Saturday, September 16, 2017

John 'Mule' Miles, Negro League star, dies at 90

John “Mule” Miles, an outfielder / third baseman with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues, passed away Friday May 24, 2013 at his San Antonio home. He was 90.

Miles earned the nickname “Mule” from Giants manager “Candy” Jim Taylor after a display of power led him to remark, “You hit as hard as a mule kicks.” He upheld that reputation by blasting home runs in 11 consecutive games in 1947.
John 'Mule' Miles in 2010 - Steve Thurow

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of remaining ex-Negro League players, he was also one of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American aviators in the United States Armed Forces.

Miles served with the Airmen in World War II starting in 1942 for a three-year period. He returned to San Antonio after his discharge to work as an aircraft mechanic.

"We had it hard at Tuskegee; buildings weren't completed when we got there, it was hard, but we made it, I wasn't complaining, because at Tuskegee, I learned a trade, I learned how to work with my hands - to do something," Miles said in a 2009 interview with the United States Army.

It was shortly after his return that he was approached fellow San Antonio native Clyde McNeal, who just finished his rookie season with Chicago.

“He was the one who enticed me to go,” Miles said to the San Antonio Express in April, 2013. “If I had to go by myself, I don't think I would have done it.”

He played three seasons for the Chicago American Giants from 1946-1948, playing against the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. One of his favorite subjects was Satchel Paige.

“Satchel was a great pitcher. He could throw hard and he was smart. Nobody could touch Satchel when he didn’t want ‘em to,” Miles said in Brent Kelley’s “Voices from the Negro Leagues.

Miles left the Negro Leagues to after the end of the 1948 season to return to his mechanic job. He continued to play in local leagues and the lure of professional baseball drove him to try out for the Laredo Apaches of the South Texas League in 1952. He made the team, becoming the first black player in the league, batting .281 in limited action. At the age of 30, Miles was past prospect status, and returned home to his job that he would keep until his 1971 retirement.

As the Negro Leagues experienced a renewed interest in the 1990a, Miles’ career returned to prominence. He made frequent appearances across the United States at reunions and speaking engagements.

In 2007, Topps honored him with a baseball card in their Allen and Ginter set. The release of the card caused him to be showered with mail requests daily for his signature, something he relished in his later years. He would often send back signed cards with inspirational phrases such as, “I’m not complaining, just explaining,” or, “Without those passing yesterdays, there can be no bright tomorrows.” It was no surprise that his 2009 autobiography was titled, “A Legacy to Leave Our Youth.

“I loved baseball and I was willing to play it anytime, anywhere. … When I started playing for money, it wasn’t enough to make a living on. You’ve got to understand this was during the forties and fifties. The only baseball players making any kind of money were the ones in the majors," said Miles in Dick O’Neal’s “Dreaming of the Majors."

"We just loved the game, and if someone was willing to pay to watch me, that was fine.”

* This was originally published for the now defunct Examiner.com on May 25, 2013.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tom Wright, 93, Major League pinch hitter extraordinaire and World War II veteran

During the years following World War II, an outfielder who posted batting averages of .380 and .368 in the minor leagues should have found little trouble getting a starting role in the Major Leagues. That is of course unless you played for the Red Sox and two of those outfielders were Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio. This was the tough reality for Tom Wright, one of North Carolina’s finest, who filled the role of pinch hitter extraordinaire for the Boston Red Sox right at the start of the 1950s.

Wright, who went on to play parts of nine big league seasons, passed away on September 5, 2017 at his home in Shelby, North Carolina. He was 93.

Tom Wright Autographed Red Sox Photo / Author's Collection
Growing up on the sandlots of Shelby, Wright caught the attention of Boston Red Sox scout Eddie Montague, who signed him to his first pro contract in 1941 while he was still in high school. Wright left behind the opportunity to get his diploma in order to start his career.

“Eddie [Montague] was in this area and signing all of the prospects in this area,” Wright told me in an interview on New Year’s Day in 2009. “I signed with him during high school. In 1941, I went down into the Palmetto State League and I took Virgil Stallcup's place playing shortstop. I stayed there half of the season. They had a split season. Lawrence, the team I was with, hired the manager of another team, and he was an infielder and I got released. I was hitting about .340, they moved me to third base and I made room for him.”

Fortunately for Wright, his release didn’t put a premature end to his career, as he signed on with Boston’s team in the Class D Bi-State League in 1942. While he wavered at the plate, his manager noted his good arm and gave him a few chances on the mound, albeit with mixed results.

“I came on back home and in 1942, I went up to Danville,” he said. “I relieved 2-3 games and pitched a whole game. When I wasn't hitting well; I was chasing the high ball. I hit good and I had a good arm, so they were trying to make something out of me. They put me in relief a few times, and they let me start against one of the top teams. I pitched a real good game. George Ferrell, one of the Ferrell boys hit a homerun over a short fence over left field. I slipped on a curve and let it get where he could reach it and he beat me to win the ballgame.”

Just as Wright was trying to figure out if his baseball career would continue in as a position player or a pitcher, he was drafted for military service after the season ended. For the near future his career would be navigated by the Army Air Corps.

“I flew well, but if I knew I was going to fly three days from now, my nerves would get up,” he said. “I'd be thinking about that more than playing the ball game.”

His time in the Air Corps was short lived. He sustained an injury during training that dissuaded him from continuing to fly.

“In the service I was supposed to an aerial gunner,” he said. “I had to bail out of one, and on an emergency jump, I tore my leg and my foot up. I stayed out in Wyoming for a year before they ever put me back on flying status. By that time, I made up my mind I wasn't going to fly anymore, just be on the ground crew.

“I told them that in 1943-44. I spent 1944 on the disabled list because I had a bad foot. When they started to put me back on, I told them, ‘I don't want to fly them things no more. They took my stripes and told me I'll be on the next boat overseas. I said, ‘I think that boat will be slower than that airplane.’”

His switch to the grounds crew proved to be a life altering decision. While Wright was lucky enough to return from service with some injuries that plagued him throughout his baseball career, many from his original Air Corps crew didn’t come back at all.

