On June 12th, 2010, Daniel Nava made his Major League debut for the Boston Red Sox. He made history immediately, sending an 0–0 fastball over the right field wall for a grand slam. He finished the game 2–4 with 4 RBI’s and remains, to this day, the only player in baseball history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw. This is not a story about Daniel Nava.
Since 1876, there have been 19,193 players who have been fortunate enough to appear in at least one big league game. Their debuts and subsequent careers range from heroic, to forgettable, to straight up abysmal. Luckily for us, though, the abysmal end of the spectrum is cataloged in just as much detail as the heroic end. These embarrassing performances may not be celebrated like their impressive counterparts, but it is our duty to tell their stories.
We owe it to the game of baseball. We owe it to guys like Ron Wright.
Ron Wright was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 7th round of the 1994 MLB Draft. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Wright was built to punish baseballs, and he did. In his first two minor league seasons (1995 and 1996), he hit 32 and 36 home runs, respectively. The following season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was called up to the big leagues. He was rendered inactive by a sore wrist, but he wasn’t upset. He would heal up and be mashing in no time. Or so he thought.
Soon, a back injury and botched surgery led to a decline in power. As he tried to return to form, Wright watched the years go by from the minor leagues. 16 home runs in 1997. Just 2 from 1998–1999. In 2000 he launched 14 bombs, and in 2001 he finally reached the 20 homer mark again. He was in the Seattle Mariners organization now, and it was his time to shine. He got the call up to the big club.
On April 14th, 2002, Ron Wright saw his name on the lineup card as a result of a pre-game injury to Mike Cameron. He was batting in the 7-hole as the designated hitter vs. the Texas Rangers. In his first at bat, he didn’t take the bat off his shoulder and struck out looking on three pitches. He had been anticipating that moment for years, and undoubtedly had some rookie jitters. No big deal.
But then his second at bat happened. Please pay attention because this one is a little difficult to follow:
Wright stepped up to the plate with Ruben Sierra on 3rd and John Olerud on 1st with nobody out. Wright hit a ground ball to the pitcher, who turned and fired to the shortstop, who got the force out at second base. When the pitcher released the ball, Sierra broke for the plate. The shortstop saw this and threw home, where Sierra got caught in a rundown. The catcher chased him toward third and threw it to the third baseman. The third baseman chased Sierra back towards home, where he delivered the ball to the pitcher who was now covering the plate. Sierra was tagged out.
While all this was happening, Ron Wright saw an opportunity to get into scoring position. He broke for second, but was greeted by the second baseman, who received a throw from the pitcher and tagged Wright out to end the inning.
He had grounded into a 1–6–2–5–1–4 triple play.
I bet you’re wondering if things went better in Wright’s next at bat, and the answer is, well, kind of. Wright’s third plate appearance came two innings after his debacle of a second at bat. He found himself in a similar situation, as Sierra and Olerud were once again both on base (2nd and 1st, respectively). This time, Wright swung at the first pitch he saw and put good wood on it… right to the shortstop — some guy named Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod flipped it to second, and then it was on to first to cap off a 6–4–3 double play to complete the out-cycle. Technically better than his last at bat, right?
Ron Wright was pinch-hit for in the 8th inning, and no one ever heard from him again. Like, ever. He never played in another major league game. He went from a promising, young prospect, to a mere blip in the history books.
I want to give some context as to how unlikely this disaster of a debut was. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, there have been over 217,000 games played. There have been nearly 15 million at bats in over 3.8 million innings. There have only been 718 triple plays. Wright hit into one in his first and only major league game.
I was curious to see if this had ever been done before, so I consulted SABR’s Triple Play database, which details every triple play that has ever occurred, and Baseball Reference’s Cup of Coffee list, which lists every player in MLB history to appear in just one game. After scouring both lists for commonalities and eliminating homonymic names, only two players remained: our guy Ron Wright, and a man named Larry Hesterfer.
Okay, time for a lengthy digression, because it would be cruel and unusual punishment to deprive you all of Larry Hesterfer’s legendary tale.
In September of 1901, the New York Giants were hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates for a double header. They desperately needed pitching, so they poached a pitcher from a local semi-pro team. After the first game, the newbie suited up and took the mound to start the nightcap. Shit hit the fan almost immediately.
There were a few things that contributed to Hesterfer’s catastrophic start. First, the lone umpire from game one, Frank Dwyer, just wasn’t feeling like sticking around for game two, so he left, and the game was called by players on both teams. When Hesterfer was pitching, Pirates players were calling balls and strikes, and vice versa. Seems fair, right? In addition to a clearly biased strike zone, the Giants’ fielders were tired and uninterested in playing defense behind a pitcher they didn’t know. They committed 7 errors which led to 10 unearned runs for Hesterfer. After the 6th inning the game was called for darkness, and Larry Hesterfer’s major league career was over. He threw a complete game (6 innings) while allowing 15 runs on 15 hits (and the errors, of course). With a record of 0–1, Hesterfer left the ballpark and bid the New York Giants farewell… forever. He never played in another Major League Baseball game.
But wait, I forgot the best part of the story. As a national league pitcher, Hesterfer hit for himself. In his first at bat, he came to the plate with men on first and second. Since you made it this far, you already know what happens next and why I’m even telling you about Larry Hesterfer in the first place. He hit a line drive to Honus Wagner, the Pirates’ shortstop, who caught the ball, stepped on second, and threw to first to complete the 6–6–3 triple play. He remains the only player in baseball history to hit into a triple play in his first career at bat.
You can debate with yourself internally whether Larry Hesterfer or Ron Wright had a worse MLB debut. But Hesterfer was never meant to be there. He answered the call of a desperate team and pitched in what might as well have been an exhibition game on a sandlot. As interesting as his story is, it’s not sad. It’s funny. There are no “what ifs”.
But for Ron Wright, there are only “what ifs”. What if his wrist wasn’t sore in 1997 when he got called up for the first time? What if he never hurt his back, or his surgeons didn’t damaged his sciatic nerve during the operation?
What makes his story really sad, though, is that he got a shot. His career wasn’t cut short by an injury, it was merely postponed. He ultimately got a chance on baseball’s biggest stage, and he fell flat on his face. No one had seen a failure of this magnitude before, and we will never see such an astronomical failure again.
Ron Wright’s career is the saddest in MLB history, and yet here I am writing about him. His cup of coffee may not have tasted the best, but it left quite the stain. He may not be anyone’s hero, but he is a legend. And legends never die.
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