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The Pirates of My Youth

Posted by cuorange on May 6, 2009

I’m not Mike Leach.  I don’t fantasize about being a pirate or what it was like being a pirate back in the day.  When I think of pirates I think of the Charleston Pirates of the Western Carolina League circa 1973-1978 or so.

Growing up in Charleston, the nearest Major League team was the Atlanta Braves some 300 miles away.  This was before cable and I was lucky to see maybe 10 games a year on TV.

But in 1973 when I was 9 an amazing thing happened.  The Pittsburgh Pirates announced they would field a “low” Class A team in Charleston. 

Over the years many major leaguers came through (and still do) Charleston.  Perhaps none have had more celebrated careers than two that came through that first year: John Candelaria (177 major league wins) and Willie Randolph were members of the original Charleston Pirate teams.

There were other lesser known players off that team that spent significant time in the Majors.  Mitchell Page won the rookie of the year award with Oakland was an outfielder, as was Miguel Dilone who stole over 100 bases that season and had one glorious season in Cleveland when he hit .341.  Steve Nicosia and Odell Jones also made it to the bigs.

1975 saw Ed Whitson come through Charleston.  Whitson ended up winning 126 ML games.  Who would’ve thought that as he racked up an 8-15 record in Charleston.  Others that made the show from the 1975 team were: Bryan Clark, Silvio Martinez and Mark Mercer.

Of all the players who made it, Clark is the least likely I remember seeing.  While he was 4-7 with a 5.37 ERA in ’75, he returned in ’76 to go 1-13 with a 6.12 ERA and 104 walks in 103 innings. 

After going 5-13 in ’77 at high Class A Salem, Clark started out 1978 1-6 (6-26 overall at Charleston if you are counting) with a 6.11 ERA at Charleston.  Then, for some inexplicable reason the Seattle Mariners purchased Clark on June 12, 1978.  At this point Clark had a composite record of 26-72 in the minors.  He went on to lose all 4 decisions with the Marines Class A Stockton team to finish 1978.

Then a funny thing happened.  Clark turned his career around like no one I have ever seen.  He went 14-5 in Class A in 1979.  He spent 1980 with Lynn (AA, 9-5) and Spokane (AAA, 2-5).

Clark made the Mariners in the spring of 1981 and went on to pitch in 186 ML games, going 20-23 with a 4.15 ERA.

1976 saw Don Robinson (109 ML wins) and Tony Pena come through.  Also, Dale Berra and Nelson Norman made the bigs off that team.

The 1977 team featured Pena again, along with Pascual Perez, Junior Ortiz and Rick Lancelotti.

The 1978 version included Ortiz again, along with Doug Frobel and Dave Dravecky, who would later lose his pitching arm to cancer.

Along with these guys who “made it”, I remember some of those who didn’t.  The anonymous players that fill out minor league rosters with little to no chance of making it, whether they had great seasons or not.  Guys like Robert Mazur, Juan Lebron, Jesus Aristimuno, Alexis Ramirez, Randy Sealy, Marvin Whitehurst, Larry Olson, and Danny Debattista.

Of these, Lebron and Debattista stick out.  Lebron made one plate appearance at the AA level, despite a career .280 average in 1626 at bats in the Rookie and A levels, pretty good for a catcher.  He played in Charleston for 3 straight years.  My guess is his .370 slugging percentage did him in.  To an 11 year old he was good, but they all were on some level.

Then there is the curious case of Danny Debattista.  Debattista started his professional career in the short season New York-Penn League with Niagra Falls in 1975.  He batted .288 in 66 games that year as a 22 year old.

That earned him a bump to Charleston in 1976.  He promptly hit .304 with 8 home runs in 493 at bats.

1977 saw Debattista at the high Class A Salem team in the Carolina League.  Another promotion.  There he batted .321 in 274 at bats over 74 games. 

His career ends mysteriously there.  Injury?  Illness?  Just walked away?  Released? Who knows.  He improved his average and slugging percentage as he progressed to each level.  What happened and why remain a mystery like so many other minor leaguers each year.

Draft records indicate that he was chosen with the 108th pick of the 1971 draft out of Allegheny (PA).  Yet, I can find no record of him at Allegheny and his minor league records start in 1975. 

However, he is all over the Grand Canyon (Arizona) College record book from 1972-1975. 

Is he the Pirates scout that helped coach the American team in the 2003 Goodwill Series?  Seems likely.  What are the odds of a Danny Debattista playing in the minors for Pittsburgh and then a different Danny Debattista being a scout for the Pirates 18 years later? 

Maybe he was the coach at Ironwood High in Glendale, Arizona in 2005-2006. 

What happened in between and since remains a mystery, just like with so many of the guys who “didn’t make it”.

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