Although I consider myself a big baseball fan, for some reason I never got into the details of the minor leagues until now. I just knew the basics. Most players who sign with a team don't start out playing in the majors. Typically, they begin their professional baseball careers as part of a "farm team" -- a minor league team -- where they hone their skills and wait until they get called up. Most of the teams are affiliated with a major league team, but there are also independent leagues whose players get scouted by major league teams too. These days, there are five different classifications: rookie, class-A short season, class A (including single-A and A-advanced), class AA and class AAA.
Where a player begins in the system, and how long he spends there, depends on his skill level and performance. It's not uncommon to start out in a lower level and quickly move up or to skip back and forth. Many players never make it out of the minors, but if they do, they aren't guaranteed to stay there. Major league teams can only have 40 players on their rosters at any given time, with 25 of those considered "active." The rest are either in the minors or on the disabled list. A player might be called up to the majors to replace an injured major leaguer and find himself taking over the position permanently. Or he could spend a few weeks there and be sent back. This can't go on forever, though; there are rules about how many times a player can be sent down before another team can claim him or he can become a free agent and go to another team.
Players get sent back to the minors for lots of reasons, but you might think that some of the greatest players in baseball never looked back once they made it to "the bigs." Not so. Here are five players whose names you might recognize, and they all got sent back to the minors during their big league careers.
Many consider Babe Ruth, aka the Bambino and the Sultan of Swat, the greatest major league baseball player of all time. He played for 22 seasons, retiring in 1935. The Babe was a power hitter and broke numerous records, including most career home runs, RBIs (runs batted in) and highest slugging percentage. As a New York Yankee, he led the team to seven American League pennants and four World Series wins. Ruth also changed the sport forever; his home run prowess excited crowds, and the high-scoring games gave baseball a "wow" factor.
Given all that, you might be surprised to learn that Babe Ruth started out as a pitcher -- and a pretty good one. He pitched a total of 163 games, an ERA (earned run average) of 2.28 and a win-loss record of 94-46. Ruth was signed as a pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles, a minor league team at the time, in 1914. He was a raw talent but did well. The Orioles were hurting financially, though, and sold him, along with two other players, for cash to the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth pitched in four games for the Red Sox that year, making his major league debut on July 11. However, the 1914 Boston Red Sox team was full of great players, and there just wasn't room for a rookie pitcher. Ruth was sent down to the minor league Providence Grays for the rest of the season. The Grays were in their own pennant race, and Ruth helped them win it. The next year, he went back to the majors for good and pitched just five games after his infamous sale to the Yankees in 1920.
You don't have to know anything about baseball to know about Pete Rose. Also known as Charlie Hustle, the all-time leader in numerous records like hits, games played and at-bats became infamous when he was banned from Major League Baseball in 1989. Rose was accused of betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds. But this entry on the list isn't about Pete Rose; it's about his son, Pete Rose, Jr., who was also a major league baseball player. Known as PJ, he practically grew up in dugouts. He was a batboy and appeared on a baseball card with his father in 1982 when he was 12, with the caption "Pete and Re-Pete." Seven years later, he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and began his professional baseball career with the Erie Orioles, then a class-A short season team.
Rose moved to single-A teams and then to an AA team, the Chattanooga Lookouts (at the time an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). He had his best season yet there and was called up to the majors in 1997. Rose played in 11 games, but he only hit .143 (getting two hits) and found himself back in the minors with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. After playing with numerous minor league and independent teams for 21 seasons, Rose turned to management. As of 2011, he manages the Bristol White Sox, a rookie-class affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Rose hopes to manage in the majors someday.
As of this writing, Alex Rodriguez, or "A-Rod," is in his 18th season as a major leaguer and has been a key part of the New York Yankees' success since he was traded to the team in 2004. He's the youngest player in history to have 500 career home runs and is also the only player to have 14 100-RBI seasons. He was offered a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Miami but turned it down after being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 1994, at age 17.
Rodriguez began in the Mariners' AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. He put together some impressive numbers, quickly moving up to the Mariners in July 1994 at age 18. He did well in the big leagues and might have stayed permanently if not for the strike. In August, all major league baseball players walked off the job due to contract disputes between the team owners and the players' union. The strike lasted into April 1995 and cut short what was looking like another pennant for the Yankees -- the team was leading its division by 6.5 games and had the best record in the American League. It also cut short Rodriguez's first stint in the majors.
When the strike ended in spring 1995, he found himself with AAA team the Tacoma Rainiers. By June, he was back in the majors to replace an infielder who was injured. An article quotes then manager Lou Pinella as saying, "Rodriguez is doing a nice job [...] we may just leave him and let him play" [source: The Seattle Times]. They left him, all right. The next year was his breakout year, and Rodriguez came very close to becoming the youngest Most Valuable Player in baseball history.
Now let's check out a player who got sent back to the minors through the quirk of an old baseball rule. Harmon Killebrew played 22 seasons of baseball for the Washington Senators (later the Minnesota Twins) and the Kansas City Royals. He was a power hitter, known for both his number of home runs and his home-run distance. When he retired, he was second only to Babe Ruth for the most home runs in the American League and he had the most home runs hit by a right-hander. In his best season, 1969, Killebrew was chosen as the American League's MVP. An accomplished player, he also has the distinction of being a "bonus baby."
