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12 Pitches in The Show: The Wonderful Story of Jon Ratliff

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{Note from Nico: A fanpost of "community interest" appears here}

Move over, Reggie.  I have a new hero.

Actually about the only thing that Mr. Jackson and Jon Ratliff have in common is that they both began and ended their careers in an A's uniform.

But whereas Reggie's Hall-of-Fame career consisted of 2,820 games played- nearly half of those with Oakland- Ratliff appeared in one single contest in the majors.

One. 

And not just one game, mind you. One inning.

The A's were riding a September streak that would ultimately lead to the 2000 American League West title, the team's first in eight seasons- and the first in the Billy Beane era.  Talk about a club clicking on all cylinders; Oakland outscored its opponents 201-88 in winning 22 of 29 down the stretch.  Yowzers.

That team featured the Big Three in its infancy stage, budding stars Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, and league Most Valuable Player Jason Giambi.  And, of course, Jon Ratliff.

It was on Friday September 15 at Tropicana Field that Ratliff was summoned from the bullpen in a 17-3 blowout to pitch the ninth inning against the Devil Rays.  Seven long- and often frustrating- years since the Chicago Cubs selected him in the first round and you would think that Jon Ratliff would at least get to savor the moment.  Hardly:

"It all went so fast.  I just remember my heart racing.  Everyone knew I was going to get in because we were blowing them out.  I remember Izzy (Jason Isringhausen) walking by and pulling at my shirt like my heart was coming out of my chest.  Then Brad Fisher, the pitching coach, grabs the phone in the seventh, and says ‘Ratliff!  {pause} Not you.’  And I was like, ‘Aww, jeez.’  But two innings later I was in and I just remember my adrenaline was going through the roof."

I first reached out to Jon in May after I wrote a post on major-leaguers whose careers lasted only one game. But other things kept getting in the way, and it wasn't until last week that we finally had a chance to talk.

Story of his life, I guess. 

See, this is not so much a rags-to-riches tale as it is one of patience and perseverance and timing.  In fact, long before he threw the twelve pitches that he can boast about forever, Jon Charles Ratliff was like any other boy from Central New York, with two exceptions: he was good at baseball, and he knew it.

"Since I was a little kid I was telling everybody I was going to play in the Major Leagues."

Jon Ratliff says this matter-of-factly, but without the slightest hint of conceit; he simply recognized early on that the baseball gods had smiled upon him, particularly his right arm:

"When I was ten I realized I was better than some of the other kids because I threw a lot of strikes, and I threw pretty hard.  At that point I knew I was decent."

He excelled at Liverpool H.S. and Le Moyne College ("a Division II school with Division I baseball", he says).  He led the team in innings pitched and was at least tied for the most wins in all three seasons (1991-93).  But it wasn't until he made the All-Star team in the Cape Cod League that Ratliff discovered he belonged on the same field as those from "the big time schools."

"I knew I could compete but didn't know on what level because going to Le Moyne, you didn't really know how you compared to guys who were in Baseball America every week."

It was at Le Moyne- where Ratliff is one of six Dolphins to turn pro and was inducted into the school's Hall-of-Fame in 2006- that he caught the attention of a few major-league teams, including the one with whom he ultimately cleared the final hurdle:

"My agent told me that if the Cubs didn't pick me 24th, Oakland was going to take me 25th. "

(The San Diego Padres were actually the first to put Ratliff on their radar- at least publicly- by making him the 603rd pick of the 1990 draft.  He didn't sign.) 

The first round of the 1993 draft featured Alex Rodriguez (top pick overall) and a handful of other future All-Stars: Billy Wagner (12th), Derrek Lee (14th), Chris Carpenter (15th), Torii Hunter (20th), and Jason Varitek (21st).  One pick from being taken by Oakland, the Cubs- who had earned the 24th slot as compensation for losing free agent Greg Maddux to Atlanta- chose Ratliff.  He felt that his sinker-ball style appealed to the decision-makers in Chicago:

"When I got picked up by the Cubs it was basically because they saw me as a guy who could keep the ball on the ground at Wrigley Field.  The interesting part is that I probably had one of my worst outings ever in college the day (the Cubs came to see me).  It was my only loss my junior year.  I gave up three homeruns and didn't pitch well. But for some reason they liked what they saw."

