The Amazing Brendan Donnelly

Brendan Donnelly is hanging up his goggles,” to borrow Tim Dierkes’ memorable phrase. The old man of Anaheim had an amazing career, pitching 10 seasons in the minors before ever getting a shot at the majors, debuting on the World Champion 2002 Angels, and pitching a total of nine seasons in The Show, including an All-Star appearance in 2003.

We don’t talk a lot about pitcher wins here, but his record is remarkable: in his career as a reliever, he went 32-10, and his .762 winning percentage is second of all time among pitchers with at least 40 decisions. He’s the eighth-winningest pitcher ever born in Washington, DC, and he’s one of only seven All-Star pitchers ever to debut after turning 30 in the minor leagues.*

* The others are Curt Davis, Milkman Jim Turner, Lou Fette, Ossie Judd, Ace Adams, and Bob “Smiley” Keegan, all of whom debuted before 1960. Six more All-Star pitchers debuted after their 30th birthday for other reasons, either because they played in a league in their own country or because they were barred from the majors due to racism: Connie Marrero, Jose Contreras, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Kaz Sasaki, and Satchel Paige.

It was never easy for Donnelly. He was a former replacement player, forever barred from the MLBPA; he was named in the Mitchell Report; he was released from his last major league job in Pittsburgh before he had a chance to earn $1.5 million in incentives; and he’s only retiring now because he couldn’t find a single team that would offer him a minor league deal. He laughingly called his retirement, “The game’s decision to walk away from me.”

A 27th-round draft pick by the White Sox in 1992, Donnelly was released by the Sox after his first year of rookie ball; the next year, the Cubs signed and then released him after a forgettable year in Low-A. He had a terrific year in the independent Frontier League in 1994, then blew through the Reds’ system in 1995, beginning in A-ball and winding up in AAA by the end of the year, when he was 24. But then his progress stalled. For the next seven years, he bounced between AA and AAA in six different systems, including the Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Pirates, and Angels. (When he got to Tampa Bay, he was demoted to AA to make room for Jim Morris, the 35-year old subject of the movie The Rookie.)

It’s hard to understand why Donnelly never got a chance before 2002, except that as a frequently released non-closer reliever, he had a tough time distinguishing himself. It’s not that he was bad — his career minor league ERA of 3.51 included a 3.67 ERA in 279 2/3 innings in AAA — but he never even got a cup of coffee till the Angels’ magical run in 2002. Even then, he was overshadowed by a slightly flashier rookie Angels reliever. When Donnelly finally got a shot to pitch in the majors, his numbers were very similar to his numbers in the minors, albeit slightly better:

G IP ERA WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
Majors 386 385.3 3.22 1.25 7.6 0.8 3.6 8.6 2.40
Minors 446 644 3.51 1.31 7.9 0.7 3.8 8.2 2.14

Donnelly never had a nickname, but he had a hell of a lot of hats. A true journeyman, in his 19 years in professional baseball he played for 35 different teams in 12 different organizations in the majors and minors. It’s remarkable that he hung on as long as he did despite getting precious little recognition for his efforts in his first decade in the game. Over his career, he was released nine times and only traded once, when the Angels unloaded him to Boston for minor league pitcher Phil Seibel.

Because he wasn’t eligible for free agency until he was 36, he never signed more than a one-year contract, and he made less than $7 million in his career in the majors. (His $1.35 million contract with Pittsburgh in 2010 was the second-richest of his career, second only to the $1.4 million deal he signed with Boston in 2007.)

But that was far more than he could have imagined when he turned 30 on July 4, 2001. As an embodiment of persistence and resilience, Brendan Donnelly is one of the most memorable players of our times, and is gracious about his unusual career path:

I’m pretty grateful for the career I’ve had. I’ve done about everything in baseball that a player can do. I got to the big leagues, won World Series, made an All-Star team, and made a lot of friends along the way. Not to mention that everything after Day 1 of my big league career was something I never thought I would ever see.

