A version of this story originally ran in June 2020.
This isn’t how things are supposed to go. When young stars come up to the Major Leagues, and they show off a sweet swing, a patient batting eye and a solid glove all at once, it's easy to start dreaming of the future.
That wasn’t the case for John Paciorek, who had perhaps the greatest -- and shortest -- career in Major League history.
On the final day of the 1963 season, the then-Houston Colt 45s gave the 18-year-old Paciorek his big league debut against the Mets.
It was an unexpected move. Paciorek was in Houston to have his back examined and was playing in intrasquad rookie games while he was there. He hadn’t been particularly good that year in the Minors, either -- hitting only .219 with nine home runs in 78 games at Modesto. Still, the team was high on the bonus baby. Since he was already in town and Houston was locked into ninth place, the team asked him if he wanted to play.
"I said, ‘Uh, yes, I would, there’s no doubt about that,’” Paciorek told MLB Network. “I didn’t care how bad my back was hurting at the time, I wanted to play.”
He would go on to have one of the finest debuts possible.
Batting seventh in a lineup almost exclusively made up of rookies, including Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub, Paciorek stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second. He walked against the Mets’ Larry Bearnarth, and came around to score on John Bateman’s triple.
He came up again in the fourth and laced a two-run single, scoring on Pete Runnels’ sacrifice fly.
He hit an RBI single the next inning, and scored on Bob Lillis’ hit.
He followed that with a walk in the sixth and one more base hit in the eighth inning -- getting a standing ovation from the crowd in his final at-bat.
''It's funny, but I can't remember a whole lot about the game,'' Paciorek told the New York Times in 1983. ''It was around 120 degrees in Colt Stadium for a Sunday afternoon game, I remember that. Paul Richards was the general manager and Harry Craft was the manager, but I don't remember who asked me to play.”
All in all, Paciorek’s debut was a dream come true: 3-for-3, two walks, three RBIs and four runs scored.
To put that in perspective, 22 other players have picked up at least three hits and never made an out in their debut. But every other player on that list also played in more big league games, and watched their batting averages drop. Some, like Mike Piazza, even went on to have Hall of Fame careers -- which may have been the future that Houston fans were dreaming up for for Paciorek.
Hopes were high for the young outfielder when he reported to camp the next spring, and there was talk that he could be the team's starting center fielder.
That only intensified when Paciorek -- in his first exhibition game of the new season -- faced the Mets (again) and lit them up (again). This time, Paciorek laced a bases-loaded triple to drive in three runs in the Houston victory.
But the back issues hadn’t gone away. If anything, they were worse.
“The following Spring Training, they played me every game,” Paciorek said. “I was supposed to be the starting center fielder. I could run all right and I swung the bat pretty good, but every time I bent over, my back just killed me. I didn’t really tell anyone about it because I was a naive 18-year-old.”
After a rough Spring, Paciorek was sent down and, after hitting just .135 in the Minors, finally admitted to the pain he was experiencing. That led to spinal fusion surgery, and he missed all of the 1965 season.
The surgery helped his back, but it came with consequences.
“I'd go to the ballpark hours before anybody else just to get loose,” Paciorek said. “But I kept hurting my arm and pulling my hamstrings because my back was so tight.
''I did everything I could to get back. I'd back up every play. I even had putouts at third base and second base because I hustled. The fans would see this jerk running 100 miles per hour while other players were lollygagging across the field, but I had to do it. I had such a bad arm, I had to charge everything.''
It wasn't enough. The maladies kept Paciorek from ever playing in 100 games, and when he was on the field, he didn't hit much.
He stuck it out in the Minors until 1968, but only reached Double-A and never played in the Majors again. So, with the back healed up well enough for real life, but not for baseball, he went on to become a PE teacher in San Gabriel, Calif. It also meant that he could only watch as his brothers, Tom (18-year big league career) and Jim (one year with the Brewers in 1987), put together much longer careers.
While that was disappointing, it did have one upside: Paciorek kept the record for the most hits with a perfect batting average.
“It’s kind of a dubious honor,” Paciorek told Stephen Wagner in the book "Perfect: The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder." “But I guess I’m immortalized. I did something no one else has ever done."
Art and layouts by Tom Forget / MLB.com.