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Bill Selby, Modern-Era Record Breaker

By: Brian Frank

Bill Selby chuckled as he recalled the time Bisons manager Jeff Datz placed him in a batting practice group with towering sluggers Jeff Manto (6’3”), Phil Hiatt (6’3”), and Alex Ramirez (5’11). According to Selby (5’9”), before the group hit each day, Manto would jokingly tell him: “Hey look Selby, you’ve got to hit first. Your job is to get ‘em over. We’ll get ‘em in. Let us big guys do what we do. You just get ‘em over.”

When told of Selby’s memory, Manto laughed,“Yeah, we used to get under his skin a little bit. But he had as much power as anybody. He was always a good guy to joke with, for sure.” He then turned serious and continued, “I’ll tell you what, he’s probably one of the most underrated players of that era. He solidified the lineup. This guy could absolutely hit anybody, anything. He came to play. I think he was one of the most underrated players of that era… a great teammate and an even better person.”

During his time with Buffalo, Selby proved he could “get ‘em in” with the best of them as he assaulted the team's record book. He’s still the Bisons' modern-era leader in RBI (245), base hits (378), runs scored (217), doubles (90), and is third in home runs (60) and games played (370).

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, Selby’s teammate on the 1998 Bisons, remembered Selby’s dedication to his craft in a recent interview. “He worked as hard on his hitting as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Lovullo said. “You could get to the cage early and he’d be smashing balls in the cage. He loved to take BP and he was an impressive at-bat every single night. Not to be undersold was his defense. He worked very hard defensively and he became an anchor for us at third base.”

“He was obsessed with hitting,” said Mike Buczkowski, who was the team’s general manager when Selby played in Buffalo and is currently the President of Rich Baseball Operations. “He was obsessed with being a better hitter. This was right before the time when there were all kinds of video and information that players could look at to get better. But with Bill, it was just part of his baseball acumen. Part of his instinct was just knowing how to get better. Knowing what he needed to do. Studying pitchers, studying how he’s being pitched to without the aid of all the modern tools they have now. And I think that’s why he was such a great hitter.”

Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Selby’s professional baseball career began when he was drafted out of the University of Southern Mississippi by the Boston Red Sox in the June 1992 Amateur Draft. He spent five years in the Red Sox system and a season in Japan, before coming to Buffalo in 1998. He credited some of the veterans on that Bisons team with helping mold together one of the best teams in Buffalo baseball history. “I think one thing that was really evident about that team is between the veterans that you had, with Lovullo and Manto and others, was that the leadership they provided was not so much ‘you have to do this, you have to do this.’ It was their love for just being a baseball player,” Selby said in a recent phone interview. “They loved baseball and they loved to talk about baseball and a lot of their conversations centered around baseball. So when you’re in the clubhouse, it wasn’t how quickly can I get out of the locker room to go home. It was let’s talk about the game.” He continued: “I’ve done interviews about both of those guys (Manto and Lovullo) and the leadership qualities they have. Like I said, they were ballplayers. They were big-league ballplayers on a Triple-A team, but nevertheless, they loved everything about baseball.”

He believes veteran leadership and the atmosphere the veteran players helped create were some of the strengths of the great Bison teams he played on. “There was meaning and purpose to being where we were at that point in our different careers,” Selby remembered. “It wasn’t ‘well, I wish I was a September call-up’ or ‘I’m doing well, I wish this would happen’. It just didn’t seem like that. We had guys like (Jason) Grimsley and Rich Batchelor. Those guys were just baseball guys. They were guys that liked to be in the clubhouse, that liked to talk about their craft and they would make suggestions to the younger, more inexperienced kids. You could sit there and talk to Manto until 2:00 in the morning about baseball. It was just never ending.”

The ’98 Bisons won the International League North, before sweeping the Syracuse SkyChiefs in three games. They then faced the Durham Bulls in a best-of-five series for the Governors’ Cup. “I remember the Durham series was very intense - back and forth - and it was exciting to win it,” Selby said. “I didn’t win any high school state championships. We kind of defaulted when I was in Louisville in 2001 into that championship, because we were up one game to nothing when September 11 happened. But that (Buffalo’s championship) was a unique championship for us, and it was just… again it was a baseball team full of baseball guys. I guess that’s the best way to put it.” He continued: “It stayed important to each player to finish what we could finish. We had a chance to win a championship. It wasn’t like, well this is just Triple-A, it’s just an International League championship. It was serious. It was a fun time to play baseball with guys that really were good baseball players and more importantly good baseball people.”