But the darker side of Donnelly’s career is representative of his era, too. As a journeyman minor leaguer, a man who pitched for years before getting a single shot at the majors, Donnelly is exactly the sort of person to whom PEDs would hold the greatest allure. Donnelly admits having considered using PEDs — though he denies ever having done so — and there’s no question that many other players in his situation used drugs in order to try to get their first shot at the majors. That dilemma was one of the signature questions facing players during the era in which he pitched. And his role as a replacement player during baseball’s last strike serves as a reminder that baseball’s labor woes are not so long ago.

Donnelly had a hard road, but the ups and downs were worth it in the end, as the 30-year old rookie became a world champion and then an All-Star. I’m glad I got to watch Brendan pitch. It’s nice to see a man who knows how to enjoy the fact that his lifelong dream came true.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


37 Responses to “The Amazing Brendan Donnelly”

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  1. mettle says:

    A ‘roid user *and* a union scab?
    What a douchebag.
    Deserving of nothing, IMHO, especially the title “amazing”.

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  2. Cecil Fielder Jr. says:

    It is going to take me more than 9 years to make 7 million dollars.

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  3. Cecil Fielder Jr. says:

    Also, I date men. And am a man.

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  4. al says:

    Hey Mettle….what makes you think he used PEDs? If you bothered to read carefully, you would know he merely considered using them. Why don’t you bother getting the facts before calling someone a douche bag?

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    • Michael says:

      He was named in the Mitchell report…

      That said, I think most people who frequent this site would use PEDs if it got them in the pros after languishing in the the minors for a decade. Furthermore, I’m fairly certain most people would also cross the picket line if given the chance to play major league baseball and earn a major league paycheck. I say that despite being about as pro-labor as one can be in the United States and not affiliated with any collective bargaining unit.

      People judging over the PEDs and scab thing really should ask themselves what compromises they’d be willing to do with no career prospects and no real money to speak of.

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      • mettle says:

        Plenty of people make moral decisions every day and choose for the right thing, without being called “amazing”.
        I’m far from a paragon of morality, but when presented with the option to cheat or backstab colleagues for personal gain, I’ve opted not to.
        Donnelly has done both.
        If I do, I’d be the first to admit to deserving of the title douche.

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      • Let's Go O's says:

        I don’t think he’s called “amazing” because of his choices about ‘roids: if you missed his “amazing”-ness, then you might want to re-read the piece. He’s a guy who had full appreciation for the fact that he lived his dream when he didn’t expect to, and who got crapped on quite seriously along the way. A flawed character, to be sure, but worth thinking twice about. He had some pretty great peaks and valleys and makes a compelling story although he wasn’t ever a widely chosen focal point for fans. Thanks for bringing out his story, Alex!

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    • mettle says:

      “Donnelly is tied to Kirk Radomski for supposedly asking him for Anavar and being supplied with Deca-Durabolin in 2004″
      - http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=3156636

      “Radomski says he made one sale of Deca-Durabolin to Donnelly, for which he received $250–$300.”
      - “Mitchell Report pp. 224-25″ (PDF).

      And of course, he’d never ever lie about it.

      Is that “facty” enough for you?

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      • Radomski is not a completely reliable source, either. In this case, it’s impossible to do better than the word “allegedly.”

        I called Donnelly amazing not because he has been alleged to have used PEDs, but because he was a 30-year old rookie world champion who became a 31-year old All-Star and who played long enough to retire at the age of 39. He had a remarkable career.

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  5. Michael says:

    I’ll add listening to someone talk about the PED issue for five minutes allows the listener to discover how little a person knows about baseball.

    I myself view the issue as a major problem for a variety of reasons, but at the same time don’t believe it makes much sense persecuting past users in either the court of law or court of public opinion. Doing so will do little apart from creating a disincentive for full transparency. Finally, people used PEDs for decades before Jose Canseco…

    While admittedly, there are plenty of intelligent knowledgeable baseball fans who disagree with me on this issue; it does seem that a large percentage of the anti PED mob are mouth breathing idiots.

