Ex-Phillies reliever's greatest save
Like Phillies fans everywhere, it has taken Dan Plesac most of the last three weeks to get over the sting of the team's heartbreaking World Series loss to the New York Yankees.
But the season's end and the holiday season have given Plesac, a former Phillies relief pitcher and current commentator on the MLB Network, the time to reflect on and enjoy his own greatest save - one that has nothing to do with baseball.
Captain Zoom, a standardbred racehorse Plesac owned while pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays 12 years ago, was discovered in June to be just days away from a likely trip to a slaughter plant.
But his life was spared and his future secured by Plesac. The 18-year major-leaguer purchased the pacer from a horse broker for $175, provided the medicine, nutrition, and care to bring him back to health, and gave Captain Zoom a home forever at his Indiana farm - aptly named Three Up Three Down.
"We can come up with a million excuses not to do things," Plesac said. "I couldn't have gone to bed at night knowing that I came up with a lame excuse not to take him."
While Phillies fans may think of Plesac only in terms of balls and strikes, the hurler's first love has long been harness racing. He spent countless hours before and after Phillies games in the off-track betting parlor near Veterans Stadium, and nongame days at New Jersey racetracks. He estimates to have owned all or part of 150 horses since his baseball career started in 1982.
When he retired from the Phillies in 2003 - after throwing the last out ever in Veterans Stadium - Plesac became a standardbred trainer, but he returned to baseball as a broadcaster.
"When I put the glove and bat down for the last time, I knew it was time to walk away," Plesac said. "I will always have special ties to the Phillies. Part of me wishes I'd played all my 18 seasons in Philadelphia. It's a tough place, but they are the most passionate, loyal sports fans in America. That was part of what I liked so much about playing there. You knew you were accountable for what you did on the field."
Captain Zoom was just a year old and named Lifetime Legacy when Plesac bought him in 1999 for $26,000. The pitcher renamed him and raced him for a year, but when it was clear the horse could not compete at the top level, Plesac cut his losses and sold him at public auction.
Four owners and three years later, Captain Zoom had raced his last. After fathering two foals - one in 2004 and another in 2007 - the horse was sent to a New York cattle and horse auction in Unadilla, N.Y., where he sold for $25.
It is likely Captain Zoom spent the next two years pulling an Amish buggy, for when he was found by the Bernville, Pa., horse rescue group, Another Chance 4 Horses, he had marks from a harness collar around his neck. He also had lacerations all over his body from what appeared to be a fall on the road and fights in the pasture.
And he was on his way to an uncertain future.
Ellen Harvey of the United States Trotting Association found a picture of Captain Zoom on a Web site seeking homes for unwanted horses, and as soon as she saw his identification number, she knew it was a standardbred's. When she traced the pacer back to the pitcher, Harvey asked a mutual friend to contact Plesac for help.
Plesac wasted no time pledging his support, but he did more than write a check. He promised Captain Zoom would have a home, with him, for life.
"I didn't want to save this horse to leave him with somebody else," said Plesac. "If I was going to save him, I wanted to know that he was going to be taken care of the way he should have been taken care of. When I hung up the phone, the first thing that went through my mind, and it's still what I think of now, is if the horse was worth $27,000, he was worth $175. How in the world could I let him go who-knows-where and not save him?"
Plesac admitted he was angry when he learned of Captain Zoom's condition, but also knew there was a certain inevitability to finding one of his horses in challenging circumstances.
"When you acquire a horse, that's the easy part of getting into the horse business," he said. "You always hope this won't happen to one of your horses after it leaves you, but in the back of your mind you know it might."
As a fellow athlete, Plesac said, he has always respected his racehorses, but he gained an even greater understanding after he left baseball to train horses full time.
"My appreciation for horses and the sport grew 10 times when I retired and started training the horse myself," he said. "When I owned horses, I'd just go watch them race. When I trained them, they lived with me. They were part of me. I had much more of an emotional attachment to horses."
It's hard to imagine Plesac could have any stronger emotional attachment than he does to Captain Zoom. When they are down on the farm together, the pitcher enjoys nothing more than putting the harness and jog cart on his old friend and taking him for a few spins around their training track, with Captain Zoom's ears pricked and his coat now vibrant with health.
The future is looking bright for Captain Zoom, not unlike the outlook for the Phillies, in Plesac's estimations.
"[General manager] Ruben Amaro's most impactful move was when he acquired Cliff Lee," Plesac said. "That shows how good this team is and is going to be for a while. Their closer had a miserable year. You had no idea from June to the very last game in the World Series what kind of bullpen you'd have that night. Charlie Manuel did a great job. Cole Hamels had a subpar year and they managed to stretch the Yankees to six games. They need for a lot of things to go wrong for them not be the overwhelming favorite in the NL East."
So on Thanksgiving, when the Plesac family gathered at the farm to break bread and give thanks, there was a familiar friend celebrating, albeit from the pasture outside.
"When I look at him out there eating grass, all I can think is, 'You hit the lottery, big boy,' " Plesac said. "We both did."
Nicole Kraft is the communications director of the United States Trotting Association and executive editor of Hoof Beats magazine.