From humble beginnings -- eight years of shepherding Mariners players onto commercial flights, writing the press notes and making sure that the team's equipment got delivered, among the innumerable picayune details and responsibilities undertaken by the traveling secretary -- was borne a life's work.
For the man who wants to guide the Mariners out of their current morass, it all began with a blind interview.
Lee Pelekoudas was working for the Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers in a sales job he hated, except for the fact that it was a foot in the door of professional baseball.
That was the life Pelekoudas had chosen for himself after his pitching career peaked as a seldom-used reliever on the Arizona State team that finished second to USC in the 1972 College World Series.
It was 1979, the Mariners were in their fledgling years, and the 28-year-old Pelekoudas put in an application to join the organization “doing anything,” as he puts it.
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They asked him to come for an interview, so Pelekoudas took the train to Seattle not even knowing for what position he was being considered.
“I got off the train and had some time before the interview,” Pelekoudas recalled. “I picked up a paper, and on the front page of the sports section was a story, ‘Mariners fire traveling secretary.’ I said, ‘That must be what I’m interviewing for.’ “
From those humble beginnings — eight years of shepherding Mariners players onto commercial flights, writing the press notes and making sure that the team’s equipment got delivered, among the innumerable picayune details and responsibilities undertaken by the traveling secretary — was borne a life’s work.
And with Pelekoudas, who was named Seattle’s interim general manager when Bill Bavasi was fired last week, baseball truly has been an endeavor of a lifetime. And that goes well beyond the 29 years he has spent rising through the ranks of the organization.
Like his predecessor, who was the son of longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi, Pelekoudas, now 57, was born into the game.
His father, Chris Pelekoudas, was umpiring in the Pacific Coast League when Lee was born. One of Lee’s first memories, at age 4, was accompanying his dad on a trip to the winter leagues umping games in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
In 1960, Chris Pelekoudas was hired by the National League as an umpire and spent 16 years on the job, giving young Lee, himself a developing player in the San Francisco Bay Area, an insider’s glimpse of major-league baseball.
When his dad’s crew came through to work games at Candlestick Park, Lee would hang out in the umpires room in the right-field tunnel, sometimes fraternizing with players in the nearby clubhouses.
And when his dad was on the road, which was most of the time, Lee would use the family’s pass to frequently attend Giants games at Candlestick in the era of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda.
“I’d kind of equate it to kids of players growing up,” he said. “It’s not quite the same; we were not going on the field during batting practice, although a few times I was able to do that. Once in spring training when I was 15, I took infield and batting practice with the Cubs in Palm Springs.
“There were some perks to it. But it’s tough not having your father around. That’s the trade-off.”
The father-son time came during the winter, but in those days umpires had to work in the offseason. Chris Pelekoudas — who died of a stroke in 1984 at the age of 66 — at various times was a cab driver in Chicago, a postman (delivering mail to Shirley Temple on his route) and a high-school basketball referee before settling into the insurance business.
He was also immersed in various controversies, as umpires tend to be. Chris Pelekoudas once got in hot water with the league office for shaking Willie Mays’ hand as he crossed home plate following his 512th homer — passing Mel Ott for most in National League history.
In 1965, Pelekoudas negated a Hank Aaron home run, ruling he stepped out of the batter’s box, at Busch Stadium. And in 1968, he overruled a Pete Rose strikeout, ruling that Phil Regan had thrown a spit ball. Given a second chance Rose got a base hit. “[Cubs manager Leo] Durocher went nuts, Regan went nuts,” Lee Pelekoudas recalled. “Regan threatened to sue him for defamation of character. That was a mess.”
Lee Pelekoudas said that watching his dad get booed became second nature.
“You get immune to it, really,” he said.
But when it was the son doing the second-guessing, it was a different story.
“One time, I questioned one of his calls myself,” Lee Pelekoudas said with a smile. “It was a long ride home. He called Orlando Cepeda out on strikes, and Cepeda went nuts. He threw his helmet into the stands and hit some lady in the head.
“My mother was with us. On the way home I said something like, ‘Do you think that might have been a little outside?’ Forty miles home to Sunnyvale, dead silence. It was the wrong thing to say.”
Drafted in the 23rd round out of Homestead High School in Sunnyvale, Calif., Pelekoudas went to ASU and played for legendary Sun Devils coach Bobby Winkles. A sore arm while in Tempe ended his dreams of playing professionally.
“Being realistic, my talent probably wouldn’t have gotten me beyond A ball or Double A,” Pelekoudas said. “You take stock of your life and try to figure out, do I want to spend six or seven years kicking around minor-league baseball, or try to get in the game in another manner. That’s what I did.”
Pelekoudas got his toenail in the door selling advertising for the Salem Senators of the Northwest League before joining Portland and then Seattle. In 1987, when the Mariners’ administrative assistant, Ethel Larue, retired, Pelekoudas convinced then-general manager Dick Balderson to let him take over her responsibilities.
“She typed up all the contracts and was really the watchdog over all the major-league rules, making sure Dick didn’t screw up waivers and things like that,” Pelekoudas said.
“I told Dick, ‘I’ll do that for you — I’ll do everything but answer your phone and type your personal letters. As an added plus, I can help you out in the clubhouse and help you negotiate contracts eventually, too.’ He thought it was a good idea.”
Pelekoudas quickly became an expert in the arcane web of rules that govern player transactions. His duties began to expand under each successive general manager; it is a tribute to Pelekoudas’ impeccable reputation in the game, and in the Mariners’ organization, that Woody Woodward, Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi not only retained him but came to entrust him with increasing responsibility.
He was the natural choice as interim caretaker when Bavasi paid for the Mariners’ slide with his job. Now Pelekoudas faces the monumental challenge of guiding the M’s through the July 31 trade deadline and beyond while convincing Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln that he is the man to lead them long term.
Twice before — in 1999 when Gillick was hired and 2003, when Bavasi was chosen — Pelekoudas has interviewed for the job and been passed over.
“I want to do what’s in the best interests of the organization,” he said. “If they like what I do, they like what I do. Regardless of what happens, I’ll still think of myself as a Mariner, and I’d like to stay a Mariner.
“I’d like to stay a Mariner as general manager, too.”
This time, nearly three decades after he arrived in Seattle, Lee Pelekoudas knows exactly what job he’s vying for.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org