Twenty days after the draft Ratliff penned his first pro contract and got his face on a bubble-gum card, but even now he wonders what might have been had he slipped one spot in the draft:

"In some ways I wish Oakland would have taken me.  I think my experience and my career would have been totally different.  Oakland was a team in transition, Billy Beane was just coming in, and they were a young team.  A lot of guys that were drafted in my draft flew through the system over there.  And in Chicago the guys  that drafted me in '93 were gone by '94.  So it was really like starting over."

After five years- at various minor league levels- with Chicago, Ratliff was dealt to the Atlanta Braves, not exactly a team short on pitching, with guys like Glavine and Smoltz and- hey!- Maddux on the roster.  Still, Ratliff relished the fresh start, if only in hopes of restoring some lost confidence:

"I didn't pitch as well as I should have with the Cubs.  I think some of it was the pressure of being a first-round pick.  I (was promoted) to Triple-A after only twelve starts in my career, and then stalled out.  I had a couple of tough outings, and then the Cubs decided to send me to Double-A to finish the year.  So I started to doubt myself a little bit."

"What really threw me for a loop was when the Cubs didn't protect me on the 40-man roster before the '96 season.  I was coming off a great year in '95 with Orlando (AA) and did well in the Arizona Fall League, and to not get a chance blew my confidence a little bit.  So I spent '96 and '97 trying to find my way again."

He had hoped to rediscover himself in Atlanta.  But after failing to crack the big-league club, and feeling the sting of frustration that came with pitching well for poor minor-league squads and watching his peers- guys that he had gone through the ranks with in Chicago- get their chance, Ratliff was granted free agency on October 15, 1999, and a couple of weeks later he signed on with the A's.

"I felt like I actually deserved a shot to go up (with the Braves).  I was one of the last guys cut coming out of Spring Training in '99.  I really loved my time there but unfortunately when it came time in '99 for a September call-up, they told me their bullpen was stacked with guys that threw 95-plus and I wasn't necessarily one of those guys.  They wanted me back as an insurance policy in Triple-A, but I wasn't going to get to the big leagues with them.  That was definitely a frustrating time of not getting to the big leagues (being that) it was the first time I felt I was ready for it."

Ratliff was a non-roster invitee for the A's in the spring of 2000, eager to make his mark in Oakland:

"I became a free agent at 3 o'clock and Billy Beane called my agent at 3 o'clock on the nose.  And when I got to Oakland, he tells me, ‘We've been trying to get you for years.'"

***

"I still remembered when I signed, there's this guy named Tim Hudson, he's a good young pitcher, and there's a couple of good arms with potential, Mulder and Zito.  And everyone was like, ‘Well, we'll see what happens with these guys.'  Obviously we all know what happened.  They became the Big Three of the West Coast and I had just left the Big Three of the East Coast in Atlanta.  So it was kind of bad timing on my part."

After a solid spring, Jon Ratliff was sent down to AAA, where the former Vancouver Canadians were beginning their inaugural season as the Sacramento River Cats under the watchful eye of a guy you might know:

"Bob Geren was my sponsor the whole time.  He loved me, and he told me all year long, from the time he saw me in Spring Training that I was going to pitch in the big leagues.  In Sacramento, I ended up being named Pitcher of the Year, even though Zito was there the majority of the year, and pitched about the same amount of innings."

It was early August 2000 and the Oakland A's were on the verge of being swept by the New York Yankees, and were showing no signs of what was to come.  Jon Ratliff was stuck in Sacramento.  He was not happy.  A summons to Bob Geren's office only seemed to make matters worse.  Or so he thought:

"At that time, I was dealing with some injuries, I had a groin pull.  So Bob calls me into his office- I was in the training room and was supposed to pitch that night- and he says, ‘I can't keep running you out there when you're hurt.'  I tell him, ‘Bob, I need to pitch.  It's August.  I'm trying to get my call-up.  I'm fine.  I can pitch.'  So he turns to pitching coach Rick Rodriguez, and he tells him to go over the lineup with me.  And Rick Rod says, ‘OK, leading off we got Bernie Williams, batting second is Derek Jeter...' and I'm like, ‘What?'  Bob says, ‘You're going to Oakland.'  I got tears in my eyes, it was the greatest moment ever, but just the way he told me was really cool because he was happy for me.  It was an unbelievable moment."

