August 13, 2008
The unlikely story of Mike Aviles' ascent from a measly $1,000 signing bonus to a place among the most productive shortstops in the American League got me wondering: Who else among the current major leagues is there improbably?
I tried to think of every conceivable obstacle out there. Guys who were given up for dead — in a baseball sense or literally — and others who overcame ridiculous odds and some who chose baseball over another sport. There are late-round draft picks, independent-league successes and baseball geezers.
There is also enough obscurity on the following list — Major League Baseball's 25 Most Improbable Success Stories — that our system at Yahoo! Sports does not have updated mug shots for at least half its members.
25. Lou Montañez, OF, Baltimore: Drafted third overall in 2000 by the Cubs, Montañez spent nine years in the minors before cracking the Orioles roster last week. He homered in his first big-league at-bat.
24. Livan Hernandez, SP, Colorado: Defected from Cuba as a 20-year-old and won a World Series with the Marlins a year later. Continues on more than a decade later as the most hittable pitcher in baseball.
23. Jeff Samardzija, RP, Chicago Cubs: Shocked football personnel by choosing to play baseball after phenomenal career as a receiver at Notre Dame. Perhaps he made the right call: He's been superb since joining the Cubs in late July.
22. Chris Young, SP, San Diego: Another two-sport star and an Ivy Leaguer to boot. As a 6-foot-10 forward for the Princeton basketball team, he was a gifted scorer. Bonus improbable points for coming back so quickly after getting his face mangled by an Albert Pujols line drive earlier this year.
21. Dan Giese, SP, New York Yankees: Planned on retiring after the 2005 season. Found out that selling Hondas is not terribly fun, returned to baseball and now, three years later, is in the Yankees' rotation and sporting a 2.35 ERA.
20. Mike Cervenak, 3B, Philadelphia: Started career for two years with the independent Chillicothe Paints. Moved to Yankees organization and put up great minor-league numbers. Same in San Francisco. After getting released by a Korean team in '06, returned to organized baseball and finally made major-league debut, as a 32-year-old, in July. Got first big-league hit last week.
19. Sal Fasano, C, Cleveland: Is the affirmative answer to the question: Could Super Mario play in the major leagues? Fasano, a 37th-round pick from Evansville, is on his ninth major-league team and his sixth organization in four years.
18. Charlie Zink, SP, Boston: Knuckleballer and undrafted free agent coached by Luis Tiant at the Savannah College of Art and Design made his major-league debut Tuesday night in the most improbable game of the year, Boston's "come from behind after losing a 10-run lead" 19-17 win over Texas.
17. Russell Martin, C, Los Angeles Dodgers: Canadian. Oh, and quickly parlayed a year at Chipola College in Florida into a flyer 17th-round pick by the Dodgers, who converted Martin from third base to catcher and watched him blossom into an on-base machine and great clubhouse leader.
16. Robinson Cancel, C, New York Mets: Debuted for Milwaukee in
1999 after hitting .368 in a short Triple-A stint. Didn't return to the
major leagues again until this season, after stops in two independent
leagues and five organizations.
15. Mike Adams, RP, San Diego: Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, Adams was a serviceable reliever before knee problems sidelined him for all of 2007. He ended up having three microfracture surgeries — in which doctors intentionally break bones to let them reheal — and now has a 2.20 ERA, seventh-best among NL relievers with at least 40 innings.
14. D.J. Carrasco, SP, Chicago White Sox: Vagabond who signed with an independent team so he could be a hitter and soon thereafter was sold to Pittsburgh, which wanted him to pitch, for $1. Ended up going to Japan, where he bombed, before spending the last year and a half in the minor leagues. Will make his first big-league start in three years on Thursday.
13. Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants: Taught by his
father to throw 98 mph despite standing 5-foot-10, weighing 150 pounds
and looking, at times, like a UNICEF case. Among the five best pitchers
12. Torii Hunter, OF, Los Angeles Angels: Grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., surrounded by gangbangers. Drug-addicted father nearly ruined career when cops found dad's used crackpipe in Hunter's car. Friend and mentor Basil Shabazz, a Cardinals prospect, got arrested — charges were later dismissed — and his career ended. Hunter signed for $90 million with the Angels this offseason.
11. Sidney Ponson, SP, New York Yankees: Fat. Popped twice for DUI. Beat up an Aruban judge and landed in jail. Got released by Texas for allegedly getting drunk and acting stupid at a hotel bar. And somehow on his sixth organization despite all that and a career ERA of 4.90.
10. Shane Loux, RP, Los Angeles Angels: While giving lessons at a Phoenix academy, Loux, a former cup-of-coffee major leaguer, was spotted by the owner, who reached out to a scout friend. Now Loux is back in the big leagues at 29. Not quite Jim Morris, but close.
9. Zack Greinke, SP, Kansas City: Overcame a paralyzing social-anxiety disorder that caused him to miss a large part of the 2006 season. Now on medication, Greinke has become one of the better young pitchers in the AL.
8. Fernando Tatis, 3B, New York Mets: Returned to baseball after two-year hiatus because he needed money to build a church in the Dominican Republic. Crushed the ball upon his return to the Mets this season — and, in the meantime, funded Jerusalem First Church.
7. Mike Aviles, SS, Kansas City: The perception: Short, kinda fat, slow bat who's a career minor leaguer. The reality: hitting over .330 and would be in the running for the batting title had the Royals called him up earlier.
6. Jamie Moyer, SP, Philadelphia: Never mind that he twice
was released and didn't lock down a starting rotation spot until he was
30. Moyer, now 45 years old, has a 3.81 ERA, his best in five years,
and does so without dialing his fastball a tick above 85 mph. Gramps
just understands pitching.
5. Rick Ankiel, OF, St. Louis: Just your typical superstar pitcher who, one day, forgot how to throw strikes, completely lost it, reinvented himself as an outfielder and scraped back to the major leagues, where he's now a legitimate 30-homer threat whose slugging percentage since last year is near .550.
4. Doug Brocail, RP, Houston: Elbow blew out. Underwent Tommy John surgery. Elbow blew out again. Tommy John again. Suffered shortness of breath. Got four stents inserted into his heart. Now takes more than 20 pills a day and, at 41 years old, remains a serviceable middle reliever for the Astros.
3. Craig Breslow, RP, Minnesota: Going against him, in the grand scheme: Breslow is the antithesis of baseball player, a Jewish Yale graduate who, were he not in the major leagues, would probably be slaving away on stem-cell research, which was a specialty in college. Going for him: Breslow is left-handed with a pulse, the reason he's on his fourth team despite throwing only 55 big-league innings.
2. Brad Ziegler, RP, Oakland: Broke his skull on a Fred Lewis line drive in the minor leagues. Came back as a submarine pitcher and broke the skull again this offseason when playing catch. Debuted May 31 and hasn't given up a run, working his way to closer amid a 38-inning scoreless streak that set a major-league record for consecutive scoreless innings to start a career.
1. Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas: Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in 1999, was always supposed to make it big. Just not under such circumstances. From an addict who smoked crack and spent nearly four years in a drug-addled haze to the game's golden boy, Hamilton's resurgence remains the great story in baseball this season — and one that's so tinged with improbability, he had to be No. 1.