Like squeezing blood from turnip, this Final-Four edition of Through the Fence Baseball takes a look at the teams playing in this weekend’s NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in Houston. The teams competing, the University of Kentucky, University of Connecticut, Butler University and Virginia Commonwealth University, play for the big prize. On Tuesday, some co-worker or classmate of yours is going to get in your face say “I told you so,” and go on all morning long about how they and they alone picked the winner.
All four schools are obviously known for their prowess on the basketball court, but did you know that all four have their share of major league baseball players? Some of the schools have been playing baseball since shortly after the sport was invented. Let’s take a look at each school and some of the players they sent to the major leagues. There are all-stars, a few with World Series rings, a player who went on to be a manager, a Gold Glove Award winner, a Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young Award winner in this Final Four group.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams
The Rams’ baseball program has been around since 1950, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s when some of its players made it to the big leagues. The first was pitcher Jim Austin, who played for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1991-93. Austin was selected by the San Diego Padres in the sixth round of the free agent draft in June 1986. In 1989 he was traded to the Brewers for Dan Murphy. Austin compiled a 6-4 record with 48 strikeouts and a 3.06 earned run average before being released after the 1993 season.
The most notable player to come of VCU is Detroit Tigers all-star third baseman Brandon Inge. Inge was a shortstop and relief pitcher for the Rams and was drafted as the 57th overall pick in the second round in 1998 by the Tigers. Inge made his debut with the Tigers in 2001 and, going into this season, he has a career .237 average with 136 home runs, 564 runs batted in and 1,028 hits. However, last season Inge set the Tigers franchise mark with 1,109 strikeouts.
Technically, pitcher Mike Wallace is the first player from VCU to make it to the majors when he made his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973, but he did not play baseball for the Rams.
The University of Kentucky Wildcats
Now let’s face it, when you think of UK sports, the only sport that comes to mind is basketball. The Wildcats have won seven NCAA men’s basketball championships, which is second to UCLA’s 11. But the Wildcats are no slouches when it comes to turning out major league baseball players. They have sent 24 to the majors since 1911, a year after the baseball program started. Pitcher Jim Park has the distinction of being the first Wildcat to play in the majors. Park played for three years with the St. Louis Browns compiling a 4-5 record with a 3.02 ERA.
Instead of boring you with everyone who made it to the majors from Kentucky, let’s look at a few of the more notable players. Jim Leyritz played from 1990-2000 mainly as a catcher and designated hitter for six teams. He is probably best remembered for his post-season heroics with the New York Yankees. Leyritz did two stints with the Yankees — 1990-96 and 1999-2000. He was on two Yankees World Series teams in 1996 and 1999. Leyritz had a career .264 batting average with 90 home runs and 387 RBI.
Unfortunately, Leyritz will also be remembered for the demons in his closet, drug use and legal troubles. In 2006, he admitted to using amphetamines after a shoulder surgery, and in 2010, he was acquitted on a driving under the influence charge in a 2007 car crash. He was convicted on a misdemeanor DUI charge and served a one-year prison sentence. He later settled a civil lawsuit paying $350,000 in damages to the family of the victim. There was also a suicide attempt in 2009, which Leyritz later said was due to stress.
Another former Kentucky player who didn’t have Leyritz’s colorful life, but had an impressive career in the big leagues, was Doug Flynn. Flynn played second base and shortstop from 1975-85 with four teams. He was a part of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” World Series championship teams in 1975 and 1976, and won the Gold Glove Award in 1980 with the New York Mets.
Pitcher Brandon Webb may be the most current successful former Wildcat. Webb has been in the majors since 2003 when he broke in with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is a three-time all-star, led the National League in wins in 2006 and 2008, and won the Cy Young Award in 2006. That year, he had a 16-8 record (the fewest wins for a starting Cy Young Award winner at the time) and a 3.10 ERA. In 2008, Webb posted a 22-7 record with a 3.10 ERA, but amazingly finished second in Cy Young voting to San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum. Injuries played a factor in the Diamondbacks releasing Webb after the 2009 season, and he missed all of 2010. In December 2010, Webb signed a free agent contract with the Texas Rangers.
The University of Connecticut Huskies
UConn us another basketball school known for both its men’s and women’s teams, with each winning multiple championships. This is another late-blooming school, as the Huskies have had a baseball program since 1896, but didn’t put their first player in the majors until first baseman Walt Dropo made his debut with the Boston Red Sox in 1949. Dropo was the 1950 Rookie of the Year and was a member of the 1950 American League All-Star team. Dropo played for five teams during his 13-year career and batted .270 with 152 home runs and 704 RBI.
Charles Nagy was the 17th overall pick in the 1988 amateur draft. He played with the Cleveland Indians and Padres from 1990-2003, and was a three-time all-star in 1992, 1996 and 1999. Nagy had a career record of 129-105 with a 4.51 ERA and 1,242 strikeouts, and was named the pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks in October 2010.
However, Indians fans will forever remember Nagy for giving up a bases-loaded single to Edgar Renteria of the Florida Marlins in the 11th inning to end the 1997 World Series.
Roberto Hernandez was a two-time, all-star relief pitcher and played for 16 seasons with 11 teams. In 2007, he became one of 11 pitchers to appear in 1,000 games as a member of the Houston Astros. He is 12th all-time in saves with 326.
The Butler University Bulldogs
The darlings of this year’s tournament are making their second consecutive appearance in the Final Four. A win would remove the title of “Cinderella” off their backs, and the Bulldogs would be known as a legitimate power, but baseball is another story.
The Bulldogs have the oldest baseball program in this Final Four group dating back to 1890, and only four players have made it to the major leagues. The first was right fielder Jack Hendricks, who played for two years from 1902-03 with the New York Giants, Chicago Orphans and Washington Senators. Hendricks played in 42 games, batted .207 in 145 plate appearances with 30 hits, no home runs and just four RBI. He went on to manage the St. Louis Cardinals in 1918 and the Reds from 1924-29. His overall managerial record is 520-528. Hendricks is only one of seven managers in the majors to hold a law degree and pass the state bar exam.
Pitcher Oral Hildebrand played for 10 years from 1931-1940 with the Indians, Browns and Yankees. He was an all-star in 1933 and won a World Series with the Yankees in 1939. Hildebrand had a record of 83-78 with a 4.35 ERA and 527 strikeouts.
The most famous former Bulldog is relief pitcher Doug Jones. Jones played for 16 years in the majors with seven teams from 1982-2000. He is a five-time all-star and is 20th all-time in saves with 303.
Currently Pat Neshek is playing the 2011 season with the Padres. In three seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Neshek posted an 11-6 record with a 3.05 ERA with 151 strikeouts.
So, there you have it. And in case you’re wondering, the school that has sent the most players to the majors is USC. Since Fay Thomas made his debut with the New York Giants in 1927, 98 other Trojans have played in the majors. The list includes hall of fame pitcher Tom Seaver, legendary USC Coach Rod Dedeaux, Dave Kingman, Ron Fairly, Fred Lynn, Brett Boone, Aaron Boone, Barry Zito and Mark Prior.