Avoiding Cannons and Eluding Traps

“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

By IAN WILSON

Baseball superstardom aside, Ken Griffey Jr. and David Ortiz appear to have little in common.

Sure, they both swung a big stick, but they took very different paths to MLB immortality.

Junior grew up around MLB locker rooms, with his father Ken Griffey Sr. being a part of Cincinnati’s famed “Big Red Machine” and a respected major leaguer.

Ortiz grew up in baseball-mad Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He came to know and learn about baseball through a friendship with fellow Dominican pitching great Pedro Martinez.

Griffey Jr. was earmarked for greatness early. He was the first overall selection in the 1987 amateur draft and he breezed through the minors, skipping past Triple-A ball to make his MLB debut for the Seattle Mariners on Opening Day 1989. From there, he would never look back.

Ortiz would also join the Mariner family but not as a high draft pick. He signed in obscurity as a 17-year-old free agent in 1992, with the name “David Arias” appearing on his first contract (he would later drop his maternal last name for his father’s last name of Ortiz).

“Ken Griffey Jr. was in the majors by the time he was 19, but I knew that wasn’t going to be my story,” Ortiz wrote in his book Papi: My Story.

“I never dreamed of being in the big leagues that quickly. I was still learning the game as a young first baseman, and when I looked up – way up – at the guys playing my position in Seattle, I saw a pair of slugging Martinezes: Tino at first base and Edgar at designated hitter.”

Ortiz would spend three years in the Mariners’ farm system but wouldn’t break through to the majors until he was dealt to the Twins in 1996. He would get a look the next year – playing 15 games in a Twins uniform – but he kept bouncing up and down between the minors and MLB for years.

The 6-foot-4 lefty finally put together a solid campaign for the Twins in 2002 but it was the next year, when he signed with the Boston Red Sox, that his career really took off. At age 27, a decade after signing his first contract with the Mariners, Big Papi was finally ready to put together a Hall of Fame calibre career.

Despite these divergent paths, Griffey Jr. and Ortiz do share common ground for fans of baseball in Alberta.

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When you live in a part of North America where the nearest major league ballpark is best measured in flight time rather than driving time, that means the best live baseball you will have access to is minor league ball.

The minor league baseball product is often an under-appreciated source of entertainment, but it also means that you get used to a few things about your local team. One of those things is that you can’t really expect to get too attached to the players. Call ups and trades mean you are highly unlikely to get hundreds of games with specific players – if you’re lucky, you’ll get dozens of viewings. And more likely, you’ll just be hoping for memorable cameos. That time the MLB star came down on a rehab assignment for two games! Or that hot prospect spent a month in your hometown!

What’s worse, is when you expect to see a prospect – not only a sure Major Leaguer but a sure MLB star – but he’s snatched away from you before he even sets foot in the on-deck circle.

The greatest Calgary Cannon who never was?

That honour must undoubtedly go to Ken Griffey Jr.

The Mariners won big when they selected Junior, but the Cannons missed out when he leap-frogged Triple-A baseball on his way to the Mariners and ultimately the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“GRIFFEY TO DON CANNONS COLORS” proclaimed the headline of the December 1988 team newsletter. The article closed with the line “Calgary fans should be seeing Griffey during 1989 – don’t miss the arrival of a superstar.”

But Montreal Expos farm director Dan Duquette, quoted in the same newsletter, had a sense that any trip to Calgary for Griffey Jr. would be a brief one, if it happened at all.

“You better get there quick if you want to see him (in Calgary). He has too much ability and may be too valuable to be kept out of the major leagues,” said Duquette.

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While Griffey Jr. was expected to see playing time in Alberta, his immense talent catapulted him to the major leagues from Double-A baseball before he could take one of his trademark graceful swings at Foothills Stadium.

During spring training of 1989, the Mariners had planned to have The Kid start the year with their top minor league affiliate in Calgary and then move him to the big club at midseason, according to Art Thiel’s 2003 book Out of Left Field: How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle.

“I’d like to start him at AAA,” then Mariner GM Woody Woodward told Director of Scouting Roger Jongewaard in Thiel’s book.

“But how can I send out my best player?”

Woodward ultimately decided the 19-year-old belonged in Seattle and when he made his MLB debut on Opening Day 1989, he was the youngest player in the majors. Griffey Jr. would only play one game in the minors after that – a 1995 rehab appearance in Tacoma, where he went 0-for-3.

