A neat circle of baseball caps covers one wall of Mike Stenhouse's bedroom. Right in the middle, the most prominently displayed, hangs the shiny green and yellow batting helmet of the Oakland Athletics.
"I used to love that Oakland team," Stenhouse says now, "When they were great, they were about the best ever."
Mike Stenhouse does not love the A's anymore.
Stenhouse holds just about every Harvard career and single season batting record. As a freshman he hit .475, a Crimson record, and he has followed that feat with seasons of .430 and .395. His career records include most home runs, 19; most hits, 141; and most runs batted in, 101, even though he has played only three seasons.
He will not play again for the Crimson. Since June 5, Stenhouse has had a strange odyssey through the world of professional baseball. His guide on that journey: Charles O. Finley, owner of the Oakland A's.
A player with credentials like Stenhouse draws baseball scouts faster than an open bar. By the time the 1979 spring draft rolled around, several teams--especially the Red Sox and Yankees--had shown interest, and the leftfielder had told them he wanted to play pro ball.
"I made it very clear to everyone that I would sign if I was given a fair opportunity." Stenhouse says. Read: a shot at the majors. "We had been saying up to the day of the draft (June 5) I'll be o.k. as long as Oakland doesn't draft me."
They did. On the final selection of the first round, the Oakland A's, who had never spoken to, or shown even the remotest interest in Mike Stenhouse, made him the 26th college player selected in the nation.
The reason the A's never contacted him is probably because they have no full-time scouts and their orgainization is the laughing stock of professional baseball. Finley has sold every player from the great championship teams of 1972, 1973, and 1974, and is trying hard to sell the whole team. In the meantime, he runs them like a pretzel stand. And pays commensurate salaries.
"I didn't have too much time to get too down about it, with the press calling and all, but I knew things might be difficult," Stenhouse says. With his father, Dave, a pitcher with the Washington Senators in the early '60's, acting as his agent, he began negotiations optimistically. "It could have been ideal," he says. "With a team like that, (the A's have been welded to last place in recent years) it could have been a quick way to get where I wanted." The majors.
The A's contacted the elder Stenhouse in the family home in Cranston R.I. with an offer that Mike says, "was really ridiculous. I knew what I was looking for was not that unreasonable, money-wise and everything-wise. I wasn't looking for six figures. What they were offering was barely two figures."
"It wasn't an offer. It was an ultimatum--take it or leave it. We said we weren't going to take it." About four days passed after the first offer before Finley himself called Dave Stenhouse with a new deal.
The money was basically the same, but Finley said he would include in the contract a guarantee that Mike would play for the A's during the month of September, when major league rosters are expanded from 24 to 40 players.
"That put a little different picture on things," Mike recalls. "For a kid in school that's awful inviting. I called Finley collect--he even accepted the charges--and I said I'd probably take it."
Keep Your Guard Up
But in the conversation, Stenhouse says he could "hear the conniving wheels turning. I always hated him for what he had done to that team. You can't catch him off guard."
Stenhouse made up his mind; he would sign. His friends took him out in Cape Cod--where he was playing summer ball in a college league--for a "bye-bye-get-wasted-night."
Finley called the next day to say he could not write the month in the majors guarantee into the contract. It was just a legal technicality. Finley said. Mike still had his word on the deal.
But to Stenhouse "It was just a cheap trick. He was just trying to lure me into it. My father said it was just not good business." The Stenhouses turned down Charlie O. the next day. They have not heard from him since.
Stenhouse's only hope before January is that Finley sells the A's to a less penurious owner with whom Mike could negotiate. According to an Associated Press report yesterday, the sale of the A's to Denver oilman Marvin Davis "may be completed by the end of the month."
Because of major league and NCAA rules, Stenhouse cannot negotiate with another team, and if he wants to return to Harvard, he'll have to wait until June to be drafted by another team. But through a complicated loophole in the regulations, the baseball commissioner has allowed him to go into the January 1980 draft, while still enrolled as an undergraduate.
The price Stenhouse had to pay was his eligibility to play for the Crimson this spring. If, as he expects, he signs with the team that drafts him in January, he will take the spring semester off and go to spring training. "When I found out I had this choice--get my degree right away or play baseball right away--I knew baseball has always been my priority," he says, adding that he hopes to return next fall to complete his undergraduate requirements.
He has signed with a real agent. Tony Pennachia--who represents Jim Rice and Cecil Cooper among others--to negotiate with the team that drafts him in January. About the Harvard varsity, of which he is co-captain elect, Mike says, "I did and do feel bad about not playing, but I think they understand my reasons." Coach Alex Nahigian certainly does, but he also understands Stenhouse's absence will be a big loss to this year's squad. "You lose a hitter of Mike's caliber and it's going to hurt," he says. "We'll do our best without him."
As for Sten (most people seem to leave out his first name and the second syllable of his last name), he's coming off a fine summer season spent hitting .335 and trying not to think about Mr. Finley and his team.
"I understand the position Finley was in; he really didn't have any money, but it was his own fault. That shows you what greed will do. In a matter of two years, he destroyed a great team," he says.
And Mike Stenhouse is proud to point out. Charlie Finley did not destroy Mike Stenhouse.