Kevin Haskin: Signing party allows Torrez to give back

The last memory of Mike Torrez competing as a Topeka schoolboy can be a bit fuzzy. Perhaps even sour.

 

A starter for a Topeka High basketball team ranked among the best in the state, Torrez was summoned on a Monday into the office of his coach.

Jack Dean had read a small blurb in The Capital-Journal, detailing Torrez’s exploits for a club team, which captured a tournament the previous weekend in Omaha, Neb. Torrez was named the most valuable player.

Unfortunately, his participation violated high school rules.

“I got kicked off the team,’’ Torrez said. “Jack Dean asked me, ‘Is this Mike Torrez maybe your brother who was voted MVP of this tournament?’ I said, ‘No, that’s me.’ And he said, ‘Mike, you can’t do that. It makes you ineligible.’ ’’

What a blow. Torrez operated as part of the double-post the Trojans played as they challenged against the likes of Sunflower League rival KC-Wyandotte, which featured future NBA guard Lucious Allen.

“It was one of my most sorrowful times,’’ Torrez said. “I felt really bad.’’

Years have passed and Torrez overcame the mistake. Quite well, in fact.

He made it to the big leagues and enjoyed a lengthy career as a starting pitcher for several teams, winning two World Series games in 1977 for the champion New York Yankees.

Torrez recently was named the No. 1 all-time athlete in a summer series, 100 Greatest Athletes of Shawnee County, which was authored by The Capital-Journal sports staff.

On Nov. 16, in appreciation of the honor and to acknowledge the community in which he was raised, Torrez will sign autographs from 4-7 p.m. at Hy-Vee, 2951 S.W. Wanamaker Road. Ken Berry, the No. 2 athlete in the Top 100, who also was a longtime big-leaguer and former All-Star, will sign autographs alongside Torrez.

“I am hoping it will be a chance to see some of the guys and girls I went to school with, and a chance to meet their grandchildren,’’ said Torrez, who now lives in Naperville, Ill. “This is something I’d like to do as sort of a give-back for the (series) you had at the newspaper.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a card show back there, so it will be a great time. A lot of people from back there congratulated me (on the No. 1 distinction) and it’s something that was very nice. It was unexpected.’’

Much of Torrez’s family still resides in the Topeka area. The family grew up in the Oakland neighborhood, where Torrez got his start in baseball playing in the Cosmopolitan League.

Topeka High, however, did not field a baseball program when Torrez was in school. Torrez also quit playing football after his sophomore year on the advice of his older brother, Johnny, who played the sport and suffered a shoulder injury that derailed the splendid baseball promise he demonstrated.

Mike considered himself something of an unknown in that sport, though he possessed a lively arm. The summer pursuit was mixed with a $1-an-hour overnight job Torrez held at a gas station.

“No one really knew that I played baseball,’’ he said.

Well, a few did. Marion McDonald, the former Washburn coach, was instrumental alerting pro scouts to the tall right-hander. Interest peaked during an American Legion tournament, when Torrez struck out 18 while throwing a one-hitter.

Before that club tournament abruptly halted his senior season in basketball, Torrez was considering college offers.

“I was thinking about going to college on a basketball scholarship, but several pro teams began to look at me and the Cardinals offered me a contract,’’ Torrez said. “I was dumbfounded at first, though. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Nobody had really talked to me about baseball scouts.’’

Torrez signed the offer, reached the majors in 1967 and played 18 seasons. He went 185-160 with a 3.96 ERA and 119 complete games, fanning 1,404 over 3,0432/3 innings.

Know what? He never missed basketball. Largely because Torrez kept playing. Up until two years ago he participated in an over-35 league. He is now 65.

“I was actually running the team,’’ he said. “I can still play. I love basketball.’’

Kevin Haskin can be reached

at (785) 295-1159

or kevin.haskin@cjonline.com.

NFL Pick'Em

MIKE TORREZ AND KEN BERRY AUTOGRAPH SIGNING

Mike Torrez and Ken Berry, two former Major League Baseball stars from Topeka who were Nos. 1 and 2 in The Topeka Capital-Journal’s 100 Greatest Athletes of Shawnee County series, will participate in a free autograph signing from 4-7 p.m. Nov. 16 at Hy-Vee, 2951 S.W. Wanamaker Road.

A limited number of photographs will be available for Torrez and Berry to sign on a first-come, first-serve basis, and fans are encouraged to bring memorabilia of their own to have the former players sign.

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