LANCASTER, Pa. -- It's six hours before first pitch. On this night, the Lancaster Barnstormers will host the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in an independent Atlantic League game. In the home manager's office, Butch Hobson is already at work.
In fact, he's been in since 9:30 a.m. Even though the season is barely a week old, the Barnstormers have already lost two pitchers and he has to replace them.
That's a good thing, by the way.
Phil Coke's contract was sold to the Yankees and assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Andrew Albers went to the Twins, who put him at Triple-A Rochester. This is a revenue source for the Atlantic League, which has a working agreement with Major League Baseball. Any player is available to an organization for $3,000 if he goes to Class A, $4,000 for Double-A or $5,000 for Triple-A. On the rare occasions when a player like Ruben Sierra or Jose Canseco or Rickey Henderson or Jose Lima goes straight to the big leagues, it's $10,000.
But this isn't just about the money. It's about hope.
Scattered around the Barnstormers clubhouse at Clipper Magazine Stadium on this late-April afternoon are equipment bags from various Major League teams. Two from the Blue Jays over here. One from the Twins over there. From the Reds and Braves in front of cubicles along another wall. They represent more than just a way to lug gear around. They are tangible symbols of where about 40 percent of the players in this league have been … and where almost all hope to be in the future.
Since the ALPB began play in 1998, more than 800 of its players have gotten opportunities with big league organizations. Over 100 reached the Majors.
"We take a lot of pride in that," Hobson said. "We take a lot of pride in getting guys back.
"We work at it. When we get a call from a Minor League director or a scout, or if I see a scout in the stands at batting practice, I ask him, 'Hey, what are you looking for?' And I'll go through my roster. Pitchers, position players, whatever it might be. Tell them what I think. And it's resulted in players getting signed. I tell my group there are two jobs I have to do here. One is to get you back. No. 2 is to win a championship, and that's the way we approach it every day."
Hobson also tries to help his coaches chase their dreams of becoming managers or catching on with an organization.
Which, inevitably, begs the question: What about him? Hobson's resume is, in many ways, stellar. Hobson is known for his toughness during eight big league seasons with the Red Sox, with whom he hit 30 homers with 112 RBIs in 1977, and stints with the Angels and Yankees. He was International League Manager of the Year in 1991; manager of the Red Sox the following season, when he was still just 40 years old; winningest manager in Atlantic League history with 11 trips to the postseason and six to the championship round; four times its Manager of the Year.
So, again, what about Butch Hobson? Why hasn't he gotten back?
* * *
It was exactly 20 years ago Wednesday -- May 4, 1996 -- that the life of Clell Lavern Hobson Jr. changed forever.
While managing Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, then the Phillies' top farm team, Hobson was arrested for felony possession of cocaine after accepting an overnight delivery at the Comfort Inn in Pawtucket, R.I., where the Red Barons were staying.
He was placed on unpaid leave by the Phillies almost immediately, then was fired on Aug. 8 of that season. Hobson was never found guilty of a crime. Instead, he entered a program for first-time offenders and did 60 hours of community service.
This much, at least, everybody can agree on.
Beyond that, the circumstances remain shrouded. There have been hints that Hobson was set up by a former friend. That he was expecting a couple hundred dollars in cash, the repayment of a loan, and was stunned to find drugs instead.
"I don't want to talk about that because there are a lot of things about that that I still don't like that happened," he said. "I paid my debt and I did what I had to do."
It was the only topic during a 40-minute conversation that he put off limits.
Not that he's claiming to be perfect. Far from it. He tells his players about the mistakes he's made. He tells youth groups he speaks to. He doesn't try to hide it.
"Growing up in the '70s and being from the South, being a southern boy, you get to the big leagues and things were out there. Somebody would say, 'Butch, why don't you try this?' And I didn't hesitate," he said.
"Everybody knows my history and what happened. It's out there. I paid my debt for what I did. I did my community service and more. And I continue to do that. I believe that in your life you plant a lot of seeds. And a lot of times those seeds you planted maybe weren't so good. But they continue to grow and if you're not careful they're going to come back and they're going to bite you on the rear."
So, yes, Hobson had a problem with substance abuse.
"Was I on death's bed? No," he said. "It originally started as recreational. But recreational in the '70s, we ran hard. It was nothing to go into places in Chicago and see cocaine on the tables. And when you're 25 years old and everyone's saying, 'C'mon, man, let's go?' I was all in. And that's nobody's fault but mine. Whether I was educated about it or not. It's still against the law. You're still not supposed to do it."
That still doesn't explain why Hobson has been managing in the independent leagues since 2000, why he hasn't had an offer since to go back to a big league organization despite all the success he's had since leaving the Majors.
Baseball is, after all, a most forgiving game. Twenty players were involved in the 1985 Pittsburgh cocaine trials, including some of the biggest names in the game: Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez, Vida Blue, Tim Raines, Jeffrey Leonard, Dickie Noles, Gary Matthews, Lonnie Smith, Joaquin Andujar. All were welcomed back afterward. Many worked in baseball when their playing careers ended and two (Dusty Baker, Lee Mazzilli) became managers.
More than a dozen players were disciplined for their connection to Biogenesis, most notably Alex Rodriguez. All resumed their careers after serving their suspensions. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, both tarred by BALCO, are now big league hitting coaches.
The easy assumption is that Hobson is unfairly being held far more accountable for his transgressions than hundreds of others before him.
But it's not nearly that simple.
