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Ron Wright had the worst MLB debut of all time

Three plate appearances. Six outs. This would be a freakishly terrible day for just about any hitter in baseball. For Ron Wright, who as a minor leaguer was compared to Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff, it was his whole career. A series of wildly improbable events — botched surgery, incredible perseverance, baserunning calamity and a baseball to the ear — all came together to build this moment, the worst MLB debut of all time.

It’s weird to say this now, but on April 14, 2002, the Seattle Mariners were an elite baseball team. They were coming off matching the all-time record for wins in a season, boasted the defending MVP and Rookie of the Year in Ichiro Suzuki, had eight (!) returning all-stars, had made a big trade to upgrade at third by swooping for Jeff Cirillo, had added another power bat in Ruben Sierra and were also looking at a full season of rising ace Joel Piñeiro. The 2001 Mariners had been a juggernaut. On paper, at least, the 2002 edition were going to be even better.

By the time they arrived in Dallas for their four-game series against the Texas Rangers, the usual suspects were rolling. Ichiro and Bret Boone had been relatively quiet, but the likes of John Olerud and Mike Cameron were piling up the runs, and the Mariners had rushed to an early lead in the American League West. There was, however, something missing. Or, more to the point, someone.

Edgar Martinez hitting during 2001 John G. Mabanglo/AFP via Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas — Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez has a ruptured left hamstring and was scheduled to have surgery [on April 13].

Martinez injured the hamstring while running out a grounder to third base in the ninth inning of Thursday’s 8-4 victory at Anaheim. The six-time All-Star had to be helped off the field.

An MRI exam was done Friday, and the Mariners put Martinez on the disabled list. Rick Griffin, Seattle’s trainer, said the exam revealed a ruptured tendon behind Martinez’s knee.

In 2001, future Hall-of-Famer Edgar Martinez owned a .306/.423/.543 batting line, compiled over 132 games. Now the Mariners were going to have to do without their iconic designated hitter for a few months.

Edgar’s hamstring blowing up was exactly the sort of situation that the team signed Sierra to handle. And, indeed, the 36-year-old was handling it. In his first game spelling Martinez, Sierra hit a grand slam to lift the team to a 7-3 win. In his second, he hit a double and drew a walk. While life without Edgar wasn’t ever going to be fine, it looked at least like it would be bearable.

But Sierra wasn’t just Seattle’s backup option at DH. He was also the team’s primary bench bat and a rotation option in the outfield corners. While he was pencilled into the Edgar slot, the team needed some cover for their cover. And so, buried in that article about Martinez’s hamstring surgery, was a note about a minor roster move.

The Mariners purchased the contract of first baseman Ron Wright from Triple-A Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

Wright’s name would have meant very little to Mariners fans back then. I suspect it didn’t even mean that much to Wright. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves out of high school in 1994. As a seventh-round pick, he wasn’t expected to amount to much of anything, but he quickly pushed his way through the minors, reaching AAA for the first time as a 21-year-old.

By then Wright was already with his second organization. The Braves had claimed the World Series in 1995, and by the time August ‘96 rolled around they were making a push for a second consecutive ring. They needed pitching reinforcements, and decided on Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander Denny Neagle.

Neagle did not come cheap. He had made the National League All-Star team in 1995, and by late summer he’d amassed a 14-6 record with a 3.05 ERA. If the Braves wanted him, they were going to have to give up some talent. On Aug. 28, 1996, two minor-leaguers and a player to be named later were dispatched to Pittsburgh. Wright, ranked by Baseball America as the Braves’ No. 8 prospect, was part of the deal.

Ron Wright
Ron Wright during a 1998 spring training game with the Pirates

Back then, Wright was projected as a Fielder or McGriff type. He’d strike out, he’d walk, and above all, he was going to hit home runs. He would hit huge home runs and a huge number of home runs. In two full seasons, he’d managed to rack up almost 70 of them, several of them true monsters. Having dominated at A and AA, it was time for him to move up.

Wright thrived in his first season with the pirates, smoking the Pacific Coast League, hitting .304/.348/.539 for the Calgary Lookouts over 91 games. Sure, there were only 16 home runs, but in 91 games, coming from a 21-year-old in AAA ... that’s the sort of performance that turns heads. A breakthrough seemed inevitable.

It was not.

