By IAN WILSON
I’m outta here.
It was a common refrain for baseball players who wanted to leave Alberta behind not long after they arrived in the Canadian province on a Triple-A assignment.
The objection to being here had nothing to do with the majestic Rocky Mountains, the world-class fishing holes, the Calgary Stampede or West Edmonton Mall. If anything, such attractions may have helped to pacify the desire to leave.
Alas, the urge to flee was entirely related to the fact that they were playing Triple-A baseball. That meant their reason for visiting was a rehab assignment, a demotion from the Major League Baseball (MLB) club, or that they were ascending the minor-league ranks as they chased down the ultimate baseball dream. Whatever the case, the goal at Triple-A was always to make it to The Show.
In Tony Womack’s case he couldn’t be shot out of the Cannons dugout fast enough.
The fleet-of-foot middle infielder – born Anthony Darrell Womack on Sept. 25, 1969 in Danville, Virginia – already had a taste of MLB life when he reported to Calgary in the spring of 1995. But his 20 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t convince the brass of the big club that he belonged in the major leagues.
Instead, the 5-foot-9 sparkplug was dispatched to Burns Stadium in Cowtown to work on his hitting and fielding.
“Nothing personal against Calgary, but I plan to get my work in here and get outta here,” Womack told Calgary Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz.
“I know where I belong … I belong in the big leagues. They need my speed up there because they got no base stealers. But I can’t be a big leaguer in words. I have to be there in person.”
Plotting his escape, however, proved challenging. Early in his first season with the Cannons, Womack struggled to find regular playing time.
“I thought I was told I would be playing every day,” he told the Herald.
“I’m used to playing every day. It’s not an ego thing. I’m not happy when I don’t start, but it’s not my job to try and understand it. I have to respect it when the manager writes down the lineup. I won’t pout and whine and moan if I’m not playing.”
Through 30 Pacific Coast League (PCL) games with Calgary, the seventh-round draft pick performed alright, but he did nothing to establish himself as a regular in the Cannons lineup. He registered a .280 batting average and a .353 on-base percentage, while scoring 12 runs and posting six runs batted in (RBI). His strongest attribute, his speed on the base paths, resulted in seven stolen bases, but he was also gunned down five times.
Womack did not resemble a big leaguer, or at times even a Triple-A player, and in early June he found himself headed in the opposite direction of where his sights were set. Womack spent the rest of the 1995 season with the Double-A Carolina Mudcats, and helped the squad win a Southern League championship.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Hitting the reset button in 1996, Womack returned to Calgary ready to punch his ticket to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh once more.
Trent Jewett, who managed Womack and the Mudcats to a title the previous year, was promoted to the PCL southern Alberta franchise and charged with the task of getting his speedy infielder and other Cannons prospects MLB ready.
Neither the player nor the manager were under any illusions about Womack’s calling card.
“That’s my ticket, my speed,” Womack said in the April 28, 1996 edition of the Herald.
“I take a lot of pride in stealing and bunting … speed puts pressure on the pitcher, the catcher, and the infielders. A lot of players believe they’ll lose some time because of the wear and tear of stealing bases but I don’t believe it, as long as you’re in good shape.”
Twenty-one games into the campaign, Jewett was impressed by what he saw in Womack. He took note of the left-handed hitter’s enhanced confidence and his “outstanding” play at shortstop.
“Tony’s a damned good prospect,” the skipper told Konotopetz.
“Base-stealing is a lost art. Guys have become afraid of breaking a finger sliding. But Tony doesn’t think about that. He’s a sturdy kid.”
Jewett also commented on Womack’s resilience after going from an MLB roster, down to Double-A, and back up to the Triple-A circuit.
“For a guy who had already had a taste of the big leagues that was culture shock. He could’ve gone one direction or the other. He went the right way.”
That right way became more and more evident as the season progressed.
Womack played 131 games for the Cannons and put in 506 at bats. He piled up the bunt singles, played stellar defensively and finished the season with 37 stolen bases, just one swipe shy of the PCL lead held by Kerwin Moore of the Edmonton Trappers. He also batted .300, scored 75 runs, contributed 47 RBI, legged out 11 triples and stroked 19 doubles.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. Womack received troubling news on the home front when his father, Thomas, suffered a brain aneurysm in August. The junior Womack left the Cannons for four games to be with his dad, who was expected to make a full recovery, in Virginia.
“He needs the best care now,” Womack told the Herald. “He’s my friend as well as my father.”
After he returned to Calgary, Womack completed the PCL season and was named the Cannons most popular player during the team awards announcement.
BLAZING TRAILS IN THE BIGS
With his Triple-A assignment done for the year, Womack finally got what he craved when he first arrived in the Stampede City: a call back to the big leagues. Womack joined Cannon teammates Dale Sveum, Joe Boever, Angelo Encarnacion, Rich Loiselle and Trey Beamon in getting the nod for September call-ups from the Pirates. During 17 games and 30 at bats with the Bucs, Womack batted .333, stole two bases and scored 11 runs.
More importantly, Womack had worked his way back to the majors and was well on his way to showing he belonged there.
In 1997, he announced his return in a big way – he was named to the National League (NL) All-Star Game roster and he led the NL in stolen bases, with 60. The performance also earned him a few votes for Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player (MVP) honours in the NL. Womack led the league in thefts again in 1998 when he swiped 58 bags.
After being dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1999, Womack literally hit the ground running. His 72 stolen bases were tops again in the NL and they established a single-season record for the D’backs. In 2000, his 14 triples also set a club record.
Like all great players, Womack saved his best moments for the biggest stage.
During the 2001 postseason, the Diamondbacks faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series (NLDS) and the five-game set went the distance. As Curt Schilling took care of business on the mound during that Oct. 14th contest, Womack stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie and delivered Arizona their first playoff series win with a flare to left field.
Womack, whose father passed away in April of that year, dedicated the moment to his dad.
His work wasn’t done there, however. Womack still had some magic left in his bat during the World Series, which featured a showdown against Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees.
That best-of-seven series also went the distance.
With the D’backs losing 2-1 with one out in the bottom of the ninth frame of Game 7, Womack entered the batter’s box and went to work against Rivera, running the count to two balls and two strikes before slashing a double into right field that scored fellow Cannons alum Midre Cummings. The hit tied the game and set the stage for Luis Gonzalez to complete the improbable comeback and crown the Diamondbacks as World Series champions.
Less than two months removed from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the World Series was an emotional and captivating time for baseball and America. Womack played a significant role in the drama, which saw his personal reflection and sorrow collide with the healing of a nation.
His journey included more MLB stops with five other teams after Womack left Arizona, but most baseball fans will remember him for his fall heroics with the Diamondbacks.
Calgary baseball observers may look to his time with the Cannons as the preparation he required to embrace such a spotlight. Yes, Womack did get out of Calgary, but not before he took what he needed from his time in southern Alberta.