Put THAT in your Medicine Hat: 1978 Pioneer League
Jayson Stark’s “Strange But True feats of 2013” notes the August 24th 18-inning game in which Arizona’s Tuffy Gosewisch batted twice in the final frame and made outs against two different position players. The last player to do that, says Jayson, was Brian Milner, on June 26, 1978.
Now, I played a lot of Strat-O-Matic with the ’78 set, even the last-place Blue Jays; I still remember Doug Ault, Gary Woods, even Sam Ewing. But I didn’t recall Brian Milner, so I looked him up. Turns out, he’s no kin to John Milner (or his cousin, Eddie Milner), and his big-league career was gone in a heartbeat. But a few nuggets came from the search.
Brian Milner — a catcher, like Gosewisch — signed with Toronto out of high school and went straight to the majors. He got a hit off Rick Waits in his debut game, June 23, 1978. Then he sat for three games (one of them started by David Clyde, the ex-schoolboy phenom). Milner’s next appearance was the June 26 game mentioned above, starting at catcher against Baltimore.
His first time up, Milner stroked an RBI single, in the midst of a 9-run 2nd that sent Mike Flanagan to an early shower. He singled and scored again the next inning, off Joe Kerrigan, as the Jays ran it up to 13-2. Next inning, an RBI triple off Tippy Martinez, scoring again.
- The triple made Milner the 2nd-youngest searchable player to have 3 hits with a triple, after Phil Cavaretta.
- Milner’s the last player to have 3 hits, 3 runs and a triple within his first 2 career games. The other four on that searchable list are Joe DiMaggio (debut), Coaker Triplett (naturally), Willie McCovey (2 triples in his debut, never again had 2 in a game), and Chico Ruiz (more famous for other oddities).
After 4 innings, Toronto led 19-6. Earl Weaver, having seen his team swept in Boston and now humbled by the sad-sack Jays, was fed up: outfielder Larry Harlow came off the bench to pitch the 5th inning, his first time on a big-league mound. Milner bounced out, Willie Upshaw whiffed, but then Harlow lost the strike zone. Four walks and 5 runs later, it was 24-6 Jays, and time for third-string catcher Elrod Hendricks to make his debut on the slab.
- 24 runs remains a Blue Jays record, the only time they’ve scored more than 20.
- No team had scored 24+ since 1955.
- The next team to score 24+ did so against Toronto, just a year later.
- John Mayberry pinch-hit in the game, and wound up with 2 HRs, a double and 7 RBI. That tied the known record for RBI off the bench (done one other time, by Roy Sievers). Just two players ever topped 10 total bases coming off the bench: Kelly Gruber, for the Jays 10 years later; and of course, Art Shamsky. Ten total bases after entering as a PH has been matched only by Raul Ibanez, in this 2012 epic.
Anyway, Tim Johnson singled off Hendricks (yes, that Tim Johnson). So Milner, the 9th-place hitter, came up for the 5th time in the first 5 innings, and flied out.
Milner left the game during the 7th inning, ceding the gear to Alan Ashby with 2 outs, so maybe he’d gotten hurt. He was sent down to rookie ball without another appearance, and he never got back to the majors. Those two outs in one inning against two position players were the last of his 9 big-league ABs.
