The unlucky baseball players who make it to the majors... for only one game

Rick Paulas spotlights a few of the 974 ballplayers whose Big League glory lasted just a few hours

ED CERMAK TROTTED in from right field, eager to take his first swing against a major league pitcher. Three quick strikes later, the 19-year-old Cleveland Blues rookie was back in the dugout, most likely shaking his head at the dramatically improved pitching he'd just witnessed. His next three at-bats ended the same way: A strikeout and another sad trip back to the dugout. Cermak went 0 for 4, what players today call a Golden Sombrero, although they didn't have a cute phrase for something so disheartening in 1901. Back then, they probably just called it A Day to Forget. Cermak never would, though, seeing as this was the only major league game he'd ever play. 

Of the 17,808 players who've run up the dugout steps and onto a major league field, only 974 have had one-game careers like Cermak. In baseball parlance, these single-gamers are known as Cup of Coffee players. The number fluctuates slightly throughout each season as new prospects get called up to fill in for injured veterans, or when a team's roster size expands in September. But getting stuck in the club for an extended period of time is an indication that something went horribly wrong, that however long a ballplayer worked to attain his dreams, he was allowed but a brief glimpse of the show before the curtain was yanked shut. This club is filled exclusively with people who don't want to be members.

MY JOB WAS to get on base," Adam Greenberg has said many times. "I certainly was successful in doing that." The quote is pure reporter-bait, honed to perfection after a half-decade discussing and revisiting a single pitch, and he repeated it to me on the phone.

On July 9, 2005, Chicago Cubs skipper Dusty Baker told Greenberg to grab a helmet and pinch hit in a game against the Florida Marlins. He'd been on the squad less than 48 hours, just called up from the Double-A team in West Tennessee. Walking up to the plate gave him a few butterflies in the stomach, but they disappeared by the time he reached the box. He set his feet, made mental a note of where the outfielders were positioned, eyed reliever Valerio de los Santos, and got ready to attack the first pitch he saw; he'd learned in the minors that the first pitch might be the best one he was going to see.

A 92-mph fastball takes 400 milliseconds to traverse the 60-foot-6-inch distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate. That's the high end of the time it takes for a human eye to blink. Instincts take over when dealing with these kinds of speeds, skills that have been honed over years of repetition. Sensing that something was off about the ball's trajectory, the auto-response of Greenberg's body was to turn away from the incoming projectile, protecting his face at all costs. As an offering, his body was willing to sacrifice the back of his head to the speeding ball.

"The first thing going through your head is, 'This guy's dead,'" said de los Santos in 2007. Greenberg suffered a severe concussion, which took him out of the game and led to years of vertigo and headaches. The following season, he hit .179 and .118, respectively, on Double-A and Triple-A farm teams, and the Cubs were forced to cut him. He never made it back to the majors.

Last year, the 30-year-old Greenberg tried to get out of the Cup of Coffee Club by signing with the Bridgeport Bluefish, an independent team in Connecticut full of former top prospects and veterans who want to climb back into the farm-club system. "It's a whole bunch of guys with similar stories," Greenberg told me. "We're all in this league, trying to get out."

In late April of last year, Greenberg and de los Santos faced each other for the first time since that fateful 2005 pitch. "He threw me a hard cutter that started right in at me and fell over the plate," Greenberg said. "At that point, it was like, he's good, I'm good, so let's play." Three pitches later and another de los Santos–Greenberg matchup led to the batter getting to first base, this time the result of a single. "The greatest single of my career."

For the season, Greenberg finished with a modest .259 batting average, but his on-base percentage, a stat managers prize, was .393, best on his squad. While much of this discrepancy was due to Greenberg's ability to draw a walk, it should be noted that he also led his team, by a wide margin, in getting to first base after being hit by a pitch.

But that was last year. He never got called back up, and this year he's no longer with Bridgeport. According to his Twitter feed, Greenberg's now spending his time hawking a dietary supplement that according to its website does, well, everything. But despite his new gig, Greenberg's profile still lists him, right there in the first spot, as a "Professional Baseball Player."

THE MOST FAMOUS Cup of Coffee player of all time, because of his appearance in W.P. Kinsella's 1982 novel Shoeless Joe and its subsequent film adaptation Field of Dreams, has to be Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. Graham entered a 1905 game for the New York Giants as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning. Three outs later, he trotted in from right field and picked up a bat. He was due up fourth, meaning the team would just have to muster up one base runner for him to see a major league pitch. But, alas, his teammates failed him, and he was left in the on-deck circle when the umpire called the final out. He never got to take a swing.