Lovullo remembered Selby’s importance to the ’98 championship team. “Bill Selby was an anchor on that 1998 team,” Lovullo said. “He played third base for us and was a very consistent bat and had a no-nonsense personality that resonated through the clubhouse. He was very directed in what he was trying to do every single day and had some very productive moments for the team that helped us win a championship.”

The Bisons advanced to the Triple-A World Series to face the New Orleans Zephyrs. However, due to players being called up to Cleveland and Double-A players taking their place, as well as the fact that the series was played at a neutral site, something seemed to be missing, and the Herd lost the best-of-five series in four games. “We went out to Las Vegas to play the Triple-A World Series, and it didn’t seem the same then,” Selby remembered. “I mean it was baseball, but you’re in Vegas, and you know, it just didn’t seem to have the same meaning as what the International League Championship meant.”

Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Selby had another big season for the Herd in 1999, hitting .295, belting 20 home runs, and winning the team’s MVP Award. “It’s easy to have better seasons when you have great people around you,” Selby said. “I can remember so many games, especially starting off that season with Dave Roberts and Johnny Mac (John McDonald) and Scooty (Marco Scutaro) up top. They were always on base. It made it easier for a hitter to put the ball in play to drive in some runs. Then all of a sudden you drive in some runs and your confidence kind of goes up and those pitches look a little bit easier to hit. There were some talented guys in that group and it was a chance to watch those guys blossom and really develop. Especially Scooty and Johnny Mac and Dave (Roberts) and (Russell) Branyan and Alex Ramirez - he had great years there too and turned out to have a great career in Japan. Just to see everyone develop. I think that was a big stage of development for a lot of us players that got a chance to play. And play under a super manager. I mean Jeff Datz is the salt of the earth.”

Datz, Buffalo’s manager in 1998 and 1999, had a big influence on his young infielder. Selby remembered the lessons Datz taught him when he became a coach after his playing career ended in 2005. “I went into coaching straight out of playing,” he said. “And that’s all I’ve done. I’ve had the same job as an assistant coach for 15 years. I find myself kind of rehashing the way I was treated by certain guys and those who impacted me the most. I call him (Jeff Datz) Big Daddy. He was Big Daddy to me and he had a way of being, I guess if I can entail it all in one, very supportive and understanding of where you are in your career and what you’re trying to accomplish. He had a very good way of still maintaining the hierarchy of being a manager and managing older egos in his authority position, while all the while being a developer. A great baseball guy and a genuine guy. A manager you really wanted to do well for. He just had a personality that was easy to like. He had a quick wit about him. He put up with a little bit from me, I’m going to be honest with you. My second year there I got really frustrated at times, because I just wanted to get a chance. He helped me understand to just be where you are and things will work out the way they’re supposed to. He was a huge influence for me.”

Selby mentioned four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock as also having a big influence on him. Madlock was Buffalo’s hitting coach for much of the time Selby played with the Herd. “It wasn’t anything magical or like he reinvented the wheel,” Selby said. “It was the daily routine of knowing I was going to be there early, so he was too. So let’s go get our work done and then we’ll eat some popcorn in the clubhouse and play cards. He was there for me through emotional times, through frustrating times, to keep me even keeled. That was a good combination. It was really good for me.”

In 2000, Selby was one of the final cuts before Cleveland broke camp and headed north. Hopeful of making the Indians, he was devastated when he was told to report to Triple-A. New Bisons manager Joel Skinner helped him refocus with a lesson Selby still relays to the players he coaches. Skinner, who Selby described as having a calming presence, knew some players were upset at having been sent down. Selby remembers Skinner gathering the players on the field and saying, “I know your frustration, but just remember guys, wherever you are is your big leagues. Everyone’s dream is to play big league baseball and to forever play big league baseball. But wherever you are in this moment is your big leagues. And for those who can treat it like that, you’ll be the ones who are successful, and find out who you really are as a baseball player.” Skinner’s message resonated with Selby. “It’s stuck with me until now,” he said. “I’m 50-years-old and I still try to help people that I coach or my son or whoever to understand that. This is your big leagues wherever you are. Everybody that plays this game aspires to play in Cleveland or play in New York or wherever it is they want to play. But if you can’t treat where you are with that kind of respect, then you’re going to undermine what you’re potentially capable of doing. I’ll never forget him telling me that for as long as I live. I was like, you know what, I could come down here and be bitter, I could be selfish, but that puts it in perspective. Let’s go have a good year.”