* * *
Lancaster is a small city (population: 60,000) set in the middle of rolling farmland dotted by silos, barns, tractors and cows. Motorists share the winding roads with horse-drawn Amish buggies. It's one of the oldest inland towns in the United States and home to James Buchanan, the nation's 15th president. Downtown historical plaques note the sites of former landmarks such as Bailey's Print Shop, Colonial Mansion, Fulton Opera House and Gibson's Tavern.
"I really like where I am," Hobson said. "I haven't politicked to get back to an organization. Baseball's been really good to me. I've been blessed to play in the big leagues, manage in the big leagues. I can't say that I could wish for anything more because there's millions of men who never had the opportunity to do what I did. And I'm still in it."
Hobson came to the Atlantic League in 2000 to manage the Nashua (New Hampshire) Pride. He moved seamlessly from there to Southern Maryland to Lancaster, never skipping a beat, never having to worry about having a job.
Naturally, though, it's crossed his mind. How different might the last 20 years have been if he had made different decisions along the way? And not just about his lifestyle, either.
Because the truth is that Hobson made other choices as well. Less than a year after he was arrested, the Red Sox hired him as a special assignment scout. The next year he managed Boston's Class A Sarasota club. Before the 2000 season, there was talk that he might be moved up to Double-A Trenton. After that, anything could have happened, including a big league coaching spot. Maybe even a second shot at managing.
Instead, Hobson opted to go to Nashua, to independent ball. He was living in Vermont at the time. He and his second wife, Krystine, had three young sons and their daughter (Olivia) hadn't been born yet. He chose to be closer to his family. Now his oldest son, K.C., is a left-handed pitcher for Double-A New Hampshire in the Blue Jays system. Hank is a grad assistant coach at the University of Arizona. Noah pitches for Shelton State in Tuscaloosa, but plans to join the Marine reserves and get into advance reconnaissance.
So Hobson did what was best for his family and it worked out great and he doesn't regret it. Although he'll admit that he does sometimes wonder what would have happened if he'd gone wherever the Red Sox wanted to place him in 2000.
Big league coaches make far more than Atlantic League managers. If he had gotten another chance to manage in the Majors, the payoff could have been huge. He's also 63 days short of having 10 years of big league service, which would allow him to max out on his pension plan.
That wasn't the only time his career came to a fork in the road, either.
In 1993, while he was managing the Red Sox, the head baseball coaching position at the University of Alabama was about to come open. His ties to the school run deep. He not only played baseball there but also played football under the legendary Bear Bryant. He was told the job was his if he wanted it.
"And I'm going, 'I'm managing the Boston Red Sox. I don't know if I can do that.' I'd actually been given an extension for 1994," Hobson said. "I think about that a lot. I was still a young manager and thought I was going to set the world on fire. And then things happened."
Twice, after establishing himself in the Atlantic League, Hobson made overtures to different big league teams about becoming their third-base coach. He wasn't hired either time, although there are no indications that the 1996 arrest was the reason. He still believes that if he had really pushed he would have gotten another opportunity. But he also concedes it's a little disappointing that nobody took the initiative to reach out to him.
"Do I think that if I got on the phone and called every general manager and minor league director and said, 'Look, I want to get back to an organization' would I be considered? I think that I would," he said.
"I've thought about that at times. Why nobody has called? But it's not anything I go to sleep at night thinking about. I'm just thankful that I am where I am. I'm involved in baseball. I'm involved in something that I think is good. I'm involved in something that we have had some guys go back to organizations and go back to the big leagues. I think that's a pretty cool thing."
* * *
Hobson will turn 65 in August. If he was 10 years younger, he says, he might look at his situation differently. If he was out of work, that would change his outlook. If an offer came now, he'd think about it, but it wouldn't be a slam dunk that he'd accept it.
Still, there's a long list of people anxious to vouch for his integrity and his character and his skills as a teacher and motivator, to openly root for him to get another chance. Joe Klein -- former general manager of the Rangers, Indians and Tigers, now the Atlantic League's Executive Director, Baseball Operations -- is one.
"I wish my sons had had an opportunity to play for Butch Hobson," said Klein, who has been with the Atlantic League since its inception. "He's a true professional. I think all of his players come away a little bit better for having been with him. He carries Major League standards into his Atlantic League coaching."
D.J. Boston, brother of former big leaguer Daryl Boston, is another. He played four years for Hobson at Nashua and is now one of his Barnstormers coaches. He doesn't understand why there haven't been more offers over the years.
"Especially after you see all the guys who get second and third and fourth chances, you just wonder why a guy like Butch doesn't," he said. "He made a mistake. Why doesn't he get another chance? He's a baseball man. He bleeds baseball.
"He's loyal. He cares about his guys, on and off the field. I played for [Hobson] and those were probably my best [years] of playing baseball. Because you enjoy coming to the park. You enjoy playing as hard as you can for the guy. You'd run through a brick wall for him. He has the pulse of his players. That's what you appreciate."
Twenty years ago Wednesday, Hobson's life changed forever. That probably cost him some money.
Looked at another way, though, it could have been a blessing.
"That was a wake-up call," Hobson said. "Some good definitely came out of this. Without a doubt."
With the help of wife Krystine and their shared faith, he regained control of his life. He's happy and content. His family is doing well.
This was supposed to be a story about Butch Hobson's long and futile search for redemption. Little did we know that, in the ways that matter most, he already found that years ago.