I have had a fondness for the baseball fringe player ever since Bob “Riverboat” Smith tossed me a scuffed ball in 1958.
Riverboat was a journeyman pitcher with a rather unremarkable career. I do remember the great cartoonist, Bob Coyne, having a cartoon on the back of The Boston American with Smith standing on a riverboat. Smith had a short stay in Boston and an even briefer one with a few other teams before moving on with his life.
In the early 1970s I was heading from Hannibal, Missouri (Home of Joe Hardy) to St. Joseph’s on a business trip and passed through Clarence, Missouri – home of Riverboat.
Riverboat was easy to find since he had a thriving local business and was quite active in his community, so I looked him up. A gracious and pleasant gentleman who offered me a few hours of hospitality from his busy routine. We discussed baseball and life in general and then I was on my way.
I read about ten years ago that Riverboat had died in a tractor accident. That tinge of sadness I experienced turned to a quick smile as I drifted back to my youthful, and early adult memories of Riverboat, and my attraction to fringe players.
In 2013 the Sox offered an opportunity to a fringe player. Step right up, Jonathan Diaz. Diaz was a career minor league player and in all probability will be until he retires. After ten seasons of Dunedin to Pawtucket he got his brief taste of life in the Bigs. He joins the ranks of Jeff Bailey, Jay Ritchie, Buddy Hunter, Luis Aponte, Kirk Bullinger and dozen’s of others who have passed through Boston and elsewhere.
Why do they do it?
I remember discussing that very point with Riverboat. He wanted to “give it a ride” as he said. Smith was a college grad and had a farming background. Felt age 30 was his cutoff, but his real reason? He loved baseball.
I also look at a name that is no longer on my personal list. Daniel Nava. His rise to limited fame and glory is will documented. If he had packed it in after 2011, Nava would forever remain a trivia question, and a fond memory for RSN. Every once in a great while along comes that little bit of lightning and fringe migrates into a nice career. To some on the fringe, Nava, becomes their goal.