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    • adohaj says:

      I agree. Also the positive effects of using steroids are far overblown especially for hitters. Baseball is not like football physical size and muscle mass does not give a player as big of an advantage.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Which is why I believe that most cite the ability to quickly bounce back from injury as the #1 reason for using steroids.

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  6. Bill says:

    Worry not for him – as a scab, MLB will provide for him at some level. Look for him to emerge with a coaching/scouting job.

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  7. Michael says:

    Mettle a couple comments:

    “Plenty of people make moral decisions every day and choose for the right thing, without being called “amazing”.
    I’m far from a paragon of morality, but when presented with the option to cheat or backstab colleagues for personal gain, I’ve opted not to.
    Donnelly has done both.
    If I do, I’d be the first to admit to deserving of the title douche.”

    Let’s start here- what’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made monetarily? Chances are it was nothing like the perceived sacrifice Donnelly would have made by not using. The guy had been in minor league baseball for a decade- his career prospects for anything, let alone baseball weren’t looking so hot. If you were in a situation in which you felt that using PEDs would allow you to make life changing amounts of money, and you suspected that everyone else was using PEDs too, you probably would make the same decision. We’re talking about going from like 30 thousand a year to millions… mind you Donnelly’s salary was also likely viewed by him, as something that would end soon.

    Now on to the more general argument against hating on PED users:

    -Do you hate Willie Mays? He used speed. So did like, everyone in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s? In fact, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that uppers have a much more positive impact over 162 games than HgH or steroids.

    -Did you watch baseball in the 1990′s? If you did, you’re a hypocrite about complaining today. Back in 88 Sox fans chanted steroids at Canseco. We all knew, hell the vernacular of the sport even altered- remember the question of whether or not the ball was juiced back when Sosa and McGwire were hitting 20 homers a month? Or how about chicks dig the long ball? Anyone who wants to ride these players like you do should have stopped watching baseball a long time ago- the media, the owners, the union and yes, even the fans made the moral compromise to embrace steroids a long time ago. If it so repugnant, you really shouldn’t have been watching for the past 30 years.

    - What is the difference between Tommy John surgery and HgH? Really, if we had TJS way back when, maybe Joe Wood would be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe Dizzy Dean would have played well into his 30′s, maybe Koufax wouldn’t have been all used up at 30. Medical advancements, training programs and coaching change the game of baseball every day. I mean T. Saito basically glued his freak’en elbow back together while in his late 30′s… you wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago, let alone 50. Baseball is always changing- the sanctity of statistics is a load of crap- statistics without context mean very little.

    - Even if we accept that users are douche bags deserving of our contempt, where does that we leave us? You’re not going to solve the problem by publicly denouncing any player caught. The way to bring about change is to enforce the rules and to grant a level of clemency to those who used back before this became an issue that people cared about. How helpful would it be for research, both regarding prevention use and analyzing the impact on the game if players actually came forward and admitted they used without having to be dragged up in front of congress? The best thing that could happen in the PED debate is for some guy like George Brett (not at all accusing Mr. Brett, just an example of an elite player from the 70′s and 80′s) to admit he used so that we could start pealing away at this onion.

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  8. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    It takes some huge balls to be a “scab” I am 100% behind Donnelly. MLBPA is a millionaires club that does nothing for the common man. By being a “scab”, Donnelly was doing something for the little guy who wants to be able to take his family of four to a game and actually be able to see the ball curve when it is thrown.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      MLBPA is hardly a millionaires club. Most players don’t become super rich, nor do they have long careers. Players often get injuries that require life long treatment. Players often don’t have many secondary career paths and have given up prime years of their lives pursuing baseball. If you oppose MLBPa you support the owners, who are much well off than 98% of baseball players and are more the reason that you can’t take a family of four to a baseball game (that and wage stagnation).

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      • Michael says:

        David- there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests baseball management may have actually encouraged the use of PEDs among the players. Here’s a rather shocking example from former utility man Lou Merloni (http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090511&content_id=4673748).