Like Graham, fellow Cup of Coffee player Ralph Gagliano never got a chance to swing a bat. But unlike Moonlight, he didn't even get a chance to wear a mitt.

"Digging up old bones, eh?" he asked when I reached him after a short game of phone tag.

Drafted by the Indians in 1964, Gagliano was a "bonus baby," a top prospect whom the team signed to a major league contract to keep other teams from stealing him away. "A No. 1 pick these days," he said with pride. But Gagliano tore knee ligaments during his first spring training and missed most of the season. He was called up on the first day of September, and the shy 18-year-old kept a low profile for his first few weeks in the majors, never even speaking to manager Birdie Tebbetts. "He probably thought I was just some guy hanging around the locker room." But Tebbetts knew better. On Sept. 21, 1965, in the ninth inning of a 9–4 game, he called out Gagliano's name to enter the game as a pinch runner.

"Joe Pepitone was playing first base," Gagliano recounted. "He asked about my brother Phil, who played against him in the minors. I don't even know what I said, I was so scared. I took about a two-foot lead." After two or three pitches, the next batter grounded Gagliano into a force-out at second base, leaving him with a fleeting trophy of his MLB career. "I had to slide, so I ended up getting a nice strawberry," he said. "I had a little wound on my butt, made me feel good."

Gagliano's next two and a half years were spent in the military during the Vietnam buildup. By the time he was ready to return, the game had passed him by. "My number didn't get called again," he said. His voice held no regret — it was a long time ago. "That's just the way it goes sometimes."

THREE-FOOT-7-INCH Eddie Gaedel got his first and only at-bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Gaedel had been secretly signed to the team the night before, part of a publicity stunt from showman owner Bill Veeck, who called him "the best darn midget who ever played big league ball." When pitcher Bob Cain couldn't find Gaedel's one-and-a-half-inch strike zone, he trotted to first base to a standing ovation before being removed for a pinch runner. Seeing as it was his only at-bat, Gaedel is tied for the major league record for highest on-base percentage. Forty-seven other Cup of Coffee players share the mark with him, including Jeff Banister.

"Can you hear the hail on the phone?" Banister asked. He was in his car, 160 miles from his destination of Charlotte, N.C., waiting on the side of the road for a treacherous downpour to abate. Working as field coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Banister oversees the entirety of the development process for players, including instilling a game philosophy that starts in the minors. "I like to say I'm managing the men as well as the boys," he says.

His lone major league at-bat — a legged-out infield single — is perhaps less noteworthy than the story that surrounds it.

In high school, Banister was diagnosed with cancer in his anklebone. Doctors considered amputation, but he refused. He endured seven operations that allowed him to keep the foot and, eventually, got rid of the cancer. Then, as a catcher for his college team, he was run over during a play at the plate, resulting in three shattered vertebrae. Banister overcame these setbacks and was drafted in the 25th round of the 1986 draft. After toiling in the minors for seven seasons, accumulating over 1,600 plate appearances in the process, when he finally got the call, he couldn't believe it was actually happening.

His roommate, Jeff Richardson, used to always joke whenever the phone would ring late at night. "He'd say 'Hey, we just got called up,'" said Banister. "So he answered the phone and said, 'Hey, you're getting called up.' And I said, 'Yeah, whatever.'" After making Pirates manager Terry Collins prove it was actually him, and getting a legitimate reason why he was getting called up (catcher Don Slaught hurt himself in that night's game), Banister finally believed his fate and took the first-class flight from Buffalo to Pittsburgh.

One at-bat and two games spent on the bench later, Banister was in the dugout when he saw pitcher Bob Walk pull a hamstring rounding third base. "I felt everyone's eyes in the dugout looking at me," he says. They all knew the team would now need the spot on the roster for an extra pitcher. Before he knew it, Banister was on his way back down to the minors. He continued to play in the Pittsburgh farm system, in winter ball, and in the Dominican Republic until elbow reconstruction surgery effectively put an end to his career in 1991. As part of his rehab he was asked to help coach the Double-A team. "And I just fell in love with it," he says.

Since our conversation, Banister has been promoted to bench coach for the Pirates' major league franchise. With 25 years logged in the organization, if the Pirates play poorly enough to force a coaching change in the near future — a likely scenario since, you know, they're the Pirates and that's what they do — don't be surprised if Banister gets to join another club that's even more exclusive than the fraternity of Cup of Coffee players: The brotherhood of major league managers. 

When that happens, you can go ahead and list Jeff Banister in the book of Great Life Lessons, his entry focusing on how to turn a story that started out horribly wrong into something perfectly right.

Excerpted from a longer piece on ©2012 by Rick Paulas. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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