Pondering Ponce de Leon

The middle-aged men gathered in the conference room of a Hilton-Garden Inn in Fort Myers, Fla. early last month piqued my curiosity.

Should I walk in and inquire about their business? (not to mention helping myself to chocolate chip cookies at the coffee table).

After all, wasn’t this Florida and wasn’t it February?

As it turned out, they were members of a Ponce de Leon senior baseball organization.

Ponce who?

Several of the gentleman explained that [Juan] de Leon was a Spanish explorer (1474-1521) who thought he had discovered the fountain of youth.

Then someone introduced me to a fellow standing nearby.

He turned out to be Don Buford Sr., a former major leaguer with the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

Now 74, Buford was a celebrity attending the dinner upon the players’ arrival in Fort Myers, prior to the start of a fantasy camp sponsored by Ponce de Leon.

“It’s open to any Ponce member or anyone else,” Buford said of the five-day camp — spring training-style — that attracted about 75-80 players this past winter.

“My part was helping guys with hitting and making suggestions and telling stories,” Buford said of his role.

“Guys pay to come down and play with a lot of former [major league] players, coaches and managers,” said Buford, whose career spanned 1963-72. “They had two games a day and finished with a championship game.”

After leaving the majors, Buford played in Japan until 1976.

He coached with Frank Robinson and San Francisco for a time and then helped USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux.

Buford said he coached such players as Brett Boone, Randy Johnson, Damon Burford, Mark Smith and Jeff Cirillo.

Buford also coached his son, Don Buford Jr., who transferred from Stanford and then played two years for the Trojans.

Buford Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by signing a pro contract with the Orioles in 1990 and playing at the high-A level before pursuing a future in medicine.

“You’re a doctor for life; you can’t be baseball player for life,” Buford said of his oldest son, an orthopedic physician.

His youngest son, Damon, played for five major league teams over an 8-year career. Don’s middle son, Daryl, is a sports attorney.

After USC, Buford Sr. rejoined Robinson, but this time with the Orioles. Buford then became a coordinator of instruction for Baltimore’s minor league system. He managed an AA team before being elevated to assistant farm director for four years. As part of his 20-some years with the Orioles, Buford managed rookie and high-A level clubs.

He was also a roving instructor for a Chicago Cubs’ rookie team for one year.

He made the 1971 All-Star team and pinch-hit for Reggie Jackson following Jackson’s towering home run that landed on the roof of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.

“I pinch-hit for him the next bat and struck out,” Buford said of his dubious follow-up.

He might be one of a few individuals in the college hall of fame (2000), Orioles hall of fame (1993) and International League AAA hall of fame (2008).

Buford was born in the South, but his parents moved to Southern California when he was 5.

While playing in a parks dept. summer league near his Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Buford learned the outfield position because teams had only eight players in some games.

“We’d have two outfielders [left-center and right-center] covering all positions. That’s a lot of territory, but that’s how I learned to play the outfield.”

Defense helped Don Sr. break into the majors with the White Sox when he replaced second baseman Nellie Fox who joined the Astros. He also played some outfield with the White Sox until being traded to Baltimore in 1968, when he was a utility player in an infield of second baseman Davey Johnson and third baseman Brooks Robinson.

Buford said that manager Hank Bauer wouldn’t play him in the outfield, even when outfielders were struggling at the plate.

“I bided my time,” Buford said. “Then [third base coach] Earl Weaver took over when Bauer was fired at the All-Star break in 1968. He put me in the lineup because he saw me play in the minors. Then I played the rest of the time.”

Weaver knew Buford’s value as a leadoff batter.

“He knew I’d get on base, because I played against him so much [in 1960]. He felt I could help.”

Earlier in the 1968 season, Buford said he talked to Weaver, trying to get him to convince Bauer of his worthiness since he was hitting well while others were in slumps.

“Earl said he couldn’t tell Bauer because it was Earl’s first year with the club.”

Buford also got playing time after right fielder Frank Robinson suffered double vision as the result of his base-running collision with Chicago second baseman Al Weis in mid-1967.

“That left an opening because Frank didn’t play every day,” Buford said of Robinson’s problem that plagued him into the 1968 season.

In Baltimore’s only win against the Miracle Mets in the 1969 World Series, Buford led the Orioles’ attack with a solo homer and RBI double.

His World Series leadoff home run was unique until Boston’s Dustin Pedroia duplicated it in 2007.

He was also with Baltimore’s World Series champs that beat the Reds in 1970 and the Orioles team that lost to the Pirates in 1971 — the first time a World Series game was played at night.

Buford’s versatility as a switch-hitter with a knack for getting on base, stealing and scoring runs, paid off.

“I had a .400-or-better slugging percentage four out of my five years with Baltimore,” he said.

Founded by Robert Duff, Ponce de Leon’s territory is the suburbs of Washington D.C.

“They’re a great bunch of guys and some my age are still playing,” Buford said of the organization he’s been with for eight years.

Does he still play?

“I don’t run anymore because I had a knee replacement. If I do anything, you might want to call it a controlled jog.”

The website is www.poncedeleonbaseball.com

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