        I think you’re failing to recognize how pervasive the drug issue has been in baseball for a very long time. Between the perceived monetary benefits, pressure to perform from management, and competitive nature of athletes, we’re dealing with a pretty intense cocktail of factors contributing to the problem. Respectfully, it’s my contention the placing blame on the individual players and the individual players alone is shortsighted and counterproductive.

        I understand the frustration/anger about the scab issue. However, it’s difficult for me to not sympathize with minor league lifers who probably viewed the strike as their only chance to make literally, life changing amounts of money. Most of us make compromises in life, whether we want to admit it or not.

        The key difference between Donnelly and the average person is that the average Joe sells out for far less than Donnelly did..

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    • Brendan Donnelly was faced with tough choices in a couple of really bad situations: the 1994-95 strike and the steroid era. Regardless of whether you agree with his decisions — or what you allege his decisions to be — you have to acknowledge that there really are no easy answers. After he suited up as a spring training replacement player, it literally took him seven years before he made the major leagues. He was not getting rich.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        So he had a tough situation and had to make a hard decision. I assume you grant the same framing to all those that break the rules/laws.

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      • Not all situations are the same, rather obviously. It would be as intellectually dishonest for me to frame all situations as being “tough” and all decisions as being “hard” as it would be for you to demand that I do so.

        I certainly don’t think it’s a good thing that he crossed the picket line, but I find it hard to muster moral outrage over that, because I find it extraordinarily hard to feel that the strike was morally justified. I will never fully forgive the MLBPA for striking and cancelling the 1994 season, and I suspect that many baseball fans feel the same way. I recognize that collective bargaining implies that it takes two to tango, and I hold the owners plenty responsible as well. But it was a strike, not a lockout. It was the MLBPA’s decision to strike.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        So in all situations in which decisions are “hard” and situations are “tough” must we take into account these motivations when discussing the moral outcomes or merits of those decisions?

        People make a lot harder decisions in much tougher situations than Donnelly, and I’m not so sure you would grant them the same leeway.

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      • Donnelly inarguably crossed a picket line, and that’s an unambiguous act. It’s your prerogative to condemn him for that. I don’t support crossing picket lines, but I don’t condemn him for it, for reasons I gave above.

        I don’t know whether he truly used PEDs, but it’s certainly very possible. Considering the moral gray era prevalent in baseball at the time — taking PEDs was long part of the game’s culture, as other commenters have pointed out — and so I view that as a far more ambiguous act. It was never seen as immoral according to baseball’s moral code — the only people who would have been likely to see it as immoral would be players like Dale Murphy who for religious or other reasons were well outside baseball’s moral mainstream. So it’s hard for me to condemn anyone for doing that, either.

        What “tough” situations were you thinking about?

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        “taking PEDs was long part of the game’s culture, as other commenters have pointed out — and so I view that as a far more ambiguous act.”

        So if everyone else is doing it…

        Inner city crime has long been part of city culture and undoubtably there are many people who participate due to their tough situation in life and arrive at the decision to commit crime by making hard choices. This helps us understand why people make particular decisions, but it doesn’t excuse them. We have laws and rules for a reason.

        Also I’m sure the players union felt they were making a hard decision in a tough situation, so you shouldn’t hold it against them that they went on strike.

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      • That’s interesting. Are you saying that you view the MLBPA’s decision to strike as the moral equivalent to Donnelly’s decision to cross the picket line? Or are you merely saying that I should? If it makes you feel any better, I feel more or less equally ambivalent about both.

        And I categorically reject the suggestion that the illegal use of prescription drugs to improve baseball performance is morally equivalent to violent crime. You were the one who invoked morality, not me. Are you claiming that virtually every baseball player from the 1950′s to the 1980′s was immoral, because they all took amphetamines?

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        1) I’m saying you should find them equivalent. I don’t base decisions on whether or not a decision is hard or a situation is tough.
        2) “I feel more or less equally ambivalent about both.” Really because before you stated that: “I will never fully forgive the MLBPA for striking and cancelling the 1994 season.”
        3) I didn’t bring up morals, you did. You made it an argument of morals (namely yours) and I’m trying figure where you draw the line.
        4) I didn’t use violent crime as an example, I used inner city crime as an example. Both PEDs and inner city crime involve illegal drugs. Is it excusable for inner city citizens to use crack cocaine? Is it ok to sell illegal drugs? It is part of the culture of cities.

