Eddie Cervantes (Johnson, Sacramento City) was a member of the Class-A Northwest League independent Portland Mavericks, one of the most notorious minor-league teams whose antics and style didn’t impress Major League Baseball at all.
The Mavericks were described by Major League Baseball and the media as a team of rejects, belching brawlers, rag-tag misfits, has-beens, wannabes and chain-smoking, beer-drinking thirty somethings with no dress code, moral discipline or respect for the game.
“We were the adult version of the ‘Bad News Bears’ but with talent,” Cervantes said in an interview in February of 2016. “Whenever and wherever we played, we were a target. We knew the league questioned our rebellious and carefree attitude. What the league couldn’t question was our ability to play the game.”
From 1973 to 1977, the Mavericks were one of the best minor-league teams in the country. They were owned and operated by ex-minor leaguer and Hollywood B actor Bing Russell, whose film and television career included portraying Deputy Clem for 13 years on the television western Bonanza. He claimed he was shot on screen more than 125 times.
In 1973, the Pacific Coast League moved the Oregon-based Portland Beavers to Spokane because of poor attendance. The Northwest League then allowed Russell to purchase the territorial rights for $500 and field a non-affiliated major-league team there. The team became the first independent team in America.
“Russell overcame overwhelming odds and obstacles,” Cervantes said. “He inspired players who were cast aside or overlooked by Major League Baseball, earned a city’s support and respect and revolutionized the concept of independent baseball.”
Russell didn’t look at the Mavericks as a business. He banned corporate sponsorship from the ballpark. To him, the team wasn’t about making money. It was about having fun and the more fun the better. Opposing major-league affiliations frowned upon what they represented.
Still, the Mavericks made money and when they played, the team was a must-see event. When they played on the road, fans packed the ballpark just to boo them. The Mavericks loved it.
Russell was an innovator and showman in every sense of the word. He hired the first woman and first Asian-American general manager. The team bus driver was a woman.
“He knew he had to do something different,” Cervantes said. “Coming from Hollywood, he created the Mavericks partly to be a good ballclub, but also to give the fans something extra.”
Russell stocked the team with former major leaguers and experienced minor leaguers who still had something left in the tank. He gave his players nicknames. Cervantes was dubbed “Silky” for the way he could field his second-base position.
“Then, he just let the players do their thing,” Cervantes said. “We played hard between the lines and even harder outside the lines.”
When the team was about to sweep an opponent, some of the players climbed up on the dugout with a broom, started sweeping and then lit the broom on fire. The fans got into it and started bringing their own brooms to the games.
There was a team dog in the bullpen that was let loose anytime boredom set in or a pitcher needed a breather or a few extra warm-up pitches. The black lab pup evaded umpires and security and often ended the chase by pooping on home plate.
There was a team bus painted bright red with a sign on the side that read “Portland’s Maverick Baseball Team.” The seats were replaced with mattresses. Often the players were seen mooning people when the bus drove down Main Street. The only rule when traveling was dope-smokers had to stay in the back of the bus.
When the bus rolled into a visiting city in the wee hours of the morning, the players flipped the switch on the installed loud-speaker, pumped up the volume and warned the residents to “lock up your wives and daughters, the Mavericks are in town.”
Some cities became so enraged they banned the Mavericks from every hotel and motel, forcing the team to make camp outside the city limits.
“It was too bad Major League Baseball put so much pressure on Northwest League officials to do whatever they could to push Bing out of Portland,” Cervantes said. “We brought a new kind of fun to the game.”
The Mavericks’ colorful cast of characters knew how to have fun.
Kurt Russell appeared in movies and television before he embarked on a pro baseball career at the age of 20. He played two seasons in the California Angels system. The switch-hitting second baseman played for the Mavericks in 1973 and made a curtain-call at-bat in 1977. A torn rotator cuff in a second-base collision in Double-A El Paso in 1973 ended his career.
Russell, who was beaten out for the role of Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” by Kevin Costner, once said, “If I should get hit by a truck and my face was ruined, I’ll play baseball. If I find out I can’t hit, I’ll make movies.”
Pitcher Jim Bouton, who wrote the controversial book “Ball Four” and was drummed out of Major League Baseball because of it, could still fling the horsehide. He once said the Mavericks “we’re the only team that has ever made sense” to him.
In a 1975 interview on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” Bouton said that his teammates told him his defense would improve if he read their names on the show. Carson said you got about minute. Bouton pulled out a sheet of paper and began reading the names of the Maverick players, Cervantes and Buster Attebury (Sacramento State) were among them.
Pitcher Rob Nelson created the bubble gum “Big League Chew” in the bullpen when he wasn’t pitching in relief.
The team’s 10-year-old batboy and designated beer runner, Todd Field, grew up to direct five-time Oscar-nominated “In the Bedroom” in 2001.
Former major-league pitcher Larry Colton, who was an English teacher when he joined the club, penned many books including “Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn,” which earned a Pulitzer Prized nomination in 2000.
Frank Peters, who managed the team from 1974-1975, got so mad in the first game of a doubleheader in Seattle that he grabbed first base, ran off with it and locked himself inside the clubhouse. The Mavericks forfeited the game. The base was returned for the second game, but not before the team autographed it and added a few profanities.
Reggie Thomas was a hot-headed outfielder and the Mavericks’ best player. Before a game in 1974, he went after Peters with a gun when his name didn’t appear on the lineup card. Thomas was said to be an informant for the FBI and in 1984 vanished off the face of the earth.
