KANSAS CITY -- Twenty years ago, a handsome, gifted -- and slightly cocky -- outfielder named Mark Quinn burst onto the scene in Kansas City.
Royals fans hadn’t seen anything quite like him.
In his very first game, the second game of a doubleheader against the Angels on Sept. 14, 1999, Quinn hammered two home runs, becoming just the third player to go deep twice in his debut, along with Bert Campaneris of the 1964 Kansas City A’s and Bob Nieman of the 1951 St. Louis Browns. (They have since been joined by J.P. Arencibia of the 2010 Blue Jays and Trevor Story of the 2016 Rockies.)
The following season, at the age of 26, Quinn hit .294 with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting behind Oakland’s Terrence Long and Seattle’s Kazuhuiro Sasaki, who won the award.
People in Kansas City all had the same thought: Quinn was a star in the making, ready to join the ranks of Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon. It seemed that nothing could hold Quinn back.
Quinn’s arrival came during a dismal stretch in Royals history. They finished below .500 in every season but one (2003) from 1995 through 2012, and 1999 was especially rough: The club lost 97 games while allowing an AL-worst 921 runs. So when Quinn came up that September and hit .333/.385/.733 in 65 plate appearances, he offered some hope.
Yet just three years later, Quinn would play his final game as a big leaguer. For those who suited up with him, coached him and covered him, it remains a mystery how stardom eluded him. Instead, he is perhaps most remembered for a walk-less streak that ended with stadium fireworks (more on that below), and a freak martial arts injury that signaled the beginning of the end of his once promising career.
A PHENOM IN THE MAKING
“When I think of Mark Quinn,” said Sweeney, who remains close friends with Quinn, “I think he should have had a much longer career. He was talented. He had a cannon for an arm. He had a great bat. He had it all. What bums me out is that he didn’t have a 10-year career.”
His former teammates weren’t the only ones who felt that way. In fact, in the spring of 2000, he was part of a TV ad campaign for K-Swiss sneakers focused on up-and-coming athletes.
“He was incredibly exciting to watch," added Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre. "Every time he came to the plate, I thought something special would happen. Guys today have so much on their mind with pitcher tendencies, scouting reports and all that. He just went up there and swung the bat. A natural born hitter. That was really fun to watch.”
Off the field, there was an aura to Quinn, as well.
Quinn once dated a Playboy model named Teri Harrison and, of course, that became gossipy news in a relatively small big league town such as Kansas City.
“Quinny was good looking, like an Eric Hosmer,” former teammate Joe Randa said. “Women loved him. Wherever he went, it was news back then. And let’s just say he liked life in the big leagues.”
But Quinn maintains that his playboy image was a bit overblown.
“Teri and I didn’t go out that long and we split up in 2001,” Quinn said. “But all she wanted to do was pursue a modeling career. It wasn’t about being in Playboy for her. In fact, she asked me about the Playboy gig because she didn’t want to do anything that might embarrass me back in Kansas City.
“All I told her was that, 'Hey, you’re in L.A. Don’t worry about what people think in Kansas City. Do it.'”
The growing legend of Quinn was fueled at the stadium, too, because eventually, every time he came to the plate, the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” recorded by Manfred Mann, blared over the stadium speakers. Fans loved it and sang along.
“You think of Mark Quinn and you think of the fans singing 'The Mighty Quinn,'" Sweeney said. “[Singing] ‘You’ll not see nothing like The Mighty Quinn.’ As players, we thought that was pretty cool. It was an event every time he came up.”
In 2001, each plate appearance for Quinn also became a must-watch occurrence for another reason: He had quickly become legendary for refusing to take walks.
“It was pretty funny to us,” Randa said. “Just crazy. It’s kind of hard to not get a walk for that long.”
After drawing a walk against the Indians on May 8, Quinn did not draw another walk for more than three months. Though he missed all but three games in June, he was back in the lineup almost every day beginning in early July. As the season progressed, Quinn became the talk of Kansas City, and the talk of the clubhouse.
“Everyone in Kansas City on the street, in the coffee shops, the bars, knew about the streak," said Charlie Seraphin, vice president of marketing at the time. "You got obsessed with his every at-bat wondering if this was the time he’d take a walk. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.”
Finally, on Aug. 30, 2001, after a then-club-record 241 consecutive plate appearances without drawing an unintentional walk -- the Tigers issued him a free pass on Aug. 12 -- Quinn took a 3-2 slider from Angels starter Jarrod Washburn in the fifth inning that was two feet off the plate for ball four.
“To be honest,” Quinn said, laughing, “I just couldn’t reach it. I thought about trying.”
What followed has become part of Royals lore.
As Quinn started his jog toward first, the Kauffman Stadium fireworks, normally reserved for events such as home runs or victories, suddenly went off, startling everyone in the stadium, including an announced crowd of 12,159. “Hallelujah” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir began cranking on the stadium sound system.
Fans, players, coaches and reporters howled in laughter. Even Angels players giggled into their gloves.
“Denny [Matthews] and I just broke up in the booth,” Lefebvre recalled. “We couldn’t stop laughing. It was surreal.”
“The first reaction in the dugout was ‘Holy crap. He walked,’” Randa said. “And then after the fireworks went off, it was, ‘Did that just really happen? Did they think he hit a homer or something?’”
