Among the many reasons to visit your local minor-league ballpark (the charm, the ridiculously cheap seats behind home plate, etc.) is the possibility of witnessing future greatness. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to catch several big-league stars in action before most people had heard of them: Jay Buhner, Jake Peavy, Carlos Quentin, Felix Hernandez, Edinson Volquez… I still kick myself every now and then for not having driven the hour or so to San Bernardino to check out some kid named Ken Griffey Jr. back in the day. My friends and I threatened to do just that but somehow never got around to it. I heard he ended up making something of himself.
Turning back the clock three decades to 1979, we may recall (or have heard stories, depending on one’s age) that the “We Are Family” Pirates beat Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. We may remember great individual performances that season from the likes of Don Baylor, Ron Guidry, Keith Hernandez, and J.R. Richard.
Meanwhile, events were occurring far away from the spotlight — “down on the farm” — that would shape baseball’s future. Players and managers that later gained a certain measure of fame were busy honing their skills in the decidedly less glamorous environs of the minor leagues.
In the interest of brevity, I will provide only a partial list (courtesy of Johnson and Wolff’s indispensable Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (2nd ed.) of notable figures you could have seen in the minors in ‘79. There is undoubtedly a great story to go with many of these names, but for now, I offer them with minimal commentary:
Randy Bass — Famous for being denied a shot at Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record in Japan in 1985; later became an Oklahoma state senator
Jim Tracy — Led the Texas League with a .355 batting average at Midland; funny how both 2009 Managers of the Year played minor-league ball in ‘79 (a year earlier, Tracy and Scioscia played in the same league together)
Steve Balboni — Led the Florida State League with 26 homers at Ft. Lauderdale
Mickey Hatcher — Led the Pacific Coast League with a .371 batting average at Albuquerque
Otis Nixon — Yep, he started out at the hot corner
Cal Ripken Jr.
Scott Fletcher — Collected seven hits for Geneva in a July 15 contest against Utica
Joe Charboneau — One of the great one-year wonders
Juan Berenguer — Led the PCL with 220 strikeouts at Tacoma
Bob Walk — Led the Eastern League with a 2.24 ERA at Reading
Greg Harris (the ambidextrous one)
Ray Searage — A key part of my first Rotisserie League team in ‘84
Dave LaPoint — Led the California League with 208 strikeouts at Stockton; no-hit Reno on July 25
Luis Leal — No-hit Tampa while pitching for Dunedin of the FSL on July 11
Tony LaRussa — Recalled to the big club mid-season to replace Don Kessinger as skipper of the White Sox
Davey Johnson — Led the Miami Amigos to a 51-21 record before the Inter-American League folded on June 30
Tom Kotchman — Casey Kotchman’s dad
Again, this list is far from comprehensive, but it gives some idea of the talent you might have seen at your local minor-league ballpark back then. The salient point (isn’t it nice to have one?) is that these guys are out there doing their thing. The same holds true for any given season.
You won’t necessarily know which players will end up having careers (ask me how good I thought Mark Phillips was going to be), but chances are, if you catch even a few games, you’ll get a glimpse of someone on his way to bigger and better things. Then, 30 years later, you can tell people about the time you saw Peavy pumping mid-90s heat from six rows back of home plate with 3000 of your closest friends.
But I imagine you already have stories of your own. Let’s hear ‘em.