06/16/2014 1:20 PM
T-Bones pitching coach Bill Sobbe (right) chats with one his long-time friends in this business, Cy Young winner and World Series MVP Bret Saberhagen. (2013 file photo by Matthew Hicks.)
By MATTHEW McMULLEN
For most, baseball is just a game. It’s about going to the ballpark with friends or playing catch in the front lawn. It represents a chance to escape from the struggles of everyday life. But for T-Bones pitching coach Bill Sobbe, baseball has been much more than that. Baseball has been his life.
“Being an athlete, I think athletics has given me everything I have in my life,” said Sobbe, who is in his third season with the T-Bones. “I wanted to get into coaching since I was a kid. My dad refereed basketball in Kansas City and I would go to the games with him and the guys that got the most respect and that people liked the most were the coaches.”
Although Sobbe has made a career of coaching athletes in numerous sports – he claims the only sport he hasn’t coached is soccer – he had different aspirations as a college ballplayer looking to break into the big leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers picked Sobbe in the 20th round of the 1979 MLB Amateur Draft, but he had a decision to make considering he had a year of school left at Northwest Missouri State University.
“It’s an anxious time in a young guy’s life that they’re going to start on something that they want to do and that they’ve been training to do for the last six or seven years of their life,” said Sobbe. “Then that opportunity comes and you have to make a decision: do I go and pursue this right away and leave school, or do I go back to school? I think it was just one of those things where it was time for me to try it.”
Sobbe took the leap and spent three years in the Dodgers’ minor-league system, compiling a career batting average of .282 with 20 doubles and 95 RBIs. A catcher, Sobbe posted an impressive career fielding percentage as well, fielding at a .979 clip. Sobbe hoped to move up in the Dodgers’ system, but in 1981 faced yet another difficult decision.
“I was in double-A at the end of 1981 and I went to spring training with the double-A roster,” said Sobbe. “Well, in the last week of spring training, they told me they were going to send me back to A-ball. I had just turned 24, and at the time, if you’re 24 in A-ball you’re a suspect, not a prospect. And I felt like there was something in life I could do besides play baseball and it was time to pursue that. I thought long and hard about it, and I just decided it was time for me to try something else in life.”
That something else turned out to be education, to which Sobbe would devote the next 30 years of his life. He spent 13 years with the North Kansas City School District after going back to school to finish his degree in physical education, and then another 17 years with the Park Hill School District as an in-school supervisor, a physical education teacher, an athletic director, a coach of numerous sports and an assistant principal.
“[My interest in education] all came later and grew,” he said. “It became interesting for me to see how I could help the kids with the parent’s help or in spite of them sometimes.”
As busy as Sobbe was as an administrator, he also had another job in an all too familiar setting.
“The year I came home [from the minors], the Royals called that summer and were looking for [a bullpen catcher] in ’83,” said Sobbe. “I said I couldn’t do it until I finished school, but the next year I needed a job, and the scout that I had talked to before came up to me and said the job was still open, and asked if I wanted it. I said yeah, I needed a job for the summer, so I’ll do it. I think sometimes they just forgot I was still there and I kept showing up.”
That “summer job” worked out fairly well, as Sobbe served as the Royals’ bullpen catcher for 20 years, retiring in 2003. His first two years in the bullpen were especially exciting, as the Royals reached the playoffs in both and won the World Series in 1985.
“I was pretty fortunate. All three years I played in the minor leagues we played in the championship series of our league. So, I was used to winning before ’84 when we went to the playoffs while I was working for the Royals, and then in ’85 we won the World Series and I thought: I’ve been around pro ball for five years now and I’ve gone to the championship every year,” said Sobbe. “So that was an interesting [observation], to be able to play during playoff time, whether it’s in the minor leagues when you’re playing for a championship or if it’s at the highest level, you can see then tension and the anxious feelings that are all there.”
Sobbe also caught some legendary arms while serving in the Royals’ bullpen, from Cy Young award winner Bret Saberhagen to Tom “Flash” Gordon of the mid-1990’s.
“Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, Buddy Black and Charlie Leibrandt were all easy to catch, they had great control,” said Sobbe. “[Dan] Quisenberry was a lot of fun because he came from ‘down under.’ Jeff Montgomery, Kevin Appier, ‘Flash’ Gordon, you can name almost anybody. I got to know just about everybody because I was down there with them every day.”
After his retirement from the Royals in 2003, Sobbe continued to be involved in high school athletics but had seemingly said farewell to professional baseball. That would all change just two weeks before the T-Bones began the 2012 season.
“I ran into Kenny Hook, who was going to be the manager [of the T-Bones], who I had known as a kid,” said Sobbe. “I was a couple years away from retiring [from education], and getting back into baseball had been a goal. When you’re an old guy sometimes you don’t get those opportunities and this one came up so I just took it.”
Sobbe joined Kansas City as the club’s bench coach. This season he became the pitching coach. Despite the personnel turnover at the end of the ’13 season, which saw former manager Kenny Hook let go, Sobbe was invited back because of his extensive experience and ability to get the best out of his ballplayers.
“I knew [manager John Massarelli] and [general manager] Chris Browne had conversations about who to bring on the staff, and [Massarelli] called me up and said he’d like to have me back, and it’s gone from there,” said Sobbe. “I enjoy it, being around the game of baseball gives you a brighter outlook on life than other jobs.”
And even after all these years, Sobbe’s focus while on the baseball diamond is on one thing: winning a championship.
“Our goal here is to win a championship,” said Sobbe. “When you sign up to play something, whatever it is, the ultimate goal is always to win the championship, and that’s no different here for us.”