9 Noteworthy Minor League Debuts

Jackie Robinson grounding ball at first base.
Jackie Robinson grounding ball at first base.
Hulton, Getty Images

On Sunday, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will make his minor league debut for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators against the Altoona (Pa.) Curve. Just how big is the hype surrounding the No. 1 overall pick of last year's amateur draft? ESPNEWS has announced it will broadcast every half-inning that Strasburg pitches. As the former San Diego State star prepares for his big day, here's a look back at nine other hype-worthy minor league debuts.

1. Jackie Robinson

Perhaps no minor league debut was as significant as Jackie Robinson's. Signed by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1945, Robinson appeared in several exhibition games during spring training and made his minor league debut with the International League's Montreal Royals on April 18, 1946. Playing in front of a capacity crowd at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, N.J., Robinson had four hits in five at-bats, including a three-run home run, to lead the Royals to a 14-1 win. "Eloquent as they were, the cold figures of the box score do not tell the whole story," Joseph Sheehan wrote in The New York Times. "He looked as well as acted the part of a real ball-player and on the base paths was a positive demon."

Jersey City's fans greeted Robinson warmly, but the reaction in other cities wasn't always so positive. Robinson, who attracted large crowds throughout the season, led the league in hitting and fielding percentage and was named MVP. He broke the major league color barrier the following season.

2. Michael Jordan

What does the world's greatest basketball player do when winning a championship becomes a bore? He takes up baseball. After winning three straight NBA Finals MVP awards during the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat, His Airness announced his retirement from basketball in October 1993 and signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox a few months later. Jordan made his minor league debut on April 8, 1994, with the Birmingham Barons, Chicago's Double-A affiliate. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the Barons' 10-3 loss. More than 10,000 fans and 150 media members, including television crews from across the world, attended the game. "They told me that there would be nights like this," Jordan told reporters after his debut. "But what I learned in basketball was that you have to have resiliency. Every great athlete has had one bad day, or two, or three or more. How you bounce back determines what kind of person you are."

Jordan hit .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases that season. He officially quit baseball in March 1995 and returned to the Bulls—and winning championships.

3. Bo Jackson

A baseball and football star at Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, Bo Jackson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first pick of the 1986 NFL draft. Jackson decided to pursue a professional baseball career instead and signed with the Kansas City Royals, who assigned him to their Double-A affiliate, the Memphis Chicks. Jackson made his minor league debut on June 30, 1986, before a less-than-capacity home crowd of 7026. "I feel great," Jackson said during a news conference before the game. "There's some people nervous but I'll let them worry. I'm just going to go out there and play baseball." Jackson hit an RBI single in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Chicks' 9-5 loss to the Columbus Astros. The Memphis fans, many of whom came early to watch Jackson take batting practice, gave the rookie a standing ovation before his first at-bat and again after his professional hit. Jackson hit seven home runs in 53 games for the Chicks and became a regular with the Royals the following season. That year, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted Jackson in the seventh round and he joined the team when the baseball season ended.

4. Willie Mays

Willie Mays made his minor league debut with the Trenton Giants on June 24, 1950, at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Hagerstown Suns. Mays' line that day was forgettable—he went hitless—but the hateful atmosphere he endured was not. Fans yelled racial epithets at the outfielder, who was the first black player to play a minor league game in Hagerstown and was forced to stay at an all-black hotel. Mays hit .353 with four home runs in 81 games for Trenton that season. In 2004, the Suns invited Mays back to Hagerstown and he accepted, announcing that all was forgiven.

5. Todd Van Poppel

A can't-miss prospect, or so most people thought, Van Poppel was drafted 14th overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 amateur draft. The only reason the Texas high schooler, who turned down a scholarship to the University of Texas to go pro, wasn't drafted higher was because teams were afraid of his contract demands. After receiving a $600,000 signing bonus from the A's, Van Poppel made his minor league debut for the Southern Oregon A's, Oakland's Single-A affiliate, on July 23, 1990, in front of 4,600 fans. Van Poppel didn't disappoint, allowing one hit and striking out five in three-plus innings against the Bend Ducks. Held to a 60-pitch limit in 100-degree heat, Van Poppel's best fastball was clocked at 94 mph and he left with a 6-0 lead. "It felt cooler than Texas to me," Van Poppel said afterward. "It was still hot, but not as hot as I'm used to." The phenom moved quickly through the minor leagues but never lived up to the hype in the majors.

