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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

September 8, 2009 at 2:31 PM

An ode to lumbering minor-league sluggers

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I spent a busman’s holiday at the Tacoma Rainiers game on Monday, sitting in the stands with my family to watch the Rainiers wrap up the PCL North title with an 11-2 win over the Colorado Sky Sox.

It was an enjoyable afternoon, minus the dead battery that awaited us when we got to our car. There was a streaker, some good baseball (including a fantastic diving catch by Tacoma center fielder Jerry Owens) and a rather tepid on-field celebration by the Rainiers after the last out, as if they couldn’t quite decide whether it was proper to go nuts for a PCL division title.

But I’m not here today to talk about all that. I’m here to talk about Paul McAnulty, the Sky Sox’s rotund designated hitter. Well, not Paul McAnulty per se, but what he represents — the big, ‘ol lumbering minor-league slugger. It’s always been a fascination of mine, and I don’t think I’m alone, judging by the ongoing cult of Bucky Jacobsen, who might be the quintessential member of this tribe.

These are guys that can hit the ball a mile, that put up tremendous minor-league statistics, but for some reason or another (cough curve ball cough) , can’t make their mark in the major leagues.

McAnulty is listed as 5-feet-11, 225 pounds, which I translate to 5-10, 240. My wife couldn’t believe that someone with his physique could be a professional athlete. I said, “You should have seen Rich Garces.” When McAnulty came up to bat, some leather-lunged fan yelled out, with resounding clarity, “McAnulty, party of two. Your table is ready.”

mcanulty.jpg

But the dude (pictured above while with the Padres) can hit (not that he showed it Monday, going 0-for-4, flying out to center each time). Check out his career, however, which has earned him 124 major-league games over four seasons with the Padres. He’s an impressive Triple-A raker, no doubt about it.

Alas, at age 28, McAnulty’s ship has probably sailed. It’s a pretty crowded harbor, crawling with busted Triple-A flashes. The Mariners alone have a long, proud history of this sort of player — I’m thinking not just of Bucky Jacobsen, but also Jim Maler and Tito Nanni and Juan Thomas and Jim Wilson. Come to think of it, a current Rainier, Brad Nelson, has the makings of a classic McAnulty career arc, though he no doubt still hopes to take the Jack Cust/Russell Branyan detour that his OPS numbers seem to warrant. At one time, Cecil Fielder seemed headed for a minor-league journeyman’s career until he went to Japan and re-invented himself. His son, Prince Fielder, has the McAnulty physique, but unmistakable genius for hitting a baseball.

One of the first guys in this realm to catch my attention, years ago, was Joe Lis, who actually went on to play for the Mariners for nine game in their inaugural 1977 season. And there’s the legendary Joey Meyer (6-3, 260, and that’s conservative), who hit 120 homers his first four minor-league seasons, had a brief two-year stint with the Brewers (1988-89) and was out of baseball by ’92.

Others minor-league sluggers of recent vintage that come to mind, guys that may have gotten a cup of coffee in the bigs but never got their big break (some are still trying), are Andy Tracy, Kevin Witt, Alan Zinter, J.R. Phillips, Ivan Cruz, Scott McClain (this guy’s career stats, including a productive stint in Japan, deserves a peak), Rick Lancellotti, and Mike Hessman (311 minor-league homers and counting). I’m sure you can add many more to this list. (Phil Hiatt has already been aptly suggested. He is a classic 4-A slugger).

Another classic is a 27-year-old guy still kicking around named Joe Koshansky — 6-4, 225, lefty, has hit 36, 31, 21, 31 and 23 homers in his five full minor-league seasons. He had a .300/31 HR/121 RBI year at Triple-A in 2008, and was rewarded by being waived by the Rockies in spring training of ’09, moving first to the Texas organization and then Milwaukee, where he hit 23 more homers for Nashville (but struck out 165 times in 445 at-bats and hit just .213).

It’s amazing to think of the fine line — sometimes more like a giant canyon — that separates the Bucky Jacobsens and Paul McAnultys of the world from major-league stardom. But they’re still awfully fun to watch swing from the heels.

(Photos by Associated Press)

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