- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In the recently released film “Public Enemies,” Johnny Depp, playing notorious gangster John Dillinger, talks about how much he likes baseball.

So I figured it was worth some research.

Dillinger, the story goes, grew up a baseball player and was playing shortstop on a team in Martinsville, Ind., called the Athletics when he and an umpire, of all people, conspired to rob a grocery store in the summer of 1924.

The robbery went bad, and the umpire, waiting in the getaway car, fled when Dillinger’s gun went off during a struggle with the grocer.

The grocer wasn’t hurt, but Dillinger was arrested and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in the Indiana State Reformatory, where he played on the prison baseball team and caught the eye of Gov. Harry Leslie.

“That kid ought to be playing major league baseball,” the governor declared.

John Dillinger never did play major league baseball. But John Dillinger did play minor league baseball.

Not John Dillinger the gangster but John Dillinger the pitching phenom out of Connellsville, Pa.

This John Dillinger played minor league baseball from 1992 through 2005 - and he could’ve been with the Washington Nationals.

John Dillinger the baseball player was a big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), hard-throwing right-hander who was born in Connellsville in 1973 and drafted in the 20th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992.

He played 12 seasons for a long list of affiliated and independent minor league teams and was in the systems of the Pirates, the Texas Rangers, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees and the Anaheim Angels. He finally called it quits after a 2005 season spent with four different Independent League teams - the second time he had played for four Independent teams in one season.

“That’s got to be some kind of record,” John Dillinger the baseball player said.

He finished his career with a 68-70 record, a 4.30 ERA and 787 strikeouts and 598 walks in 1,201 innings pitched.

“I knew it was time to hang it up,” he said.

But he can never retire from being John Dillinger.

With the release of “Public Enemies,” the story of one of the most notorious gangsters in America in the 20th century, Dillinger is again getting a lot of the same kind of attention he got throughout his playing career - even in high school.

“Public Enemy Shoots Down 14” blared a newspaper headline after Dillinger struck out 14 in a high school game.

“There have been a couple of places where I had to flash my ID recently, and they would ask if I was related to the gangster,” said John Dillinger the baseball player, who is now 35, working at the golf course of the Country Club of Mobile, Ala., and attending the University of South Alabama for business management and marketing.

His father, Wayne Dillinger, said the family is not related to John Dillinger the gangster, and he did not name his son after the public enemy.

“It has been a good conversation piece over the years,” said Wayne Dillinger, who sells a variety of equipment over the Internet from his Connellsville home. “It breaks down the wall to talk to people, and not a week goes by where someone doesn’t ask me if we are related to the gangster.

“I named John after my brother John, who I dearly miss,” he said. “It didn’t have anything to do with John Dillinger the gangster.”

John Dillinger the baseball player said whether he got harassed about the name while he played depended on the age of the needler.

“None of my teammates gave me grief,” he said. “It was usually the coaches, who were a little older and actually knew who this guy was. The older fans would give me grief about it.”

John Dillinger the baseball player had his best season in 2001, going 11-7 with a 3.99 ERA for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs, then a Blue Jays affiliate and now the Nationals’ Class AAA club. He played in the Class AAA All-Star Game that year in Indianapolis, not far from where John Dillinger the gangster grew up.

“We had an autograph session before the game in the concourse area,” John Dillinger the baseball player said. “My line for autographs was about 2,000 people deep. That was pretty funny. They would bring their gangster trading cards, and I had to sign a lot of the John Dillinger cards.”

It was after that 2001 season that John Dillinger the baseball player made what he believes was a fateful mistake. He became a minor league free agent, turned down an offer from the Blue Jays and signed with the New York Yankees.

“The Yankees called me and offered me a contract and told me I would be competing for a spot in the starting rotation. I signed with them in December of 2001. But they signed David Wells, and that didn’t happen. I did well and was one of the last cuts. I went to Triple A Columbus, and they had me throwing out of the bullpen there. I was never really comfortable with that, so I asked for my release.

“When I signed with the Yankees, the Reds and the Expos were interested in me,” John Dillinger the baseball player said. “I made the wrong decision. The Yankees can go out and get anyone they want. I made a mistake and went where the most money was.”

Wayne Dillinger wishes his son had signed with the Reds.

“Cincinnati offered opportunity,” he said.

The Reds’ general manager at the time was Jim Bowden. Jim Bowden and John Dillinger - that would have been a fateful marriage.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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