White Lightning

By IAN WILSON

When you look back at those postseason games from the early ’90s, it’s all there.

You can see the threat on the base paths, the ability to come up with timely hits and, of course, the wall-crashing catches in centre field.

Devon White was never the guy for the Toronto Blue Jays during their back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. The spotlight was often focused on Jimmy Key, Pat Borders, Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar and, of course, Joe Carter. But you cannot win championships without key contributors like White roaming the outfield and batting at the top of the order.

In 49 Major League Baseball (MLB) playoff games, the switch hitter nicknamed “Devo” produced 27 runs, 20 runs batted in (RBI), seven stolen bases and a .296 batting average. Of his 56 postseason hits, White recorded 12 doubles, four triples and three home runs.

By the time he was helping teams win the World Series – White also won a title in 1997 with the Florida Marlins – the Jamaican-born athlete looked like a natural. His game was, if not flawless, refined.

Those skills were honed in Edmonton with the Trappers of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), where White played 192 games. And while much of that time was educational and critical in preparing the sixth-round pick of the California Angels for his 17 MLB seasons, it was his final 14 contests in Alberta’s capital city that led to his departure for Toronto.

MEMORABLE DEBUT

White’s first game in the PCL occurred on June 25, 1985 in front of 4,499 fans at John Ducey Park. Many of the Trapper fans in attendance were there to see former Montreal Expo and five-time MLB All-Star Steve Rogers pitch against the Phoenix Giants. Rogers had been signed by the Angels earlier that month in the hopes that there was still a bit of magic left in his right arm. In one of the last starts of his professional career, Rogers threw 121 pitches over 7.1 innings and was working out of jams all night. He surrendered eight hits, walked five opponents, plunked a batter and struck out four would-be hitters. He gave up six runs, four of them earned during a 10-7 loss in extra innings. Rogers was released a week later.

White, meanwhile, was promoted from the Double-A Midland Angels of the Texas League after stealing 38 bases and batting .296 over 70 games. He wasted no time making an impression, slapping a single up the middle in the fifth inning and chipping in three RBI in his debut.

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1986 baseball card of Devon White with the Edmonton Trappers.

He drew immediate comparisons to another talented Trapper outfielder who had recently graduated to the major leagues.

“Edmonton’s newest player, centre fielder Devon White, has been likened to former Trapper centre fielder Gary Pettis, who now dazzles fans and fellow ballplayers alike as a member of the California Angels,” wrote columnist Norm Cowley in the Edmonton Journal.

“But White, who has the tools to be a natural leadoff batter, doesn’t like the position. He has batted second or third in the lineup for the majority of his minor league career.”

TOP OF THE ORDER

His place in the batting order would continue to be a source of discussion for White, his coaches and sports scribes in Edmonton. In early July, Trapper manager Winston Llenas took White out of his comfort zone and placed him in the leadoff spot. The move was as much a matter of necessity as it was a developmental strategy.

“He’s the only base stealing threat that I have. I have to try to take advantage of that situation,” Llenas told Cowley.

“He had kind of a mental thing for it (leadoff). I told him not to be too concerned with it. I don’t want him to change his stance or anything. He’s got a God-given talent and I told him to take advantage of it … like any other youngster, he needs to polish his overall game.”

If he didn’t like the move, White understood it.

“They (the managers) keep telling me (leadoff) is where I’ll hit in big league ball so I guess I better get used to the idea,” said White, who was dubbed the best defensive centre fielder in the California League in 1983.

It was a prophetic statement from the New Yorker, who was the leadoff man for the Blue Jays in their 1992 World Series matchup against the Atlanta Braves. Speedster Rickey Henderson’s addition to the team in 1993 bumped him to the No. 2 spot for their championship showdown against the Philadelphia Phillies.

IMPACT PLAYER

No matter where White slotted into the lineup card, his advanced skill set was obvious and he saved some of his best play for baseball’s version of the Battle of Alberta.

