Tuesday, June 8, 2010
WALLA WALLA - For at least some of this area's baseball fans who crowd into Borleske Stadium tonight - and a sellout crowd is expected - for the Walla Walla Sweets West Coast League debut, there's sure to be a twinge or two of nostalgia swirling about in the pits of their stomachs.
For those of us who were around in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Northwest League baseball was a big deal in this town, this new WCL brand of old-time baseball will be a pleasant reminder of the way we were back then.
Wood bats. Brats and beer. And some of the finest college baseball talent this side of Major League Baseball's amateur June draft.
The Philadelphia Phillies brought minor league professional ball to Borleske Stadium in 1969 and remained for three seasons. When the Phillies left town, the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League stocked the team with players for one season before turning operations over to the San Diego Padres in 1973.
And it was the Padres, who sent many of their top prospects to this NWL outpost over the next decade, who provided so many Walla Wallans with some of their most cherished baseball memories.
How many of you had the privilege of watching Ozzie Smith make his professional baseball debut on the Borleske Stadium diamond in 1977? Were you in the Borleske grandstands in 1981 when Tony Gwynn first appeared in a pro baseball game?
Smith and Gwynn, obviously, are the most noteworthy players in Walla Walla's professional baseball history. Unless, of course, you include a handsome young infielder named Kurt Russell.
Smith, who became known as the Wizard of Oz, played 19 seasons in the big leagues with the Padres and St. Louis Cardinals. Gwynn, who was to become an eight-time National League batting champion, spent all 20 of his big league seasons in a San Diego Padres uniform.
Both now reside in Cooperstown, N.Y., as baseball Hall of Famers.
Russell, to his chagrin, never made it to the big leagues. But by the time the 21-year-old played in 29 games and batted .325 for the 1972 Walla Walla Padres, he had already appeared in eight feature films and several television series and was on his way to a Hall of Fame career of his own in the motion picture industry.
Russell's 1972 season in Walla Walla was cut short due to the filming and July release of "Now You See It, Now You Don't," one of several Walt Disney movies that he starred in during his early years as an actor. Some of his other major credits are "Escape from New York" in 1981, "Big Trouble in Little China" from 1986, 1991's "Backdraft" and the 1993 release of "Tombstone."
While it's true that Smith and Gwynn, and sometimes Russell, are the first names that come to mind when Walla Walla's Northwest League baseball history is the topic of discussion, it's also true that there were many other ballplayers who began their professional careers here and eventually made it to The Show.
Forty-one, in fact, including a pair of former Walla Walla Padres who can be seen practically every night on network television.
John Kruk, an outfielder who was one of Gwynn's Walla Walla teammates in 1981, is a member of ESPN's Baseball Tonight show. And Mitch Williams, a left-handed pitcher who began his professional career here in 1982, is an MLB Network analyst.
Kruk batted .242 in 157 at-bats for the Walla Walla Padres in 1981 and broke in with the big league Padres in 1986 when he began a 10-year career in the majors. He was a career .300 hitter with 100 home runs and 592 runs batted in. In 1991, he slugged a career-high 21 home runs, knocked in 92 and batted .294 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
The left-handed Williams posted a 3-4 record and a 4.78 earned run average in 12 starts for Walla Walla in 1982. He also reached the majors in 1986 and evolved into a closer who earned the nickname "Wild Thing" because of his erratic control.
In 11 major league seasons, Williams racked up 192 saves and struck out 660 batters in 691 innings. He also issued 554 walks and hit another 52 batters. His best season was 1993 when he recorded 43 saves for the Phillies.
No fewer than six members of the 1976 Walla Walla Padres made it to the big leagues, including pitchers Gary Lucas and Steve Mura. Lucas became San Diego's closer for three seasons while Mura was in the San Diego rotation for two seasons and one additional season in St. Louis during his seven-year big league career.
Lucas was 7-3 with a 3.10 ERA in his only season in Walla Walla. His best big league season was 1983 when he recorded 17 saves, posted a 5-8 won-lost record and had a 2.87 ERA.
Mura was 7-0 with a 1:37 ERA for Walla Walla in 1976. His big league career was highlighted in 1982 when he was 12-11 with a 4.05 ERA in his first season in St. Louis.
In 1978, Walla Walla served as the jumping off point for a pair of pitchers who five years later would become fixtures in San Diego's starting rotation.
