or going home, Lee chose the former and made his way down to the bullpen for what would be his last game as a Beaver. Portland was making short work of Vancouver that Monday night and when Trebelhorn called down to the bullpen to see if Lee wanted to do some ninth-inning mop-up work, the first response he got was no.
"At first I thought there was no reason to," Lee said. "But [teammate] Bobby Mitchell was talking a little bit and brought up the fact that it was unusual that someone got in the last say on me. I was a bit of a clubhouse clown and I enjoyed the Minor Leagues, so I called him [Trebelhorn] back and told him let me have the ninth.
"I wasn't sure what I was going to do until I got on the mound. I decided that if I struck the first or second guy out, I'd retire right there. I got the first guy to an 0-2 count and he popped up. The second guy [Bob Skube] struck out, though, so I called time. At first, the umpire thought I wanted a new ball but I said no, that I wanted Trebelhorn."
So Trebelhorn made his way out to the mound, not sure what was happening. Upon his arrival, Lee informed him that he was no longer going to pitch.
"I told him, look, it's nothing against you," Lee said. "But I've faced my last guy. I struck out my last man and I'm retiring right now. He had kind of a funny look on his face. I don't think he expected that but I always thought he wanted me to do something.
"I guess he was shocked, but he brought in another pitcher. I told Butch Edge, before I left the bullpen, to be ready but he was like 'Yeah, right. We're up by a hundred runs.'"
As Lee walked off the mound and up the right-field line toward the exit of Portland Civic Stadium, he tossed the ball back toward the infield. Then he threw his cap down. Finally, he peeled off his jersey and tossed it to the ground as well. He kept walking right out of the ballpark and right out baseball, never to be seen on a field again.
Lee says he has never regretted his decision. He did, however, and still does question Pittsburgh's decision to release him with less than two weeks remaining in the Minor League season. Had they waited until the end of the year, they could have just released him and that would have been the end of the story. But they decided to cut him on Aug. 17 and Lee turned the situation into his 15 minutes of fame.
He was mentioned on radio programs and television talk shows around the country. Most newspapers picked up the story as well, making him an instant celebrity.
"They ended up paying me," Lee said. "That's what was so funny. That's why I thought it was a bunch of crap. Why not just keep me on the roster?
"My teammates thought it was pretty amazing and they all supported me 100 percent. Some of the big leaguers in Pittsburgh like Bill Madlock and Kurt Bevacqua also spoke up and expressed some surprise. So I had the support."
What he didn't have, however, was a job. He headed home to Texas without a team or contract, but decided in early winter that if he were to pitch again, it wouldn't be in the Minor Leagues. If he received a Major League invite to Spring Training in 1983 he would go. But he received only a handful of Minor League offers, making his decision that much easier.
Lee remained in Amarillo and spent the next 20 years selling insurance. He got back into baseball in 2003 with the Amarillo Dillas of the United League, serving as the independent club's director of sales. He remained in that position for two seasons before the franchise was sold to El Paso. But when new ownership revived the franchise in 2005, Lee was chosen as general manager, a position he still holds.
Now, a quarter of a century later and a front office man, how would he feel if one of his players exited the game as he had in 1982?
"I've seen a lot of antics during my time in baseball," Lee said. "Some I understand and some I don't. A lot of people don't understand what goes through an athlete's mind, what kind of pressure they put on themselves. If someone fires a bat or goes into the stands, I have a problem with that.
"If it's an uneventful, harmless situation, depending on the timing, if one of my players retired like that, I wouldn't say a word. I could have retired after the game, but facing that second guy was the most pressure I ever had. If I don't strike him out then I still get the last guy and the game is over and I'm released anyway."
Lee said someone mailed him his jersey about a month and a half after he walked off the field that August night. There was no return address, just the jersey stuffed in a box. He still has it.
As for his 15 minutes, it's down to a few seconds every now and then. A local television station in Amarillo recently re-enacted his departure from the game on one of its news broadcasts, a video of which can be seen on the United League's website.
"I walked away and I continued on with my life," he said. "I have the same level of happiness with both jobs. And now, this is the best job I ever had other than being a player."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.