His first PCL home run came off of Calgary pitcher Steve Senteney – a three-run shot to right centre in an 8-5 Friday night loss to the Cannons at Foothills Stadium that was witnessed by 3,529 onlookers.

During that same sunny mid-July series, White ran wild for the Trappers during a 6-5 victory over his provincial rivals.

“The Pacific Coast League baseball team turned loose its White Lightning in the first inning. Devon White, the speedster with the long-legged stride, opened the game with a single, stole second and third, and trotted home on Rufino Linares’ sacrifice fly to ensure the Trappers of scoring first,” read Cowley’s game report for the Journal.

“The 22-year-old switch hitter didn’t stop there. He also slashed a pair of doubles, the second one (which was stretched from a single by pure hustle) driving in a run, and scored a second time as the Trappers silenced the Calgary Cannons.”

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Devon White makes a spectacular catch at the wall in this picture from the July 3, 1985 edition of the Edmonton Journal.

White continued to impress that month, lifting his team to a 13-10 win over slugger Franklin Stubbs and the Albuquerque Dukes by slapping four hits, swiping four bags and scoring four runs at John Ducey Park.

During a matchup against the Stars in Las Vegas, White snapped an 0-for-14 slump by hitting an inside-the-park home run in the seventh inning. That tally gave Edmonton the lead and he crossed the plate again in the ninth inning to secure a 6-4 win for the Trappers.

In 66 games for the Trappers in 1985, White hit .253 with 53 runs, 21 stolen bases, 39 RBI and four long balls. His Triple-A performance earned him a call to the majors in September and he appeared in 21 games for the Angels, mainly as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. White did manage to score seven runs, steal three bases and sneak in seven at bats in that time. One of those plate appearances resulted in his first big-league hit, a single off of Rich Surhoff of the Texas Rangers.

BACK TO EDMONTON

The 1986 campaign meant a return to John Ducey Park for White, and a Trapper team preview in the Journal encapsulated the outfielder’s strengths and weaknesses.

“He roams the outfield like a gazelle, pulling down line drives, fly balls and rockets up against the wall with ease. He also has a strong arm,” read the scouting report.

“The switch-hitting speedster stole 62 bases in stops at Midland, Edmonton and California last summer but his batting average plummeted with each promotion – from .296 in Double-A to .253 in Triple-A to .143 in the majors.”

White teased fans with outstanding performances, like a 4-for-5 night under overcast skies in Edmonton on July 16th against the Portland Beavers. Batting out of the three hole, White tripled twice, stole a base, scored twice and drove in three runs.

Such nights were often followed by hitting droughts, however, and White struggled at times to gain comfort with his spot in the batting order. Second baseman Mark McLemore took over the leadoff role, allowing White the opportunity for more RBI production, but he failed to take advantage.

“In 30 games in the No. 3 slot, White has hit only .229 with two homers and 16 RBIs. He is batting .190 with men on base, and .235 with men in scoring position,” observed Cowley in his July 28th newspaper column.

White persisted and he seemed to be aware of the parts of his game that needed improving.

“Having all the tools doesn’t mean you’re going to make it to the big leagues,” he admitted to Journal reporter Marc Horton.

“Nobody is going to hand you that kind of life. You have to earn it.”

SIMPLY THE BEST

Whatever issues he had at the plate during stretches of 1986, White continued to turn heads and impress scouts with his raw but evolving talent. A Baseball America poll released that August anointed White as the fastest base runner and the best defensive outfielder in the PCL.

He confirmed his bag-swiping status during an Aug. 23rd loss against the Hawaii Islanders by stealing second, third and home in the sixth inning, becoming the first Trapper in team history to accomplish that feat.

“Whatever you write, you’ve got to say something about Devon White,” Llenas, the Edmonton manager, told Cowley.

“That was awesome. You don’t see that too often. He manufactured that run all by himself.”

The overall numbers with the Trappers looked good for White during his first full season with the team. In 112 games, he upped his batting average to .291 and he scored 84 runs for Edmonton. He also showed some pop by belting 14 round trippers, 25 doubles, 10 triples and 60 RBI. And, of course, the speed on the base paths was obvious – he was 42-for-53 in stolen base attempts.