Most people wondered if Quinn might be insulted and/or furious.
“I have a sense of humor,” Quinn said. “I thought it was funny. Washburn and the Angels were laughing, so was I. It was just nice to get the monkey off my back. But to be honest, I wasn’t in the big leagues to walk, so I really didn’t understand why it was such a big deal.”
But those close to Quinn thought that he was a bit miffed by the fireworks.
“He laughed at first,” Randa remembered, “but then he kind of got [mad] about it.”
Added Sweeney, “I don’t think he thought it was all that funny.”
So, who was behind the decision to set off the fireworks?
That mystery has gone on for years.
It was once reported that one of the stadium operations workers in charge of setting off the fireworks had simply fallen asleep and was awoken in time to see Quinn jog to first base. And thinking Quinn had hit a home run, he hit the fireworks button.
“No, totally not true,” Seraphin said.
There also was a rumor that the marketing department had planned the fireworks idea for weeks in case Quinn walked, and that players such as Randa and Sweeney were originally behind the idea as a prank.
“It wasn’t us,” Sweeney said. “I’ll swear to that.”
After numerous interviews of people connected to that 2001 team, it was determined that manager Tony Muser was the one behind the idea to set off the fireworks.
“Tony Muser and hitting coach Lamar Johnson had been working so hard with Mark on trying to get him to see more pitches," explained longtime Royals public address announcer Mike McCartney. "And they thought they were making really great progress, so they wanted this to be like a celebration if he walked. They wanted to reward him.
"Coincidentally, they called us that very morning -- how is that for timing -- and asked if we could do it if he drew a walk, and we said, 'Sure.' They weren’t trying to make fun of him. They wanted him to have some fun with it, and they really thought he was close to drawing a walk.”
But McCartney and Seraphin both knew they had better get approval from then general manager Allard Baird and team president Dan Glass before they pulled such a stunt. Baird politely declined to be interviewed for this story. Glass, though, said he gave the idea a thumbs up.
“Your first concern is that you didn’t want to embarrass the player,” Glass said. “But it seemed OK, that he’d have fun with it.”
Pulling off the fireworks was always tricky back then.
“I remember in those days, the fireworks operations guy was seated behind that giant scoreboard and had no idea what was happening in the game because he couldn’t see,” McCartney said. “So sound engineer Dave Asby would get on the walkie talkie and have to tell the ops guy if we hit a home run. So after Quinn takes the walk, he radioed the ops worker and said, ‘Hit it.’”
While Quinn hit 17 home runs that season, there sadly weren’t many more fireworks in his career. In an era where teams were starting to put more of an emphasis on on-base percentage, his refusal to take a walk (.298 OBP in 2001) was glaring. To give you a sense of just how much of a free swinger he was, consider this: During his 241-plate-appearance stretch without a walk, he got to a three-ball count on just 18 occasions.
The book was out on how to pitch him, and injuries unfortunately plagued him the next two years.
Quinn’s 2002 season was derailed from the start when his missed Spring Training because of a rib injury. The story came out eventually that Quinn suffered the injury while “Kung Fu fighting” in the offseason with his brother, adding to the Quinn lore.
Quinn now says that the story was overblown.
“In [the offseason of] 2001, I started to train a little different,” Quinn said. “I did non-contact mixed martial arts. I was just joking around in my apartment with my brother, and I kind of dropped down on an arm chair and one of my ribs hit the arm chair. Everything was fine going into Spring Training. It started nagging me again and I thought I had strained a muscle.
“Eventually, I went to the emergency room and it showed a crack. But it wasn’t because of Kung Fu fighting. You know, it makes for a good story and all of that, and once it’s out there, it’s out there. But that wasn’t true.”
However you define how the whole thing went down, the bottom line is that Quinn’s career was never the same after that. He played in just 23 games in 2002 and hit two home runs. He was released in the spring of 2003. He bounced around several other organizations, including the Padres, Rays, Cardinals and White Sox. But he never played again in the Majors and eventually retired in 2007.
“Let’s face it,” Sweeney said, “baseball is hard. It’s a hard game. But I always thought Quinny would be around a long time. It just didn’t happen.”
Quinn to this day doesn’t understand the release from the Royals.
“I tore my hamstring on a rainy field [in 2002],” Quinn said. “I think that’s what ended my career. But I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish.
“It took me a long time to get called up. I spent 2 1/2 years at Class A. I won the Triple-A batting crown [hitting .360 with 25 home runs in 1999] while other guys were getting called up. I had success. I had fun.”
But even Quinn admits that his personality might not have been a perfect fit in the big leagues.
“You know, I was happy to be there in the big leagues, but I felt I was always under the microscope,” Quinn said. “There was more than baseball to my life. I was one of those guys who wanted to go to the Met and walk around the city rather than sitting around playing cards in my underwear in the locker room. The best part to me was just playing the game. I loved that part.”
Quinn, who is from Sugar Land, Tex., and went to Rice, now lives in Houston, has been married for eight years and has a 16-month-old son. After a brief stint as the Orioles' assistant hitting coach in 2016, Quinn now runs a highly successful baseball school called “The Baseball School and Store.”
“Absolutely, I would say I’m very content,” Quinn said. “I had a good run [in Major League Baseball] and had a lot of fun. Life is good. I have a wonderful family and I’m still connected to baseball. No regrets.”