6. Ken Griffey, Jr.

After he batted .478 with seven home runs as a senior at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, the Seattle Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. with the first pick in the 1987 amateur draft and assigned him to their rookie league affiliate in Bellingham, Washington. Griffey made his minor league debut on June 16, 1987, and went 0-for-3 in a 5-4 loss to the Everett Giants. Incidentally, left-handed pitcher Eric Gunderson, the No. 2 pick in the 1987 draft, made his professional debut in the same game. Griffey received a huge ovation during pregame introductions. "I wasn't expecting all of that," Griffey told reporters after the game. "I was expecting maybe a few people (would cheer), but not that many. That helps knowing you have the fans behind you." The future star hit a three-run home run for his first professional hit in the Mariners' next game.

7. Darryl Strawberry

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 amateur draft, Darryl Strawberry made his minor league debut for the New York Mets' Single-A affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., on July 14, 1980. Strawberry went 1-for-4 with a single in a 9-3 loss to the Paintsville (Ky.) Yankees. The fanfare that followed his debut was a baseball promoter's dream, as teams throughout the Appalachian League capitalized on Strawberry's celebrity and recognizable name. According to a New York Times article, promoters in Elizabethtown, Tenn., sold old-fashioned strawberry sundaes when Kingsport visited. Paintsville offered free admission to anyone holding a strawberry, dropped strawberries from a helicopter, named the area beyond right field the "Strawberry Patch," and served only strawberry soda at the concession stands. "I enjoy it," Strawberry said of the hype. "I know people are aware of my name, and I think that's going to help me throughout my career."

8. Ben McDonald

The Baltimore Orioles selected Big Ben out of LSU with the first pick in the 1989 amateur draft. After 10 weeks of contract negotiations, McDonald was signed and sent to Baltimore's Single-A affiliate, the Frederick Keys. McDonald made his minor league debut on August 23 against the Winston-Salem Spirits in front of a sellout crowd of more than 5,000. The lanky right-hander, who led the United States to a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics, allowed five hits and one run over three innings. His only strikeout came against the first batter of the game.

"I think I could have done a little better," said McDonald, who balked, threw a wild pitch, and was the beneficiary of a triple play. "But I was reasonably pleased." McDonald made his major league debut two weeks later.

9. Roger Clemens

Okay, so we're cheating a little with this one. The Rocket made his official minor league debut for Winter Haven back in 1983, but his first appearance with the Lexington Legends after coming out of retirement for a third time in 2006 was more memorable. Adding to the intrigue of Clemens' return to the Houston Astros was the fact that his oldest son, Koby, was a third baseman for the Legends, Houston's Single-A affiliate. Koby Clemens had an RBI double, while his dad allowed one run in three innings and walked off the field to a standing ovation. More than 9000 fans packed the stadium—3000 more than the listed capacity—and 120 media credentials were issued for Clemens' first start in Lexington. Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and president of baseball operations Tal Smith both attended the game, for which ESPN provided live look-ins.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Invictus Games

Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Though the media tends to dwell on the private life of Prince Harry and his recent marriage to actor Meghan Markle, the Duke of Sussex has more on his mind than tabloids might suggest. Beginning October 20 in Sydney, Australia, and running through October 27, he'll be presenting the Invictus Games, a multi-sport competition he created in 2014 for wounded veterans. Athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, in an attempt to earn medals and, in Harry's words, "demonstrate life beyond disability."

For more on the history (and future) of the Games, check out our round-up below.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY AN AMERICAN COMPETITION.

Prince Harry talks to a Warrior Games representative in the United States
Arthur Edwards-Pool, Getty Images

While on a promotional tour of the United States to raise awareness for his charities, Prince Harry was invited to appear in support of the British team in the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service veterans that was held in Colorado in 2013. Impressed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm shown by participants, he took the concept and created the Invictus (Latin for "unvanquished" or "unconquered") Games. The inaugural event was held in London in September 2014. "It was such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen," he joked.

