New baseball season brings back memories for Roanoke businessman

Pete Eshelman, the owner of Joseph Decuis, in Roanoke, poses with the World Series ring he won as a member of the New York Yankees front office in 1977. Eshelman was originally drafted by the Yankees as a pitcher, but went on to work for the team in a different capacity following an injury. Eshelman says his time around the team, especially owner George Steinbrenner, had a positive impact on his life.
Pete Eshelman, the owner of Joseph Decuis, in Roanoke, poses with the World Series ring he won as a member of the New York Yankees front office in 1977. Eshelman was originally drafted by the Yankees as a pitcher, but went on to work for the team in a different capacity following an injury. Eshelman says his time around the team, especially owner George Steinbrenner, had a positive impact on his life. Photo by Steve Clark.

In a little over a year, Pete Eshelman went from being a Major League Baseball draft pick to a World Series champion with the New York Yankees.

It was a whirlwind 17 months for Eshelman, to put it mildly. Ultimately, it was a stretch of time that saw his playing career cut short, but a new career, inspired by legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, begin to take shape.

Today, Eshelman is the owner of Joseph Decuis, in Roanoke. But in the 1970s, he was a baseball player at Williams College, in Williamstown, MA, striving to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“My whole life, I wanted to be a professional baseball player,” says Eshelman.

A talented lefthanded pitcher, Eshelman caught the attention of major-league scouts. During his senior season in 1976, he appeared to be heading toward getting selected in the MLB amateur draft.

Eshelman’s draft status was jeopardized, however, when he suffered a rotator cuff injury. The young southpaw proved to be resilient, though; by the time the draft arrived in June, he’d made strides on recovering from the injury. And in the 23rd round, with the 15th pick, the Yankees made Eshelman’s longtime dream a reality.

Upon signing with the Bronx Bombers, Eshelman reported to the team’s Class A short season affiliate, the Oneonta Yankees, based in Oneonta, NY. With Oneonta, Eshelman was primed to get his first taste of professional baseball – and, with any luck, start a steady ascent through the Yankees’ farm system.

Ultimately, though, that’s not the direction Eshelman’s career took. Not long into his time with Oneonta, his rotator cuff injury got reaggravated.

“In those days, a rotator cuff for a pitcher … they didn’t really have the medical skills to fix that,” he observes.

And with that, Eshelman’s career as a professional baseball player drew to a close, almost as soon as it began.

“It was kind of disappointing,” he says. “But you just have to deal with reality.”

Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Eshelman channeled his energy toward plotting the next step of his career. And if he wasn’t destined to be in a baseball dugout, he thought, perhaps he was destined to be in a baseball front office.

Interested in the off-field side of baseball as much as the on-field, Eshelman decided to call the Yankees’ front office and inquire if any positions were available.

“I got a call back,” says Eshelman, “and (they) said ‘Come to New York and get an interview.’”

In his interview, Eshelman says his passion for baseball was clear.

“He saw all that in me,” says Eshelman of Steinbrenner. “You know, young guy with a lot of motivation. A lot of energy. Smart.”

And so, not long after Eshelman’s left arm landed him a job in the Yankees’ minor-league system, his smarts landed him a job with the Yankees themselves.

Aside from giving a strong interview, Eshelman credits a bit of shared history between him and Steinbrenner with helping him get a foot in the door.

“We went to the same college, Williams College,” shares Eshelman. “And then, of course, I was drafted by the Yankees. He saw me play, because he would go around and watch the minor leagues and stuff like that. He was aware of the fact that this young man from Williams College – this small, little Ivy League school – was drafted.

“And so that was really the connection.”

Eshelman says the power of connections was never lost on him after that.

“I think it’s a great example,” he says. “In business or in life, connections really open doors for you. And you’ve got to take advantage of those if you have them.”

Eshelman worked for the Yankees during the 1977 season. He was assigned to the team’s minor-league department.

“My responsibilities were dealing with the scouts,” he says. “We had a group of scouts that were around the country looking at the talent. So, I was dealing with those guys and helping manage their reports.”

One of Eshelman’s most important responsibilities became delivering a special scouting report to the team’s coaching staff. This report, an analysis of the pitchers that the Yankees would be facing in their next series, was one of Steinbrenner’s pet projects.

“Steinbrenner was one of the first owners to do advanced scouting at the major-league level,” explains Eshelman. “So, they send out scouts and they would watch their pitchers. Pitchers have routines. The scouts would document that.”

Eshelman quickly discovered that the Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin, and his coaching staff, which included retired Yankee great Yogi Berra, didn’t share Steinbrenner’s enthusiasm for that data.

