By Christopher Heun
(note: photo taken from Webshots gallery of an Aruban Spring Breaker)
Last week’s post about the unusual twists of Todd Williams’ career uncovered a few forgotten Orioles in Oklahoma City, the Triple-A affiliate of the Rangers. That was all the encouragement we needed to indulge in a little nostalgia about what might have been for some future stars who fizzled.
Remember when young guys like Chris Richard, Jerry Hairston, Larry Bigbie, Matt Riley and even Ryan Minor were supposed to carry the Orioles back to respectability? Whatever happened to those guys? Not a lot. Otherwise it wouldn’t take so much digging to find out where they are.
This may be the Curt Schilling Effect, in which the front office is so afraid of losing home-grown talent that they hold on to every player long past the point of his effectiveness and thus get nothing of value in return once they finally do decide to let him go. Regardless, the most fun of “Where Are They Now?” stories is to dig way back into the closet of unfulfilled promise and shake the cobwebs off a few guys who not long ago generated high hopes in Baltimore, if not much more.
Chris Richard was an everyday player in 2001, hitting .265 with 15 homers. But he could never duplicate that and is now playing first base part-time for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, his batting average just .158. The Orioles traded him in 2003 to Colorado, where he got just 27 at bats. He hasn’t appeared in a big-league game since.
Jerry Hairston is still with the Cubs, who gladly dumped Sammy Sosa in exchange. Hairston is playing part-time and not hitting much. Last year he played more games in center field than at second base.
Larry Bigbie was awful last year in Colorado, where he hit just .212 after getting traded (for Eric Byrnes, who was even worse with the bat for the O’s but somehow managed to convince the Diamondbacks to sign him for $2.25 million last winter; he’s playing centerfield and hitting close to .300 so far this year). Bigbie, a former first-round draft pick, signed with the Cardinals in the off-season and was just activated off the disabled list Monday.
Last week, Matt Riley, who was awful in a short stint with the Rangers in 2005, tore a ligament in his pitching elbow while recuperating from the same injury that required surgery last summer. His career could be over. Rangers manager Buck Showalter told the Dallas Star-Telegram, “It’s sad. Three days ago, he was throwing 94 mph. Now he’s contemplating what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.”
Rick Bauer is also in Texas. In fact, he was the winning pitcher last Wednesday when the Rangers beat the O’s, 2-1, in 12 innings. He’s pitched fairly well in relief this year, with a 3.24 ERA in 16 and two-thirds innings. But he had worn out his welcome in Baltimore, never accepting a demotion gracefully.
One of his teammates in Texas is Gary Matthews, Jr. He has never hit like his dad, though his bat has gotten warmer while with the Rangers the past couple seasons, which may be compliments of the ballpark in Arlington. Though his average slipped to .255 last year, he hit 17 homers, something he never came close to doing for the Orioles despite often hitting in the middle of the order.
Then there is Ryan Minor, the man who replaced Cal Ripken, Jr., when the Iron Man’s consecutive games played streak ended, on September, 20, 1998. Minor was traded to Montreal for Jorge Julio in 2000, was released by two teams, played in the independent Atlantic League for parts of four seasons and is now a coach there. His major league career totals: a .177 batting average, five homers and 27 RBI in 142 games.
The former basketball and baseball star at Oklahoma was drafted professionally in both sports. Concentrating on baseball alone after being cut by the Philadelphia 76ers and spending a year in the CBA, Minor was the organization’s player of the year in 1997.
Jack Cust, the guy who Chris Richard was eventually traded for, was named Player of the Week in the Pacific Coast League last week. He batted .615 (8 for 13) with three home runs, nine RBIs, nine runs scored, 11 walks and a Ruthian 1.385 slugging percentage for San Diego’s Triple-A team in Portland. At one point he reached base safely in 20 of 23 plate appearances and led the league in walks and runs scored and ranked second in on-base percentage.
A career .220 hitter with 58 strikeouts in 141 at-bats, Cust is probably most remembered for his inexplicable flop while barreling toward home in an extra-inning game against the Yankees. Baseball Analysts gives a first-person account of the night Cust tripped 10 feet from home plate, where no one was covering after a botched run-down. He hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since his lone at-bat in 2004 with the O’s.
Jose Leon is another ex-Oriole who’s ripping it up. The man who got 209 at-bats with the Orioles between 2002 and 2004 but never did much with them is hitting .358 with 14 homers and 36 RBI in 134 at bats with Piratas de Campeche in the Mexican League.
While it may be too soon to evaluate the Kris Benson trade, which sent John Maine and Jorge Julio to the Mets last winter, there’s no denying that Maine was trumped up as a possible member of the starting rotation in Baltimore. This despite walking more than he struck out and pitching awfully in an audition that amounted to nine starts in 2004 and 2005. With the Mets, he began the year in Triple A, then lost his first start last Tuesday against the Nationals before being placed on the disabled list with a bum finger. Julio started the season absolutely terribly, but has rebounded recently, picking up a win and a save in last weekend’s series against the Braves. His ERA is still above six.
For fans of the truly obscure, Jose Morban, the 2003 Rule V pick from the Twins who accomplished little besides short-changing manager Mike Hargrove’s bench, has not appeared in a major league game since he hit a measly .141 that season (but he did manage to steal eight bases without getting caught). He’s now playing third base for Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League and hitting .192.
We can’t end this without putting tabs on the big names who didn’t start, but rather ended, their potential Hall of Fame careers in Baltimore last year. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmiero and their 1,157 combined career home runs are “out of baseball” as they say. They didn’t so much retire as nobody wanted them. The Nationals offered Sammy a minor league contract in spring training, but he blew his chance when he held out for a guaranteed deal.
Another marquee name in last year’s tragedy at Camden Yards, Sidney Ponson, might not necessarily be a “big” name anywhere other than in Baltimore, but he certainly had a big 6.21 E.R.A. last year to go along with his big contract and big waistline. But he’s pitching well so far this season in St. Louis, where he is 3-0 with a 2.81 ERA. He had to leave his most recent start after three innings because of a strained muscle in his pitching elbow and may miss his next turn in the rotation. Love him or hate him – and it was possible to do both while waiting for him to mature –Ponson ranks 11th on the Orioles all-time win list, with 73.
One notch above Ponson on the wins list (and tied with Mike Boddicker) is Ponson’s Metallica buddy, Scott Erickson, who won 79 games for the O’s from 1995 to 2002. After Tommy John surgery and then a torn labrum, Erickson, now 38, refuses to call it quits. He’s pitching out of the bullpen for the Yankees’ Triple-A team in Columbus. He’s 1-2 with a 2.40 ERA in 15 innings pitched.