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For baseball's one-hit wonders, the magic can last a lifetime

History is dotted with guys like 'Moonlight' Graham who had only one fleeting moment or game appearance in majors. They can wonder what if but revel in what was.

March 12, 2013|By Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times
  • Some players have only one fleeting moment or game appearance in majors. They can wonder what if but revel in what was.
Some players have only one fleeting moment or game appearance in majors.… (Matthew Woodson / For The…)

Jeff Banister has worn a baseball uniform to work for more than a quarter-century, first as a minor league player and instructor and for the last four seasons in the big leagues as a bench coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But if you blinked at the wrong time, you missed his entire major league playing career: one at-bat 22 summers ago on a warm, cloudy evening in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium.

It ended with an infield single, the baseball now sitting on a shelf in his 10-year-old son's bedroom.

"The events in my life allowed me to just really, truly kind of hold on to that one at-bat, that one game, and just how precious they really are. And how fragile professional sports and athletes really are," Banister says. "It can be there one day and gone the next. I didn't dwell on it. I don't dwell on it."

This month, hundreds of players — many wearing numbers more commonly associated with offensive linemen than outfielders — have gathered in spring-training camps hoping to earn their chance, however brief, to play in the big leagues.

In baseball parlance, such cameos are known as a "cup of coffee" because they generally last no longer than it takes a person to down a mug of joe.

The best-known major leaguer who never got a second cup was Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, who in 1905 played two innings in the outfield in his only game for the New York Giants and didn't get a chance to bat against major league pitching until 84 years later, when he was reborn in the film "Field of Dreams."

The fate of the real-life Graham — as opposed to reel-life one, who delivered a sacrifice fly in his only plate appearance in the film — has befallen nearly 1,000 token major leaguers since Frank Prescott Norton struck out in his only at-bat with the Washington Olympics in May 1871.

Banister earned a place in baseball lore among 21 players who got a hit in their only plate appearance, according to baseballreference.com. Most others earned a much smaller slice in the game's history.

Former Mets catcher Joe Hietpas made his only big league appearance as a defensive replacement, playing the final inning of the final game of the 2004 season. Astros reliever Philip Barzilla's career was even shorter, lasting one-third of an inning two seasons later.

"But, you know, I did pitch in the big leagues," Barzilla says proudly. "And not a lot of people got to do that."

Even so, one out was not what Barzilla envisioned growing up outside Houston with dreams of pitching for the hometown Astros.

A left-hander who kept the ball down, he was in the middle of his best minor league season when he was promoted to the majors on June 6, 2006.

"So how do you like that?" Barzilla says. "I was called up on 6-6-6."

That would prove to be an omen for subsequent missteps and missed opportunities, the first of which came a day later when Barzilla, told he would pitch that night against the Chicago Cubs, watched Chris Sampson take the ball instead and pitch seven scoreless innings in his first major league start.

Barzilla spent three more days stewing in the bullpen before being called on with two out and a runner on first in the eighth inning of a one-sided game against the Atlanta Braves. He missed with his first two pitches before giving up a single to Brian Jordan, then got Todd Pratt on an inning-ending fly to center.

Two batters, seven pitches, and Barzilla's big league career — something he had worked toward from the first time he picked up a baseball — was over. Less than 48 hours later, he was sent back to triple A, and nine days after that the Astros dropped him from their 40-man roster to make room for Roger Clemens.

"Essentially . . . Roger Clemens took the job from me," says Barzilla, who pitched three more seasons in the minor leagues for Seattle and San Diego before finishing his career by posting a 2-3 record and 6.58 ERA for Veracruz of the Mexican League in 2010.

"I'm at peace with what happened," Barzilla adds. "But of course . . . every once in a while you have some days where, 'Oh man, if this would have happened, if that would have happened.' [But] for the rest of my life, I'll be a big leaguer."

Dustin Bergman can make the same claim after pitching two innings of relief for the Angels in his only big league appearance nine years ago. And although he says he has no regrets, when he rewinds the mental tape of that game, it's clear he wishes he would have had a second chance.

"You always think about just having that one go," he says. "You think if that first guy had just rolled it over and if that had been a double play, would I have gotten to get in there again?"

Bergman did retire his first hitter — on "an absolute rocket," he says — but things went downhill from there. There was a wild pitch, a walk, then three straight hits and four runs, three of which were charged to him. His career major league earned-run average: 13.50.

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