The dead of winter and a particularly rough week as far as the trials and tribulations of adulthood go have me wishing for a warmer, simpler time in a long-lost place. As I've written before, I grew up attending ballgames in the late '70s and '80s in Salt Lake City, Utah, a spot far from a major-league stadium, but a city with a rich history as a minor-league outpost dating back to the old Pacific Coast League and its 200-game seasons. During my childhood and adolescence, Salt Lake City played host to the Triple-A affiliates for the Angels and Mariners in the modern-day PCL, both known as the Gulls. Additionally, every summer I would visit my paternal grandparents in in Walla Walla, Washington, the site of the Padres' Low-A Northwest League affiliate.
In both spots, I got my fill of future stars and flops. So today, as the first installment of a multi-part series, I present to you yet another "all-star" team of sorts, consisting of players whom I watched when they were minor leaguers. Some of them went on to become famous, and I'm proud to say I got in on the ground floor. Others didn't make much of a dent beyond these minor league locales, but their stories have stuck with me, and they're interesting enough to share here as well.
Catcher: Brian Harper, Salt Lake City, 1981 (majors 1979, 1981-1995)
"Harper should have had a much better career than he did," wrote Bill James in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, where he ranked Harper 99th on his list of catchers. "He lost a lot of his career to other people's stupidity." A fourth-round 1977 pick by the Angels out of San Pedro, California — where he was one high school class behind future indie rock legends D. Boon, George Hurley, and Mike Watt of the Minutemen — the young Harper looked as though he were on the road to stardom. A contact-oriented line-drive hitter who didn't have a ton of power, he clearly could hit, but the Angels didn't think much of his defense, so while he was still in the minors, they began to transition him from behind the plate. He reached Salt Lake City as a 21-year-old; in a hitter-friendly league, playing half of his games at 4,200 feet above sea level, Harper batted .350/.389/.617 with 28 homers and 192 hits in 599 PAs. He caught 50 games, while playing another 45 in the outfield and 13 at first base.
Traded to the Pirates that following winter as part of the Angels' ongoing purge of prospects — a recurring theme throughout this series — Harper would languish as a bench player for four teams, playing in just 200 big-league games from 1982 through 1987, and 300 minor-league ones. "The Pirates already had Tony Pena and Steve Nicosia," wrote James. "They needed another catcher like they needed a fifth baseman." The Bucs, Cardinals, Tigers, and A's used Harper primarily in the outfield when they used him at all, but he was slow afoot, and none of those teams did more than dabble with him at an infield corner.
Harper finally caught a break when he hooked up with the Twins as a free agent in 1988. At 28, with just six big-league appearances at catcher under his belt among 205 career games, he re-donned the tools of ignorance, spent the first two months of the year back at Triple-A, and seized the opportunity when Tom Nieto, the Twins' backup behind Tim Laudner, got off to a 2-for-46 start. The following year, Harper became the Twins' regular backstop, hitting .325/.353/.449 and kicking off a nice five-year run (.307/.341/.431) which included a World Series ring in 1991. The knock on him was always that he was unsound defensively; he led the league in passed balls in 1992 and 1993, and while he nailed 31 percent of would-be base thieves for his career, he allowed 0.84 steals per nine innings behind the plate, yielding an average of 104 steals per year from 1990-93. At the plate, he whiffed just 188 times and walked 133 times in 3,386 career plate appearances, retiring with a .295/.329/.419 line and a .263 True Average. Concluded James, "He was slow, didn't have real power, didn't walk and didn't throw well, but he could hit .300 in his sleep."
First Baseman: Willie Aikens, Salt Lake City, 1977-1978 (majors 1977, 1979-1986)
News of Aikens' return to baseball as a minor-league coach for the Royals inspired my writing this article in the first place. The second overall selection of the January phase of the 1975 draft, Aikens was the resident big bopper in SLC when my dad first started taking me to games. He was a lumbering lumberjack — James would later dub him the slowest player of the 1980s — who was better suited to DH. After serving an unsuccessful midsummer stint with the Angels in 1977, Aikens returned to lead the PCL with 29 homers in 1978 while hitting .326/.419/.551; only Pedro Guerrero outpaced his 110 RBI.
Aikens stuck with the big club out of spring training in 1979, and he went on to hit a robust .280/.376/.493 with 21 homers in 447 PAs. Alas, he had surpassed the service-time requirement during his previous stint, and was ineligible for AL Rookie of the Year honors; the award was shared by John Castino and Alfredo Griffin. Still in the midst of an anti-youth movement which saw them swapping youngsters for old-timers, the Angels traded Aikens to Kansas City that following winter in a five-player deal which sent veteran herb-and-spice-rubbed Al Cowens to Anaheim. On the heels of a 20-homer, 98-RBI 1980 season, Aikens made a household name for himself as Willie Mays Aikens — born on October 14, 1954, just over two weeks after his namesake's famous World Series catch — in the Fall Classic against the Phillies. He slugged two home runs in a losing cause in Game One, singled in the winning run in the 10th inning of Game Three, then matched his two-homer feat in Game Four, helping the Royals to even the Series at two games apiece and becoming the first player with two multi-homer games in the same World Series. The writers of Major League had to be paying attention.
