Gene Pentz never felt out of place when he made his professional baseball debut in the minor leagues.
The right-handed pitcher from Johnstown felt he already had an edge, one that eventually led Pentz to a solid major league baseball career.
"I was lucky because in the Johnstown Junior League, the competition was always there," said Pentz, a Greater Johnstown High School graduate who played in the majors from 1975-78. "I hardly noticed any difference between the Junior League and going to the rookie league and in A-ball.
"A lot of times we played teams and I'm thinking, 'I bet I can get 10 or 15 guys from Johnstown to come down here and play and beat these guys,' " Pentz said. "If I hung a pitch in the Junior League, I'd get hit hard. If I hung a pitch in the minor leagues or the major leagues, I got hit hard. You always had to have your 'A' game in the Junior League."
The Johnstown Junior League champion annually represented the city in the All American Amateur Baseball Association Tournament. Pentz played for Monte Carlo and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1970 AAABA Tournament even though the Johnstown entry didn't advance to the title game.
Pentz won two tournament games and lost one. He helped Johnstown Monte Carlo earn a rare victory over AAABA Tournament powerhouse New Orleans. The righty pitched 20 2/3 innings in the tournament, a workmanlike effort that included 14 strikeouts.
In those days, dozens of professional scouts annually attended the AAABA Tournament.
Pentz wasn't present to accept the MVP trophy because he was out of town at training camp with the Johnstown High football team. So his father, Carl, picked up the award for Pentz, who was a standout linebacker for the Trojans.
Pentz's absence during the MVP presentation didn't matter. The major league scouts already had noticed his performance on the field.
The Detroit Tigers selected Pentz in the seventh round of the amateur draft in 1971. Pentz began his professional career in the minor leagues and worked his way up the ladder.
He debuted in the majors on July 29, 1975, against the New York Yankees. A relief pitcher, Pentz threw three scoreless innings without allowing a hit. He struck out four Yankees and walked two.
Ironically, Pentz feared his career with the Tigers was in jeopardy during spring training in 1975. An injury had kept Pentz off the field in 1974, and his training camp the next spring hadn't gone particularly well.
"I pitched on a Sunday against the guys who have already got a phone call that they were going to be let go, and they're getting an airplane ticket and going home on Monday," Pentz said of an exhibition game late during spring training in Florida. "I must have given up 10 or 15 runs in three or four innings against these guys. I think, 'I'm gone.' "
Fate intervened a few days later. Les Moss, who managed the Tigers' Class AA minor league team in Montgomery, Alabama, needed a pitcher to throw an exhibition game against Detroit's Class AAA minor league players. The organization wanted to rest its top prospects, Pentz said.
"Les said, 'I know you just threw five innings on Sunday, but I don't want to use anybody and we're playing a game against Triple-A. Do you mind pitching?' " Pentz said.
"I said, 'I'll pitch.' I figured it was my last hurrah. I threw seven innings against the Triple-A team, perfect ball. Sunday, I couldn't get anybody out of the guys who were going home, and then I throw seven innings of perfect ball against the Triple-A team. I don't know why. Everything just clicked."
Pentz had used a bulldog mentality developed in Johnstown to earn an opportunity.
"Les says, 'I'm taking you to Montgomery, but you're a suspect now, not a prospect,' " Pentz said. "That's how my career got on track. Our relievers at that time, all their prospects blew it. We were 2-5 to start the season in Montgomery. Les said, 'You're getting in the next game.' I saved that game. I got in another game and got a save.
"Les called me and said, 'I'm going to give you every chance, and it's going to be up to you now.' I was thankful that a guy gave me that opportunity. I went about two months without giving up a run. But you have to have guys give you that chance."
Pentz went 4-2 with seven saves and a 1.64 ERA with Montgomery and earned a promotion to Class AAA Evansville, Indiana, where he was 2-3 with four saves before the big club called.
His first major league season included 25 1/3 innings of relief and an 0-4 record with Detroit in the American League.
In December 1975, Pentz was involved in a seven-player trade that sent him and Leon Roberts, Terry Humphrey and Mark Lemongello to the Houston Astros for Milt May, Dave Roberts and Jim Crawford.
Moving to the National League, Pentz had a 3-3 record with five saves that season in Houston. He had his best year in 1977, going 5-2 with two saves for the Astros.
He pitched in limited capacity with Houston in 1978 and finished his professional career playing at the Class AAA level the next three seasons, including two years with the Pirates' affiliate in Portland, Oregon. Pentz retired in 1981.
"I had arthritis in the back," Pentz said.
Pentz had an opportunity to pitch against some of the top sluggers in major league history during his time with the Tigers and Astros.
"Frank Howard in spring training, I'm on the mound and I think I'm looking eye-to-eye to Frank Howard," Pentz said of the 6-foot-7 former star who played 16 major league seasons, including his final two years with the Tigers in 1972-73. "How do you throw a ball high to this guy? I think he broke his bat and hit the ball to the wall.
"When you faced Willie McCovey, you're thinking, 'Look at this guy,' " Pentz said of the former San Francisco Giants slugger. "In the American League, the Boston Red Sox lineup had (Carl) Yastrzemski, (Fred) Lynn, (Jim) Rice, Bernie Carbo, and Carlton Fisk. Then, when I'm in Houston, there is the Big Red Machine. One right after the another you have Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench. Then, you had the Pirates with their Lumber Company."
After baseball, Pentz returned to Johnstown, where he and his wife, Brenda, raised a family. His son Paul was a catcher at Pitt-Johnstown, where he was a three-time ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA Academic All-District II honoree.
Gene managed in the local AAABA League for a few years with Galliker Dairy. He was elected to the Greater Johnstown School District Board of Directors in 2003 and still serves in that position.
Baseball took Pentz to the major leagues, but his time in Johnstown with the Trojans and Monte Carlo set the foundation for such success.
"We just had a lot of guys that worked hard," Pentz said. "I've always said, 'Give 100 percent.' We had a lot of guys give 100 percent. If you looked at everybody's uniform, they're dirty. If a guy hit a ground ball between short and third, they're diving after it. If guys hit the ball in the outfield, they're diving after it. When you have God-given talent and you go out and you do the job, this is what happens. It snow-balls."