Selby put up more big numbers, hitting .276 with 21 home runs and 86 RBI and helped lead the Herd to a first-place finish in the I.L. North. One of his biggest moments that season came at Pawtucket, when he homered three times in a game at historic McCoy Stadium. “My first Triple-A experience was in Pawtucket when I came up with the Red Sox,” he said. “I always liked Pawtucket. It was a great baseball place.” Selby also had a three-homer game earlier in his minor-league career and he noticed something similar about both occasions. “They came after a morning of playing a round of golf,” he said. “People ask me that all the time ‘How did you play golf and play baseball?’ Well I was an OK golfer, but both times I hit three home runs in Triple-A games I played golf that morning.”

Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

After a season in the Cincinnati Reds organization, Selby returned to the Indians in 2002 and experienced the biggest moment of his career. Ironically, the series of events that led up to the career-defining moment began with one of the lowest moments a ballplayer can experience. After Cleveland played an exhibition game in Buffalo against the Bisons on July 1, Selby was summoned to Charlie Manuel’s office. The Indians manager delivered the news that Selby was being sent down to Triple-A. Disheartened, Selby decided to wait in the dugout until the Cleveland players cleared out of the clubhouse, since he’d be staying in Buffalo anyway.

Some of the Indians’ veteran players heard about Selby’s situation and went to the dugout to console him. Travis Fryman spoke with him first, followed by Milton Bradley. “I don’t talk about it much, but this is another memory of a time in your career that stands out as much as a big hit,” he said. “I talked with Travis a little bit and then Milton Bradley came down.” Bradley had a reputation as having a temper and being difficult to deal with, but that’s not how Selby remembered his teammate. “I thought he was awesome. He was quiet, a hard worker, hard nosed. He came down there out of the blue and we talked, and he was like ‘Man, I hate this for you. I really respect what you do. You’ve been through a lot.’ And he said ‘I wish this didn’t happen to you.’ And I said ‘Milton, it’s going to be alright.’ We had a great conversation, and it meant a lot. Other people kind of notice what you go through when you’re a journeyman and you’re riding the rollercoaster up and down. You kind of feel like you’re just another number to a lot of people. An ‘oh that guy,’ kind of thing. But, you know, for somebody of his stature to say ‘I’m sorry this has to happen to you. I wish it didn’t,’ it meant a lot.”

Just eleven days later, Indians outfielder Matt Lawton strained a calf and Selby was recalled to Cleveland. That evening, Selby entered the game as a defensive replacement and had an at-bat against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera with two on and two out and the game tied in the bottom of the ninth inning. Selby grounded out to first on a Rivera cut fastball to end the inning. “His cutter was unique,” Selby said. “There are plenty of guys that throw a cutter. Roy Halladay had a phenomenal cutter, but Mariano’s was just different. It’s hard to explain.” He recalled having a conversation with Indians hitting coach Eddie Murray after the game about trying to hit Rivera: “I was like ‘I can get inside the ball pretty good, but that ball just sneaks in on you, and you can’t tell it’s coming. It looks like a fastball and it chases you like it’s a rollercoaster.’ I remember I had a good swing (on the groundout,) but I got jammed and it broke my bat, and I grounded out. I told Eddie, ‘If I hit against him again, I might choke up three-inches on the bat.’ You know, just to get the barrel through. We had a whole conversation about the whole thing.”

Two nights later, he got a second chance against Rivera. The Indians battled back from a 7-0 deficit through four innings and entered the bottom of the ninth inning trailing 7-4. By the time Selby came to the plate in the ninth with two outs and the bases loaded, the Indians’ deficit was down to a single run. It looked like Selby may have won the game when he laced a ball down the first-base line. “I remember hitting it good and smoking it down the line,” he said. “I think it went foul by a foot or so. When those moments happen - any athlete will tell you this - when you hit a ball foul like that, your first reaction is to go ‘Golly, there was my chance. That was it. I was so close.’ I remember thinking that as soon as I saw it go foul. I remember slowly walking back, thinking - you know what, I’m going to compose myself and be positive here. I thought - I’m not going to look at it that way. I’m going to get a pitch to hit and I’m going to be ready to hit. I would not allow myself to think what might have been. I still had to finish an at-bat out.”