“I’d give it to Billy Martin,” says Eshelman of the report. “I’d go down and he’d be halfway dressed and he’d be smoking his pipe. Yogi’s in there and Elston Howard and the coaches, Art Fowler. I’d give him the report, I’d say, ‘Billy, here’s your advanced scouting report.’ And he said, ‘Pete, put it in the ‘round file.’’

“That was the trash can. I don’t think he ever read it all season.”

This, naturally, put Eshelman in an awkward position.

“As soon as this advanced scouting thing started happening, the Yankees started winning,” says Eshelman. “So, I’d be in meetings upstairs with everyone, and Mr. Steinbrenner would talk about how his advanced scouting ‘has turned the team around.’ Because, you know, we now have an advantage.

“And I’m sitting there, I couldn’t say a word, because it’s in the trash can. So, that’s how receptive the guys were at the time of that kind of data.”

That season, differences of opinion between Steinbrenner and Martin, as well as Martin and star outfielder Reggie Jackson, were not uncommon. Because of that friction, the ’77 Yankees, plus Yankee squads in subsequent seasons, were nicknamed “The Bronx Zoo,” in reference to their apparent discord.

It’s a reputation that Eshelman disputes.

“It was very organized, very methodical,” he counters. “Steinbrenner was a driven person. The only goal for the Yankees was to win all the time.

He would’ve been a great general. If people didn’t subscribe to that and they felt too much pressure or whatever, that was kind of what was the appearance of (discord).

“He was a master. I saw him in meetings with Billy Martin and the coaching staff and the front office staff and this man could get your attention. You’re either on his program – or don’t let the door hit you in the rear on the way out.”

Steinbrenner’s resolute vision, coupled with Martin’s managerial prowess and the on-field contributions of players like Jackson, propelled the Yankees to a record of 100-62 that year and first place in their division, the American League East. In the postseason, the Yankees dispatched the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, winning in five games. The Bronx Bombers then squared off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, besting them in six games to claim the franchise’s 21st world championship.

The experience of winning a World Series ring made, understandably, a big impression on Eshelman, then just in his early 20s.

“It taught me the satisfaction you get when you know you’re the best in the world at what you do,” he reflects.

“But that’s a moment,” he adds. “Because you got to get up next season and you got to redo it. And so, you can’t rest on your laurels.”

Eshelman also learned, by virtue of spending time around so many Yankee luminaries, that finding success didn’t have to result in losing humility.

“If you think about a 22-year-old guy, broken down, can’t play professionally anymore, now I’m in the front office in an environment with some of the legends in the history of baseball – in sports,” says Eshelman. “And I’m dealing with these people every day – Billy, Elston, Yogi.”

“They were very kind to me,” he continues. “I was a young guy and they understood when you get hurt, you’re out. And they were just very kind to me. So, I learned, I think, that if you’re great, you’re a legend, that you can be a kind person. And that was a huge thing.”

Despite having such a positive experience with the Yankees, Eshelman decided to move on from the organization after the season.

“I wasn’t making much money,” he admits. “And I wasn’t patient to become a general manager.”

But Eshelman had a plan – and he had Steinbrenner to thank for it.

Steinbrenner, says Eshelman, was the first owner in baseball to offer players guaranteed contracts. And he had those contracts insured.

“I watched that and I said, ‘You know, I think this could be a business,’” says Eshelman.

Time and again, he watched representatives from Lloyd’s of London, which insured the Yankees’ contracts, misunderstand baseball.

“They were actually charging more money for outfielders than pitchers, because they felt an outfielder had to throw the ball further,” reveals Eshelman. “And pitcher is the highest risk there is. I thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t even understand the game.’”

So, Eshelman decided to make a move into the world of insurance.

“I actually got into the life insurance business and that paid the money for me to find Lloyd’s of London guys and then we set up a company,” he says. “So, that was the beginning of a 35-year sports career.”

It’s a career that Eshelman makes sure to give Steinbrenner credit for.

“Not only did I learn from him, but his idea I took and turned it into a business,” he says. “And so, I’m indebted to him for that as well.”

Fittingly, during Eshelman’s time in the sports insurance industry, he had numerous dealings with Steinbrenner and the Yankees.

“He would say, ‘Eshelman, never forget that I made you who you are,’” shares Eshelman. “He’d bust me. He’d bust me hard.

“And the thing about Steinbrenner is, if he didn’t bust you or rag on you, he didn’t love you. But if he was tough on you, he was just trying to teach you to be the best you can be.”

That high standard – Steinbrenner’s Yankee standard – is one that Eshelman has endeavored to live up to ever since.

“If you’re going to be in any job, I don’t care if you’re shoveling cow manure, be the best that you can be,” he says. “It’s just that will to win and succeed against odds.

“A lot of people give up. But the Yankees never gave up. And I learned that you never give up if you believe in something.”