Ex-Phillies third baseman Feliz hopes stint with Riversharks leads to big leagues

"I don't feel like retiring," former Phillie Pedro Feliz said yesterday. "I feel a need to play the game." (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
"I don't feel like retiring," former Phillie Pedro Feliz said yesterday. "I feel a need to play the game." (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Posted: May 16, 2011

IT IS A MISTY Sunday morning at Campbell's Field, where the last hopes of professional baseball linger like the morning fog.

Down the Delaware River, one bridge and two quick train stops away, Pedro Feliz was king. Just three seasons ago, his bat won the Phillies a World Series.

It was Feliz who, in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, delivered the game-winning, groundball single up the middle in the seventh inning off Chad Bradford. The hit scored Eric Bruntlett from third base and gave the Phillies a 4-3 lead, which, famously, the bullpen preserved.

Feliz, 36, has played third base in the World Series alongside the two most significant lefthanded sluggers of the era: the Giants' Barry Bonds and the Phillies' Ryan Howard.

Now, Feliz plays with faded lefthanded slugger Mike Lamb, who hit .184 for Florida last season. They are the corner infielders for the Camden Riversharks, of the independent Atlantic League.

It is a good match. Feliz last season hit .218 with five homers in 137 games with the Cardinals and Astros. He was signed to a minor league deal by the Royals but, after hitting .167 in 24 spring games, was cut late in spring training, just before he would have opted out of his contract, hoping to latch on with another club.

But no other clubs came calling.

"I don't feel like retiring. I feel a need to play the game. I love the game. I think I still have something to give," Feliz said yesterday.

Feliz gave plenty in 11 big-league seasons: a .250 average, 140 home runs, 1,065 hits, consistently wonderful defense and unimpeachable professionalism.

That means nothing when he now brings a repaired back, a slowing bat, heavier legs and diminished range, according to scouts who watched him this spring. The Royals had better options.

So Feliz went home, to Orlando, and waited for his agents to find him work. His agents found him a job, only on the wrong side of the river. He took it.

He needs the action, he said, but not the money. He has earned more than $25 million since turning pro 18 years ago, when the Giants signed him out of the Dominican Republic.

He might make $2,500 a month with Camden.

"You always want the money, but that's not my reason," Feliz said. "I love the game. And I want to stay in the game."

Coming back to Philadelphia is a coincidence, he said, but Riversharks brass say his agents wanted to place Feliz somewhere he would be comfortable as he toils in pro baseball's purgatory.

Feliz hopes he can convince a major league club that he can contribute offensively, that he at least is worth stockpiling at Triple A. That's what happened in Camden last year with catcher Rene Rivera, whom the Yankees snagged. And, of course, Rickey Henderson's sideshow in Newark, N.J., in 2003 eventually netted him a midsummer cameo with the Dodgers.

That sort of thing happens much more often for pitchers and catchers, but, over the course of a season, injury or ineptness can deplete a team of players. Feliz wants to be ready.

"I'm not going to have the chance if I'm sitting at home. How is it going to happen at home?" Feliz asked.

So, again, he left his wife and kids, ages 9, 7 and 4, to feed his need.

He remains a trim, powerful 6-1 and 200 pounds. He speaks softly, as ever, long lashes framing sincere, brown eyes. If anything betrays his age it is his hairline, still dark and curly but steadily retreating.

Yesterday he stood in a tunnel outside the Riversharks' comfortable clubhouse. He already had hit in the batting cage once, at 10 a.m., 3 hours before game time. He hit in the cage again at 11:30.

From 2004 to '07, Feliz averaged 21 homers and 83 RBI with the Giants. That's why the Phillies signed him in 2008 - that, and his wonderful defense.

Yesterday, in his third game, all against the Somerset (Pa.) Patriots, Feliz showed none of that sharpness at the plate. He went 0-for-3 with a groundout, a flyout and a strikeout, looking. After collecting two hits as a sixth-inning replacement Friday night, Feliz is hitless in his two starts.

It matches the profile.

Since his back problems flared in 2008, Feliz is hitting .247 with 31 home runs over three seasons.

The Phillies paid $500,000 to buy out his $5.5 million option after the 2009 season. They observed what the Astros, Cardinals and Royals discovered: He is not the same player since having surgery after the Phillies won the World Series.

"The more time that's gone by, my body has progressively gotten better and better," Feliz said. "At spring training with Kansas City, in the beginning, it was fine."

He just didn't hit.

"I don't know what has happened," Feliz said.

He only knows he needs to relocate the stroke that once made him a coveted big-league commodity.

"I'm trying to get my swing back from '05, '06. I recovered a little bit of my swing, what I was doing differently then," he said. "I've been trying to work my way back into that."

The stroke might be a work in progress, but oh, he still can pick it.

Saturday night he backhanded a ball down the line, and casually fired a laser to first base from the third-base coach's box.

"Got the guy by three steps," said Jeff Scott, Camden's baseball operations director and pitching coach who has evaluated talent for seven major league clubs. "There's not another guy in the Atlantic League who makes that play."

There are, however, plenty of former major leaguers in the Atlantic League. Eight of them play for the Riversharks, including former Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall and reliever Mike Koplove, the Chestnut Hill Academy product who played in Arizona and Cleveland. Von Hayes - yes, that Von Hayes - is the manager.

Many of the more recognizable names in the Atlantic League are pitchers coming off injury. Some have been out of baseball for a year or more.

Not many of those recognizable names have been so closely removed from their greatest moments in the game.

"I had my best experience in baseball in Philadelphia," Feliz said.

There, he played almost every night in front of a sellout crowd in a baseball palace.

In Camden, he played in front of 2,448 yesterday, many of whom came because of the Atlantic League's mandatory Sunday pregame autograph session. He is living out of a hotel, driving a cheap rental car, and, on a clear day, he can see the place where he shined brightest not long ago.

Asked if he plans to stay at Camden all season, through September, he replied, honestly, "Who knows?"

He still speaks with former teammates Carlos Ruiz and Raul Ibanez, who remain key cogs on a first-place team favored to win the World Series. He has been replaced by Placido Polanco, who is the team's best hitter.

But Polanco has no ring.

"To get that hit to win the game to score that run and won the World Series - that's bigger than anything else," Feliz said.

He might be older, and slower, but he wants to feel that feeling again.

Who can blame him?

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