Killebrew signed a contract with the Senators in 1954, which included a hefty signing bonus. The Bonus Rule (which ended in 1965 when major league baseball created the draft) stated that if you gave a player a signing bonus of more than $4,000, he had to stay on your 40-man roster for two full seasons before he could be sent down to the minors. If you violated the rule, then another team could claim the player. MLB instituted this rule to keep teams with the most money from luring the best players with big bonuses and then "storing" them in the minor leagues. So players who signed under this rule often went straight to the majors, and those who were signed under the strictest version of the rule were known as "bonus babies." Killebrew is the only bonus baby who went on to become a Hall of Famer that spent time in the minors at all. His playing was uneven, and he was sent down to the minors at the end of his second season. Killebrew struggled for the next two years as well, moving up and down within the farm-team system and playing just 22 games for the Senators. He became a major leaguer for good in 1959, which was his breakout season.
Baseball fans in the late '90s and early 2000s knew the name John Rocker -- and not for his pitching prowess. Rocker's career highlights include being seventh in saves in 1998 with 38 and pitching 21 straight scoreless innings in the post-season with both the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians. Rocker became well-known for his negative comments toward minorities and other groups of people, which ultimately overshadowed his playing.
John Rocker was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1994 and started out with the class A Danville Braves, moving up through the system. In 1998, he was promoted to the majors and went back and forth a few times. The following year was the closer during the Braves' win over the New York Mets for the National League Championship. The Mets were a new division rival, following the realignment that moved the Atlanta Braves to the National League East. During the regular season, Rocker became known for disparaging Mets fans, and they returned the sentiment. In December 2000, in an interview published in Sports Illustrated, Rocker made comments that were considered to be racist, homophobic and sexist, and kept up his negative sentiment toward New York in general. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig suspended him for all of spring training and the first 28 days of the 2001 season, which was later reduced.
After the article came out, Rocker threatened the reporter who wrote it. Not long afterward, he was sent back to the minors, spending six days there. The Braves claimed his stint was due to his poor performance and not his behavior, but it spelled the end of Rocker's time with the team. He played for the Indians and the Texas Rangers, making headlines there again when he made anti-gay remarks in a Texas restaurant in 2002. Rocker ended his major league career with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003. Two years later, he signed with an independent minor league team, the Long Island Ducks, and was released that same year.
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Author's Note: 5 Baseball Players Sent Back to the Minors
Like I said, I'm a baseball fan, but that doesn't mean that I knew a lot about the history of some of these players. I enjoyed learning more about some players who were little more than names to me before. There are plenty of players who moved up and down in the minors, and in and out of the majors, during the course of their careers. So I tried to find the unique stories within that basic designation of getting "sent back." Every player who signs with a major league baseball team dreams of making it out of the farm system, but of those who do, many of them don't go on to have a significant career in the majors. There are just too many factors and too few slots.
- Associated Press. "Rocker on." CNN Sports Illustrated. March 2, 2000. (July 25, 2012)http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/news/2000/03/01/rocker_suspension_ap/
- Associated Press. "Rocker rocks the boat again." CBS News. Feb. 11, 2009. (July 25, 2012)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/08/06/national/main517634.shtml
- Associated Press. "Rocker sorry for remarks." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 6, 2002. (July 25, 2012)http://articles.latimes.com/2002/aug/06/sports/sp-bbnotes6
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- Gavin, Patrick. "John Rocker is still throwing heat." Politico. July 16, 2012. (July 25, 2012)http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0712/78555.html
- Groeschen, Tom. "Pete Rose Jr. wants to manage in the majors." Cincinnati.com. Jan. 22, 2012. (July 25, 2012)http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20120121/SPT/301210048/Pete-Rose-Jr-wants-manage-majors
- Harmon Killebrew.com. (July 25, 2012) http://harmonkillebrew.com/index.html
- John Rocker.net. (July 25, 2012) http://www.johnrocker.net
- Joura, Brian. "Using Nick Evans to Explain MLB option rules." Mets 360. March 6, 2011. (July 25, 2012)http://mets360.com/?p=6172
- National Baseball Hall of Fame. "Babe Ruth." 2012. (July 25, 2012)http://baseballhall.org/hof/ruth-babe
- National Baseball Hall of Fame. "Harmon Killebrew." 2012. (July 25, 2012)http://baseballhall.org/hof/killebrew-harmon
- The New York Times. "National League Roundup; Braves Recall Rocker From Minor Leagues." June 14, 2000. (July 25, 2012)http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/14/sports/national-league-roundup-braves-recall-rocker-from-minor-leagues.html
- Pearlman, Jeff. "At Full Blast." Sports Illustrated. 2000. (July 25, 2012)http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/cover/news/1999/12/22/rocker/
- Rothman, Lily. "Emancipation of the Minors." Slate. April 3, 2012. (July 25, 2012)http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/04/minor_league_union_thousands_of_pro_baseball_players_make_just_1_100_per_month_where_is_their_c_sar_ch_vez_.html
- The Seattle Times. "Mariner Log -- Rodriguez Unlikely To Return To Tacoma." June 15, 1995. (July 25, 2012)http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19950615&slug=2126443
- Treder, Steve. "Cash in the Cradle: The Bonus Babies." The Hardball Times. Nov. 1, 2004. (July 25, 2012)http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/cash-in-the-cradle-the-bonus-babies/