Jack Perconte had several solid seasons playing second base for the Seattle Mariners in the mid-1980s, and several more seasons of big league baseball in the ’80s. He also starred with the Dodgers’ AAA farm team, the Albuquerque Dukes, from 1979 through 1981, including their 94-38 1981 squad, for which Perconte hit .346 and stole 45 bases.
Perconte returned to Albuquerque in 1987 for his last season of pro ball, then opened Jack Perconte‘s Sports Academy in Naperville, Illinois, near Chicago. He ran the academy for two decades before becoming a private baseball coach. He’s written two instructional books, The Making of a Hitter and Raising an Athlete, and written extensively online about baseball and how to teach it. Since this is the 30th anniversary of that great ’81 Dukes team, I caught up with Perconte for a conversation about his time playing in Albuquerque, on one of the most dominant AAA teams of recent decades.
What was AAA ball like circa 1980, both in Albuquerque and around the Pacific Coast League?
Every step up in minor league ball gets better as far as stadiums, fan interest, living conditions (hotels), pay, and travel conditions. Albuquerque was one of the top places in all of those areas so it was fun and exciting. Many of the other cities in the PCL were cool places to visit—Phoenix, Hawaii, Vancouver, to name a few—so that was also exciting to be in the PCL. Additionally and of course, you realize that you are only one step away from your dream in triple AAA ball, too.
What was it like to play AAA ball all through the 1981 major league strike? Did it help create a winning atmosphere on your team, because the Albuquerque players knew they weren’t going to go up to Los Angeles, and you could concentrate on winning the PCL title? Obviously, stability is extremely rare on a minor league team, and I imagine being together almost all year helped the Dukes.
I believe it did help because with nowhere to go (no big league call up possibilities) everyone just settled in and played ball. We were so loaded with talent that we probably would have won no matter the circumstances, but because of the strike, we received some notoriety from the Los Angeles and national press. Additionally, the Dodgers and other ball clubs sent out scouting personnel to see us that wouldn’t have been available if the big club was playing – people like Tommy Lasorda made the rounds so we felt like we were being showcased more than we normally would have been.
Do you have a lingering bond with the players and coaches from the ’81 team because of how good the Dukes were? Fans focus on the majors and titles won there, but how important is it to have that AAA title in the memory bank?
Once you play with any team, win or lose, a bond is created; because of how good we played and the success we enjoyed, there is a special memory of those Duke teammates. I think the memories are probably more special for players like me who only had marginal success at the big leagues and for the teammates that never made the big leagues. Players that went on to long-time major league careers may not look back on the minor league Duke team as quite so memorable. Additionally, and this may sound trite, but the chemistry on the team, including with our manager, was tremendous. We got along very well and were good friends on and off the field, and many of us even to this day.
What’s your memory of the atmosphere in Albuquerque? Was the city unusually attached to the team? Did you have a sense of following a winning Dodgers tradition that extended down to the minors?
Very fond memories—great place to play with supportive and knowledgeable fans. It was definitely a Dodger town and after the great Albuquerque Duke teams of the early ’70s with Lasorda and those great teams, we definitely felt the Dodger pride and tradition.
Was there really a “Dodger Way,” as emphasized by Lasorda and others: did you guys on the Dukes feel you had a winning edge because of the system of training, discipline, and camaraderie the franchise had in place?
For sure—from the time you became a Dodger, you knew that it was a privilege to be a Dodger. We immediately received a handbook of the Dodger way to play baseball. It all began with Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida where you began to feel a sense of the Dodger history and tradition. Many of the all-time great Dodgers would be around instructing and giving moral support so you could not help but feel the winning edge, so to speak. Upon leaving the Dodgers I also noticed that the caliber of people the Dodgers drafted were quite high, too, which definitely helped in the areas of discipline and camaraderie.
On a side note, it is so sad to see that it seems like all those things you mentioned and the winning edge have drifted away from the Dodgers over the last many years and especially now with the current state of the franchise.
Could you talk a bit about the Dukes’ 1-0 exhibition game win over the Dodgers after the strike ended? It sounds like a memorable unofficial game that really did count for both teams—almost a one-off franchise World Series.
