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Remembering the Mariner Moonlight Grahams

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They came, they saw, they moved on with their lives

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The movie Field of Dreams was released 30 years ago last month. Whatever you think about the movie, it’s impossible to deny the romance of Moonlight Graham. Before writing Shoeless Joe, the book which preceded the movie, author W.P. Kinsella came across Graham’s entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia:

The Baseball Encyclopedia

One inning played in the outfield on a Thursday afternoon in 1905. Graham never came up to bat and yet the one inning he stood on a major league baseball field is symbolic of a dream achieved. Moonlight played three more seasons in the minor leagues despite having already obtained his medical degree. He would retire from baseball to Chisolm, MN where he became a beloved doctor.

It is fairly unusual for a player to only get one game in the major leagues, however, there are players who come up for a cup of coffee and only get a sip. Your Seattle Mariners have had three such players. In honor of the movie which brought Moonlight Graham into our collective consciousness, let’s take a look at the Mariners players who lived the dream for one glorious day.

Zak Shinall – May 12th, 1993

The 1993 Mariners came into the season looking for a fresh start following their 98 loss 1992 run. They were attired in brand new uniforms complete with a new color scheme and a new logo. They had a new skipper at the helm, the fiery Lou Piniella who had recently won the World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.

The fresh start didn’t quite go as planned. Just before the regular season started Edgar Martinez, the 1992 American League Batting Champion, tore his hamstring and began the season on the disabled list. That year he would appear in only 42 games. His absence hurt as the team struggled against right handed pitching all season.

The pitching staff too was plagued with injuries and ineffectiveness. Chris Bosio threw the second no-hitter in Mariners history. In his next start, he broke his collarbone (which he subsequently re-injured during a brawl with Baltimore). Starter Dave Fleming also missed time with elbow soreness and closer Norm Charlton missed most of August and all of September with a torn elbow ligament. Premier starter Randy Johnson pitched well, but naturally the Mariners tried to trade him before the July 31st deadline. They said they were unable to get a sufficient return for the pitcher who would be a free agent after his 1994 option year.

The bullpen was a sore spot in 1993, as it would be for much of Piniella’s tenure. At the end of April, the Mariners picked up a relief pitcher named Zak Shinall off waivers. Originally drafted in the 29th round of the 1987 draft by the Los Angeles Dodges, Shinall had reached the AAA level in the Dodgers organization when he was traded to Cleveland at the end of 1992. The Mariners initially assigned him to AAA Calgary, but called him up on May 11th to help the pitching staff when rookie left-hander Mike Hampton was optioned to AA Jacksonville.

The right handed Shinall stood 6’3 and 215 pounds. While with the Dodgers, he was eyed as a possible future closer. His main pitch was a sinker he threw about 80% of the time. The Dodgers had discussed bringing him up in 1991 when their big league bullpen fell on hard times. They opted to leave him in AAA for more development instead and never found a use for him.

Shinall finally got his shot during a Wednesday afternoon game in the Kingdome. John Cummings had the start for the Mariners against the Chicago White Sox. He lasted 2.2 innings, in which he allowed 5 earned runs. In from the bullpen came Shinall to make his major league debut. He inherited one runner, Bo Jackson, with two outs. He allowed a double to his first batter, but managed to escape the inning without allowing another run. He pitched another two innings without allowing a run. In the 6th inning he gave up a leadoff home run to Craig Grebeck, then faltered. With one out and two runners on base, he walked off the pitcher’s mound in the Kingdome, never to return.

The 1993 Mariners would go on to achieve an 82-80 record, the second time the team finished above .500. Shinall would be granted free agency following the season. He would pitch 9 more games in professional baseball for AAA New Orleans before leaving baseball.

Baseball wasn’t Shinall’s only passion though. He was also a surfer who sported a large shark tattoo on his back. He told the LA Times in 1991: ”I really miss my friends and the beach life I had before I signed with the Dodgers. This (baseball) is my job now and I have to concentrate on it.”