Jon Ratliff was finally where he thought he would be when he was mowing down ten-year olds in Little League.  He didn't stay long.  Back to Sacramento.  Then to Oakland.  At least one baseball site was unimpressed, though it mostly stemmed from an affection for Eric Byrnes:

Okay, now I'm frustrated. It isn't Jon Ratliff's fault, because it's kind of nice to see the man the Cubs picked with the draft choice they got for letting Greg Maddux walk away (or was that for employing Larry Himes for famed charm?). Mostly, my frustration is totally unfair, in that I wish Ryan Christenson would suddenly magically turn into Gary Roenicke and give the A's the lefty-mashing platoon outfielder they really need. Against left-handers, Christenson is hitting a squalid .154/.267/.212. OK, it is only in something like 60 plate appearances, but they've been a pretty crummy 60...

The A's need offense wherever they can get it. Eric Byrnes would make for a pretty good option in the outfield right around now.  With so many players out, the A's need to devote roster space to people they can play, and not to someone who's failed in a specialist role and who they will not entrust with more playing time under almost any circumstance. They needed to spend some more playing time on Byrnes instead of playing several men short on offense, something that gets only worse by going to 12 pitchers.

Baseball sites.  Like they're overflowing with experts or something.

Ratliff was up for only three days, before the A's sent him down again.  Then up to Oakland once more.  He was warming up on September 15 at Tropicana Field, and before he had a chance to collect his thoughts, he was on a big-league mound:

"Sal Fasano, who was catching, and who I had known for a long time, walked out before I started the inning, and said, ‘Just do know what you've always done.  Throw strikes.  Let it fly, man.  Have fun.'  The one inning definitely felt like five innings, my adrenaline was pumping so hard.  When it was over, I felt like I had thrown 100 pitches."

And then it was over.  One game.  One inning.  Twelve pitches, eight for strikes.  After that, he did a whole lot of sitting around, waiting for Art Howe to make good on his promise to play him again.  Ratliff was due to start one of the games of a make-up double-header in Tampa Bay after the season ended but the A's clinched on the last day.  He was passed over when it came time to decide on the post-season roster.  But there was plenty of reason for Jon Ratliff to have hope.  He had been pegged as the favorite for the fifth spot in the 2001 rotation.  But the baseball gods that had smiled upon him so many years ago, would now betray him:

"I pitched against San Diego at the end of Spring Training, and felt numbness in my hand.  Then I pitched Opening Day in Sacramento, threw six scoreless against Omaha, which was my only win, and in my next start, we were up in Edmonton, I went only three innings.  I came out of the game with soreness in my elbow and forearm.  I spent a month on the DL, then rehabbed in Modesto."

At the age of 30, Ratliff- coming off an ulnar nerve transposition ("If I was 23, they would have performed Tommy John surgery", he recalls)- gave it one more go in 2002; first in the Florida Marlins' organization, then with Toronto. Playing for the Blue Jays' Triple-A team in Syracuse, Ratliff was back home. 

"I was still rehabilitating with Florida when I got a call from J.P. Ricciardi, who had left his job as an assistant G.M. in Oakland to take over the G.M. job in Toronto.  He asked if I'd be able to get my release and get over to Syracuse.  I did ok there, had decent numbers for not pitching in a year.  The next year (2003), I ended up calling it quits.  My ex-wife called to tell me that she was pregnant and that the baby was due in February, so I made the decision that I wasn't going to make it back to the big leagues.  I had played eight years in the minors, and it was time to finally shut it down."

***

Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, who played one inning in the field for the New York Giants in 1905, and was immortalized in W.P. Kinsella's novel, Shoeless Joe (and later in the film Field of Dreams), no doubt yearned for that one at-bat that never came.

For Jon Ratliff, he just wanted to be around long enough for his cup of coffee to grow cold:

"I wish someone would have given me fifteen outings out of the bullpen or ten starts just to see what I could have done."

But still, no regrets:

"I got to test myself against the best.  I was in a big-league Spring Training for pretty much every single year of my career. Got to pour champagne around as a division winner.  I wouldn't trade my month and a half in Oakland for anything."

***

Jon Ratliff is currently employed by Arthrex, selling orthopedic implants.  He has come full circle, often coming across the very sort of injuries most associated with pitchers.

Baseball, he says, was his first love, from the time he was seven or eight years old.  He would play Wiffle ball with the neighborhood kids and peruse the box scores, all the while cheering on the Mets and Doc Gooden.

Today the father of three (daughters Kierin and Raegan, and son Cade)  is admittedly only a casual observer, but still keeps tabs on the one team that gave him his big shot.

One inning.  Three batters.  Twelve pitches.

Countless memories.

 

Jon Ratliff

Jon Ratliff was named Pitcher of the Year for Sacramento in 2000.