By JB Clark
SALTILLO – Steve Dillard, 62, who helps coordinate the city of Saltillo’s sports programs, started the 1975 season at the Boston Red Sox AAA affiliate team in Pawtucket, R.I., expecting to end the year competing for a spot on the Red Sox major league roster as a shortstop.
A shoulder surgery changed his course.
“The doctor told me I could play within 10 days after the surgery,” he remembered. “We were playing the Mets’ AAA team in Tidewater, Va., and my arm was killing me. I couldn’t even play catch.”
After fielding his first ground ball, he threw it right past the first baseman. Four errors later, his manager sent him down to the AA team in Bristol, Conn.
Dillard and the Bristol Red Socks won the Eastern League Championship. After the short AA season, his coaches sent him to the Red Sox instructional league team in Sarasota, Fla.
Instructional league is the lowest league, usually reserved for first-year players.
“I was down there for about a week when (the Red Sox’s all-star outfielder) Jim Rice got hit by a pitch and broke his finger in the big leagues,” Dillard said. “They called me up to the big leagues and it was my first time. I don’t think anyone has ever been called (all the way) up from instructional league.”
When Dillard got the call in September, The Red Sox were finishing their season in New York and preparing for the playoffs.
“All I had was shorts and T-shirt in Florida, so I had to go around and ask players my size for clothes so I could go to New York,” he said.
Dillard had seen two major league ball parks and never played in one before 1975.
When he arrived at Shea Stadium – Yankee Stadium was being renovated – he walked through the first open gate he saw, suitcases in tow, and found himself in the outfield.
At the end of the week, after the Red Sox clinched a spot in the playoffs, Dillard made his major league debut with two hits and a stolen base.
After the game, Dillard was sent back down to Sarasota and the Red Sox went on to play and lose to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
He went on to play 437 more games in the major leagues over eight seasons for the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.
When he was offered a position to manage and coach the White Sox’s instructional league team at the end of 1982, his wife, Mary Jane, jumped at the opportunity to leave the Chicago winters for Sarasota’s year-round summers.
Dillard said moving up and down from team to team on one-year contracts is a lot like his Christian beliefs, “I’ve learned a lot about living by faith.”
The sport is a family affair, with his three sons, Jeff, 35, Andy, 32, and Tim, 30, all playing.
Tim pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers last season and plays for their AAA Nashville Sounds. Andy played unaffiliated minor league ball before hurting his shoulder. Jeff played growing up and is now in the Air Force.
“Those boys grew up on minor league ball fields and loved it,” Dillard said. “I was lucky because it doesn’t always work that way.”
In 2003, Dillard took a job as the Parks and Recreation operations director in Saltillo, his and Mary Jane’s home town, where he and Andy Loden have expanded the department from baseball, soccer and softball to a department that serves more than 1,500 kids a year with six sports.
He managed for the Cardinals minor leagues teams from 2006 until 2009 when he returned to Saltillo and the parks and recreation department.