B-list: The most improbable major leaguers
One used to wash dishes at Outback Steakhouse and played semipro ball in an L.A. park league, another sold Christmas presents at a Nordstrom’s.
One went three seasons with a total of one big league hit – while playing for three different teams. Another stole 246 bases in the minors, but hadn’t gotten to first base in the big leagues since 2005.
One came back after missing two full seasons with a bad shoulder. One survived the loss of his mother to cancer, and the loss of his father in a scuba diving accident almost three years to the day his mother died.
One ate his way out of the big leagues. One could have gone to med school, took the law school exam just for fun, and got a better score than he did on his medical exams.
All of them, from Walter Silva, the ex-dishwasher, to Corky Miller, who couldn’t buy a hit, to Darren O’Day, smart enough to be either a doctor or a lawyer, are members of our All-Improbable Team, players who beat the odds and made the opening day rosters of their major league teams. This is not intended as an all-inclusive list, but all have a story worth telling.
Here’s the roster:
Released by the Mariners two years ago, Loux was working at a baseball facility in Gilbert, Ariz., training prospects when one of them asked if he wanted to throw a few. The owner of the facility, Rich Barker, happened by, liked what he saw, passed along word to an Angels scout, and Loux was signed to a minor league contract, Now, at age 29 and with three of the Angels’ starters on the disabled list, Loux is on an opening day roster for the first time.
Jakubauskas played mostly first base and the outfield at the University of Oklahoma until he lost his swing. “My swing left me,” he said in an interview. “It’s funny – when I say it, people laugh, but it just disappeared one day. I was thinking about hanging it up, but my mom and college roommate said, ‘Why don’t you start pitching again?’ ”
Jakubauskas, who’d pitched in high school, was signed out of a tryout camp by an independent team, the Florence (Ky.) Freedom, managed by former big leaguer Chris Sabo. Jakubauskas pitched 4½ years in independent ball, and among the odd jobs he held was selling Christmas gifts at Nordstrom’s. He was signed by the Mariners in 2007, and at age 30, made his big league debut in relief against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday.
3. Walter Silva, San Diego Padres
While a student at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., nearly a decade ago, Silva washed dishes at Outback Steakhouse. He also played in a semipro league in Los Angeles for extra cash, while playing nearly year-round in the Mexican League. Two of his teammates on the Mazatlan team were brothers Adrian and Edgar Gonzalez, who recommended Silva to their big league employer, the Padres. San Diego signed Silva in February and he made his major league debut pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday night, at the age of 32.
The most tattooed member of the All-Improbables, Roberts has adorned his left biceps with a double R and the inscription, “Only the Strong Survive.” A former 18th-round draft choice of the Blue Jays out of the University of Texas-Arlington, Roberts had played a total of 18 big league games in three seasons. The Diamondbacks had taken phenom-gone-flat James Skelton from the Tigers in the Rule 5 draft, but Roberts, a non-roster invitee to camp, impressed with his intensity and willingness to play anywhere; he even caught a game.
5. Corky Miller, Chicago White Sox
Abraham Philip (Corky) Miller, a catcher, is the poster boy for how difficult it is to hit in the big leagues when not playing regularly. In 2004, Miller went one for 39 with the Cincinnati Reds, including 0 for 29 in his first 10 games. He went 0 for 12 with the Twins in 2005 and 0 for 4 with the Red Sox in his only big league game in 2006. His cameo appearance in 2007 with the Braves, his fourth big league team, went better – he went seven for 27 in a dozen games, but in 2008 he hit .083 with Atlanta before being sent down to Triple-A, where he promptly hit .339 with five home runs in 56 at-bats. But Miller’s defensive ability keeps him around; at 33, he begins with his fifth big league team, backing up A.J. Pierzynski.
The Reds took Patton, who last season pitched in Class A for the Colorado Rockies, in the Rule 5 draft, then turned around and sold him to the Cubs for cash. By the terms of the Rule 5 draft, the Cubs had to keep Patton for the entire season or return him to the Rockies. Sticking in the Cubs’ crowded bullpen seemed a longshot, but GM Jim Hendry released Chad Gaudin, eating $1.6 million in salary, and sent former Notre Dame two-sport star Jeff Samardzija and veteran Chad Fox to the minors. Patton is one of two rookies to make the Cubs.
7. Darren O’Day, New York Mets
Originally cut from the University of Florida before fooling around with a sidearm motion that dramatically improved his sinker, O’Day, an animal biology major, picked baseball over med school and also passed the law school exam with flying colors on a lark. A Rule 5 pick from the Angels, the Mets decided to keep O’Day, who will pitch out of the bullpen as a right-handed specialist, a la former Mets submariner Chad Bradford.
Months before the Cubs drafted him in the second round in 2005, Veal lost his mother to stomach cancer. There would be more family tragedy, as his father Donald, 48, died in a scuba diving accident off the coast of Mexico in November 2007. A co-minor league player of the year for the Cubs in 2006, Veal was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft because of control problems and was grabbed this winter by the Pirates. New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan modified Veal’s delivery, and he made his big league debut Tuesday against the Cardinals, giving up a home run to Yadier Molina, the first batter he faced, striking out two, walking the bases loaded, then whiffing Chris Duncan on a called third strike.
A fourth-round draft choice of the Tigers in 1998, the native Puerto Rican excited Detroit officials when he stole 65 bases for Lakeland in the Florida State League two years later. However, Torres played only briefly in the majors before electing minor league free agency. He would play for five different organizations in the next five seasons, including a return engagement with the Tigers, but after appearing in just 11 big league games since 2003, Torres hit .406 this spring and made the Giants as an extra outfielder.
Our last entry is a parlay. Benson, who never won more than 12 games in a season, had rotator cuff surgery and was unable to pitch in the last year of a two-year deal he signed with the Orioles for over $16 million. He was still without a job until the Rangers signed him a week into camp. At 34, he has won a spot in Texas’ starting rotation.
An out-of-shape Jones, meanwhile, was a colossal bust with the Los Angeles Dodgers after signing a two-year, $36.2 million deal before the ’08 season. The Dodgers made a deal to defer the remaining $22 million-plus on his contract and released him in January. Jones worked with noted Rangers hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo and showed enough improvement that the team cut ties with Frank Catalanotto to keep him as an extra outfielder.