Friday, May 14, 2010

Smashing Debuts

     No one ever had a major-league debut quite like 20-year-old Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro did last Friday. He hit a home run, a three-run shot, in his first at-bat. That in itself was not unique; 107 previous players since 1895 had homered in their first at-bat, and three of these had bested Castro by clouting a grand slam. But none had ever cracked a bases-loaded triple in the same game, or ended the game with six runs batted in, as Castro did.
     Of course, in baseball more so than in any other sport, early success does not guarantee lasting fame. Nor does early failure preclude eventual glory. The Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg and the White Sox’ Robin Ventura had notoriously horrendous starts as rookies, but both soon proved that they had the right stuff.
     Was Castro’s electrifying debut a fitting start to an outstanding career, or (easy now) simply a fluke? Of the 107 previous first at-bat home-run hitters, most had careers that were noteworthy only as examples of mediocrity. Only one is in the Hall of Fame, and not for his hitting—pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who made his debut for the New York Giants at the advanced age of 29 and still lasted 21 seasons, six of them with the White Sox (for whom he had a 1.92 earned run average and 98 saves).
     Gary Gaetti is the career home-run leader in the first at-bat homer club with 360. He hit his first homer in 1981 for the Minnesota Twins and his last in 1999 for the Cubs. Jermaine Dye is next on that list with 325 homers, the first in 1996 for the Atlanta Braves and the last (so far) for the White Sox in 2009.
     Of the 107 first at-bat home-run hitters before Castro, eight were Chicago players. How many have you heard of?

Paul Gillespie, Cubs catcher, September 11, 1942. Played a total of 89 games in the majors between 1942 and 1945, all with the Cubs. Finished with 6 homers, 31 RBIs, and a respectable .288 average. Went 0-for-6 in 1945 World Series, and never appeared in another major-league game.

Frank Ernaga, Cubs outfielder, May 24, 1957. Played a total of 29 games in 1957 and 1958, all with the Cubs. Finished with 12 hits in 43 career at-bats, with two homers and seven RBIs.

Cuno Barragan, Cubs catcher, September 1, 1961. Played a total of 69 games between 1961 and 1963, all with the Cubs. One of 17 first at-bat home-run hitters whose first homer was also his last. Finished with one homer, 14 RBIs, and a .202 average.

Carmelo Martinez, Cubs outfielder, August 22, 1983. Played in 29 games for the Cubs in 1983, then enjoyed a reasonably productive six years with San Diego Padres. Ended up with 108 homers, 424 RBIs, and .245 average over nine seasons.

Jim Bullinger, Cubs pitcher, June 8, 1992. Made his major-league debut in a mop-up role two weeks before getting his first at-bat. Went 34-41 with 5.06 ERA in seven seasons, five with Cubs. Ended up with four career home runs and passable (for a pitcher) .188 average.

Carlos Lee, White Sox outfielder, May 7, 1999. One of several quality sluggers to graduate from the Sox’ farm system in the nineties, following Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez. Spent six years on the South Side and clubbed 152 homers; currently ranks third all-time in the first at-bat homer club with 309 to date. A serious Cub killer.

Miguel Olivo, White Sox catcher, September 15, 2002. Played a total of 166 games for White Sox between 2002 and 2004, with 14 homers, 58 RBIs, .245 average. Has since played for five other clubs. Career total now stands at 103 homers.

Josh Fields, White Sox third baseman, September 18, 2006. Hit one homer in 2006 and 23 as an everyday player the next year, replacing the injured Joe Crede. In 2008, Crede was back and Fields was back in the minors. Has 31 career homers to date, all with White Sox. Traded to Kansas City Royals after the 2009 season.

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