Stories involving players like Jon Weber are what I love about spring training. Let’s be honest. Prior to this spring, most Yankee fans had never heard of Jon Weber; I certainly didn‘t know him. Yankee management had only a slightly higher opinion of Weber, giving him a spring training invite as a non-roster player.
At the start of the spring, the 32-year-old Weber had no chance of making the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Less than zero. A career minor leaguer, Weber had spent his first 11 seasons of professional baseball playing in towns and cities like Billings, Fargo, Bakersfield, and Durham. So once the Grapefruit League season began, Weber began hitting the baseball like he had been facing major league pitching for 11 seasons. For the bulk of the spring, Weber’s average surged above .500, despite the fact that he had failed to draw a single walk. Impressed by his picturesque left-handed swing, a choir boy attitude, and a flawless work ethic, the Yankee brass began to consider a scenario in which Weber would make the team as a backup outfielder. Yankee executives pondered the possibility of carrying Weber and cutting Marcus Thames, despite the fact that Thames fills the greater need of a backup outfielder who can hit right-handed.
Weber’s impossible run to Opening Day ended on Tuesday. That’s when the Yankees announced that they had reassigned Weber to their minor league camp. Weber will start the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he is expected to serve as manager Dave Miley’s starting right fielder. The dream of playing in a major league game will have to wait a little bit longer for the man who started his career in the Reds‘ minor league system way back in 1999.
On the surface, this might sound like a resounding defeat for Weber, a rude ending to a potential baseball fairy tale. I don’t look at it that way. Within the matter of six weeks, Weber managed to raise his value from a minor league journeyman who had no chance of cracking the major league roster to being potentially the first man in line once one of the veteran outfielders goes down with an injury. Prior to this season, the knock on Weber had involved a lack of big-time power, usually a prerequisite for a corner outfielder. But Weber did slug .497 for Triple-A Durham (the Rays’ farm team) last year, so it’s not as if he is merely a singles hitter. The Yankees now recognize Weber as a line drive hitter who can reach base consistently, keep his strikeout totals relatively low, and hit the occasional home run. He can do all of that while sporting one of the best attitudes around. If the need arises, and if Weber can show a little more patience at the plate than he did this spring, he could fill in quite capably as the No. 5 outfielder.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Weber at Scranton/Wilkes Barre. I hope he gets off to a good start. Inevitably, one of the major league outfielders will end up hurt. They always do. And that’s when Weber might finally get his chance to pounce–after 11 years of bouncing along the minor league highway…
For the second straight year, the Hall of Fame Classic will have a distinct Yankee flavor. We already knew that Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Phil Niekro and perennial Gold Glover Paul Blair, all Yankee alums, had committed to play in the Father’s Day old-timers game. Another wave of players has just been announced for the Classic, a group that includes Mike Pagliarulo, Jay Johnstone, Dennis Rasmussen, Tim Leary, Brian Boehringer, and Lee Smith.
This cavalcade of ex-Yankees presents me with a mixed bag of feelings. Leary brings back some bad memories; he was the “ace” of some of the worst Yankee pitching staffs of the last 50 years. At one time considered a phenom with the rival Mets, Leary became a source of frustration with the Yankees. He always had good stuff, including a terrific split-finger fastball, but his command and control were often horrific. I used to dread watching him throwing one of his splitters into the dirt. Boehringer was another talented right-hander, one who flashed dominance with the Yankees in the mid-1990s. At one time I thought Boehringer would become John Wetteland or Mariano Rivera’s prime set up man, but something always seemed to be missing from his game. I later heard that Boehringer was a bit of a head case; I may have to ask him about that reputation during his visit to Cooperstown. Politely, of course.
In contrast, I have nothing but positive vibes about Pagliarulo and Johnstone. The ultimate overachiever, Pags worked his backside off in becoming a serviceable major league third baseman. He would have fit in very well with the Joe Torre dynasty. With regard to Johnstone, he didn’t have much impact in parts of two seasons in New York, but he remains one of the game’s singular characters. Anyone who would wear a wetsuit to the ballpark, or hit tennis balls off a batting tee onto 7th Street in Los Angeles is all right by me.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.