At some point after his baseball career ended, Shinall found himself living near the beach in Hawaii. His name comes up in pages of results for paddle sport races. Even though he didn’t find fame and fortune on the pitcher’s mound, it’s hard to argue he isn’t living the dream on the water in Hawaii.

Fangraphs

Ron Wright – April 14th, 2002

Mariners Photo Day X

The Mariners 2001 season hardly needs to be recapped. It was a joyous ride through the schedule that ended in 116 wins and fell short of a World Series appearance. The 2002 season dawned with a hefty dose of realism. We knew the team would not win 116 games again and world events sought to shake us out of our single minded focus on the team. Yet, the Mariners felt ready to take another run at a World Series. They opened the season with an 18-8 April. On April 11th they sat alone atop the AL West, a lead they would not relinquish until August 22nd. Early on in 2002, in the middle of a 10-game winning streak, Ron Wright finally reached the major leagues.

Wright was born in Delta, UT and moved to Kennewick, WA when he was 8. By the time his family made the move to the northwest, he knew he wanted to be a baseball player. Growing up in the Mormon Church, he began idolizing Dale Murphy, an LDS star who made his debut with the Atlanta Braves the same year Wright was born. His idol’s team drafted him in the 7th round of the 1994 draft out of Kamiakin High School and he blossomed into a legitimate prospect. In late 1996, he was traded from the Braves to the Pittsburgh Pirates along with Jason Schmidt in exchange for Denny Neagle. The Pirates were convinced he was their first baseman of the future. In September 1997, he was called up to hang out with the big leaguers. He did not have a chance to play due to a sore wrist, however.

At the beginning of 1998 he would have made the opening day roster if not for another infielder who was out of options. The plan was to bring him up as soon as it was feasible. Unfortunately, that was not in the master plan. During pre-game stretching in the first week of the minor league season he felt intense pain in his back. He learned that he would need surgery and would miss most of the 1998 and 1999 seasons. He later learned that during the surgery, his sciatic nerve was nicked and he has been left with enduring numbness in his right leg. Once known for hitting prodigious home runs, his ability to hit for power was severely affected. He went from the Pirates to the Cincinnati Reds to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before signing with the Mariners following the 2001 season.

He was off to a great start in Tacoma in early 2002 when Edgar Martinez injured his hamstring, requiring surgery. Wright was sent immediately to meet the Mariners in Texas. Anticipating that he’d be with the team while Martinez recovered, he told his parents not to fly down to see him; they could always catch him back home in Seattle. Wright sat on the bench for two games, reliving his early experience with the Pirates, smelling the coffee, but not being allowed a taste. If not for an injury sustained by third baseman Jeff Cirillo in batting practice on April 14th, Wright may have had to wait until the team returned to Seattle to make his debut.

What followed was a debut which will live in infamy. Wright has an incredibly good sense of humor about the affair, and calls that day, “The best day of my professional life.” The first pitch he saw from veteran Kenny Rogers was an 84 mph fastball right down the middle. He had stepped into the batters box and told himself to take the first pitch. He told the New York Times in 2007, “That’s my only regret. I should have swung at that first pitch.” The at bat would end in a strikeout.

He stepped to the plate in the top of the fourth inning with no outs and runners on first and third. This time his game plan was to make contact. He made contact, alright, hitting a chopper up the middle. The pitcher Rogers snagged the ball and threw it to former Mariner and venomously despised Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriquez for the force on the runner coming from first. Then, Ruben Sierra got caught in a pickle between third and home and was thrown out. During the pickle, the first base coach sent Wright scrambling toward second, where he met the same fate.

Still determined, he would get one final at bat. In the sixth inning with two runners on base, he hit a fastball from Rogers hard. Unfortunately, he hit it right at Rodriguez, who easily began a double play.