2. IT'S FUNDED IN PART BY BANK FINES.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand on the sidelines
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

While the Invictus Games attract corporate sponsors—including Jaguar—to subsidize the operating costs of the event, funds for the 2014 installment also came from fines levied against British banks that were charged with manipulating currency exchange rates. Approximately £1 million (roughly $1,300,000) were made available from the fines, matching the £1 million Prince Harry donated via his Royal Foundation.

3. THE GAMES FEATURE INDOOR ROWING.

An athlete in the Invictus Games competes in indoor rowing
Steve Bardens, Getty Images for Invictus Games

Invictus invites athletes to compete across a range of adaptive sporting events—sports that have been modified to be all-inclusive for people with an array of physical challenges. In sitting volleyball, athletes have to keep one butt cheek touching the floor while touching the ball. In indoor rowing, athletes use a rowing machine to simulate outdoor rowing.

4. WHEELCHAIR RUGBY GETS INTENSE.

Invictus Games athletes participate in wheelchair rugby
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

If you have an impression that modified sports are somehow easier than their able-bodied counterparts, you're mistaken. In wheelchair rugby, athletes attempt to get a volleyball across a court and between two cones on the opposing team's side. They experience frequent collisions that appear to have more in common with demolition derbies than football, and participants are sometimes blindsided by the hits, which can bend wheels and axles.

5. IT'S NOT JUST FOR HUMANS.

A service dog shakes off water after a swim at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for Invictus

Because many disabled veterans rely on service dogs to assist in tasks of daily living, Games officials were more than willing to open their doors to the animals during the 2016 event in Orlando. At the last minute, organizers permitted the dogs to jump in the pool for an unofficial race. (Though it was held at Disney World, Pluto was not invited to participate in the doggy-paddle event.)

6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN MADE AN APPEARANCE.

Bruce Springsteen shakes the hand of a war veteran at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Prince Harry's involvement has contributed heavily to appearances by a number of well-known public figures at the Games. Former president Barack Obama and Joe Biden attended the 2017 competition; David Beckham was named the 2018 ambassador. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen closed out the event in Toronto with a solo set. He was later joined on stage by Bryan Adams.

7. THERE WAS A GAP YEAR.

Prince Harry talks to representatives at the Invictus Games
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

After the 2014 Games in London, Orlando hosted the 2016 contest and Toronto held the 2017 installment. There was no 2015 edition—the Games used a gap year in order for Orlando to raise the funds to organize the event. The competition will also skip 2019, moving to the Hague in the Netherlands for the 2020 Games.

8. IT'S GETTING MORE VETERANS INVOLVED IN SPORTS.

A group of athletes huddle during the Invictus Games
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Members of the armed services don't need to compete in the Games to feel their influence. Following the inaugural 2014 event, Help for Heroes, which assisted in recruiting British athletes for competition, reported that there was a 463 percent increase in veterans signing up for archery talent assessments and a 633 percent increase in powerlifting enrollees.

9. THE GAMES WILL BE STUDIED BY SCIENCE.

An Invictus Games athlete holds up a trophy
Paul Thomas, Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Participation in Invictus appears to be a significant boost for the overall morale of contestants. And thanks to a grant from the Forces in Mind Trust, we'll eventually have some objective evidence of it. For the next four years, researchers will follow 300 athletes to assess their overall well-being compared to non-participants. Such evidence of the benefits of adaptive sport will likely contribute to a greater number of participants—and funding—in the future.

10. A COMMEMORATIVE COIN WAS ISSUED IN BRAILLE.

An Invictus Games commemorative coin features text in Braille
Royal Australian Mint

In honor of the Invictus Games' vision-impaired contestants, the Royal Australian Mint issued its first-ever coin with Braille text. Intended to commemorate and publicize the 2018 event in Sydney, the coin features a disabled competitor and "Sydney '18" in Braille. The $1 AUD coin sells for $15 AUD (about $11) and is limited to a run of 30,000. A gold-plated version is limited to 2018 copies and sells for $150 AUD ($108).

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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