Obituary: Bob Sebra (1961-2020)

RIP to Bob Sebra, who pitched for five different teams in the 1980s. He died on July 22 at the age of 58 from complications related to multi-visceral transplant surgeries in 2019. Sebra spent most of the last year of his life in the intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, according to Danny Gallagher of the Canadian Baseball Network. Sebra played for the Texas Rangers (1985), Montreal Expos (1986-87), Philadelphia Phillies (1988-89), Cincinnati Reds (1989) and Milwaukee Brewers (1990).

Sebra’s health problems began around 2012 when he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which he attributed to sharing razors with teammates and anti-inflammatory medicine that damaged his liver. He had a liver transplant then, but by 2019 he needed a surgery to receive a liver, pancreas, spleen, stomach and part of his small and large intestine, Gallagher wrote in 2019. “It’s a 16-hour procedure. It’s the most complicated surgery known to man,” Sebra told him. He actually underwent a second multi-visceral transplant when the pancreas failed the first time. Since then, Sebra had battled numerous infections and had several surgeries.

Robert Bush Sebra was born on December 11, 1961, in Ridgewood, N.J. He grew up a Phillies fan and made many trips to Veterans Stadium as a child. There, he got to cheer for one of his neighbors — Bob Boone. Sebra started gaining notice for his pitching abilities while playing in a South Jersey Babe Ruth League when he was in junior high. He tossed a couple of no-hitters while pitching for Shawnee High School in 1978 and was among the last group of St. Joseph’s High School students to be named to the All-Parochial baseball team in 1979 — the high school closed that year. Sebra graduated from Gloucester Catholic High School in 1980 and was named to the All-South Jersey Scholastic Baseball team for the second year in a row. He struck out 118 batters in 67 innings and threw two no-hitters, bringing his high school total up to seven.

Sebra was drafted in the fourth round of the 1980 Amateur Draft by the Detroit Tigers. By the end of the summer, though, the scouts had withdrawn their offer. He had come down with a sore elbow after a nine-inning game in which he struck out 20 batters but threw 189 pitches. “Like an idiot, I went out the next day and started throwing in to home from the outfield,” Sebra said, adding that the scouts thought he’d wrecked his pitching arm. Sebra instead went to the University of Nebraska, where three seasons on the baseball team proved his arm was just fine. He had a fastball that touched 95 and a wicked curve, and he became the first Cornhusker to strike out 200 batters, with 212 in just three seasons.

The Texas Rangers drafted him in the fifth round of the 1983 Amateur Draft, and Sebra reported to the Tri-Cities Triplets of the low-A Northwest League. He won 4 games and lost 3 in 12 starts, with a 4.01 ERA. Sebra started 1984 in AA and by the end of the season had moved up to AAA. He won 10 games for the AA Tulsa Drillers with 90 strikeouts in 100-1/3 innings. “My goal is to be in big league spring training next year,” he said.

It worked out just that way. Sebra was invited to spring training with the Rangers, and while he didn’t make the club, he was brought up to the majors in June when pitcher Dickie Noles went on the disabled list. In his first MLB appearance on June 26, he started and lasted 5 innings against the Mariners. He walked 4 against just 1 strikeout, but he limited Seattle to 2 runs and would have picked up the win had the bullpen not blown the game. He stayed with the Rangers long enough to appear in 7 games, with 4 starts. He went 0-2 with a 7.52 ERA and was sent back to AAA Oklahoma City. In the offseason, he was sent to Montreal in a controversial trade at the time. The Expos had drafted Pete Incaviglia in the first round of the 1985 draft, but he wouldn’t sign with them. He only agreed to a contract if he would be traded, and the Rangers agreed to the deal. The Expos got Sebra and infielder Jim Johnson in return. Because Major League Baseball doesn’t allow the trading of draft choices, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth held up the trade until it was reworked in such a way as to be compatible with baseball’s rules.

Of all the innings Sebra threw in the majors, about two-thirds of them came while he wore an Expos uniform. He was initially disappointed to leave the young Rangers team, but he would later call the trade the best thing that happened to him. “The National League is suited for my type of pitching,” he said. “I am a low-ball pitcher, and the strike zone is a little higher in the American League.”

Montreal brought Sebra back to the major leagues in mid-season 1986, and the timing was perfect for him. The Expos pitching staff was a series of question marks after the team’s most reliable starter, Floyd Youmans. Charlie Lea missed the season with injuries, Bryn Smith and Joe Hesketh suffered late-season injuries, and Dennis Martinez was ineffective. There was an opportunity for another pitcher to make his case for the rotation, and Sebra stepped up. His 4-4 record may not be impressive, but it was more the result of bad luck and a sub-.500 team than poor pitching. Sebra struck out 66 batters in 17 games, 13 of which were starts. He walked just 25 in 91-1/3 innings and threw 3 complete games. He just missed his first career shutout against the Mets on September 8, when Darryl Strawberry cracked a home run with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the ninth inning. The 9-1 win still impressed the Expos.

“He had an outstanding curveball and a better fastball than he’s had all year,” said pitching coach Larry Bearnarth. “He’s been spotty. He has a great chance of being in our rotation next year if he can keep this up.”

Sebra did get that first shutout on September 30 — a 1-0 win against the Mets. He allowed 2 hits and struck out Strawberry twice — a nice bit of revenge for that earlier home run. Sebra went 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA in three starts against the eventual World Champions.

The 1987 Expos won 91 games, which left them in third place in the NL East. It seems like every good team has a hard-luck pitcher who just can’t buy a win. Sebra was that guy for the ’87 Expos. He led the pitching staff with 156 strikeouts (8th overall in the NL) and 4 complete games, and his innings pitched (177-1/3) were second only to Neal Heaton. Still, he had a 6-15 record and a 4.42 ERA to show for his work. He had great games — He fanned 10 Cardinals on June 26 for a 5-1 complete game win. Of his first 10 losses, the Expos were shut out five times and didn’t score until the ninth inning in another.