After a few similarly solid seasons capped by a .302/.373/.539 1983 campaign, Aikens got into big-time trouble with drugs. Along with Vida Blue, Jerry Martin, and Willie Wilson, he was one of four Royals arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine following the season; all four pled guilty and drew three-month jail sentences as well as year-long suspensions from baseball from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, making them the first active major leaguers to serve time in prison. Aikens' suspension was eventually reduced, and while he returned to the majors with the Blue Jays, he fizzled out. He testified in the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985, and after tearing up the Mexican League over the next few years, his downward spiral continued. He was arrested for selling crack to an undercover cop in 1994, and sentenced to 20 years due to harsh federal mandatory sentencing guidelines that treated the 2.2 ounces of crack he sold as equivalent to 15 pounds of powdered cocaine. When those guidelines were finally reconsidered and applied retroactively, Aikens drew his release in 2008, 14 years into his sentence. He worked on a road construction crew after his release, and the news of his hiring suggests he continues to make progress in putting his life back in order. Here's wishing him continued success.
Second Baseman: Harold Reynolds, Salt Lake City 1983-1984, Majors 1983-1994
Long before he became the screeching heir to Joe Morgan on ESPN Baseball Tonight, Reynolds passed through Salt Lake City, which had become a Mariners affiliate in 1982. In 1983, his age-22 season, Reynolds hit a slappy but effective .309/.367/.386 with one homer but also 54 steals in 73 attempts. That earned him a September cup of coffee, but he was forced to cool his heels in SLC again the following year while Jack Perconte (a former Dodgers prospect who had previously passed through Albuquerque) manned the Mariners' keystone. Reynolds didn't establish himself in the majors until 1986, but he earned All-Star honors twice, won three straight Gold Gloves (with a combined +44 FRAA), and swiped a league-leading 60 bags in 1987, the only year from 1980 through 1991 in which Rickey Henderson didn't top the Junior Circuit. After leaving the Mariners as a free agent following the 1992 season, he spent a year with the Orioles and another with the Angels, and wound up his career hitting a fairly thin .258/.327/.341.
Reynolds went on to spend 11 years as the lead studio analyst at Baseball Tonight (1996-2006), where he emerged as a high-ranking officer in the the Flat Earth Society, and the inspiration for perhaps my favorite Futility Infielder post of all time, albeit one that had me tearing my hair out at the time; five years later, Joe Posnanski would have a similar experience. Reynolds departed the network in July 2006 due to allegations of sexual misconduct, but won a settlement from the company over wrongful termination, by which point he had resurfaced as a commentator on MLB.com and eventually the MLB Network.
Third Baseman: Floyd Rayford, Salt Lake City 1979 (majors 1980, 1982-1987)
The earliest high-drama moment I can recall witnessing firsthand at a ballpark came courtesy of Rayford, who capped a late rally with a three-run eighth-inning homer that gave the Gulls the lead and soon sent their fans home happy. A 1975 fourth-round draft pick out of Memphis, Rayford had climbed through the system methodically, but even so, he was just in his age-21 season in 1979. He hit .294/.360/.437 with 13 homers and 18 steals during his year in Salt Lake City. The Angels had a 22-year-old budding star in Carney Lansford at the hot corner, so they traded Rayford to the Orioles. He got brief cups of coffee in 1980 and 1982, playing third base, second base, and even catching, a job that suited the rotund physique which earned him the nickname "Sugar Bear." In dubbing him "the least important Oriole of '82," Thomas Boswell wrote of him in Why Time Begins on Opening Day:
Like many Orioles, he seemed underqualified for his duties; yet [Orioles manager Earl] Weaver could expound at length on the bizarre potential advantages of having this Rayford creature, who could catch, play third, pinch-hit, or even pinch-run. Weaver'd never seen this exact combination; it fascinated him. Rayford provided Weaver with his most precious managerial commodity: "Moves." The existence of this smiling Buddha allowed Weaver to pinch-hit for catchers, rotate infielders or use a pinch-hitter in an unconventional spot. Mind you, in none of these circumstances would Rayford actually play. His existence was an emotional insurance policy so Weaver could wheel and deal.
Rayford, the butt of jokes, was usually the winner in repartee and found ways to earn his letter. He had more courage than skill, and he played without fear. As Martin Luther would have wished, he went and sinned bravely. If Ron Guidry struck him out, Rayford glared at him as though Lou'siana Lightnin' had just bought himself trouble down the road. Because of his indefatigable bearing, Rayford's mistakes never unnerved his mates the way the jittery errors by another sub—the more talented back-to-Rochester Bobby Bonner—always did.
Rayford didn't do enough to help the Orioles make the playoffs in 1982, but he did become notable as the answer to a trivia question: Cal Ripken Jr. replaced him at third base after taking the nightcap of a May 29 doubleheader off, beginning his streak of 2,632 consecutive games. Exiled to St. Louis in 1983, Rayford missed out on the Orioles' World Series win, but he was back the following year, starting 50 games behind the plate, qualifying him as both a futility infieder and a member of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers. He enjoyed by far his best big-league season in 1985, the year Weaver came out of retirement in mid-season; Rayford hit .306/.324/.521 with 18 homers in 372 plate appearances, starting 66 games at third and another 22 behind the plate. Given a similar opportunity the following year, he hit just .176/.231/.310. He played just 20 more big-league games before leaving the Orioles organization and spending three years with the Phillies' Triple-A club in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the latter two in a player/coach capacity. He's still coaching in the minors, most recently for the Twins' Triple-A Rochester affiliate.
In the next installment: wondering what might have been with a player whose shot at stardom was cut short by a beaning.