“Our crowd went to Italy and flew up over Germany,” he recalled. “The best I could find out, they lost about all of them. My radio man came back and was down in Florida after he got his mission. He wrote me a letter and told me to get out because it was hell over there. I did catch that next boat. I spent all of 1945 overseas. I went to the Philippines and I went to South Seas. We were ready to go closer to Japan when the big bombs dropped. You just sat still and waited. When they said the war was over, we quit flying missions.”

Wright returned to professional baseball in 1946 and after three years of only playing recreationally during his World War II service, he jumped right back into the game. The time away from the field took a toll on his throwing arm.

“I got out in spring of 1946 and went right to spring training,” he said. “I messed my arm up down there. It was rainy and cold in South Carolina. I flung the ball rather than throw it. It didn't have enough snap; it hurt me too bad. I carried it on through with me. I'm sure they knew I couldn't throw real good. Nobody tried to talk to me about it or tried to work on it or do anything else.”

If Boston’s brass was aware of Wright’s arm injury, it sure didn’t show at the plate. Wright’s 1946 season was nothing short of amazing. He amassed 200 hits en route to a .380 average for Class C Durham Bulls in the Carolina League. It was the start of his rapid ascent to the major leagues. After batting over .300 for the next two seasons in the minor leagues, the Red Sox called up Wright for a cup of coffee at the end of 1948, a move he thought came too late.

“They called me up in 1948 at the end of the year too, but they had an agreement with Louisville that they wouldn't take ballplayers until they were mathematically out of the playoffs,” he said. “I thought I could have helped them as they didn't have a left-handed pinch hitter.”

With veterans Williams, DiMaggio, and Al Zarilla firmly entrenched in Boston’s outfield, Wright remained at Louisville, where won the 1949 American Association batting title, edging out future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge, .368 to .362.

“Nineteen-forty-nine was an easy, easy year,” he said. Sometimes you have those. I was one of those hitters who hit all over the ball field. I hit from the left field line to the right field line. That way you get some hits you couldn't get if you were a pull hitter. I went with the ball the best I could.”

For Wright’s efforts, he was awarded another September call up, and in 1950, he finally got a full-time shot with the club, spending the entire season with the Red Sox. He proved valuable as a pinch-hitter, filling that role until Williams injured his elbow. Pressed into more regular duty, Wright hit .318 in 107 at-bats. He explained just how difficult it was to stay sharp with the platoon situation that the Red Sox employed.

“It didn't bother me because it was my job,” he said. “It was the only time I'd get to play most times. I'd go 2-3 weeks and not even get to hit. They ran a funny schedule. You would go on the road and the regulars got all the batting time. I was a left-handed hitter. If there was a right-handed pitcher starting against us, I'd get three swings in batting practice. If there was a left-hander which they pitched on the account of Williams and a few other left-handed hitters, we didn't get to swing.

“It was sort of a one sided deal with them. I always criticized them for it. They didn't keep their players up to date. You see [Casey] Stengel in New York, he put in their extra players and let them play and kept them ready. That's the way they ran it. Normally, when you are on the road, you don't get much time because the home team is taking much of the practice.”

Despite Wright’s dependability as a pinch-hitter, the Red Sox had plenty of young outfield talent in their minor league system and wanted to shuttle Wright between the minor and the major leagues. After proving himself with multiple .300 seasons at both levels, he finally put his foot down.

“I started with Boston until the last spring training day,” he said. “They sent me out and they had a boy Karl Olson they wanted to see, because I think he had to go into the service and I was the one that had to go and make room for him on the roster.

“I was sitting on the bench too much, so I wasn't going to start complaining about nothing. I was going to do the best I can. In 1951, they wanted to send me to Louisville again. I told them they were pushing me back and forth and not to bring me back up here no more. And they didn't. That's the way it went over there.”

The Red Sox traded Wright to the St. Louis Browns, giving him a fresh start with the second division club. The Browns were helmed by Rogers Hornsby in 1952 and Wright quickly found out why the legendary second baseman was disliked by the entire team.

“I opened the season hitting cleanup for Hornsby,” he recalled. “He liked me as far as hitting. If you missed a ball [in the field], you were out of the lineup. We were playing up in Chicago and I wasn't used to those double decker stands and that sun setting. They hit a fly ball behind third base that he might have been able to catch. I called him off, pulled my glasses down and ran into the shade. When I did, everything went black. He pulled me out of the lineup.

“He was not a good people person for the ballplayers. You would get to arguing with an umpire and he would tell you to get back to your position. He did that to me once in New York. There was a pop fly down the line that was interference on it. The boys were arguing like everything and he said, ‘Go on out to your position.’ He'd do that all the time and wouldn't stick up for the players. They called Bill Veeck and told him what he was doing. He came to New York and fired him. I left them about that time. They boys got him [Veeck] a plaque made up saying, ‘The greatest thing since the Emancipation Proclamation.’”

Wright went from the Browns to the Chicago White Sox where he spent part of 1952 and the entire 1953 season in a reserve role. The White Sox shipped him to the Washington Senators in 1954, which was his last full season in the majors. He played nine games in the majors between 1955 and 1956, with the last two coming as a favor from Clark Griffith that didn’t sit well with his manager Chuck Dressen.

“In 1956, I went back to get my few days I needed to get my retirement,” he said. “Calvin Griffith gave me my last 28 days. He told the manager that I was going to get it. He got mad at me and didn't even let me play in spring training or exhibition games. My first at-bat was opening day against the Yankees. I was the first pinch hitter he used. He was sorta dirty with me.”

Those final two games in 1956 proved to be a tremendous help for Wright later on in life. Those 28 days of service qualified him for a major league pension which gave him added security during his post-playing days.

“The pension is helping me in my retirement,” he said. “They sent me to Chattanooga. That was their top team. I went out there and they told me, Griffith said if you play and help this ball club, they'll bring you up at the end of the year. At the end of the year he didn't bring me up. I kept my mouth shut and about Christmas time or so I got a contract to come to spring training in 1956 and it all worked out.”

Wright played one more season with the Birmingham Barons in 1957, and that was only after some serious negotiation with his parent club. His old flying miseries from World War II caught up with him and the air travel became too much to bear.