“I’ve been throwing the ball good, but with no results,” he said after his win over the Gardinals, which left him with a 4-8 record. “Seems like every time out, I’d make a big mistake, give up a long ball, and that’d be it. Tonight, I did everything right.”

The Expos sent Sebra to AAA Indianapolis in 1988. He won 12 games with an ERA under 3, and the Phillies acquired him on September 1, 1988 for a minor-leaguer. The Phillies had him start three games at the end of the season, and he went 1-2 with a 7.94 ERA. After his first start ended badly, Sebra admitted that his emotions about pitching for his childhood favorite team may have played a part.

Sebra started the 1989 season in AAA, and it was a tough pill to swallow. He had even discussed retiring from the game entirely. “If you’re not mad, then you’re not human,” he later said. “That’s the thing that keeps you hungry to get back there. At that time I was mad at everything and everybody.”

The Phillies did bring him back to the majors in May, and he was brilliant in his first start. He went 8 innings against the Padres on May 21, allowing 1 run and striking out 7. By June 15, he had made 5 starts and one relief appearance and had a 2-3 record and a 4.46 ERA. Still, through no fault of his own, he and Todd Frohwirth were demoted to the minors on June 20. Days before, the Phillies made major trades with San Francisco and New York to acquire Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Dennis Cook, Charlie Hayes and Terry Mulholland. Sebra was caught in a numbers crunch — not that it made him feel any better.

“I felt like I pitched well. In the five games I started, I was 2-2 with a 3.81 earned run average. That’s not bad, but I’m the guy who is getting the shaft. I don’t know why I have to be the punching bag all the time,” he said.

Phillies general manager Lee Thomas felt bad about the demotion and promised he would look for a deal with another ballclub to keep Sebra in the major leagues. Less than a month later, Sebra was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He did stay in the majors, working out of the Reds bullpen. He recorded his one and only save on July 28, 1989, as he worked the final inning of a 4-2 win against Atlanta that lasted 17 innings. He was the sixth Reds pitcher on the night. For the most part, though, he gave up 15 runs in 21 innings of work, leaving him with a 5.20 ERA on the season.

In what is by now a familiar story, the Reds sent Sebra to AAA to start the 1990 season and then traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, along with pitcher Don Robinson for outfielder Glenn Braggs and second baseman Billy Bates. He was immediately plugged into the bullpen and picked up a win in his second game with the team, throwing 2-2/3 scoreless innings against the Orioles on June 14. He was largely ineffective, with 2 losses and an 8.18 ERA in 10 games.

Sebra was at the center of a massive fight against the Seattle Mariners on June 30, 1990. He was brought in from the bullpen in the 8th inning, with the Mariners leading 5-2. He gave up a home run to Jeffrey Leonard, the first batter he faced. The next, Edgar Martinez, doubled. Then Tracy Jones stepped up to bat, and Sebra hit him with a pitch. That set off a wild 20-minute brawl with fights breaking out all over the field. By the time everything was sorted out, Sebra, B.J. Surhoff, Gary Sheffield and Mike Felder of the Brewers were ejected, as were Jones, Jeff Schaefer, Gene Harris and Randy Johnson of the Mariners. Home plate umpire John Shulock said he’d never seen a fight like it in 17 years in the game.

Sebra, afterwards, freely admitted his intentions. “Things haven’t been going right for me or the team lately. It was time for someone to take a lump,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head, but I was trying to drill him.”

All eight players who were ejected were suspended, as was Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn. Sebra was suspended for five games, but the Brewers demoted him to AAA. He was to serve the suspension whenever he returned to the majors, but he never did. That was his final game in the major leagues. As far as I know, Sebra lived out the rest of his life still under a five-game suspension by MLB.

Bob Sebra gets up after being struck by a line drive from Keith Hernandez. Source: The Ottawa Citizen, June 17, 1987.

In six seasons in the major leagues, Sebra compiled a 15-29 record and 4.71 ERA. He appeared in 94 games, with 52 starts, and he threw 7 complete games, 2 shutouts and 1 save. He fanned 281 batters in 366-2/3 innings and walked 149.

Sebra pitched in the minor leagues through 1993, playing for the Astros, Cubs, Rangers and Cardinals organizations. He had a 77-51 record in the minors with a 3.81 ERA.

After his playing days were (mostly) done, he and his family settled in Florida, where he ran youth baseball camps and played on a celebrity golf tour. He tried to return to the majors with the Expos in the winter of 1996, but he’d had four elbow operations by then, and the team didn’t consider him major-league ready anymore. Another operation left his arm feeling so good that he tried out and won a spot on the independent Somerset Patriots pitching staff in 1998. The Patriots were a brand-new team that had been organized with the assistance of baseball veteran Jim Frey. Sebra was the team’s first player. He was 36 years old and five years removed from his last pro ball experience, but manager Sparky Lyle felt he could still pitch. In 9 starts, he won 1 game and lost 4 with a 6.03 ERA, before another elbow injury officially brought his career to an end.

Sebra’s final years were marked by multiple surgeries, from the liver transplant in 2012 to the multiple surgeries of the past year. The liver transplant didn’t slow him down, and he was able to attend a reunion of the 1980 Gloucester High School baseball team that went undefeated and is still considered one of the best New Jersey high school baseball teams ever. Even when faced with the multi-visceral surgery, he maintained a positive attitude. “It’s going to be a tough year but anybody that knows me knows I’m going to go down fighting,” he told Gallagher. “I will fight my ass off.”

For more information: Canadian Baseball Network

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