The last chance circuit: 9 Major Leaguers you'd be surprised are playing in Independent Leagues
9 Major Leaguers that are playing in the Indy Leagues
In early August, I was fortunate enough to attend a Sugar Land Skeeters game. Located roughly a half hour outside of Houston, this independent Atlantic League club has been home to quite a few big names since setting up shop in 2012: Scott Kazmir started his comeback here before signing a contract with the Indians in 2013. Jason Lane began his transition to a pitcher in Sugar Land. Tracy McGrady pitched for half a season with the team earlier this year.
While I was in attendance that night, I was witness to something spectacular. Tomo Ohka, now a low-50s mph knuckleballer, squared off against Clint Everts, a first round draft pick of the Expos in 2002 who never reached the Majors. Everts nearly threw a no-hitter, losing it in the ninth inning. (Though there were four very friendly scorekeeper's decisions along the way.)
And that's what the Independent Leagues are: a bizarre cross-section of dreamers hoping for a chance and players at the end of their careers looking for one last crack at the Major Leagues.
Sometimes it works out. That was the case for J.R. Towles, who was signed back into affiliated ball by the Rangers after playing 67 games for the Bridgeport Bluefish earlier this season. And sometimes it doesn't: Dontrelle Willis retired on July 31st after pitching 12.2 innings and surrendering 9 runs for Bridgeport.
With Fall fast approaching and the end of the season within sight, here are nine former players still dreaming in the Indy Leagues. (Note: All stats as of Sept. 3)
2014 Season, Bridgeport Bluefish: 6-11, 5.37 ERA, 137 1/3 IP, 2.8 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
MLB Career, 1999-2007, 2009: 51-68, 4.26 ERA, 1070 IP, 5.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9,
Not only has Ohka been name checked on the Simpsons, but he's one of only 23 pitchers to play for both Canadian clubs. After his final big league season in 2009, Ohka returned to Japan, pitching two years for the Yokohama BayStars in 2010 and 2011. Ohka made only seven starts in that final year, posting a 6.89 ERA and wasn't heard from again ... until this spring.
Trying to remake himself as a knuckleballer, Ohka went to spring training with the Blue Jays hoping to give Toronto a duo of knucklers. Now in Bridgeport, he's unlikely he'll get a call to the bigs unless he ups that strikeout rate.
2014 season, Bridgeport Bluefish: 0-0, 4.50 ERA, 8 IP, 6.8 K/9, 0.0 BB/9
MLB Career: (Twins, Red Sox, Athletics) 19-25, 5.18 ERA, 416 2/3 IP, 7.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
One of the best named players in Major League history (Once a nickname, Bonser had it legally changed), Boof signed with the Bridgeport Bluefish on August 19th, having spent most of 2014 pitching for the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. Yes, that is a real team name.
2014 season, Long Island Ducks: 140 PA, .261/.379/.374, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 1 SB
MLB Career, 2002-2012: 3,674 PA, .248/.308/.436, 125 HR, 440 RBI, 62 SB
What do you think Bill Hall is best known for? His 35 home run season in 2006 while with the Brewers? His 2010 campaign with the Red Sox in which he hit 18 home runs while playing every position except catcher?
No, the answer is obviously his appearance with J.J. Hardy, Jeff Suppan and Chris Capuano in The Young and the Restless.
2014 Season, Bridgeport Bluefish: 238 PA, .329/.383/.419, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 1 SB
MLB Career, 2002-2006, 2011-2012: 1,823 PA, .278/.335/.355, 12 HR, 143 RBI, 20 SB
The former No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, Sean Burroughs fell out of the Majors in 2007 but returned to make appearances with the the Diamondbacks and Twins in 2011 and 2012. Always known for his contact ability, he ranks fourth in the league with his .329 average.
2014 Season, Long Island Ducks: 546 PA, .347/.417/.517, 14 HR, 84 RBI, 7 SB
MLB Career, 2003-2007, 2012: 1,795 PA, .268/.345/.399, 35 HR, 176 RBI, 48 SB
After hitting 15 HR and stealing 20 bases as a 27-year-old in 2004, Ford struggled over the next three seasons. From 2008 until joining the Orioles for their playoff run in 2012, Ford bounced around while playing in Japan, Mexico and the Independent Leagues. This season Ford is splitting his time between playing and being the team's hitting coach. The players would do well to listen to him: Ford currently ranked third in the Atlantic League in average and 10th in home runs.
2014 Season, Somerset Patriots: 160 PA, .252/.331/.357, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 0 SB
MLB Career, 1998-2008: .263/.320/.447, 90 HR, 379 RBI, 1 SB
The first player to ever hit a home run into the river beyond PNC Park:
Ward is an Indy League veteran, hitting 52 home runs in the unaffiliated leagues. Though he briefly spent some time in the Mexican Leagues this season, the 39-year-old Ward is still displaying impressive control of the strike zone, walking 16 times compared to only 20 strikeouts.
2014 Season, York Revolution: 2-0, 1.54 ERA, 46 2/3 IP, 6.2 K/9, 1.9 BB/9
MLB Career, 2002-2011: 58-74, 5.03 ERA, 1,169 IP, 5.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
One of only eleven players to ever play in both the Majors and the NBA, hopes were high that we would get a Mark Hendrickson - Tracy McGrady matchup when McGrady joined the Sugar Land Skeeters. Unfortunately, when McGrady retired at the All-Star break, the two had not faced each other, depriving us of that wonderful moment.
With a 1.54 ERA, hopefully some team will step up and at least give us a chance to see the 6-foot-9 Hendrickson smash another dinger.
2014 Season, San Rafael Pacifics: 10 PA, .143/.400/.143, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB
MLB Career, 2000-2010: 3,532 PA, .258/.320/.439, 109 HR, 396 RBI, 129 SB
Eric Byrnes is a strange guy. Three days after his release from the Mariners in 2010, Byrnes was playing softball with a local beer league softball team. And while Byrnes isn't actually playing for the Pacifics, the MLB Network analyst spent two days with the club to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.
2014 Season, Bridgeport Bluefish: 144 PA, .283/.350/.339, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 1 SB
MLB Career, 2010-2013: 758 PA, .230/.299/.395, 25 HR, 81 RBI 6 SB
Casper Wells had a chance at history in 2013 and it wasn't one he probably wanted. Wells spent time with five different organizations -- the Mariners, Blue Jays, Athletics, White Sox, and Phillies -- but only played in the Majors with three of them denying him the title for most teams played for in a season. (The record of 4 is shared by 13 players. Jose Bautista accomplished it most recently.)
While struggling with vision problems following eye surgery, Wells started the 2014 season with the Cubs before making his way to Bridgeport.