A wrist injury robbed Wright of a September call-up in 1997. Worse was to come. Going into 1998, he was ranked as the Pirates No. 5 prospect, but a back injury immediately knocked him onto the disabled list. That injury required surgery: a spinal disc needed repairing. Wright was out of regular action for almost two years. When he returned, the power was gone.

While rebuilding that busted spinal disc, Wright’s surgeon had damaged his sciatic nerve, causing loss of feeling in his right leg. A key part of the swing that produced those mammoth home runs had disappeared. Wright’s calling card, the key to his prospect status, was no more.

Wright slowly fell down the Pirates pecking order. After the ‘98 season, Baseball-America had him at No. 6. A year later, he was their No. 10 prospect. And a year after that, he was gone, claimed on waivers by the Cincinnati Reds.

Denny Neagle, incidentally, made 71 starts for the Braves, going 38-19 with a 3.43 ERA. In 1997, while Wright was tearing up the PCL, Neagle finished third in the National League Cy Young voting (the two dudes ahead of him were named ‘Pedro Martinez’ and ‘Greg Maddux’, so we’ll call that a moral victory).

The Pirates, disappointed in Wright, still did OK out of that trade. The PTBNL ended up being 23-year-old pitcher Jason Schmidt, who carved out a productive career up in Pittsburgh before blossoming with the San Francisco Giants.

Meanwhile, Wright couldn’t gain any traction. A mediocre 2000 with the Reds was followed up by an equally mediocre 2001 with the then-Devil Rays. By the time 2002 rolled around, Wright was a fully-fledged journeyman, his prospect status long forgotten. He was a traveling mercenary, organizational filler. The particular organization he’d be filling that year was, of course, the Seattle Mariners.

Did Lou Pinella have any intention of actually playing Wright while Edgar was out? Probably not. At least, not much. On April 14, Wright had been in the majors for two days, and he’d spent them parked happily on the bench, watching the Mariners beat up on the Rangers. There he would have stayed but for starting third baseman Jeff Cirillo taking a baseball to the face.

Cirillo would eventually become sort of a bogeyman for Seattle, the human marker for both the end of franchise’s golden era and the perils of doing business with the Colorado Rockies. Neither is, strictly speaking, fair. The bulk of his pre-Seattle career was spent hitting .307/.383/.449 in Milwaukee, not Denver, and during his two years with the Mariners the team won 186 games. But there’s no getting around that fact his tenure in the Emerald City was, well, awful.

On April 14, however, all that lay in the future. He was off to a slow start, sure, but with his pedigree and status as the team’s major off-season acquisition, few had any hint at the mess that was to follow. Cirillo was pencilled in at third, hitting second behind Ichiro and he’d have hoped to bust out of his season-opening mini-slump against Rangers southpaw Kenny Rogers.

He never got that chance. During batting practice, center fielder Mike Cameron cracked a line drive off the pitching screen. By an implausible twist of fate*, the ricochet took the ball straight into Cirillo’s left ear. The cut required three stitches.

*This wasn’t the only time in Cirillo’s career that he picked up a freak injury. According to Tom Haudricourt, he once just missed a home run and threw his batting helmet in frustration ... right at his ankle. He was out for four games.

Piniella hastily re-jigged his lineup. Charles Gipson was shifted from left field to third. Sierra would go to left field. And Wright, who became the 33rd man named ‘Wright’ to appear in a Major League Baseball game, would get the nod at designated hitter.

That Wright wound up making his debut for the Mariners looked suspiciously like fate. He might have been drafted by Atlanta, but Washington State was home. He’d moved there at eight, and played high school ball at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, three and a half hours drive from Seattle and the Kingdome. He had to navigate two away series before the team got back to his home state. Make some noise in Dallas or Oakland and he’d get to swing the bat in front of his family.

During his first appearance, he made zero noise with the bat. None whatsoever. With two runners on and no out, and the Mariners up, 1-0, it was the perfect time to do some damage. But Wright took Rogers’ first pitch, a fastball, for strike one. Then he took the second. Strike two. One more and he was back in the dugout, a strikeout victim. He hadn’t even taken the bat off his shoulders.

A debut strikeout is forgivable. It’s the sort of thing that happens to rookies in their first game, especially rookies who’ve taken the scenic route to get to the majors. Upon his return to the dugout, Wright would have gotten (I assume) a good butt-slapping and told to go get ‘em next time.

It’s the top of the fourth. It’s almost an exact replica of the opportunity he missed the first time up. The Mariners are still 1-0 to the good. Sierra and Olerud are on base. The only difference is that this time Sierra is at third, an easy RBI opportunity. Wright wasn’t going to let this chance get away. He was going to swing.