NOT QUITE THE NATURAL

Cannons fans would be teased with talent again in 1994, when another first overall pick – Alex Rodriguez – was earmarked for playing time in Calgary.

A-Rod spent time at the Mariners’ Single-A affiliate in Appleton, Wisconsin, their Double-A club in Jacksonville, Florida and he took part in 17 MLB games before finding his way to Calgary.

But unlike Griffey Jr., the highly-skilled shortstop did play in Cowtown. His tenure in Alberta was brief, as he played just 32 games for the Cannons, hitting .311 with six home runs, 21 RBIs and 22 runs in 119 at bats.

In his Calgary debut on Aug. 4, the 19-year-old singled during a 14-2 drubbing of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. The team’s average attendance of 4,444 rose slightly to 4,519 for that game.

“A-Rod was a pretty good drawing card in other cities, but in Calgary he didn’t make much of a blip on the scale,” Calgary Herald sportswriter Gyle Konotopetz told Kevin Glew, founder of the Canadian baseball history blog Cooperstowners in Canada.

John Traub, former Cannons director of media relations, told Glew “the sports media might have heard something of him, but they certainly didn’t hype him up like they would today … remember, he was not ‘A-Rod’ then; he was merely ‘Alex.’”

Rodriguez would hit his first home run for the Cannons on Aug. 10 and teammate Dave Brundage recalled seeing him hit “two majestic shots … mammoth home runs” during a double-header versus the Vancouver Canadians on Aug. 27.

From there, he would move up in the lineup from batting 8th to the leadoff spot and eventually Rodriguez batted third in the Cannons season finale.

That would be the last Calgarians would see of A-Rod at Foothills Stadium.

None of this is to say that baseball fans in Alberta haven’t been treated to some brilliant baseball players over the years.

MONSTER MINOR TALENTS

One could easily argue that during that golden era of Triple-A baseball in Calgary and Edmonton, fans were spoiled – and many of them likely didn’t even know it.

Outfielder Ron Kittle, who got his start in the Pioneer League in Lethbridge, set the Pacific Coast League (PCL) modern-day record for home runs (50) and RBI (144) in a season in 1982 as a member of the Edmonton Trappers.

In 1985, Danny Tartabull would make the Cannons inaugural season one to remember. He wouldn’t eclipse Kittle’s achievements but his 43 HR and 109 RBI gave him PCL MVP bragging rights.

Edgar Martinez, one of the best hitters in baseball and the man who has MLB’s Outstanding Designated Hitter Award named after him, played 276 games for Calgary from 1985 through 1989, hitting .344 and driving in 167 base runners.

In 1990-91, Cannons followers were gifted 250 games from first baseman Tino Martinez. He would hit 35 home runs, drive in 179 runs and cross the plate 177 times in those games, all while posting a batting average of .323. His exploits earned him league MVP honours in 1991.

The MVP hardware would travel up the road the next year to Tim Salmon, who clobbered 29 home runs and batted .347 for the Trappers.

The list of talented baseball players who made their way through Calgary and Edmonton to play Triple-A ball is a lengthy one.

That’s to say nothing of the great Toronto Blue Jay alums who got their start in Medicine Hat or the future MLB greats who began their careers in Lethbridge and other towns across Alberta.

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

Yet there was another baseball great who got away. A player familiar to baseball fans around the world and one with a smile wide enough to rival Griffey Jr.

Had the planets aligned, this future Hall of Famer would have played in both Calgary and Edmonton. Alas, it was not to be.

What he lacked in hype when he joined the Mariners, David Ortiz more than made up for when he asserted himself in MLB lore years later.

So, just how close were Calgarians to seeing Ortiz in a Cannons uniform?

His North American journey through the Seattle farm system started in 1994, when he played rookie ball in the Arizona League. Ortiz played 101 games in that league over two seasons, hitting just six home runs, but showing some progress at the plate. His RBI totals jumped from 20 the first season to 37 in the second and his batting average rose from .246 to .332. The numbers didn’t scream star player but Ortiz was still adjusting to life in the U.S.

But in 1996, things started coming together for the man who would be Papi.

