By IAN WILSON
Happy birthday Junior Felix!
Err … happy belated birthday?! Or is it tomorrow?
As elusive as he was on the base paths at times during his playing career, the actual date of birth of Junior Francisco Felix Sanchez also proved hard to run down.
His official birthday, according to Baseball Reference, is listed as October 3rd, 1967, but it was long suspected that the outfielder from Laguna Salada in the Dominican Republic was much older than that date would suggest.
“We never really knew for sure how old Felix was,” California Angels manager Buck Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune in a 1993 article under the headline Turns Out Felix Isn’t So Junior.
Added Dominican sports reporter Roosevelt Comarazamy: “People who know Felix from his neighborhood say that he is a lot older than he says he is … it’s more than just suspicion.”
Long before his age became a source of consternation, Felix signed on as an undrafted free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays and reported to their rookie-level affiliate in Medicine Hat in 1986 as what the organization believed was an 18-year-old prospect.
No matter how old he was, his speed didn’t lie.
Felix ran the 60-yard dash in 6.1 seconds. It was a pace that caught the eye of Gord Ash, Toronto’s player personnel administrator.
“He’s certainly capable of being a good one,” Ash told Medicine Hat News reporter Brent Jang.
“Speed is important. Just look at Vince Coleman of St. Louis (Cardinals). But most of Felix’s playing has been in the Dominican, so this season will be his first exposure to professional ball in North America.”
THE CAT IN THE HAT
The switch-hitting Felix made the most of his opportunity in the Pioneer League.
He slotted in at the top of the batting lineup most games and patrolled centre field at Athletic Park. And while the Baby Jays were a last place club with an uninspiring 24-46 record, Felix was supported by future Major League Baseball (MLB) batters Mark Whiten, Randy Knorr, Carlos Diaz and William Suero.
A game summary in the July 26th edition of the Medicine Hat News showed some of the range of talents that Felix possessed. During a rainy first inning of a game in Billings, Montana, Felix gunned down Kevin Pearson at home plate with an outfield assist. He then helped the Jays rally from a 6-0 deficit. In the fifth frame, Felix got on base via fielder’s choice, stole second base and then took third base on an overthrow. Suero singled him home for Medicine Hat’s first run of the game. Felix drew a walk in the sixth inning and then raced around the bases with the go-ahead run. The final score was 9-7 for the Jays over the Mustangs and Felix was a key part of the comeback victory.
In early August, Felix took part in a rare feat when teammate Rich DePastino tossed a seven-inning no hitter in the first half of a double-header against the Salt Lake City Trappers. Felix tripled to drive in the game’s first run and then scored to make it 2-0. That was all the offence that DePastino needed to pick up the win in front of 849 fans at Athletic Park.
“It is not surprising for him because he has such a good number of pitches,” Felix told News sports editor Greg Heakes through interpreter Alfredo Javier.
“Everybody is trying to win. We have more confidence and we are playing together now.”
Felix stole the spotlight in the second game, which was a 9-2 triumph, when he led things off with a 370-foot homer over the centre field fence.
“He threw a fastball … I wasn’t thinking home run. I was just trying to make good contact,” he said.
A mid-August tilt against the Braves in Idaho Falls highlighted the 5-foot-11 outfielder’s wheels, yet again. A line drive off of Felix’s bat in the first inning sailed over centre fielder Chris Bryant’s head and by the time Bryant tracked it down Felix was rounding third base. Felix collected an inside-the-park home run on the play. By the end of the day, Felix went three-for-five at the plate, with a pair of runs scored and two runs batted in (RBI). He also added a stolen base in the 10-9 win for the Jays.
The Medicine Hat game reports were scattered with accounts of Felix creating chaos on the base paths. By season’s end, he led the Pioneer League with 37 stolen bases and he scored a team-best 57 runs in 67 games. In addition, he hit four round trippers, registered 28 RBI, batted .285 and produced a .382 on-base percentage. He also had the dubious distinction of leading the Baby Jays in strikeouts that year, having struck out 84 times in 263 at bats.