“The minor leagues even started flying. And I asked them out there, ‘Put me somewhere they don't fly.’ They put me in Charleston, West Virginia and the only way you could make schedule up there was to fly. They had a little Purdue line, a C-47. They would cram the ballplayers on there and they'd have to shuffle them around to have to get the plane balanced. They'd fly nine hours. I wouldn't go with them, but I got to hitting and helping the ball club. They offered me everything to stay, but I needed to get away from those airplanes. If you didn't fly, you had to pay your own way, but I never did. The few times I flew, they took care of that. They sent a pitcher or someone who wasn't going to play to ride with you and keep you company. It is two days to get to Omaha from Charleston on the train. They were trying to be good to me. I was hoping to play a little longer, but those planes got me so nervous and shook up, I didn't want to do it.”

After baseball, Wright went into the clothing business, making polyester until he retired in 1982. He stepped away from the game, but still enjoyed the interaction with baseball fans through the letters he received in the mail.

“I never had a desire to coach,” he said. “They wanted me to coach kids, but I didn't want to put up with families. I still watch some games. Normally Atlanta, Boston if I can get to see them. I'm not a great big fan, I wasn't a fan when I played. You lose a little bit of your drive [after you stop playing].

“I get autographs all the time. Topps maybe gave you a watch or something like that. They have given us more since. They want us to sign the 1954 cards. They sat and watched me sign every one of them. It was about 250 of them. I got paid good for them. I was glad to sign them. I would have signed them for nothing, I was never one to ask for anything to sign an autograph.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic is a fresh look for card collectors

Topps is taking a new product for a spin with 2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Baseball, featuring on-card autographs on acetate in fancy encapsulated holders. As each box only contains one of these signed cards, collectors are banking on unearthing a gem once they get past the plastic wrapping on the box.
2017 Topps Clearly Authentic / Topps

A majority of the autographed acetate cards are in the design of 2017 Topps with new pictures from the base set. To up the ante for collectors, Topps has added four colored parallels (Green, Red, Blue, and Gold) to track down.

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Andrew Toles / Topps

For those who are searching for a vintage touch, Topps has created Clearly Authentic reprints of major rookie cards, including those of Al Kaline, Hank Aaron, Bo Jackson, Ichiro, Mike Trout, and Sandy Koufax. These autographs are markedly scarce compared to their modern counterparts in the set, coming at the rate of one for every 10 boxes.

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Rookie Reprint  Bo Jackson / Topps
As the list of signers is loaded with nubile rookies, the odds are weighted that you are more likely to come away with the likes of Dan Vogelbach, Jharel Cotton, and Jacoby Jones, instead of Bryce Harper, Ichiro, and Mike Trout; however, that should not deter you from checking out this product.

The acetate is an attractive diversion from traditional Topps products, as both the images and signatures stand out against the clear background. The chase of snagging one of the reprinted rookie cards at a fraction of the cost of buying a signed original rookie on the open market is also an exciting play for this product.

With any guaranteed hit offering, collectors are taking a risk by hoping that the one card in the box turns out to be a winner. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response by collectors since its release, signs point to getting a box of 2017 Topps Clearly Authentic is one that is not only worth pursuing, but an enjoyable one at that.



Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: They Call Me Pudge - Ivan Rodriguez with Jeff Sullivan

The intense emotion displayed on Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez ‘s face on the cover of his new biography “They Call Me Pudge," perfectly captures the spirit with which he played throughout his 21-year major league career. Newly minted in 2017 as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rodriguez became part of an exclusive group, joining only Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Mike Piazza as the living catchers currently enshrined in Cooperstown.

They Call Me Pudge / Triumph Books

It is obvious after reading through the early chapters of “They Call Me Pudge,” that Rodriguez’s story is one of commitment to the game. From a young age, he showed an insatiable desire not only to play the game, but to love the training that made him into a Hall of Famer. His legendary workouts including making 150-mile roundtrips from Key Biscayne to Key Largo, kept his engine pumping when many thought he was out of gas.

Rodriguez stressed that it was his dedicated training and not anything else that kept him as the top player at his position for two decades. Multiple times during the book, he vehemently denied using steroids.

"Let's make that as crystal clear as possible — I never took steroids," Rodriguez said. "If anyone says differently, they are lying. Here's what I did do: I worked my ass off. I was a guy who played the game the right way. I was disciplined in my workouts and my diet. I worked as hard as I could to do the best that I could - every day for 20-plus years. I loved the game of baseball."

Perusing deeper into Rodriguez’s book uncovers the strategies of the Hall of Fame catcher, as he carefully breaks down how he handled a nubile World Series pitching staff with the Florida Marlins, as well as how he approached Barry Bonds during their faceoff in the 2003 National League Division Series.

“If you don’t have to pitch to him — meaning it’s not bases loaded in a tie game in the ninth inning —put him on first base,” he said. “If you need to pitch to him, our deepest sympathies. And don’t strain a neck muscle or anything turning around.”

When the Texas Rangers thought that Rodriguez was on the decline, he bet on himself, signing a one-year deal with the Marlins in 2003. His leadership steadied their pitching staff, guiding them to an improbable World Series Championship.

Once again left to fend for himself at the end of the season, Rodriguez proved doubters wrong when he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2004. Detroit’s team doctors felt that Pudge was only worthy of a two-year contract due to his injury history. In order to make the deal work, he gave up guaranteed money to sign a four-year, $40 million contract. This time, Pudge came out a winner, as the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006.

“I knew I was healthy,” he said. “I know I could play the five years, depending on if they picked up the option. And I played eight more years after that. I mean, the doctors can tell you whatever they want to say, but it’s how you feel that counts.”

Omnipresent throughout the book is the fact that Pudge was always a gamer. When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was breaking down video, going over scouting reports, or watching highlights on ESPN. If you are looking for tales of carousing, innuendo, or hi-jinks, look elsewhere, but if you want an inspirational story of how a kid with a golden throwing arm made it to the Hall of Fame all the way from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, feel free to step in the batter’s box with “They Call Me Pudge.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2017 Topps Chrome - Boom or Bust for Collectors?

With the meteoric rise of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, it was of little surprise that collectors bum rushed stores nationwide to pick up boxes of 2017 Topps Chrome Baseball. Whether was in search of the first Topps rookie this season of the second-generation Dodgers upstart Bellinger, or an insert of the 2017 Home Run Derby champ, this year’s Topps Chrome literally flew off of the shelves. Collectors almost immediately went online post-release either sharing photos of the joys of their finds, or desperate shots of empty shelves at nationwide retailers.

