9 Noteworthy Minor League Debuts
On Sunday, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will make his minor league debut for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators against the Altoona (Pa.) Curve. (And as a big Nats fan, I'm making the trip.) 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 7,026. "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 9,000 fans packed the stadium—3,000 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.