“We all knew Reggie ran with a different mentality,” Cervantes said. “Reggie always carried a briefcase to the ballpark that had a gun in it. He was a little hardcore. But still, we all got along.”
First-year manager Hank Robinson was suspended for the 1974 season for slugging the home-plate umpire during a game the previous year. Robinson and right-handed pitcher Ken Medlock each had long acting careers.
Jim Swanson, a left-handed catcher, was assigned by Peters to be his personal bodyguard. His job was to protect the manager from unruly fans, opponents and even members of his own team.
In Bellingham, Wash. in 1975, Swanson came to the rescue of Peters after a game against the city’s Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate. The Mavericks had just lost to 18-year-old pitcher and future Hall of Famer Dave Stewart.
After Bing Russell treated the team to dinner at Black Angus, the Mavericks returned to the motel and were pretty well polluted from shots of tequila. More than a dozen players crammed into one room and proceeded to consume six-pack after six-pack of beer.
Cervantes was already brewing over the team’s six-game losing streak and was fuming with Peters for chewing him out and benching him during the game that night. He became more upset when Peters hauled Swanson into the bathroom and reminded his catcher/bodyguard of his job description.
“He was always telling “Swannie,” ‘You’re on this team for one reason and one reason only, to save my ass,’” Cervantes said.
Soon many Mavericks began pushing and shoving and horsing around. When horseplay between Cervantes and Peters turned physical, the two started throwing blows. The confrontation quickly escalated into a full-blown knock-down, drag-out fight.
Eventually, Cervantes grabbed a chair and hurled it at Peters. Swanson yelled at Peters to duck. Peters did, probably saving him from serious injury. The chair went flying out the front door. The fight continued outside the room before tempers subsided and teammates got the combatants under control.
“Frank always tried to motivate his players with the use of intimidation,” Cervantes said. “He’d cuss at us and tell us we were terrible. I didn’t respond well to that type of approach.”
The next day, Cervantes had a shiner and Peters, wearing sunglasses, displayed two black eyes. No disciplinary action was taken.
“Because I had a very good relationship with Bing, Frank couldn’t get to me,” said Cervantes, who admitted he wasn’t a goody two shoes back then. “Bing loved me.”
The Mavericks lasted five wild seasons in Portland. They won their division four times before organized baseball returned the Portland Beavers to the area because of the Mavericks’ box-office success. The move also was designed to extinguish the spirit of independent baseball from spreading.
However, before the Beavers could return, the city of Portland had to purchase the territorial rights back from Bing Russell. Portland offered $26,000. Russell told them to add another zero and the deal was done. The case went to court and Russell was awarded $206,000.
In that final 1977 season, the Mavericks averaged close to 3,800 fans a game and attracted 125,300 fans for their 33 regular-season home games and set a record for the highest short-season attendance in minor-league history.
In 1978, the reinstated Beavers drew a pathetic 96,395 fans to 69 home games, an average of under 1,400 fans per game.
Cervantes played for the Mavericks from 1974-1977. He batted .315, .320, .306 and .348, respectively, and earned Northwest League All-Star honors twice. He was also recognized twice by Topps Baseball Cards as the best second baseman in the minor leagues.
“Those four years in Portland were my best years in baseball,” said Cervantes. “The best thing about playing for the Mavericks was the sense of freedom. We were wild and we did things our way. When I was with the Baltimore Orioles, there was always someone hovering over me and watching my every move. There was always that urgency to climb the organizational ladder. Playing in Portland, you didn’t have to worry about it.”
Kurt Russell told The Seattle Times in 2014, “The Mavericks were just a wild-ass ball club of wild-ass guys. They were very serious about playing and they wanted to have the opportunity to show those clubs that had let them go that they had made a mistake.”
Northwest League team photo
The Mavericks had their moments of outstanding citizenship.
When the Northwest League took its yearly team photo, the Mavericks conducted themselves in a serious and well-mannered way.
But, when the Mavericks had pictures taken for their own use, all seriousness and proper etiquette ceased to exist.
Then the true Mavericks came to life.
During his time in the Northwest League, he played against locals Hal Readdick (Mira Loma, American River, Sacramento State), Warren Brown (Cordova, American River), Dennis Peterson (Roseville, American River), Doug Peterson (Roseville, American River), Tom Trezona (Casa Roble, American River), John Repetto (UC Davis), Kenny May (Foothill, Sacramento State), Ramon Gonzalez (McClatchy), Bob Del Chiaro (Johnson, Sacramento City, Sacramento State), Steve Bushong (McClatchy), Rich Goulding (Encina), Bob Stoffle (Kennedy), Lenny Black (Sacramento City), Phil Urabe (UC Davis), Jerry Rogers (Grant) and William Wilborn (McClatchy, Cosumnes River.)
Cervantes was 20 years old when he signed with the Orioles in 1971. After the 1972 season, he was released.
“When I was released by Baltimore, I was bitter,” Cervantes said. “Two days before Christmas, I got a letter in the mail that said my services were no longer needed. It took a long time before I was able to get over the bitterness.”
After his time with the Mavericks, Cervantes spent his final seven seasons in the Mexican League. He had a career batting average of .291 with Chihuahua, Nuevo Laredo and Aguascalientes.
The Mavericks are featured in a documentary titled “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” which received raving reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and not because Cervantes can be seen wrapped in a towel and drinking a beer in the locker room. The documentary was later purchased and released by Netflix in 2014.