IN THE BIGS
The campaign marked the beginning of Felix’s ascent to the major leagues.
He climbed the minor-league rungs of the ladder, from Myrtle Beach to Knoxville to Syracuse, and in 1989 he debuted with a bang for the Toronto Blue Jays. On May 4th of that year, Felix launched the first MLB pitch he saw over the fence, taking former Edmonton Trapper pitcher Kirk McCaskill deep in his debut at bat.
Less than a month later, Felix showed off his sprinting ability by smacking an inside-the-park grand slam against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
His rookie season was a 110-game affair and, despite a high strikeout rate, Felix did not look out of place. He scored 62 runs, stole 18 bases, went yard nine times and had a batting average of .258. He was also named the American League (AL) Player of the Week for May 29th – June 24th.
Felix improved on many of those totals during his sophomore campaign, posting career highs in homers (15) and runs (73). He also got to be a part of Blue Jays history when he recorded the final out of Dave Stieb’s no hitter on Sept. 2nd of 1990. It was the franchise’s first no hitter.
Despite some success with the bat and running the bases, Felix had problems defensively in right field for Toronto. He was tagged with 18 errors over two seasons.
The 1990 off-season was wild for the Blue Jays, with general manager Pat Gillick swinging some major deals that set the table for their World Series accomplishments in the years ahead. First baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez were sent to the San Diego Padres in exchange for outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar.
Felix, meanwhile, was part of a six-player swap with the California Angels that brought Devon White to Toronto. The Blue Jays acquired White to improve the outfield defence, while the Angels hoped Felix could take over in centre field and provide more punch at the plate.
In his first season with the Halos, Felix was limited to 66 games due to leg injuries, but he played 139 games in 1992 and led the squad in RBI, with 72. When the Angels started to suspect that their centre fielder was not being up front about his age, however, they decided to leave Felix unprotected in the expansion draft that welcomed the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins to the MLB roster of teams.
The Marlins were aware of the fishy stories about Felix’s age, but they selected him anyway and planned to use him in right field.
FLOUNDERING IN FLORIDA
The move to Miami, unfortunately for the Marlins, marked the beginning of the end of Felix’s MLB playing days.
It was a mixed bag of power hitting, swinging strikes and defensive miscues when Felix suited up for the Marlins in 1993. In late April, Felix was named the National League (NL) Player of the Week, and he led the team in long balls in May, but the misadventures in right field were an issue. He committed six errors, including a ball that got past him for an inside-the-park home run and a number of fly balls that were getting lost in the lights.
With that in mind, general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Rene Lachemann decided to option Felix to the Triple-A Edmonton Trappers in late May.
“Lach has reached the point where he has a hard time playing him in the outfield,” Dombrowski told reporters.
“We felt that by sending him down and having him play every day, rather than just sitting him on the bench here, he could get it back together … he’s a better player than what he’s shown here,” explained Lachemann.
Felix seemed to accept the decision with little push back.
“I understand … that’s why I’m not angry,” he said. “I have not played like I’m supposed to. Everything has gone wrong.”
Added Felix: “Nobody can call me lazy. I just have to work on my defence and get my swing back.”
When he arrived in Edmonton, Felix sought the assistance of outfield instructor Vada Pinson. Pinson was hitting fly balls to centre fielder Chuck Carr when Felix approached the coach.
“Junior said, ‘Vada, work with me. He doesn’t need it as much,'” Pinson told Knight-Ridder Newspapers reporter Amy Niedzielka.
“When I made eye contact with him, I saw he was sincere … it hurt me. I didn’t want him or anybody to feel that way, that he needed more.”
Pinson – a four-time All Star and two-time Gold Glover during his MLB playing days – observed some apprehension in Felix when he went about his work in the outfield.
