Bob Sebra, who moved to Ormond Beacn during his Major League Baseball career, died last week at 58 after an up-and-down baseball career and a long struggle with post-baseball health problems.
"You don’t know who I am, do you?"
It was a few minutes prior to a charity golf outing at LPGA International, and the guy in my face was smiling ear to ear. Then he stuck out his hand.
"I’m Bob Sebra. Good to see you again."
No way. Bob Sebra, the former big-league pitcher, was a moose — he was 6-foot-2, a few per diems beyond 200 pounds, none of it wasted flesh, and wore a bit more threat and intensity than this thin, pale, yet happy fellow in front of you.
"Honestly, my entire life, my father was sick," says 27-year-old Ryan Sebra. "I never got to see him look the way he did in all the videos of him playing. But even when he was 120 pounds and just out of the hospital he felt like he could go 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali. I would always have to remind him he wasn’t 25 anymore.
"He was always sick and struggling with something, but he always made time to help others that he cared about. He never said no to me when I wanted to go to the fields."
Bob Sebra, who spent most of his adult life in Ormond Beach, died last week at 58 and there is no good way to spin it.
He spent his final year in the intensive care unit of Miami’s Jackson Memorial hospital, almost all of the final four months alone due to coronavirus visitor restrictions. He’d undergone two multi-visceral transplants — liver, pancreas, small intestine, stomach and kidney.
The first came seven years after an original liver transplant in 2012. Bob theorized that his hepatitis-C came from sharing shaving razors with teammates, and his reliance on anti-inflammatories exacerbated the situation.
A few months after last year’s multi-visceral transplant, son Ryan says, Bob’s pancreas went bad and another transplant operation was needed. This time a kidney went haywire and things were looking worse than ever. The final blow, Ryan suspects, came in March when friends and family could no longer visit due to COVID 19 worries.
"His mental state wasn’t good because of the restrictions," says Ryan.
’Then he threw that curveball’
Major League Baseball’s 1983 draft included several pitchers who would go on to successful MLB careers — No. 1 overall pick Tim Belcher, Rick Aguilera, Doug Drabek. And one who would become an all-time great — Roger Clemens.
That draft also included a solidly built New Jersey native, by way of the University of Nebraska — Bob Sebra, a fifth-round pick of the Texas Rangers who, like just about every ballplayer drafted that high, had always been the best player everywhere he played since childhood.
In 1980 at Gloucester Catholic High School in Camden County, New Jersey, Sebra led his team to an undefeated season (24-0) and state championship. He threw a no-hitter in the state playoffs, and overall in the postseason he pitched 17 innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 38.
John Yowler had previously been on an opposing high school team but transferred and was with Sebra at Gloucester during their magical 1980 run. In a Cherry Hill Courier-Post article about the 40th anniversary of that team, Yowler explained how dominant a future high-round MLB draft pick can be at that level, especially when he possesses a beyond-his-years curveball often described in baseball as noon-to-6 or nose-to-toes.
"He was so good, to be honest with you, he could embarrass you," Yowler said. "He could embarrass you in front of your mom, your girlfriend. That’s a fact. That happened our junior year at St. Joe’s. I knew how good he was. You could hear the ball. Some guys throw and you just hear it sizzle and that’s how hard he threw, then he threw that curveball."
Some 40 years later, Yowler told the Courier-Journal that he visited Sebra in the Miami hospital that became his final residence.
"He was a great player, a better teammate and my best friend," Yowler said. "He was a good dude. He was tough. He was a fighter and obviously he showed that in the last year of his life."
'Time for someone to take a lump’
As happens more often than not, even with the most promising of arms and bats, Sebra’s early-life dominance didn’t translate into a great big-league career. There were excellent early signs, as he progressed through the Rangers’ minor league system in just two seasons before cracking the Texas roster in 1985.
He pitched in seven games for the Rangers in 1985, and 87 more over the next five years for five different teams, and never pitched well enough, for long enough, to prevent the occasional demotion back to Triple A.
His best season was 1987 with the Montreal Expos. Though his final win-loss record was a humble 6-15, his numbers indicated he was pitching into bad luck — his 156 strikeouts were eighth best in the National League; he pitched four complete games, including his second career shutout.
In one of his complete games, he struck out 14 and allowed just three hits in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs and future Hall o Famer Greg Maddux.
WATCH: Sebra shows off his curveball during 1-0 loss to Maddux and the Cubs
Sebra threw his first and final MLB pitches against the Seattle Mariners. He debuted on June 26, 1985, and retired Seattle’s Jack Perconte on a flyball to center field as part of a routine, three-up and three-down bottom of the first inning.
The final big-league pitch, on June 30, 1990, was far from routine. Now with the Brewers after stops in Montreal, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and with his MLB future looking far from certain, he came out of the bullpen to face a Mariners team that was much more loaded than it had been in 1985.
