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Jim Henneman Remembers 'Baseball Lifer' Joe Klein

August 25, 2017
Joe Klein was the kind of guy you never knew was around -- until you needed him. He was one of those generally unrecognized, often underappreciated, "baseball lifers" who worked at every level of the game but was most comfortable when he was in a position to help others.

Which explains why his last 20 years, as the only president the independent Atlantic League has ever known, were among the most rewarding for Klein, who died Aug. 23, a day after his 75th birthday, following complications from quadruple bypass surgery.

A native of Baltimore, Klein was one of the best amateur players in the area in the pre-draft era of the early 1960s. He played seven years and managed for nine in the minor leagues, all in the system of the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers. He moved into the front office as scouting and farm director and later as head of player development. Eventually Klein served three stints as a general manager, with the Rangers, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, each time helping a struggling ownership group either in the process of buying or selling the franchise. 

In his first year as a general manager -- during the Winter Meetings in Honolulu in 1982 -- Klein was on the verge of a deal that no doubt would have altered his career. He had agreed to send catcher Jim Sundberg, a huge fan favorite and ownership favorite in Texas, to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal for a pair of right-handed pitchers who were relatively unknown at the time -- Orel Hershiser and Dave Stewart. Rangers owner Eddie Chiles pulled the plug on the trade -- and eventually the Rangers.

Klein just did what a good soldier does -- rolled up his sleeves and did his job until new ownership came in and revamped the front office. I have known Klein since he was a left-handed hitting first baseman for the famed Leone's amateur team in the early 1960s, where he was a teammate of my brother Bob.

"He was a great hitter and even better person," Bob recalled. "He was always great at mentoring any young guys who joined Leone's. He understood the game better than anyone else on the team, a hard worker with no ego whatsoever. He was a super teammate."

Klein had that effect on people throughout his career. Hank Allen, now a scout for the Houston Astros, and Klein crossed paths in the Senators' system. 

"We played together briefly [with the York White Roses], and he was a great teammate who became a good friend," Allen said. "One of the real good guys."

The late Joe Branzell, a legendary scout in the Maryland/D.C. area, saw the playing potential when he signed Klein, a line-drive hitter who used the entire field. He watched him develop into a front office leader and once encouraged him to go back on the field.

Branzell was still active during the waning years of the Chiles regime, when Klein was the general manager. 

"I told him he should put the uniform back on and get down in the dugout as manager," Branzell told me. "He'd get a better idea of what was going on."

If that thought ever seriously entered Klein's mind, he never let on -- and pretty soon he was out of a job. It went largely without notice because the tenure was so short, but for a brief time in 1990, Klein was a special assistant to Baltimore native John Schuerholz, then the general manager of the Kansas City Royals and a recent inductee into the Hall Of Fame.

That partnership hardly lasted long enough to be recognized before Klein was offered the general manager job in Cleveland, which he took without hesitation. "Just imagine," he told me after he took the job, "there are only 26 of these jobs in baseball (at the time) -- and two of them are held by guys from Baltimore." The irony was that Schuerholz resigned at the end of the year to take over operation of the Atlanta Braves, presenting another "what if?" scenario to Klein's multi-faceted career.

There was always a special attachment to the minor leagues for Klein, who knew the struggles as a player, manager and director of player development. Jeff Scott, a third-round draft choice of the Rangers, played for Klein as a minor leaguer, then later worked with him  in various front office positions and eventually with the Atlantic League.

"Without a doubt, he was the most loyal human being I have ever been around in my life," Scott told mlb.com's Tracy Ringolsby, who wrote a fitting tribute to the mark Klein left on the game.

Given his own career, and those of others he mentored along the way, Klein had a special affinity for the Atlantic League. Independent leagues are often like swimming upstream. But Klein looked at it as an alternative for a kid who might have been overlooked in the draft or like the "Last Chance Saloon" for veterans who were either given up on too soon or simply refuse to give up on a dream.

Somehow, it seemed kind of fitting that the night after Klein died, the Dodgers' Rich Hill, an alumnus of many organizations including the Orioles, took a no-hitter into the 10th inning, only to lose the game on a walkoff home run by the Pirates' Josh Harrison. It was a stint with the Long Island Ducks, of the Atlantic League, that got Hill a return trip to the big leagues.

Instead of admiring or praising his effort, many network analysts went into a frenzy questioning why Hill would take his quest into the 10th inning of a relatively meaningless game. Klein not only would've understood, he would have loved the effort and the attitude.

Joe Klein was the underdog's best friend.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com