Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Sugar Bear

by Vince Burgio |  Published: Apr 09, 2004


The poker world is full of all kinds of people. There are famous movie stars the magnitude of Ben Affleck and James Woods, sports franchise owners such as Frank Mariani and Jerry Buss, and some sports heroes from the past such as Lenny Dykstra and Curt Knight. I could go on and on. Notice that all of these people were stars or famous when they arrived in our little fish bowl called the poker world. I am going to tell you a heartwarming, true story of the same thing, but in reverse.

The story is that of "one of our own" going from successful poker player to professional athlete.

First, let me reintroduce you to Al Barbieri. He's the guy in the photo on this page. Now that you've seen his photo, you are probably saying, "Oh yeah, sure. I know Al, but I haven't seen him for two or three years." Well, if you said that, you would be right. There is a good reason that you haven't seen Al playing in poker tournaments for the last two years or so. He was busy fulfilling a dream!

Al started playing tournament poker in 1998. He became friendly with John Bonetti, and John took him under his wing and tutored him. He tutored him well enough that in the three years Al played on the tournament poker circuit, he won several tournaments, including events at the Legends of Poker and the Orleans Open. He finished in the money at the Four Queens, the World Series of Poker, and almost every other tournament he played in. He also won the Best All-Around Player award at the Winnin' o' the Green in 1999. In 1999 he ended up ranked 18th in Card Player's "Player of the Year" standings.

He became in just a few short years a tournament player to contend with. I don't think anyone considered Al a "top" tournament pro, but he was getting very close to reaching that level.

Then, something happened in April of 2001. Al did something that most would call "very stupid," and maybe even "childish." He broke away from the poker scene to pursue a lifelong dream. This dream was to play professional baseball. Al had played high school baseball and was an all-Catholic league infielder back in South Philly. He had never been a top prospect, but still continued playing amateur ball after high school.

The closest Al ever came to fulfilling his dream of playing pro ball was in 1984, when he moved to Anchorage, Alaska, after reading about a league that featured the top college prospects in the country. He became the first walk-on to make a team in the Alaska Baseball League (ABL) with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. One of his better-known teammates that year was future Cy Young award winner Randy Johnson.

In 1985, Al, who was known in baseball circles as "Sugar Bear," walked on again and repeated the same feat, this time with the Anchorage Bucs. After the 1985 season, Al returned home and spent the next few years playing in different amateur leagues around the Philadelphia area.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1992, where he began playing poker, and then was introduced to tournament poker. He had a flair for tournaments, and with the help of John Bonetti, was in the process of becoming a top tournament player. There was just one small problem, though. Something was still gnawing at Al. That something was baseball.

So, in 2001, Al flew to Anchorage, Alaska, where he had spent two summers playing baseball. He knew the general manager of one of the Anchorage teams from the earlier time he had spent in Alaska, and he landed a job – mostly as a coach and goodwill ambassador. But, he also played a little in non-league games.

The funny thing is, even though Al was now over 40, he was still able to hit the ball. He still thought he could compete, and was not quite ready to discard his lifelong dream of someday playing professional baseball. He proceeded to get himself into what he calls the best shape of his life. Then, in April 2002, he approached the Camden (New Jersey) Riversharks for a tryout in their spring training camp. Al's spunk impressed the Riversharks' manager and general manager. He wasn't added to the roster, but was invited back to spring training the next year.

Any "normal" person would have by now flown back to Los Angeles and returned to a promising poker career. Not Al! He continued to work out and prepare himself for the Camden Riversharks' 2003 spring training camp. When the spring training camp opened, there was Al Barbieri. He again impressed the manager, and this time he was added to the roster. No, he wasn't going to play a lot, as that wouldn't have been fair to all of the young, aspiring players who could possibly have a future. But Al, at the age of 44, would fulfill his lifelong dream and make his professional baseball debut.

On July 14, 2003, Al Barbieri made Atlantic League baseball history during his first plate appearance as a pro. On an 0-1 pitch, Al singled to right field, becoming the oldest player to get a hit in the Atlantic League. He broke the record held by future Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson, because Al is three months older than Ricky. Al's record will probably stand for quite a while in the Atlantic League, because just a couple of days before Al made his pro debut and got his hit, Ricky Henderson signed a contract and left the Newark Bears to play with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Al's pro debut turned out to be bittersweet, as it had been highly publicized, mainly because of his age, but it also had another twist. It just so happened that the two oldest players ever to play in the Atlantic League would be on the field at the same time. One was a 44-year-old future Hall of Famer with tremendous credentials, Ricky Henderson, and the other was a 44-year-old rookie, Al "Sugar Bear" Barbieri.

Al has now fulfilled his lifelong dream. If you want to congratulate him on what he's accomplished, you may get your chance at the upcoming World Series of Poker. He will be making his comeback to the tournament circuit at that time. He told me he now has a new dream, which is to win a World Series of Poker bracelet. Knowing Al and his tenacity, nothing would surprise me.

For what it's worth … diamonds