2017 Topps Chrome Box / Topps
Topps struck gold with this release due to the timing of the success of the two power-hitting rookies, as well as the anticipation of Bellinger’s first official Topps major league card. Many looked to jump on the heels of their ascent with the anticipation of turning a quick profit or snagging a rare parallel for their personal collections. With prices easily eclipsing those of suggested retail, collectors hoped for a huge payout knowing they might come up short of the big “hit” that they’re searching for.

With each of the 24 packs in the box yielding only four cards, there was a feeling of urgency going through each quartet, hoping that a coveted variation of the aforementioned East and West coast supernovas emerged. In between the anticipation of the big names also sat a host of refractors, a rainbow of colored parallels, glossy 1987 Topps themed inserts to keep the excitement level high while perusing the contents of the box.

2017 Topps Chrome / Topps
After the dust settled, we had good reason to shout, “All Rise,” as an Aaron Judge rookie was among the dividends, as well as a chrome refractor of fellow Rookie of the Year candidate, Andrew Benintendi. Unfortunately, Bellinger’s debut issue was absent, as well as a high end autograph, with the box serving up two rookie autographs of Donnie Hart and Eddie Gamboa.

Donnie Hart Topps Chrome Autograph / Topps

There are a bevy of reasons why baseball card collectors should be excited about 2017 Topps Chrome; the design is outstanding, the parallels are worth chasing, and the narrative of the young stars will have fans coming back to this product as the pennant race heats up. For the few left on the fence deciding whether to take the plunge into 2017 Topps Chrome, it’s an exciting dive that collectors hopefully know the risk of the waters they’re jumping into.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Does 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter have enough to keep collectors on the ball?

Topps’ Allen and Ginter product has always been a source of mixed emotions for collectors. On one hand, it has perennially been a highly anticipated release due to its design and cultural variety; however, in the midst of a baseball season filled with an extraordinary amount of young superstars, those looking for a pure baseball play are growing frustrated with paying a premium to wind up with inserts of obscure celebrities and fishing lures.

For collectors who have embraced the widening scope of the set, 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter continues to deliver in the tradition of one of Topps’ most popular issues. Baseball die-hards will get their fix whether it is in the form of rookies from Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Yulieski Gurriel, adored veterans Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw, or retired legends such as newly minted Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell.

2017 Topps Allen and Ginter Aaron Judge / Topps
The part of the set that annually attracts both excitement and controversy are the non-baseball inclusions in the series. Remember when MySpace dominated the social media landscape? Well Tom Anderson, everybody’s friend, now has his own baseball card to boot. Media personalities Stephen A. Smith, Peter Rosenberg and his wife Alexa Datt, Jay Glazer, Sage Steele, and Jayson Stark made their Topps debuts as well.

Inserts for the set went well off the landscape of the diamond, paying homage to the World’s Fair, Constellations, Magicians, Famous Revolutionary Battles, and yes, Sport Fish and Fishing Lures. While Allen and Ginter has always been about showcasing a diversity of interests, when half of the inserts culled from the box provided for this review fell into the non-sport category, it deflated some of the excitement that preceded this release.

2017 Topps Allen and Ginter / Topps

Looking at the baseball inserts for 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter, it is clear that Topps played to its strengths. The What A Day inserts beautifully chronicle remarkable single-game performances, such as Kyle Schwarber’s dramatic 2016 World Series return, Bo Jackson’s three home run performance against the Yankees, and Ozzie Smith’s improbable 1985 NLCS walk-off home run. The sequentially numbered rip cards continue to be sought after, as they yield low numbered parallels and the choice of keeping or opening these inserts have them actively trading hands. Also, the framed autographs and cloth inserts provide a regal touch for collectors looking for an affordable card they can easily put on display.

Each box guarantees three hits in the form of an autograph, relic, printing plate, rip card, or book card. The box provided for this review yielded a framed autograph of actor Joe Manganiello and two relic cards of Ryan Braun and Javier Baez.


At a price of $120 per box, 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter is a proposition that could give collectors a pause before adding it to their shopping carts. If you hit it right, a box could yield some attractive inserts, on the other hand, one could be left with oddball autographs and relics of disc golfers and B-list celebrities. If collectors intend to open their wallets, they must be more than willing to accept and embrace the assortment of genres in 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter, otherwise they might be more content picking apart singles on the secondary market.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

How Jorge Posada was almost traded for Ivan Rodriguez

Jorge Posada was once dangerously close to becoming a member of the Texas Rangers. Going through recently-minted Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez's new book, "They Call Me Pudge," Rodriguez explains how right before the 1997 trade deadline he was going to be traded to the New York Yankees.

"I was sitting with Juan [Gonzalez] on the flight, and he was begging me to talk with team president Tom Schieffer," Rodriguez said. "I later found out that I was about to be traded to the New York Yankees for catcher Jorge Posada and pitcher Tony Armas Jr."

Posada / Rodriguez 2008 Upper Deck Card / Upper Deck
The next morning Rodriguez met with Schieffer and signed a five-year, $42 million contract, avoiding the exchange of franchise catchers. While the two would later become teammates with the Yankees in 2008, both Rangers and Yankees fans would have a difficult time imagining their franchises with out their star catchers at the peak of their careers.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lee May, three time All-Star dies at 74

Reports have surfaced that three-time All-Star Lee May passed away Saturday July 29, 2017 in Ohio. He was 74.

May played 18 seasons in the major leagues for four teams, hitting 354 home runs with 1,244 RBIs. He made the All-Star team twice with the Cincinnati Reds (1969, 1971) and once with the Baltimore Orioles (1972).

Lee May








Thursday, July 27, 2017

2017 Topps Stadium Club Baseball is a beauty marvel for collectors

Due to the myriad of baseball card variations that is exist today, it is easy for collectors to lose sight of what is on the front of the card. In the quest to find limited inserts, parallels, and signatures, rarely do collectors stop anymore to savor the images of their cardboard heroes. With the release of 2017 Topps Stadium Club, Topps has given consumers more than a reason to slow down and pause when ripping through their packs.