Playing first base for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Midwest League, Ortiz clubbed 18 round trippers, drove in 93 runs and batted .322. Baseball America dubbed the Class A power hitter the league’s “most exciting player” and he was also named the best defensive first baseman in the league.

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The other thing that happened that summer was a baseball story for the ages and it took place at the home of the Timber Rattlers in Appleton. After wrapping up a series against the Brewers, the Mariners were set to play an exhibition game against their affiliate until rain left the field unplayable.

Despite the conditions, the event was sold out, with 6,000 fans enduring the weather so they could catch a glimpse of their Mariner heroes in their new stadium. So, instead of playing a game, a three-on-three home run derby was quickly organized, featuring Griffey Jr., A-Rod and catcher Dan Wilson for the Mariners against three Timber Rattlers that included the relative unknown Ortiz.

Griffey Jr. and Rodriguez combined for eight home runs in the first round but Ortiz outslugged them both, hitting seven out of the park.

“I stole the show … I was hitting balls onto the highway, bro. Like, it was crazy. I could see they were impressed with what I was doing and they were the guys in the big leagues. I was just playing A-ball,” Ortiz recalled years later in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Lauber.

Ortiz lost in the final round of the derby to Wilson but not before making a big impression.

“I think we were all wondering why he wasn’t coming back with us to the Kingdome. We wanted to take him on the plane with us,” said Rodriguez in the same 2016 ESPN interview about the derby.

Things were looking up, but the Mariners had slugger Paul Sorrento (who hit 23 home runs in 1996 and 31 in 1997) playing first base and hitter extraordinaire Edgar Martinez slotted at DH as Ortiz was trying to climb the ranks.

Just one year after making noise in the Midwest League, Ortiz would graduate to the PCL – but he wouldn’t make it to the highest level of minor-league baseball playing in Calgary.

That’s because the Mariners dealt him to the Twins in the fall of 1996.  Less than a calendar year after leaving the M’s, Ortiz suited up for the Salt Lake Buzz, where he hit four home runs in 10 games before the Twins called him up for his first taste of major league action.

Meanwhile, the 1997 edition of the Calgary Cannons finished the season with a record of 60-78, dead last in the PCL Northern standings. Playing first base for the Cannons that year were Ron Wright, Jose Tolentino and Mark Johnson.

Alberta baseball fans would get a glimpse of Ortiz in the late ‘90s when the Buzz came to the province to face the Cannons and the Trappers (and yes, he did hit home runs on those visits) and in 2001, Edmonton became the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

BIG TRAPPI?

So, just how close were Edmontonians to seeing Ortiz in a Trappers uniform?

As mentioned, despite his talent, Ortiz’s path to baseball greatness was not linear. It was a long road from the Santo Domingo to Fenway. Along that path, he spent a lot of time in the minors – over 500 games. Some of that involved Ortiz finding his way as a baseball player but much of it included overcoming injury.

In May of 2001, Ortiz broke his wrist. Later that year, he would also cope with a knee injury. Before returning to the Twins in July, Ortiz would play 14 rehab games for the Gulf Coast Twins (rookie league), the Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League, and the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats.

It’s not entirely clear why Ortiz didn’t make a Triple-A stop in Edmonton before returning to the Twins. Perhaps his rehab at other levels was enough and Ortiz was healthy, or maybe the big club didn’t want to wait to get his bat into the lineup. Whatever the reason, Edmonton baseball fans would never get the opportunity to see him point skyward while touching home plate in a Trappers jersey.

In 2002, Ortiz would stick with the Twins, hitting 20 home runs and 75 RBIs. Trapper fans would get a good look at future Cy Young winner Johan Santana and Twins star Michael Cuddyer that year, but no Papi.

And after that, Ortiz was off to Beantown for a date with curse-breaking glory and honours as the 2004 World Series MVP (among other awards).

Ultimately, there are a couple ways of looking at what could have been when you consider the minor league paths of Griffey Jr. and Ortiz.

Whether it was the highly anticipated arrival of Griffey Jr. or the unexpected possibility of seeing one of baseball’s best designated hitters suit up for an Alberta-based team, you can look back at opportunities lost. You can ache over the denied chance to see the game’s elite up close in your hometown and the rejection of your own personal connection with their journey.

Or you can look at the great players you were granted an audience with as a baseball fan in Wild Rose Country, look up, point both index fingers skyward and say “thank you.”

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