With the Mariners up 5-2 in the eighth, Sebra entered and gave up a home run to Jeffrey Leonard. Next came future Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, who doubled. Next came the bubbling over of frustration, which spilled onto Tracy Jones in the manner of a pedestrian fastball to the ribs.
WATCH: Bob Sebra’s final big-league pitch ignites one of game’s wildest brawls of all-time
One of baseball’s craziest all-time brawls followed, lasting nearly 20 minutes. In its infancy, with benches beginning to empty and Jones jawing at Sebra, Sebra dropped his glove, walked toward home plate and then ran right into the growing fray. Instead of trotting out the usual line afterward — "that pitch just got away from me" — Sebra stated the obvious.
"Things haven’t been going right for me or the team lately. It was time for someone to take a lump. I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head, but I was trying to drill him."
Eight players were ejected, including Seattle’s Randy Johnson and Milwaukee’s Gary Sheffield. Sebra was dealt a five-game suspension that he never served, because he was sent back to Triple A the next day and after three more seasons in Triple A for four different organizations (Astros, Cubs, Rangers and Cardinals), his baseball career was over at age 32.
'He was our Superman’
During Bob Sebra’s 1985-90 MLB career, he and wife Robbin moved to Ormond Beach, where they’d previously visited Bob’s mother, who relocated to the area several years earlier.
Ryan Sebra was born in 1993 and would grow into an excellent ballplayer himself, taking full advantage of the coaching he received from the former big-leaguer at the dinner table. In his teens, Ryan was a standout pitcher and infielder at Seabreeze High School, where the baseball field was often filled with the boisterous sounds of Ryan’s dad in the bleachers.
"You’d always hear Bob barking in the stands," says Anthony Campanella, Seabreeze’s baseball coach from 1994-2017. "Sometimes I’d have to go over to him and say, ‘Bob, chill.’ He’d laugh about it. But he had this great baseball knowledge, and he was always willing to give as much as he can … to everybody. He was very genuine.
"You know, in 2002 I hired him as my pitching coach at Seabreeze. He was doing such a great job. It was great for the program to have a former big-leaguer coaching, and it was good for Bob. But his health … he couldn’t be there enough. We had to stop. He understood."
Ryan Sebra would go on to play college ball and two years (2015-16) in the lower minor leagues in the Los Angeles Angels organization. He remained with the Angels as a minor league coach and, though currently furloughed, is the hitting coach for L.A.’s Pioneer League team in Orem, Utah.
Ryan, who still lives in Ormond Beach, was with his father when he died. He speaks of his dad the way every dad should want to be spoken about.
"He always found a way to make life for my sister (Alexandria) and I a little bit simpler than it was," he says. "He felt guilty at times because of his health, and that he was a burden for my family, but nobody cared because he was our Superman.
"We always made the joke he was gonna outlive all of us. He was that strong of a fighter. He willed his way to do anything."
To hear Ryan tell the old baseball stories, you get the feeling he can still hear his dad’s voice echoing from the bleachers every time he steps on a field.
"He never missed a game until I was in college," Ryan says. "He stopped coaching once I got to high school, but he was always so loud and vocal at the games, sitting behind home plate. Especially when me or any of my teammates were pitching, it was like he was out there battling with you.
"Everyone of my teammates, from little league all the way up to pro ball, loved it when he was there. It was like he was your teammate."
When Ryan got his first college pitching start, it was the first time he’d stepped on the mound without his father in the bleachers. Ryan recalls it as one of the most telling moments of their father-son relationship.
"It was the first baseball game he wasn’t at. I threw a belt-high fastball and I heard him say ‘Get the damn ball down!’ And I looked to see where he was, and he wasn’t even at the game."
’I will fight my ass off’
Danny Gallagher is an author and former baseball writer for the Montreal Daily News who has written several books on the old Expos. In March, 2019, he interviewed Bob Sebra for a project he was working on. Sebra was approaching the multi-visceral transplant he hoped would extend his life.
"It’s going to be a tough year," he told Gallagher. "But anybody that knows me knows I’m going to go down fighting. I will fight my ass off."
The odds were way too steep.
"I just want everyone to know of Bob the father, son, grandfather, brother, and best friend," Ryan Sebra says. "A lot of people know Bob the pitcher, the competitor, the assassin on the mound that will do literally anything to embarrass you, but my dad was also the most loving, passionate, strong, affectionate person I have ever met."
He was also a reminder that we don’t really need: Not all great baseball prospects will have great baseball careers.
And in the end, a reminder that we all do need on occasion: Even the blessing of a big-league body is no guarantee of a long and healthy life.
Reach Ken Willis at email@example.com