Immediately, it is obvious that Topps saved some of its best photography for this set, with the vivid shots putting you right on the field of action. Enhanced by its borderless design, the set captures every pixel of real estate to put the game’s full range of emotions on display. Furthermore, the contrasting black and white tones of the legends included in Topps Stadium Club provide the proper context for the heroes of the past in their own element.


While 2017 Topps Stadium Club is a buy if not solely for its imagery and design, those looking for a chase will find it in terms of 50 base card variations, an array of colored foil issues, and chrome variations that come one per every box. Also pleasing the autograph hounds are the guaranteed two signed cards in each box, which also have their own subset of parallel issues.


The box provided for this review yielded rookie autographs of Mets infielder Gavin Cecchini and Giants pitcher Ty Blach. For those who are concerned about collation, mysteriously absent were the base cards of Aaron Judge, Yoan Moncada, Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout — a tough group to miss out on when opening an entire box.

Collation issues aside, Topps Stadium Club brings the action happening on the card to the forefront of the release ahead of the shiny insert of the day. Fans and collectors searching for a product that they can get continued enjoyment from by browsing through their cards will find it in 2017 Topps Stadium Club.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Horace Mann grad Bader turns heads in his major league debut

First Harrison Bader's dream was just to get drafted. Once the St. Louis Cardinals made that a reality, he turned his laser-like focus on making the major leagues. In just two short years, Bader rode the elevator all the way from A-ball to the major leagues.

Harrison Bader / via Allison Rhoades / Peoria Chiefs

When Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler went down with a forearm injury, the club reached into their minor league system and gave Bader his long awaited call. Making his major league debut July 25, 2017 against the Colorado Rockies, Bader wasted little time putting his signature on St. Louis' road to victory. 

Leading off the 9th inning, Bader doubled off of Colorado's Jake McGee for his first major league hit. After moving to third on a sacrifice bunt, Bader sprinted home when Jedd Gyorko lofted a sacrifice fly to right field that was just deep enough to plate him for the winning run.

While Bader's mad dash to home plate may not hold the same place in Cardinals lore as Enos Slaughter's, his hustling style of play surely has the Hall of Famer smiling in the heavens. For those who knew him here in the New York City area, Bader's on-field spirit and skill came as no surprise.

Back in 2015, I spoke with Bader shortly after he was drafted for metroBASEBALL magazine in the article pictured below. It was obvious after a few minutes into our conversation, that he had a professional mindset that was rarely demonstrated by a player fresh out of college. Now that he had made the major leagues, rest assured that Bader will continue to work and grind because it is the only way he knows how to do it.



Friday, July 21, 2017

2017 Topps Series 2 gives a nod to unforgettable moments for baseball fans

With their flagship base series product, Topps gives a nod to unforgettable baseball moments in their 2017 Topps Series 2 release. Focusing on their "Memorable Moments" subset, one groundbreaking debut jumped out of the box of cards provided for this review.

Winding up with a laser-eyed focus, Satchel Paige knew the cameras were on him as he stepped to the mound to deliver the goods for the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948. Topps captured the intensity of this moment in a colorized version of a classic photo of Paige rearing back to pitch for the Indians.

While Topps fills in many missing pieces to their 2017 Series One product, the real catch of this set are the inserts, specifically the aforementioned subset. In honor of Paige's debut, below is a piece that I originally wrote in 2012 about Paige's debut that includes interviews with players who appeared in that game.


Just two days after the record books said he turned 42, Satchel Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 in front of a crowd of 34,780 at Cleveland Stadium. The sheer magnitude of the situation shouldn’t have fazed the legendary hurler, who once pitched in the championship game of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s league in the Dominican Republic under the threat of a machine gun toting militia. Yet, for Paige, toeing the rubber on major league soil brought a sense of high drama, shaking one of baseball’s most experienced moundsmen.

“I felt those nerves … they were jumping every which way,” Paige recalled.

Standing at the plate for the St. Louis Browns was 29-year-old first baseman Chuck Stevens, who entered the game sporting a .252 batting average with one home run, certainly not the type of numbers that would rattle fear into opposing hurlers. While Paige admitted his nerves, Stevens on the other hand saw a familiar target. Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Paige came out to Stevens’ California hometown of Long Beach to play winter ball. The two squared off many times before that fateful day.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” said the 94-year-old Stevens from his home in California. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.”

Stevens wasted no time getting acquainted with his old friend. He promptly laced Paige’s offering into left field.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch," he said. "I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Stevens dates his success against Paige back to a meeting they had a few years prior, just as he returned from his service in World War II.

“One of the longest home runs I had ever hit in my life was off of Paige," he said. "I had just gotten out of close to four years in the service, and we played an exhibition game in Long Beach and Satch pitched against our ball club. The ball I hit, I guess it must have been well over 400 feet. I wondered where all that power came from when I was rounding the bases.”

Stevens’ teammate Ned Garver was a 22-year-old rookie relief pitcher. Only in the major leagues for two months, he found himself right in the middle of this historical event.

“There was never a time when there wasn’t a bunch of hoopla around Satchel because he was such a colorful guy,” said the 85-year-old Garver from his home in Ohio.

Garver pitched two and one-thirds innings of scoreless relief for the save that day, but his clearest memories from that game started before a pitch was even thrown.

“We had a man on our team who hit cleanup and played left field [Whitey Platt]. He was from Florida. He told the manager he wasn’t going to play,” Garver recalled. “Zack Taylor was our manager, and you know back in those days, you didn’t tell somebody you weren’t going to play. You didn’t get away with that kind of crap. [Taylor] said, ‘No, you’re gonnna play.’ So he put him in the lineup.” Platt wasn’t a happy camper to say the least, and when he batted against Paige, he let him know it. “The first pitch Paige threw to him, he threw his bat at Satchel, and it whistled out there about belt high. He just wanted to show that he did not like that situation.”

Paige fooled Platt so badly for strike three with his famed hesitation pitch, that his bat once again took flight, this time flying up the third base line. Looking to extract some sort of revenge for Platt’s first toss of the bat, Garver said Satchel pulled one from his bag of tricks to finish the deal.

“If he threw a bat at Satchel like he did, Satchel was not going to look on that with favor, so he was probably going to give some of his better stuff along the way. To strike him out gave him some satisfaction.”