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Devo fouls off a pitch in this Edmonton Journal photo from June of 1986.

It all added up to another appearance with the California Angels, where White played 29 regular season games and collected his first MLB home run. He also got his first taste of postseason baseball, playing in four games against the Boston Red Sox during the American League (AL) Championship Series.

There was a sense that Edmonton baseball fans had seen the last of their prized outfielder.

“Devon White may have played his last game for the Edmonton Trappers,” noted the Aug. 31st edition of the Journal.

“The 23-year-old speedster … is ticketed to patrol right field for the Angels next year.”

UNEXPECTED RETURN

That seemed to be it, as far as Edmonton fit into things for White. He came to the Trappers, developed as a player, and suited up for the Angels full-time after that.

White had a phenomenal rookie year in 1987 – he blasted 24 homers, swiped 32 bases, scored 103 runs and drove in 87 RBI. He was operating at maximum potential. The offensive numbers dipped the next two seasons, but he picked up a pair of Gold Glove awards and he was named an AL All-Star in 1989.

Then the calendar flipped to 1990 and White’s place within the organization faltered. In his first 263 at bats, the leadoff hitter batted .213 and walked only 15 times. He led the struggling team with 71 strikeouts.¬†Despite White’s difficulties, no one expected him to be sent to the minors again, but that’s precisely what happened at the All-Star break.

Joe Maddon, the roving hitting instructor with the Angels, was dispatched to meet up with White and work on his approach at the plate.

“It surprised me,” Trapper manager Max Oliveras admitted in the July 7th edition of the Edmonton Journal. “Hopefully, he’ll come down here, bust his butt and work hard.”

The move caught reporters off guard, as well.

“It seems outrageous to suggest that White would ever again have to face the pressure of making a big league lineup,” wrote sports reporter Mark Spector in a Journal article announcing White’s demotion to the Trappers.

“Forget the numbers, Devon White is the best Edmonton Trapper player ever. We’re not talking about Wally Joyner, who was inconspicuous before blossoming in the big leagues. Or Ron Kittle and Gary Pettis, who shone in Triple-A but never reached their full potential in The Show.”

For his part, White was feeling the heat.

“They said my performance down here would pretty much determine what would take place up there. They said if I came down here there wouldn’t be much pressure, but there is still pressure. You know you have to do well if you want to get back there … I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to impress. I don’t know if it was my fault, but it was my downfall,” read White’s comments in the Edmonton newspaper.

“They just want me to make consistent hard contact, that’s about it. If you hit the ball hard consistently, the ball has to start falling in. In the last two weeks, I must have struck out 20 times, that’s the reason they sent me down. Anybody who is hitting .200 or .215 in the big leagues needs to do better than that, I don’t care who it is,” added White of his mandate with the Trappers.

The frustration felt by White, who joined the Trappers on a road trip, was evident in his unexpected return to the PCL. After arguing a third-strike call with umpire Todd Freese in Portland, he was ejected from the game in the first inning.

FEELING TRAPPED

When he returned from the road trip to John Ducey Park, White quipped that he didn’t miss the mosquitoes in Edmonton before delving into his demotion with the press.

“It was a shocker when they told me. But now it’s reality,” White told Cam Cole of the Journal.

“There’d been rumors they were going to trade me to the Houston Astros, so when they called me into the office, that’s what I was expecting … I knew I had to get somewhere and do some work. I sure wasn’t accomplishing anything being where I was, swinging the way I was. So maybe it’s for the best.”

Added White: “I’m not embarrassed to be here, not at all. If anything, I’m just embarrassed about how bad I was doing. But all I think I need to do is hit the ball consistently hard.”

Maddon, meanwhile, came out swinging in defence of White. The hitting guru’s words now seem like they came straight out of a crystal ball.

“He’s not a Triple-A ballplayer. Devon White is on the verge of becoming a major league superstar,” the future MLB manager told Cole.