Following the game, Bret Boone gave Wright the lineup card signed by the players involved in the game, including Rodriguez. Wright still has the lineup card commemorating his only major league game, and the strikeout, triple play, and double play that were the results of his at bats. He was in the lineup as a DH and never got the chance to play in the field. A few days later, after not making it into another game, the Mariners bullpen desperately needed help and Wright was sent back to AAA Tacoma in exchange for a relief pitcher.

Following the 2002 season, Wright would try to find a place with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland. His final year of professional baseball was 2004, spent with Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League. He returned to the northwest after baseball, attending Idaho State University. Today he’s a pharmacist living in St. George, Utah with his wife and four children. He seems to have a good perspective on a baseball story that could be painful to remember. He summed it up well himself, telling Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, “I was not raised to think the only thing in life was baseball,” Wright said. “I loved it and breathed it and wanted it more than anything else, but I had a good head on my shoulders and realized that there were other things more important, like family.”

Fangraphs

Brandon Bantz – June 8th, 2013

Not many players experience a standing ovation prior to their first major league at bat. And when they do, they are almost certainly hyped up first round picks who have flown through the minor league system.

Sometimes though, baseball is a funny thing and we’re compelled to stand and cheer for a former 30th round draft pick who is an experienced minor league player. Sometimes we cheer the player there in place of our prized prospect.

This was the case when Brandon Bantz walked out to step into a major league batters box for the first time on a Saturday afternoon in Seattle. We don’t need to relive the 2013 season. It was bad all around. One of its highlights though was a 26-year old catcher getting the chance to play in a major league baseball game.

Bantz played 34 games in AAA Tacoma during the 2012 season only to find himself back at AA Jacksonville to start the 2013 season. But for a catcher, necessity is often the mother of promotion and Bantz found himself back in Tacoma to back up Mike Zunino despite batting a miserable .178/.290/.267 in Jacksonville. A few days after his return to Tacoma, he was called up to Seattle. A string of injuries to the catching staff left the Mariners in need of a backup for Kelly Shoppach. The team opted not to call up Zunino, citing their desire for his development to continue in Tacoma (that idea didn’t last long as Zuninio made his debut four days after Bantz), and Bantz excitedly made his way to Seattle.

By all accounts, Bantz was a good defensive catcher. It was just his bat that held him back. Yet, he found himself tipping his cap to a major league crowd on a Saturday afternoon before stepping up to the plate to face Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees. On the second pitch, he grounded out to end the third inning. He would get one more shot with the bat, and would strikeout swinging on four pitches from Pettitte.

The rest of the lineup didn’t fare much better against the Yankees. Bantz was praised by manager Eric Wedge and starting pitcher Joe Saunders for his work behind the plate. Wedge even mentioned after the game that he was happy to have Bantz continue as the backup until Jesus Sucre was healthy. Alas, it was not meant to be and that one Saturday afternoon was the only time Bantz would play on a major league field.

Bantz was one of seven catchers the Mariners would use that season. His game in the major leagues was a dream come true. No one takes the abuse a catcher takes if they aren’t holding tight to that dream. Like Wright, Bantz held fast to his faith and the knowledge that there are things more important than playing baseball. In the offseason he’d work as a substitute teacher in low-income schools. After his release from the Mariners organization in the spring of 2014, he took another shot with the Nationals and Marlins organizations before calling it a career after 2015. He returned to the Dallas area where he had grown up and took a variety of coaching jobs. These days, he is in Los Angeles working for a company that develops youth baseball players in concert with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

That one, beautiful game in 2013 when Bantz was able to live his dream is still large in his mind. Recently married, he shared on Instagram pictures of him and his fiancé wearing Bantz Mariners jerseys:

Fangraphs

***

Every kid who has played Little League or pickle in their backyard has had a dream, however fleeting, of playing in the major leagues. Those dreams are acted out on rough, patchy fields throughout the world, replete with walk off home runs and World Series glory. The reality of baseball is brutal and rough. It’s hard to play professionally at all, and even harder to make it to the top. Just getting there is a dream fulfilled. Our Mariner Moonlight Grahams had their game, and that’s something they’ll always get to keep, even as they chase different dreams.