Paige pitched two scoreless innings that day, quickly shaking whatever nerves he had when Stevens stepped to the plate. He finished the season with a 6-1 record and helped the Indians get to the World Series, where he made one appearance in relief. Even though his best days were behind him, he still had enough left to outsmart major league hitters and give fans a taste of what the major leagues missed in its prime.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Tier One is a good money bet for collectors

Seeking to live up to quality one expects by its name, 2017 Topps Tier One has selected the upper echelon of baseball for inclusion in this year’s set. With each three-card box guaranteeing two autographs and one relic card, the odds are favorable that a superstar autograph is waiting behind a foil sealed pack.

2017 Topps Tier One / Topps
A quick look at the checklist for the Tier One autographs reveals the likes of Barry Bonds, Bryce Harper, Derek Jeter, Hank Aaron, Ichiro, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and Sandy Koufax to name a few. The dual and triple autographs are equally as tantalizing. Over one-thousand home runs with Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. on the same signed card? Yes, I’ll take that. How about three potential Hall of Famers from the same generation with Bryant, Harper, and Trout signing together? Sir, can I have another?

For those searching for the next wave of MLB talent, Tier One has that covered with their Break Out Autographs set. Upstarts such as Alex Bregman, Miguel Sano, and of course, Aaron Judge are the headliners. Conspicuously absent is Cody Bellinger; however, I am sure Topps will make up for his demand later in the season.

2017 Topps Tier One Miguel Sano / Topps
Curiosities such as signed and unsigned bat knobs (numbered 1/1) add to the intrigue of Topps Tier One. A card with parts of Aaron’s or Ty Cobb’s bat makes for interesting discussions amongst collectors. One-of-one cut signatures from deceased Hall of Fame legends Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, and Willie Stargell also give collectors more vintage items to track down.

The box provided for this review yielded autographs of Steve Carlton (#/25), Miguel Sano (#/90) and a Zach Britton relic (#/331). The two signatures display nicely on both cards and the copper tinged signature of “Lefty” Carlton makes his deliberate autograph stand out amidst the wave of blue sharpies in collections everywhere.

2017 Topps Tier One Steve Carlton Copper Autograph / Topps
It is quite understandable that some hobbyists might not want to take a $125 chance on only three cards, as Topps’ guaranteed hit products tend to appeal to a niche segment of the hobby. While Topps can’t guarantee a dollar-for-dollar return on your investment with 2017 Tier One, it’s a good bet that collectors will walk away happy after a purchase.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

Gene Conley recalls the rocky start to his major league career

At six-foot-eight, Gene Conley towered over his competition on the mound and the hardwood. He used his tremendous athleticism to claim his stake in two professional sports in a way that no other athlete has done since.

The two-sport star earned Major League Baseball and NBA championships respectively with the Milwaukee Braves (1957) and the Boston Celtics (1959-1961), making him the only player ever to accomplish this feat. Sadly, Conley passed away July 4, 2017 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Gene Conley 1951 Hartford Chiefs
After the Boston Braves lured Conley from his studies at Washington State University at the end of the 1950 school year, Conley’s performance for Class A Hartford in 1951 showed why the Braves persistently recruited him. Conley posted an impressive 20-9 record with a 2.16 ERA, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League and the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. After one dominant performance, his catcher and former Negro Leaguer player Stanley Glenn, compared Conley to arguably the greatest pitcher ever.

"You reminded me of Satch tonight," Conley recalled during a 2008 telephone interview from his home.

Conley thought that he would work his way through the minor league ranks, but the slumping Braves had plans otherwise. Looking to capture the magic he displayed in his lone minor league season, the Braves management felt that he could continue his meteoric ascent in the major leagues. To his surprise, the Braves kept Conley on the major league roster when they broke from spring training in 1952.

“They brought me up after one year in A-ball to Boston,” he said. “They sent me down as fast as they brought me up!”

Conley was thrown right into the fire, making his debut in the third game of the season against the eventual National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a step up Conley acknowledged over a half-century later that he wasn’t ready to make.

“I opened up against the Dodgers,” he said. “I remember the first time I was with Braves after I came up from Hartford, I wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues. The [Dodgers] were just loaded. Oh all of them, the whole works. I remember I was sitting there in the dugout. Spahn opened the season. Someone asked, ‘Who is pitching tomorrow?’ I heard someone say at the end of the bench, ‘They're going to try that phenom from Hartford I believe.’ I was going to crawl under my seat. I think some old veteran said that. I gave up about four runs and he [Tommy Holmes] took me out in the middle of the game.”

Blitzed by the prospect of facing a lineup filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, there was no way for Conley to pitch around the mighty Brooklyn lineup. He recounted how the litany of talent they had didn’t allow him to focus on stopping one single batter.

“Their lineup was so loaded,” he said, “You didn't pay attention, there were so many stars. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who gave you a lot of trouble?’ I said shoot, you go down the Dodger lineup. How about [Duke] Snider? [Jim] Gilliam? Pee Wee Reese? [Roy] Campanella? They were all good ballplayers, Gil Hodges too … You didn't worry about any one of them because the other guy was just as good. [Jackie] Robinson was a little over the hill, but he could play like he did. [He would] steal a base, work you for a walk, and drive you crazy on the bases.”

After just four appearances that left him with a 7.82 ERA, Conley was mercifully sent to Triple A where he helped to lead their Milwaukee team to the American Association pennant. He followed in 1953 with 23-win season at Toledo where he once again was bestowed with the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors.

He returned to the major leagues for good in 1954, pitching ten straight seasons with the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox until persistent arm troubles sidelined him in 1963. He finished his career with a 91-96 record, along with three All-Star selections and the aforementioned World Series championship.

While Conley stood out in baseball for more than just his height, he was humbled by the sheer talent that surrounded him during his career. He enjoyed being able to say that he was able to compete for a long period of time against baseball’s most iconic names.

“When you have eight teams,” he said, “you can imagine how tough the lineups were back in those days. I looked in a book on Hall of Famers, I played with and against more Hall of Famers than I ever saw. What luck did I have? That had to be a good period … I caught all of those guys. I'm glad I pitched through the 50s and 60s. I caught Berra, Mantle, and all of those guys. That was fun.”