“A more established player, you’d have to trade or release or something else, but you look at Devon, he could be 19 years old in that body – he’ll play for many, many more years, and you don’t want him with some other team, beating you. I believe that for the Angels to be a successful, first-division baseball team, Devon White has to be our centre fielder.”

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Mark Spector’s Edmonton Journal article captured White’s frustration over being sent down to the Trappers in 1990.

During the 14-game sojourn in the PCL, White did what he was sent to do. His 20 hits, including four doubles and four triples, gave him a batting average of .364. Add in seven walks and he carried a .435 on-base percentage. The steady defence in the outfield and his assertiveness in claiming 90-foot chunks of territory – he stole four bases with the Trappers – didn’t require any maintenance.

But by the end of what he had hoped would be a shorter stay, White’s bitterness could not be contained.

“You put in your time and you feel you deserve to go back up and test your skills,” an agitated White unloaded to Spector.

“If you give 100 percent for a team, you would expect them to treat you the way you play. In my case, I don’t think I’ve been treated very fairly … it’s not like major-league players don’t struggle. Everybody struggles at some time, and they went to the extreme by sending me down. There’s guys on (California) that are struggling, but they’re not down here,” continued White.

“I know I’m a big-league player and you don’t want to put it this way but, there’s a lot of teams out there. And I’m sure a lot of them would have a Devon White on their team. Who’s to say? Maybe none of them want me. You never know.”

California’s outfield had Max Venable, Luis Polonia and Dante Bichette on the roster while White was working on his hitting with Edmonton.

“I know they have a lot of outfielders, but, hey, I still think that even if I’m struggling I can do something to help the team win. Whether it’s a catch, a stolen base, or whatever it is. I guess at this point they don’t think so,” added White in the July 25th Journal article.

“I’ve been up there four years. It’s just a matter of when I’m going to get back, and when I do get back I’ve got to continue doing what I’m doing down here … regardless of whether I play for the Angels or not.”

CALIFORNIA’S LOSS

White did return to the Angels before the end of the month and he finished the season with California. But his relationship with the team that drafted and developed him was irrevocably damaged.

In early December, the Angels dealt White, pitchers Willie Fraser and Marcus Moore to the Blue Jays for outfielder Junior Felix, infielder Luis Sojo and catcher Ken Rivers.

Over the next three campaigns in Toronto, White produced 15-plus home runs and 30-plus stolen bases each season, while averaging over 100 runs a year. And, of course, he won back-to-back World Series championships.

White looked back fondly on his time in Edmonton, for the most part, but he refused to sugarcoat how he felt about the Angels.

“In Edmonton, I had fun. It didn’t affect me at all, I enjoyed it. But it was a waste of time. What it told me was, it was time to get out of California. They were trying to mess with my head, but they didn’t accomplish that,” White told the Journal in October of 1991 about his demotion the year before.

“I’m glad to be out of there. Their organization is all messed up now, they’re firing people left and right … I think when Toronto made the trade for me, they knew about my defence, but they also had in mind what I had done offensively in the past.”

Joe Carter, who was traded by the San Diego Padres with Roberto Alomar around the same time White was picked up by Toronto, related to what the centre fielder was going through.

“Sometimes, though, all a player needs is a change of scenery. It’s definitely been good for myself and Devo and Roberto Alomar,” Carter told Cole, adding White quickly became an integral part of the Jays.

“Could he be the key? He is a key.”

All three players traveled to Alberta in 1994 as part of a celebration hosted by the rookie-level affiliate Medicine Hat Blue Jays honouring the World Series champions. The festivities at Athletic Park included an exhibition game and home run derby between the big-league Blue Jays and the National Baseball Institute (NBI). More than 9,000 fans showed up to cheer on their baseball heroes.

This time around, White was a bit more happy to return to Wild Rose Country.

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Devo walks to Athletic Park in Medicine Hat as fans cheer and snap pictures … photo courtesy McFarland family
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