Andy Hawkins was 8-3 with a 2.12 earned run average in his one season in Walla Walla. He pitched 10 seasons in the big leagues and was one of the Padres' top pitchers from 1983 through 1988 before moving to New York, where he was in the Yankees rotation for two more years.
Hawkins' best season in San Diego was 1985, when he posted an 18-8 record with a 3:15 ERA. In 1989, his first season in New York, he made 34 starts, logged a 15-5 record and a 4.60 ERA. He pitched his final season in Oakland and finished with an 84-91 career won-lost record, with a 4.22 ERA and 706 strikeouts.
Eric Show, who was 5-2 with a 2.85 ERA in 60 innings pitched for the Walla Walla Padres in 1978, had an even more distinguished big league record.
Show pitched all but one of his 11 big league seasons in San Diego and had a career 101-89 record with a 3.66 ERA and 971 punch outs. He was the ace of the Padres' staff for six of his seven seasons in the rotation, and his best year was 1984 when he was 15-9 with a 3.40 ERA in 32 starts.
Snow accrued double-digit victories five times in his career.
One other pitcher of note, Jimmy Jones, was the third overall pick in the 1982 June draft. After posting a 4-6 record with a 3.22 ERA and 78 strikeouts that summer in Walla Walla, Jones was 43-39 with a 4.46 ERA during an eight-year big league career with the Padres, Yankees, Houston Astros and Montreal Expos. His best year was 1992 when he was 10-6 with a 4.07 ERA for Houston.
Other than Smith, Gwynn and Kruk, the most successful big league hitters who began their careers in Walla Walla are outfielder Dane Iorg (1971), third baseman Tucker Ashford (1974), first baseman Broderick Perkins (1976) and no fewer than four catchers - Rick Sweet (1975), Ron Tingley (1977-78), Bob Geren (1979-80) and Mark Parent (1979).
Iorg played 10 seasons at the major league level and was a starting outfielder in St. Louis in 1981 when he hit .327 in 217 at-bats.
Ashford spent three seasons in San Diego and one each with the Yankees, Texas Rangers, New York Mets and Kansas City Royals. He batted .217 in 1977 in San Diego, his only year as a regular.
Perkins broke in with San Diego in 1978 and was the Padres' starting first baseman in 1981-82. He earned that starting spot by hitting .370 in 100 at-bats in 1980, but the power he demonstrated in his one season in Walla Walla (10 home runs and a .355 average) never translated to the big league level.
Sweet's big league career lasted just three seasons, but he was a starting catcher all three years, including two stints with the Seattle Mariners. He hit .256 in 258 at-bats for the M's in 1982 before being shipped to the Mets. Back in Seattle in 1983, Sweet hit .221 in 249 at-bats and retired at the end of the season.
Tingley was a career backup who got his first major league at-bat in 1982 with the Padres and his last with the Detroit Tigers in 1995. He also played with the Cleveland Indians, California Angels, Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins, not to mention numerous minor league stops after leaving Walla Walla.
Parent and Geren were Walla Walla teammates in 1979 before embarking on successful big league careers.
Parent's 13-year career included stops in seven big league cities, with his best season coming in 1995 when he slugged 18 homers combined for the Pirates and Cubs. Geren played five seasons in the bigs and was the Yankees' starting catcher in 1990 when he hit .277 with eight homers and 31 runs batted in.
After ending his playing career following the 1993 season, Geren re-emerged as manager of the Utica, N.Y., team in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1995. Twelve years later he was hired as the Oakland Athletics manager where he remains today.
Geren logged a .460 winning percentage in his first three seasons in Oakland, and he has the A's in the hunt for this year's American League West crown.
But Geren isn't the only Walla Walla Padre to make it as a big league manager.
Tom Trebelhorn, who batted .202 in 124 at-bats for the 1972 Walla Walla Padres, never made it to the big leagues as a player. But he managed the Milwaukee Brewers to a 422-397 record from 1986 to 1991, and he led the Cubs to a 49-64 mark during a brief stint in Chicago in 1994.
Trebelhorn, whose seven-year major league managerial record sits above .500 at 471-461, was still in the game as of 2009 as manager of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of the Northwest League.
Of course, the Walla Walla Sweets who take the field tonight at Borleske Stadium are collegians who have yet to sign their first pro contracts. For most if not all of them, however, turning pro is a definite goal.
And who's to say who will be next to make the leap from Borleske Stadium to The Show?