Monday, July 3, 2017

2017 Topps Finest touches a wide palate of tastes for baseball card collectors

With a product like 2017 Topps Finest, collectors have bold expectations for the set to deliver on return and design. Sandwiched in between the release of 2017 Topps Archives and 2017 Topps Series 2, Topps Finest looks to stand out amidst two of Topps’ flagship products.

Immediately noticeable alongside the Chrome finish is the powerful background that pushes the players seemingly through the card, putting you up close and personal with the action. The 125-card base set is succinct enough to hit all of the top stars, while also including the coveted rookies of Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi; however, set collectors will find issue with the 25 short prints, as they appear once only every four mini-boxes.

Despite the frustration of set collectors, most who will purchase 2017 Topps Finest are looking for what they can hit past the base set. A unique twist that Topps put on this year’s release are the inserts modeled in the design of the 1994-95 Finest Basketball set, a nod to when collecting both leagues were more closely aligned. This insert set also has autographed parallels, which are sure to attract collectors that pursued the basketball card set in their youth.

2017 Topps Finest 94-95 Kris Bryant Insert Card / Topps
A tiered system of 2017 Topps Finest autographs that contain refractor parallels are the most readily available signatures from this set. With the parallels coming in eight different colors of increasing scarcity (Blue, Green, Gold, Blue Wave, Red Wave, Orange, Red, and SuperFractor), the chase of completing a “rainbow” of Aaron Judge, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, will keep collectors pouring into this product as the cards hit the market.

2017 Topps Finest Tyler Austin Topps Finest Autograph / Topps
The Finest Finishes autograph insert set, which commemorate historical endings in baseball history, boasts an autograph lineup of the likes of Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Ozzie Smith, Pedro Martinez, Reggie Jackson, and Sandy Koufax. These cards serve to keep the conversation going about why these moments have persisted in the minds and hearts of fans and collectors worldwide.

2017 Topps Finest Ozzie Smith Finest Finishes Autograph / Topps

Each master box (two mini-boxes) guarantees two autographs. The box provided for this review yielded not two, but three autographs, including one Finest Finishes of Jake Arrieta, which I am sure is celebrating his 2016 World Series performance. Also included were multiple base card refractors, two refractor parallels, three Breakthrough Inserts, as well as, yes, an Aaron Judge rookie card.

2017 Topps Finest Aaron Judge Rookie / Topps
If collectors are looking for a product that supplements its impressive autograph set with equally attractive base cards to match, and are willing to pay a premium to do so, 2017 Topps Finest can easily satisfy a wide palate of collector’s tastes.



Friday, June 30, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Museum Collection is the cornerstone of Topps releases for the season

Looking at Sandy Koufax enter his flawless delivery on the cover of 2017 Topps Museum Collection, the elegance that he showed on the mound foreshadows what this product delivers. With on-card autographs that stand out on high-grade thick stock, and radiant jersey relic pieces distributed throughout, this set proves once again that it is worthy of being a cornerstone display of any modern collection.

2017 Topps Museum Mini-Box / Topps
Opening the box, one will find four mini-boxes, which even those are worthy of being collected, as the four together pay a fitting tribute to one of the most beloved Dodgers Hall of Famer. Each mini-box guarantees either an autographed or relic card, giving collectors four exciting chances to pull a big hit.

Sorting through each five-card pack, the four base cards with their high gloss finish and limited edition parallels are in demand, as coveted rookie cards of Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Yoan Moncada are being chased by fans across the globe. The additions of iconic legends such as Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams serve as an added bonus to the merits of this 100-card set.

2017 Topps Museum / Topps
While the aforementioned base cards serve as a delightful benefit, those who purchased 2017 Topps Museum Collection are looking to score a rare autograph or relic that justifies the product’s $200 price tag. Primary of interest are the dual and triple signed cards, as combinations of some of the best ever to play the game are together on the same piece of memorabilia. Who wouldn’t want a dual signed card of Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., or a triple signed card of the Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves rotation of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz to add to their collections?

2017 Topps Museum Hank Aaron / Ken Griffey Jr. Dual Auto / Cardboard Connection
For those who are eyeing the next generation of Hall of Famers, 2017 Topps Museum Collection has that covered. In addition to the aforementioned trio of top rookies in their autograph roster, the likes of Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout all appear throughout the variety of signed cards available in this set. The gold signed Museum Framed and Premium Prints autograph variations jump off of the cards, further solidifying their desirability in collections.

2017 Topps Museum Quad Mets Patch / Topps
The box provided for this review stayed true to form, yielding one on-card autograph, one relic autograph, a quad patch and a prime relic, each with the quality that one has come to expect from Topps’ Museum Collection. As the All-Star Game approaches, Topps has once again given collectors a reason to keep their focus on this release without having to look ahead to what is coming in the second half of the season.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Billy Pierce squared off against Satchel Paige in an epic 11 inning showdown

Billy Pierce, the Chicago White Sox pitching legend, passed away Friday July 31, 2015 in Palos Heights, Illinois due to complications from gallbladder cancer. He was 88.

Acquired during a trade in the 1948 off-season from the Detroit Tigers for catcher Aaron Robinson, Pierce started a 13-year run in Chicago where he emerged as one of the most successful pitchers in franchise history. Early in his tenure with the White Sox, Pierce quickly wrote himself into the record books in an epic 11-inning contest against Satchel Paige’s Cleveland Indians.

Billy Pierce / White Sox
On May 29, 1949, the 23-year-old lefty squared off the legendary Paige, who was almost twice Pierce’s age. They met during the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium in front of a sizable crowd of 47,769 fans. They eagerly awaited this matchup of the budding star facing one of the game’s most storied pitchers.

In 2010, I spoke with Pierce about this game at the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner in New York City. He excitedly recalled how his wife came with his parents from their home in Detroit to see the game.

“My wife [Gloria] came over with my mother and dad from Detroit to Cleveland to watch the game,” he said in 2010. “We go on, one inning, two innings, three innings — it gets to be about the sixth inning and we’re tied 1-1.”

Gloria, who was shaken by the suspense of the game, was approached by a Cleveland fan. He assured her that the elder Paige would not be able to keep up with her husband.

“A Cleveland fan came up to her and said, ‘Honey, don’t worry, Satchel will collapse and he will quit.’ It ends up in the 11th inning, he beat me 2-1. He didn’t collapse,” he said.