He swung three times. Two were swinging strikes, sandwiching a pair of balls to bring the count to 2-2. Then, for the first time in his career, he made contact. As it turned out, the Mariners would rather he hadn’t:

Wright should not have swung at that pitch. It was down and well away, and drew the sort of swing that leads to embarrassing outcomes. This particular swing produced an ugly tapper back to the mound. Rogers (who’d win his second gold glove that year) eased his way off the mound, made a slick grab, stared Sierra back to third base, then fired to second to get Olerud on a force play.

That should have been that. End of story. Erasure of story, really. But someone had blundered. If Sierra had simply stayed put, history would have remembered Wright’s debut as merely a bad one, and we’d have no reason whatsoever to discuss him years later. But every interesting story is made up of a collection of tiny chances, seemingly unrelated events which Rube Goldberg themselves into an unstoppable force.

We arrived at this moment through a botched surgery, an exploded hamstring and a face-seeking baseball. But the pivot this story really turns on is Sierra being a huge idiot.

Unlike Wright, Sierra had been around the Major League block. 2002 was his 16th season in the big leagues. He knew how to run the bases just fine, swiping well over 100 bags over the course of his career. His speed had long-since gone by the time Wright came around, but a player with that much experience should know better than to break for home while the shortstop is essentially holding the ball at second.

Sierra broke for home while the shortstop was holding the ball at second. Alex Rodriguez duly tossed the ball to the catcher, and a half-assed rundown ensued. During the melee, John Moses told Wright to advance to second, thinking that the Mariners might as well keep a runner in scoring position despite Sierra’s blunder.

Further calamity ensured. As Wright bolted for second, Sierra gave himself up, allowed Rogers to tag him and throw to second again. Michael Young applied the tag to complete the play. 1-6-2-5-1-4. Wright had become the first player in a century to hit into a triple play on his debut.

Ron Wright sits for photo day in 2002

He wasn’t done there. His spot in the lineup came up in the sixth, with the Mariners now 2-1 down. Sierra and Olerud were on base again, having hit back-to-back singles. Rogers was near the end of his tether, having given up 11 baserunners in 5+ innings. His pitch count was in the 90s. A hit here would have tied the game.

Wright came up with a first-pitch double play instead, grounding hard to Rodriguez at shortstop.

The Mariners came back, but Wright did not. Seattle grabbed four quick runs in the top of the seventh, with Olerud knotting things up with a line drive single to right field. With runners at the corners, Piniella decided he’d had enough misery out of his DH for one evening and pulled Wright for super-utilityman Mark McLemore, who ended up going 0-2 with two strikeouts. It takes an unusual day for that to be an upgrade.

Wright’s game in full: 0-3, K, GDP, GTP. Nine pitches seen; two balls; three called strikes; four swings; 50 percent contact; six outs made. Once known for his ability to hit ridiculously long bombs, he had hit the baseball a combined 150 feet.

Some of the magic of baseball is a product of sheer volume. Enough baseball is played for all sorts of strange things to happen, and here they just happened to happen to Wright. Unsurprisingly, he was sent back down to AAA following the end of the Rangers series. Wright never got to play in front of his family at Safeco Field. Two years later, after a couple more minor league stints and then a go-around with the independent Sioux Falls Canaries, he was out of baseball entirely.

After the injuries he picked up in the late-90s, there wasn’t much chance Wright would have had a lengthy career in the majors, even if his first crack at the bigs hadn’t been quite so catastrophic. But by doing so, he turned his non-career into a spectacular event, a nonsensical comet blazing its way through a Dallas afternoon.

Reaching the pinnacle of baseball takes an obscene amount of talent and even more hard work, and Wright’s path was even harder than most. Getting to start for the Mariners at all represents an incredible achievement, and if Wright didn’t exactly make the most of it. at least he impressed himself on the history books.

Fortunately, that’s how he sees it too. Talking to Larry Stone 15 years after the fact, Wright looked back at his performance with few regrets:

If I got into one game. I might as well do something memorable. I wish it had been three home runs, but it wasn’t. It was kind of a weird sequence of events that led to the actual outcome. With different baserunning and different bounces, you never know.

As for the 2002 Seattle Mariners, they’d go on to win 93 games but miss the playoffs anyway. It was the start of what is now the longest playoff drought in American sports.