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      • Forgive me. You didn’t initially bring up morals. Mettle did, and Michael responded to that.

        I think I’ll allow you and your straw men to have the last word.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        With pleasure. I may have a strawman, but it seems you have run out of straws to grasp at.

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      • Joe R says:

        I’m sorry, crossing a picket line is breaking the law?

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    • Leo Martin says:

      “We have laws and rules for a reason.”

      Don’t equate “laws” and “rules.” They’re not the same. Brendan Donnelly votes in American elections (I hope) and enjoys the benefits of US residency/citizenship. I agree that he is bound to follow the laws of the United States.

      The MLBPA is a private organization that Brendan Donnelly was not a part of. He was not breaking any “law” by breaking their strike. To my eyes he wasn’t even breaking a “rule,” unless it’s somehow a rule that you should never, ever break a strike, regardless of who the striking group is, and regardless of the negotiating positions of the parties involved. I understand some people feel sufficiently strongly about organized labor that they’d say this is a “rule.” Personally I feel like Brendan Donnelly as someone living in a free country should get to make that decision for himself. I can see why MLBPA members might not like him for his decision, but I don’t see why I should care.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        I didn’t equate them. Donnelly broke the law and the rules by taking PEDs.

        The rest is blah blah blah free country blah blah blah free country blah blah blah… He made a decision as an individual I don’t see what your point is.

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      • Leo Martin says:

        When you write “I assume you grant the same framing to all those that break the rules/laws,” it looks like you’re equating rules and laws.

        I agree with you that if Donnelly took PEDs in 2004 he was breaking the “rules” of baseball and probably also some laws, depending on what the substances were and whether he had prescriptions. I don’t believe this allegation has been proven, but if true I agree it’s really bad behavior.

        My point, however, was that regarding strike-breaking, Donnelly wasn’t breaking any laws, and whether he was breaking a “rule” is subjective because it depends on your personal politics.

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  9. JCA says:

    Page 224 of the Mitchell Report:
    “In considering whether to trade for Donnelly in 2007, Red Sox baseball
    operations personnel internally discussed concerns that Donnelly was using performance enhancing substances. In an email to vice president of player personnel Ben Charington dated December 13, 2006, Zack Scott of the Red Sox baseball operations staff wrote of Donnelly: “He was a juice guy but his velocity hasn’t changed a lot over the years . . . If he was a juice guy, he
    could be a breakdown candidate.”427 Kyle Evans of the baseball operations staff agreed with these concerns, responding in an email that “I haven’t heard many good things about him, w[ith] significant steroid rumors.”” \428

    428/ “Email from Kyle Evans to Jed Hoyer, Zack Scott, Theo Epstein, Ben Cherington, Craig Shipley, Brian O’Halloran, and Allard Baird, dated Dec. 13, 2006.”

    To use the word of the day, “amazing” that so many now prominent names in management could treat this as so unexceptional. To give the benefit of the doubt, maybe Epstein assigned someone to check him out up close and found the rumors unsubstantiated. But let’s also not treat this as isolated rumor coming from one source who was notorious for being hit or miss.

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  10. nv says:

    Well, moralizing aside, there’s one really awesome story about Donnelly that I really loved.

    During his stint with Boston, there was some controversy surrounding an inadvertent obscene hand gesture he may have made from the mound to — if I remember right, and I might not — Robinson Cano of the Yankees, a standard raised middle finger, half-disguised by removing his hat and wiping his brow.

    Asked about this later by the press, Donnelly responded, shocked: “I would never do a thing like that. There are kids in the %$#@ing stands!”

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  11. Jack LeLaine says:

    Read this because I was a fan…both he and Scott Shields were really the only two members of the ’02 Angels I liked….I guess Glaus and Salmon can go on there too…Goggles on a reliever = awesome.

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