And now we come to the point. Milner went from Toronto to the Medicine Hat Blue Jays of the Pioneer League. Look who else played in that 1978 Pioneer League – an 8-team, short-season rookie circuit:
- Ryne Sandberg (Hall of Fame, 67 WAR, 2,164 games)
- Julio Franco (All-Star, batting champ, 44 WAR, 2,527 games — and was still in the majors 29 years later)
- Lloyd Moseby (All-Star, 28 WAR, 1,588 games)
- Steve Sax (ROY, All-Star, 25 WAR, 1,769 games)
- Mike Witt (All-Star, 22 WAR, 3rd in ’86 CYA vote, tossed the only perfecto in Angels history)
- Tom Brunansky (All-Star, 22 WAR, 1,800 games, 271 HRs)
- George Bell (MVP, All-Star, 20 WAR, 1,587 games, 265 HRs)
- Mike Marshall (All-Star, 10 WAR, 1,035 games)
- Gary Redus (16 WAR, 1,159 games, 322 steals)
- Rob Deer (14 WAR, 1,155 games, 230 HRs)
- Mitch Webster (14 WAR, 1,265 games)
- Candy Maldonado (10 WAR, 1,410 games, three 20-HR years)
- Nick Esasky (8 WAR, 810 games, one 30/100 season)
- Bob Dernier (Gold Glove, 7 WAR, 904 games)
That’s 14 guys with significant MLB careers, including 8 All-Stars, 2 MVPs and a HOFer. Plus these lesser lights:
- Les Straker (3 WAR, started Game 3 of the ’87 Series as a rookie and hurled 6 scoreless frames; also started Game 6 on 3 days’ rest)
- Geno Petralli (4 WAR, 809 games, 3-time MLB leader in passed balls as personal catcher to Charlie Hough from 1987-90)
- German Rivera (1 WAR, moved Pedro Guerrero off 3B in 1984)
- Dann Bilardello (1 WAR, hit first career HR off Tom Seaver, managed the 2002 Pioneer League champs)
- Skeeter Barnes (1 WAR, great name, played parts of 9 seasons, had 2 HBP in his 1983 debut, batting between Esasky and Bilardello, with Redus leading off)
- Ed Hearn (0 WAR, traded for David Cone)
- Dave Sax (0 WAR, debuted ’82 Dodgers for whom his younger brother won ROY)
- John Rabb (0 WAR, 2-for-2 career vs. Tom Henke including a walk-off)
- Steve Brown (0 WAR, called up in ’83 despite 6.15 ERA at AAA, ended year with 2 straight CG including a shutout, never won again)
- Paul Hodgson (0 WAR, hit his only career HR off future 245-game-winner Dennis Martinez)
- Alejandro Sanchez (-1 WAR, holds MLB season record of 6 HRs without a walk)
- Ben Hayes (-1 WAR despite starting off with a 1.97 ERA in 46 IP as a rookie)
- Wil Culmer (-1 WAR, the 5th Bahamian to play in the majors)
- Carmelo Castillo (-1 WAR, 631 games; I knew I remembered something about him – his only walk-off hit beat my Tigers)
- Tom Lawless (-2 WAR, played parts of 8 seasons, appeared in 2 World Series and hit a tiebreaking 3-run HR off Frank Viola)
Of the top 100 players in PAs in that league, 23 played in the majors. Eleven played 1,000 MLB games, six reached 1,500 games, and two topped 2,000.
I have no frame of reference, but that seems like an historic success rate for a rookie league. Since 1978, 243 guys have played 1,500+ MLB games, and 1/40 played on those eight rookie teams.
The league’s top team was the Billings Mustangs, a Reds affiliate, who went 50-18 and outscored their foes by 2.8 runs per game (7.5-4.7). Gary Redus, just a 15th-round draft pick that June, hit .462 with a 1.346 OPS, scoring 100 runs in 68 games, with 62 walks for a .559 OBP. He continued to be one of the best players at each stop, but his advancement was slow; in 1979-80 class-A leagues, he ranked 5th and 2nd in OPS, and at AAA ’82 he was 4th, always with about 50 SB and a great success rate. He didn’t reach the majors until Sept. ’82, just before his 26th birthday.
- From 1983-87, Redus averaged 102 runs per 650 PAs — 3rd in MLB among those with 250+ runs in that span. Just a few of his runs came from pinch-running.
Six players off that Billings team would play in the majors, and seven each from the Helena Phillies and Lethbridge Dodgers.
Oh, by the way: The Phillies manager on August 24, 2013, who made those 18th-inning “pitching” changes that got Tuffy Gosewisch and Brian Milner into Jayson Stark’s column? It was Ryne Sandberg, of course, in his 9th game at the helm.
O, Pioneers! And Happy New Year, everyone!
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