LIBERAL Mike Hargrove is sitting in the dugout of the Liberal Bee Jays, in uniform, in charge and back in baseball.
He wrote Cal Ripken, Manny Ramirez and Ichiro Suzuki onto lineup cards during 16 years as a major league manager. His Cleveland teams played the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins in the World Series.
Now, against the Park City Rangers on a hot and muggy night in a wind-swept outpost in a far corner of Kansas, he has Clint Stubbs leading off and Steven Tucker batting cleanup in this Jayhawk League semipro game.
From the field to their living arrangements, the basement of someone's home, things are decidedly different for Mike and Sharon Hargrove.
But for a 58-year-old man who was at the top of his profession when he awoke one day to discover a desperate need for a break, different is good.
Different is healing.
"I'm enjoying this. I'm having fun," Hargrove said. "I would like to manage again in the big leagues someday. But I'm not unhappy here by any stretch of the imagination.
"No matter what level you play on, it's still a great game."
It was great for the Seattle Mariners on July 1 last year. They were about to win their eighth in a row. Then, in a shocker, Hargrove resigned. No big league manager since at least 1900, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, had walked away from a team on an eight-game winning streak.
In the minds of many, Hargrove created a mystery that has not been fully explained.
"I found that for the first time in my life, I was having to work at competing. Some people said it was because of a conflict with Ichiro," he said. "That was absolutely untrue. I felt like I had lost my edge."
So he and Sharon climbed into a pickup and rode off, seemingly into the sunset. With nothing particular in mind, they headed toward Perryton, Texas, where almost half a century earlier they'd been starry-eyed sweethearts in the eighth grade.
Liberal, about 45 miles north of Perryton, is where Mike and Sharon began their life together when he played for the Bee Jays in 1972. Two years after that, he was American League Rookie of the Year with the Texas Rangers, launching a solid 12-year career. Over the years, with family in the area, he had maintained close ties with Liberal and the semipro team the town of 22,000 has embraced for nearly six decades. So he and Sharon stopped to visit.
"I told Mike and Sharon that I was going to make him an offer to manage the Bee Jays," said Bee Jays general manager Bob Carlile, who formed a lifelong friendship when Hargrove stayed in his home as a player.
"I told him, 'I can't pay you very much,"' Carlile said. "He told me, 'You wouldn't have to."'
Without a doubt, Hargrove has taken a pretty hefty pay cut. The man who made millions managing the Orioles, Indians and Mariners is managing the Bee Jays for free.
"Sharon and I had been wanting to give back to people and places that had some influence in our career. You can either give back monetarily or with your time, so we decided to come back and do this," he said. "I don't think there's ever an instance that giving back with your time doesn't mean more."
On a big night, the risers at Brent Gould Field can seat about 1,100. There's no admission fee, and there's an intimate, chummy feel no major league stadium could hope to match. Every night, practically everyone in the crowd is on a first-name basis.
"He signs autographs everywhere he goes," Carlile said. "People think it's the greatest thing in the world that he's here. Everybody comes up and thanks him for what he's doing. It means a lot to the Bee Jays and it means a lot to the city."