“If you get the feeling there is a little reluctance, that is what I see,” noted Pinson. “I see him pull back at certain times. I’ve spoken to him about it.”
As Felix was working on his defensive play in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), his Trapper teammate Darrell Whitmore was promoted to the Marlins to replace him in the outfield. Whitmore’s experience was a stark contrast to what Felix was going through, as John Boles, the Marlins director of player development, spoke glowingly of the improvements Whitmore was making in every aspect of his game.
Things were coming to a head for Felix.
News reports referred to him as enigmatic, misunderstood and a “moody loner.”
A lengthy list of run ins with ex-teammates, former coaches and members of the media was also circulating.
“If you want to talk about baseball ability I will, but if you want to talk about personality, go talk to someone else,” Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said in a South Florida Sun-Sentinel article.
The outfielder was removed from the Marlins 25-man roster and attempts to find another MLB club that would take him were fruitless.
Through his seven games with the Trappers, Felix was batting .355 with seven runs, five RBI, and a .429 on-base percentage. He was also playing error-free ball in the outfield.
Nonetheless, it seemed too little, too late and frustrations were at a boiling point.
“I don’t know what (Dombrowski) wants from me. I’ve been doing my job,” an agitated Felix told Edmonton Journal reporter Robin Brownlee.
“I just don’t know what he wants. He told me he doesn’t want to give me my release in case somebody gets hurt and he can call me up. It’s not fair what they’re doing with me … I’m working hard every day, so nobody can say that. Nobody. Anybody who says that, it’s a bunch of lies.”
Felix – who would’ve lost half of his $1.25-million salary if he didn’t report to Edmonton – continued to vent.
“It’s just the way they’ve been treating me. Sending me here. I’m not happy,” he said.
“They’ve been jerking me around. They play with the players too much, especially me. That’s not fair for anybody.”
There was more from a furious Felix.
“I just want to get going somewhere … I don’t feel like playing with (the Marlins) anymore. They didn’t treat me fair. If they treated me fair, I’d be glad to work something with them. I know I can play in the big leagues. With or without the Florida Marlins, I’ll be back in the big leagues.”
Trapper manager Sal Rende also shared some observations of Felix with Brownlee.
“He just wasn’t playing up to his ability or what his ability is expected to be. He’s struggled. No matter what I say or what I feel, you can’t avoid your reputation, so that’s part of it too. I’ve told Junior he’s starting from square one with me, but, again, when you hear things …,” said Rende.
“There’s some ability there … why he’s had to come back is kind of puzzling. You take a guy with his ability, it just makes you question why some guys don’t utilize that as much as possible. You see guys with lesser ability performing better just on sheer determination … you almost go from being a coach or manager to a part-time psychologist.”
The Marlins released Felix on July 6th, just days after his second stint with the Trappers.
“We hoped he would come down and make himself more valuable so we could trade him,” Frank Wren, the assistant general manager of the Marlins, admitted to Brownlee.
“The way he responded to being sent down and his attitude complicated things … we were better off to release him. We didn’t want problems down here.”
Rende seemed relieved to say goodbye to the troubled talent.
“I think in the long run he might have had an effect on some of the younger players,” said Rende in the Journal.
“When a guy doesn’t want to be somewhere and shows he doesn’t want to put out, it’s pretty obvious. As far as we go as a team, we’ll go on. I think we’ll be better for it in the long run.”
As disappointing as his time was in the Marlins organization, Felix was right about his return to The Show.
The Detroit Tigers took a chance on him in 1994 and he put up decent numbers, launching 13 homers, while batting .306 and recording 49 RBI in 86 games. But the Tigers did not offer him another contract and Felix faded. He played 51 games of Triple-A baseball for the Ottawa Lynx in 1995 and resurfaced in the Mexican League for the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
It was ultimately a career marked by unrealized potential.
In that sense, it is tale as timeless as Junior Felix himself.