We (Dukes) were so psyched up for the game because, first it was just a neat thing to play in Dodger Stadium where many of the guys hadn’t played before and maybe never would and two, because of our success that season we felt like we could definitely play at their level. Even though we won, it almost felt like a loss because we knew they were rusty from the long layoff and a 1-0 win was not enough of a win. I believe we sensed that they treated it more like a spring training game and not a real game, as we did. Ultimately, we were hoping for a much more dominant outing and I know, personally, I came away with even more respect for the big league club after that game because they played well despite a long break.
Did you feel like an outsider in ’81 when you got called up to L.A.? Or when you watched the team play in the playoffs? I guess maybe being around guys you’d played with in the minors made it more comfortable to be in the majors. And the strike must have affected the atmosphere with the Dodgers.
As a September call-up in 1980 I felt like a member of the team, even though I was extremely nervous when playing. It all changed in 1981—after the summer strike the Dodgers decided to call Steve Sax up from double A ball to the “Bigs” instead of me. Because of that situation and knowing I would not get much of a chance to play, I did feel more like an outsider. Having said that, “Any day in the big leagues was a blessing and I wasn’t complaining.”
I don’t recall the strike affecting the atmosphere. By the time I got to L.A. that year, it was business as usual with everyone trying to win a pennant. As far as watching them in the playoffs, I was pulling for them because of the friendships and what it would mean if we won, which they did. I have a World Series ring to show, even being just a small part of them, so in the end I feel so fortunate the way things turned out, even if I had a few bad feelings at the time.
What were the biggest differences between the minors and MLB you noticed in 1981 and 1982? In terms of both the game and the conditions around the game—travel, housing, media attention?
That is a complicated question to answer in my situation because I went from the Dodger organization, which was the elite back then, to the Indians where times were quite bleak. The big leagues are the big leagues and so the money, travel, housing, and media attention are of course better, but with Cleveland back then there was a situation where they did not have many winning years in their recent past, an old out-dated stadium to play in and anemic crowds for most games. It was the big leagues but did not feel all that special at times. Of course, to make matters worse, I played like a minor leaguer when in the majors that year so my spirits were quite low for that season. Once again, one can never complain when in the big leagues because of the “coolness” of it all, but it turned out to be a very long year for me and the team.
It’s very unusual to be a very good performer over three straight years for a very good PCL team. What was your frame of mind as time went by and you didn’t get much of a chance with the Dodgers? Apparently Davey Lopes was blocking you in L.A., so you just had to be patient.
Looking back, I can’t say that I dwelled on it much – Davey Lopes was a great player and I felt like my time would come, if not with the Dodgers than somewhere else. I believe playing for such great teams in Albuquerque certainly helped me stay focused. We won a ton and winning keeps a player happy for the most part. As mentioned though, when the Dodgers brought up Steve Sax instead of me, my attitude changed quickly and I felt slighted and like I wanted to be traded. That trade came in the off-season.
When you came back to Albuquerque in ’87 and won a PCL title to close out your career, how did it compare with your previous time with the Dukes? During ’87, were you conscious of it being a potential last hurrah for your career? And then in ’88, what was your feeling watching the Dodgers win with players from both the earlier Dukes teams and the ’87 team?
In retrospect, that year was a Godsend in many ways. First, that championship was so exciting because we were not the most talented team as our earlier Duke teams were. The ’87 team was composed of a lot of career minor leaguers or “has beens” like me, so to win the championship was unexpected. Second, by the time the playoffs came around, I knew it was the end of my playing days for me—to go out with another ring was so cool. Third, I met some people that season that helped me get my future job (a baseball academy) going, so that was fortuitous, also.
I am always happy for friends when they win and are successful and I was for the 1988 team, especially because I know how much work goes into being the best.
Finally, what made Del Crandall such a good manager for you? And how did his managing in the minors compare to his managing in the majors?
Del showed a confidence in me that other managers did not. He often told me, “You are my second baseman, so just relax out there.” The one thing I often lacked was confidence, so that was an enormous help. I do not believe he changed from the minors to the majors. Like any manager, if you do not have the best players, it is very difficult to win.