Selby drove Rivera’s next pitch over the right-field wall for a game-winning grand slam, as the crowd at Jacobs Field erupted. “It was where I wanted it,” Rivera told reporters after the game. “It was there. He hit my best pitch.”

“People ask, ‘Was it a cutter?'," Selby said. "Well, that’s all he threw. You can say, ‘He had this. He had this.’ Yeah, he probably had the best sinker on the team too, but he didn’t have to throw it. He had such a good cutter that he could tell you what’s coming and where he’s going to throw it, and you really couldn’t do anything about it. That’s what made him so special. Yes, it was a cutter, and it was just one of those moments.”

As Selby crossed home plate amidst the pandemonium of his celebrating teammates, one of the first people to greet him was Milton Bradley, who’d consoled him just two weeks earlier in Buffalo. “I can remember after coming across home plate and getting beat to death, hugging Milton,” Selby said. “You can still see it on the video. Those are some of the things when you have a career like mine that stand out as much as any kind of statistic you may have. It was the moments within the great moments that were some of the coolest things that happened.”

Back in Buffalo, the Herd had just finished beating Syracuse 5-4, when Bisons players gathered in the clubhouse to watch their parent club do battle against the Yankees. “All the players were watching the TV, watching his at-bat,” Mike Buczkowski remembered. “He fouled some pitches off. It was a grinder at-bat. And then he hits the grand slam. You would have thought it happened right on our field. Our whole team was jumping around, high-fiving and hugging each other, as if Bill Selby had just done it on our field. And I thought number one, it’s really cool that those guys did that. But number two, it shows you how much respect and how good everybody felt, and how respected Bill Selby was.”

“That was a good group,” Selby said when told of the Bisons clubhouse celebration. “I’ve had some good experiences in baseball, that hit being one of them. But when you feel that kind of support and enthusiasm and genuine encouragement from teammates you might have been playing with earlier in the year, or people you were with at the current time, that makes whatever happens - good or bad - more enjoyable. We had a close-knit group that year down there. We had a good group of guys that year down there in Buffalo.”

After a 14-season professional career that saw him play major-league baseball in Boston, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, and also took him to Japan and Mexico, Selby retired in 2005. He was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. “I loved it there. I have great memories, I had good seasons there with great teams. Cleveland was a first-class organization. Buczkowski and his staff were first class. The people there are sports fans. True sports fans. Whether it’s hockey, or baseball, or football, it didn’t really matter. So to be a part of that and be in the same sentence with the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, I’m a part of a town and a city and a community of sports lovers. I’m honored. It’s incredible to be a part of and to be thought of in the same sentence as those great people.”

“(Those teams were) loaded with league leaders, especially offensively,” Buczkowski said reflecting on Selby’s impact on Buffalo baseball. “But then we had this guy Bill Selby who would quietly every year have these great seasons. Sometimes he might have been overshadowed by the Mantos or the Branyans, or whoever the big prospects were that were coming up. But he never let it bother him. He just went out and hit.” He continued, “He was a quiet, professional hitter. He was not a look-at-me guy. He never demanded the attention. He just figured, I’m going to get the attention by going out and producing for the team. And that’s what he did. That’s why he’s in our Hall of Fame. I think part of the reason why we were as successful as we were during those years - big part of it - was because of Bill Selby.”

Today, Selby is a coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College. “It’s just a fun level to coach at and I enjoy it,” he said. “I basically run the infielders, the catchers, the hitting, and recruiting.” He imparts the lessons he learned in his playing career to his players. “A lot of what I learned and how I was treated, and the way I liked to be treated - and the managers that stuck out to me like Skinner and Datzy especially - is the way I try to maintain relationships with my guys too," he said. "Their impact stretches far beyond those seasons in Buffalo to here in 2020. I’m still trying to kind of teach some of the things and treat people the way I was treated in Buffalo." He also tells his players that they'll remember their relationships with their teammates long after their playing days are over. “I try to tell guys now, there’s certain things you remember,” he said. “Obviously there’s a hit here you might remember, or a great play, or something that happened to you. But it’s really what you went through, the camaraderie, the experiences, the people you come across. That’s really what you remember.”

Selby’s son Eli, a catcher and outfielder at Magnolia Heights High School in Mississippi, has committed to play at Niagara University next season. So Bill Selby will be making a lot more trips to Western New York in the coming years to watch his son play. The prospect of spending more time in the area suits the elder Selby just fine. “I’m partial to Buffalo,” Selby said. “I always will be. I never, ever had a bad experience with anyone or anything there.”

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