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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.