A few years ago while umpiring a men’s senior league game, it was pointed out to me that the home team’s third baseman had a cup of coffee in the bigs decades earlier. I noted the name and looked him up that evening on baseball-reference.com and sure enough, there he was - Dave Cripe, infielder - a 1978 September callup for the Kansas City Royals.
Dave made his debut on September 10th and played his last MLB game on October 1st of that year. There are many Moonlight Graham-type stories out there, the fictional character from the treasured baseball fairy tale, Field of Dreams, who had one chance to play at the highest level.
In this case, my third baseman got a very real single off the very one-and-only Nolan Ryan in the first of his 13 MLB at bats. “How about that!” as the great Mel Allen used to say. Wearing a big league uniform for even one game is an achievement for the record books that can never be undone or forgotten, but did you know the proverbial “September cup-o-coffee” has gone the way of the Designated Hitter?
Traditionally, the roster expanded from 26 to 40 players on September 1st, but that has been cut to 28 (or 29 for doubleheader days). The idea is that two extra players can still help a team down the stretch, but 14 was deemed too many and often made for long games and differing priorities between the teams still in the running and those trying out minor leaguers. The result is that the potential for 448 dreams to come true in September has been pared to 64.
Perhaps this approach does make sense for the league, but it absolutely will strip many of the opportunity to wear big league colors for just a few days of glory in their baseball careers.
This got me thinking about all those players and their journeys. While names like Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are familiar to every baseball fan, there was a time when one might snicker about unknown rooks who answer to names like Mookie and Trout. Part of the fun and joy of being a high school baseball umpire here in San Diego is to toil in the ranks of the unknown and guess who might be draft material from year to year.
Not long ago a local kid, Mickey Moniak was drafted first overall and is now playing alongside the same Trout in Anaheim. Last year, I saw a stud shortstop in a high school playoff game and next saw him a few weeks later on the front page of the Boston Globe sports section as the first-round pick of my beloved Red Sox. Marcelo Mayer is only 19 but already moving up the minor league ranks and is projected to be a star in the bigs.
Draftees like Mayer, typically start out in Rookie leagues and have to advance thru A, AA and AAA ball to make it to the bigs, essentially needing to be the cream-of-the-cream-of-the-cream-of-the-cream, and only if talented enough to be drafted in the first place. It would be fascinating to see an analysis of the washout or elimination process from level to level. Assuming the bell-curve principal, where the majority of prospects are neither sure misses or hits to make it all the way to the top, why do some make it and some don’t?
The road to any lofty goal is pockmarked with potholes and obstacles quite often out of our control, but if you look at those who achieve their ultimate success, there is usually a tale of someone who leveraged what indeed was within their control. That’s where commitment, sacrifice and unwillingness to give up often rear their handsome heads and separate the cream of the cream from the cream.
So when watching baseball this September and you see an unfamiliar name, know that regardless of the outcome of their baseball careers, they reached the top of the mountain - you’ll be able to look it up!