Pierce started the bottom of the 11th against the Indians, but after he loaded the bases to three straight batters, White Sox manager Jack Onslow replaced him with Ed Klieman. After retiring the next batter, Paige was due to bat, but Indians manager Lou Boudreau had one more trick up his sleeve. The player-manager inserted himself as a pinch-hitter for Paige and promptly singled home the winning run. After eleven innings, Paige emerged with a complete game victory.

While Pierce admitted that he was fortunate to even have the opportunity to go up against Paige, he wished he could have been with the White Sox the year prior when the crowds rushed to see the American League’s first African-American pitcher.

“When he first pitched in Chicago, I wasn’t there, that was the year before. They tore the gates down; it was just jammed to see Satchel Paige.”

* - This was originally published for Examiner.com on August 1, 2015. 

Charlton Jimerson's 'Against All Odds' is a major league triumph

Charlton Jimerson’s baseball career was never supposed to happen. Growing up in a volatile home hindered by a broken marriage and his mother’s rampant drug use, Jimerson was behind in the count before he ever took the field.

Charlton Jimerson
His 6’3”, 210 lb., frame was tailor made for baseball stardom, but well beneath the surface were scars built from a tumultuous childhood. In his autobiography, “Against All Odds,” Jimerson describes how he was ultimately fortified by his rough upbringing.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Jimerson’s parents split up early on, starting a carousel of residences (including foster care) that were fueled by his mother’s crack cocaine usage. He didn’t have the opportunity to play Little League baseball until moving in with a friend’s family at the age of 12.
“My mother would not envision sacrificing $40 for me to play Little League baseball when she could use that money to buy crack,” Jimerson said.
Getting a late start in the sport put Jimerson farther behind baseball’s learning curve. While most of his peers were getting ready to age out of Little League, he was just beginning to learn the finer points of the game.

“I wasn’t like the other kids who had played tee ball at five years old and continued to play each year thereafter,” he said. “They had an early jump on learning both the mechanics of baseball and how to deal with their emotions. As for me, I was just getting my feet wet at age 12.”

As Jimerson approached high school he could not escape the volatility of his family life. When he started high school he moved in with his older brother, but that relationship soured by his sophomore year. He changed high schools and moved in with his older sister who provided some much needed stability for him to navigate his high school career.

He excelled at Mount Eden High School, starring for their basketball and baseball teams, yet by the start of his senior year, no local colleges showed interest in Jimerson as a baseball prospect. He left the team his junior year due to differences with his coach, and his senior year was tarnished by a suspension stemming from an altercation at a rival school. Despite these obstacles, the Houston Astros saw enough talent to take him as a “draft and follow,” pick in the 24th round of the 1997 MLB Draft.

Despite his draft status, Jimerson signed on to the University of Miami as a walk-on in 1997. Entering a nationally ranked powerhouse, Jimerson was surrounded by a team of pedigreed baseball players. It was like he was back again as the 12-year-old starting Little League, only this time; he had the necessary tools to make an impression on Hurricanes coach Jim Morris.

While he boasted tremendous speed and power, he struggled to cut down on his strikeouts enough to crack the Miami lineup. For three years, he was used primarily as a late-inning replacement and pinch hitter. As he entered his senior year, Jimerson remained determined to breakthrough. His patience was rewarded when one of the team’s outfielders suffered an injury, clearing a spot for Jimerson to start. He busted through the opening, batting .302 with 10 home runs his senior year, en route to leading the Hurricanes to a National Championship. For his efforts, he was named the 2001 Most Outstanding Player Award for the College World Series.

The Astros renewed their interest in their former draft pick, selecting him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft. After enduring a harsh childhood and a slow start to his collegiate career, Jimerson finally could call himself a professional ballplayer.

Like all new players in the minor leagues, Jimerson had to make a series of adjustments both on and off the field to stay in the game. No longer could he get by waiting for a pitcher to miss with a fastball, or using his speed to make up for a poor route in the outfield. He had to put in the extra work necessary to cover his weaknesses and stay ahead of the competition. Additionally, he had to control his distractions away from the ballpark; something that he admits hindered his growth as a ballplayer.

“I would never understand the consequences of my partying habits until after I retired,” he said. “My infatuation with women, alcohol, and nightclubs continued to hinder my performance on the field throughout my entire baseball career.”

While Jimerson struck out at an alarming rate (once in less than every three at-bats), the Houston brass continued to move him up the ladder, as he sent balls screaming out of the park, stole bases, and made highlight catches in the outfield.

In 2005, he was finally vindicated when the Astros called him up to fortify their bench during their World Series run. Even though he only played one inning as a defensive replacement during his time on the club, Charlton Jimerson had arrived as a major league baseball player. Now that he had a taste of the experience, he was hungry for more.

He dutifully finished another season at Triple-A in 2006, and once again the Astros rewarded him with a September call-up. This time he wanted to prove that he could not only be an asset on defense, but have value for his skills at the plate. On Labor Day, the Astros squared off against the Philadelphia Phillies in a heated pitcher’s duel between Roger Clemens and Cole Hamels at Citizen’s Bank Park. After five innings, Hamels was halfway to pitching a perfect game. Clemens did his best to match Hamels’ efforts, yielding only one run in the process. As Clemens walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, he tweaked a muscle in his groin, causing Astros manager Phil Garner to summon Jimerson from the bench to pinch-hit. With two outs in the sixth inning, he approached home plate for his first big league at-bat.
“I felt like Mike Tyson on his way into the ring before a heavyweight title bout,” he said. “My walk was slow and calculated, with a hint of confidence in each stride. I don’t know if I was prepared for the moment, but I had definitely been through enough in my life to handle the moment. My childhood had taught me how to maneuver in the midst of pressure situations.”
What happened next during Jimerson’s showdown with Hamels was of the highest cinematic drama. With the count 2-1, Hamels unleashed a change-up that ran right into Jimerson’s wheelhouse. A loud crack and a few hundred feet later, Jimerson made his way into baseball’s record books, hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat, spoiling Hamels’ perfect game.

As he returned to the dugout amidst congratulations from his teammates, he realized that his moment in the sun went beyond his impact on the box score. It was the reward for navigating a life full of obstacles that would have swallowed most in its path.

* - This was originally published April 10, 2015 for Examiner.com