By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
In June of 1976, Denny Doss was pitching for the Liberal Bee Jays. Less than a month later, he was pitching in an exhibition game for the Cleveland Indians against the Toledo Mud Hens.
But he never forgot his baseball roots and his experiences as a Bee Jay in the nationally known Jayhawk League.
Doss made a trip back to Liberal to watch the Bee Jays over the weekend and talked about his time in baseball.
“It was a great place to come and play ball,” Doss said. “It was one of the best collegiate leagues in the country. I knew lots of guys who played here, and the level of competition was excellent. I always wanted to come play here. People would ask me, ‘Where is Liberal, Kansas?’ I knew where it was, and I knew what it stood for. It was a great opportunity to come in and play with guys that ended up in the Major Leagues. The community treats you great. It was a great time — you had a job, you worked, and the community took care of you.”
Doss played his collegiate ball starting at Tulsa, which was one of the top 10 Division 1 programs in the 1970s, and then transferred to America Christian College where he pitched for a team that went 43-9 and had wins against Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Arkansas.
“We weren’t afraid to put on our pants and shoes and battle with anybody,” Doss said.
But to make the move to the big leagues in the 1970s required connections to major league players, and while Doss had that as a kid that helped develop him, he still needed a path to the draft, and teams like the Bee Jays were the way to get a shot.
“My freshmen year in college, we had four juniors and seniors that played here,” he said. “We got NBC coverage, and I heard about the Bee Jays that way. Between Liberal, Boulder and the Alaska teams, they were the premiere programs in the ’70s. So when they called me, I had no problem saying yes.”
Doss made his way to Liberal when the Bee Jays played at Fairgrounds Park.
“It was a very spacious place,” he said. “It was kind of cool, there was a racetrack part. I saw pictures before I came, it was a great place to play, it was unique. In the ens, the bases are 90 feet apart, there’s a fence and a backstop.”
Today, the Bee Jays play at Brent Gould Field on the campus of Seward County Community College, and Doss recognized the commitment from the community to provide a first-class experience for players and fans.
“This is a nice facility here,” he said. “Obviously there is a great deal of pride to come here every day.”
From the time Doss pulled in to Liberal to the players today, the game of baseball provides a common thread, even in a town that many are seeing for the first time.
“You don’t know anybody else when you get here,” he said. “You bond with the team first.”
Doss was able to play for two assistant coaches from the University of Texas, and the names of the players on his Bee Jay team that would play in the Major Leagues were like an all star roster — Jack Morris, Tim Flannery, Vance Law, Dave Hostetler and more.
“They were regular guys who had a gift and talent for playing baseball and trying to progress their careers,” he said.
Doss remembered how Morris, who would eventually pitch 254 Major League wins, gave up a home run to El Dorado in the bottom of the ninth.
“I remember thinking, ‘No one in this league can hit Jack,’ and this guy takes it deep,” Doss recalled.
He also remembered how hard Hostetler, who still holds the record for the most home runs in the month of June for the Texas Rangers, could hit a ball.
“He could hit a ball so hard at batting practice, it was lopsided,” Doss said.
He characterized Flannery, who played for the Padres and is the current third base coach for the San Francisco Giants as “the ultimate team guy. He was and still is a fan favorite in California.”
Doss never broke through with a career in the Major Leagues, spending most of his time at the Double a and Triple A level. But he had the perspective of comparing the summer leagues to pro ball.
“Back then you could compare a league like the Jayhawk to Double A baseball,” he said. “They were very fine-tuned athletes. They were ready for the mid-range minor league clubs already. They could run, hit, pitch, field and throw already, they just needed a little refinement. A lot of those kids made the big leagues in less than three years. This league was like minor league baseball, you see quality competition, great coaching, and able to work on a skill set. You play a lot of competitive games, you learn from your mistakes, and the more you play, the better you get.”
Doss had his highlight less than a month after getting the call to the majors while playing in Liberal.
He joined the minor league system for the Cleveland Indians, and he got a call that they needed him to pitch in an exhibition game between the Cleveland Indians and the Toledo Mud Hens.
“I got called in the office, and they told me they were going to fly me to Toledo to play an exhibition game with the big club,” Doss said. “I said, ‘Wow, I will be pitching for the Triple A Mud Hens already.’ They said, ‘No, you will be pitching for the Indians against the Mud Hens.’ That was July in 1976, I was pitching here in June. That was the closest I got. I didn’t make it big, but I had a fun time while I was playing.”
After his baseball career, Doss has been involved with sales, but he has seen how the game of baseball has evolved since his days in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“There is a lot of information available today,” he said. “A lot of camps, the Internet — these things weren’t accessible to athletes back then. If you didn’t come from a family that played ball or have access to people that played ball, it was tough. I was fortunate to have that access when I was a kid that helped out a lot. Now, all these kids have access. I raised four daughters that played fast-pitch softball, and there is so much training available and skill set work, and these kids take advantage of it.”
The weight room was also more of a novelty in the ’70s, and almost non-existent for baseball.
“Weight training was not a big deal back then,” he said. “Weights were frowned on, particularly for pitchers.
“Now it is a whole different environment — how they work out, dieticians, and a lot of information available and a lot of ways to advance. You can have talent, but to move it to another level, you have to advance through the knowledge of the game, through tapes, coaching, camps or summer ball. I think if you look at the majors, the athletes are unbelievable. Back in the day, if you threw 95 miles per hour, you were hard. Today they are all up there.”
Doss recalled a pitch he threw against a Dodge City player when he was a Bee Jay.
“I threw a pitch that this guy shouldn’t have been able to hit with a nine iron,” he said. “I can’t believe he hit a home run off that pitch. He lifted it right off the plate. It looked like a golf shot. We still won that game.”
Doss still keeps contact with some of his former Bee Jay teammates with the occasional email.
And he still remembers what he called “the little things,” like going to church with Tim Flannery’s dad and spending time with “down-to-earth guys” who loved baseball, and the way the community treated the team.
“Everyone with the whole organization was special,” he said.