LOS ANGELES — One of my favorite things about baseball is players making their major league debut. I love everything about it.
From how the player found out — a late-night phone call, a surprise in front of the minor league team, or a meeting in the manager’s office — to their sometimes scrambled travel plans to a major league city, to how many friends and/or family were able to join them, if possible.
A player walking into a clubhouse as a major leaguer for the first time, getting handshakes and approving nods from his new teammates, is up there for me along with catchers and home plate umpires taking extra long — brushing the plate, visiting the mound — when the other gets hit or hurt; and with managers wearing cleats in the dugout.
Eight different Dodgers made their major league debuts in 2016. Kenta Maeda was a special case with his years of professional experience in Japan, but seven others got the call from the minors — Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, Brock Stewart, Andrew Toles, Grant Dayton, Rob Segedin and Jose De Leon.
There was even one more call up in 2016, though a quick glance of Baseball-Reference doesn’t necessarily show it.
The Dodgers traded A.J. Ellis to the Phillies on Aug. 25 for Carlos Ruiz, but with Ruiz not yet to arrive in Los Angeles until the next day, the club was in need of a backup catcher for one night. The other catcher on the 40-man roster, Austin Barnes, was unavailable for a few days after getting hit by a pitch on his right hand.
That opened the door for Shawn Zarraga, a switch-hitting 27-year-old who was a non-roster invitee to spring training the last two years. He was called up to the majors for the first time, and arrived at Dodger Stadium some time after first pitch.
Zarraga loved every moment of his one-day gig, even though he didn’t play.
Zarraga was optioned back to the minors one day later, then on Aug. 28 was sent outright to the minors, removing him from the 40-man roster.
But for one day, even though he didn’t play, Zarraga was a major leaguer.
Zarraga was a free agent this winter and has moved on to the Reds as a non-roster invitee, so he will have more opportunities to return to the big leagues and perhaps play. But for now, he joins a list of rare players who have were called up to the majors but never played.
You might have heard of Moonlight Graham, immortalized in ‘Field of Dreams.’ He played one inning in the outfield in one game for the New York Giants in 1905, but never got to bat. But at least he got to play.
Thanks to research by Bill Hickman in a project for SABR, we know of at least 393 different players who were called up to the majors but never played. That list includes Zarraga for now, and also includes several Dodgers.
Most of the Los Angeles Dodgers in this group came in a short period of time, in the bonus baby era:
Sheldon Brodsky 3B/OF (1961)
Allen Norris 1B/3B/OF (1961)
Ralph Plumlee SS (1961)
Gene Wallace SS/2B/OF (1961)
Rick Warren P (1961)
Paul Speckenbach RHP (1964)
Before the major league draft was instituted there was a rule that a club could only send one “first-year” player with a signing bonus of a certain amount to the minors. Speckenbach was one of four Dodgers signed to large bonuses in 1963, and at least three had to be kept on the major league roster. First baseman Wes Parker and catcher Jeff Torborg, you’ve heard of. The other two were the other 19-year-old Speckenbach, signed to a $70,000 bonus, and outfielder Bill Parlier.
Dennis Daboll P (1965)
Daboll was signed out of high school in 1964, and made the Dodgers the next year at age 18, even garnering a mention in a March 1965 article in Sports Illustrated. Daboll was claimed later in 1965 by the Reds, and pitched through 1971 but never made the majors.
Daboll was featured as one quarter of a 1965 Topps card, along with other young Dodgers Mike Kekich — who would later become famous in The Bronx for swapping wives with Yankees teammate Fritz Peterson — catcher Hector Valle, and second baseman Jim Lefebvre, who would win Rookie of the Year in 1965.
After this group, the Dodgers didn’t have another such player for 31 years.
Jesus Martinez RHP (1996)
Jesus was the other Martinez brother, the left-hander to go with stellar right-handers Ramon and Pedro. Jesus had a cup of coffee with the Dodgers in September 1996 after a 4.40 ERA in 27 starts in Double-A San Antonio, but did not pitch.
Mike Antonini LHP (2012)
The Dodgers acquired Antonini from the Mets in 2010 (six years ago Tuesday) in exchange for infielder Chin-lung Hu, then added the left-hander to the 40-man roster in November 2011.
Antonini was a starter in the minors but with a thinning major league bullpen the southpaw was called up as relief insurance on Apr. 24, 2012:
Antonini, 26, received the call from Albuquerque Isotopes manager Lorenzo Bundy telling him he was getting his first call to the big leagues. Antonini's first call was to his parents, and because the call was in the middle of the night his mom's first reaction was to panic.
"They are in Philadelphia so it was probably 2am, but I don't think they cared much," said Antonini, who said his parents would try to come out and see him pitch though given that he is in relief there is no set schedule as to when he would pitch.
Antonini never did pitch during that first stint in the majors, and was sent back to Triple-A three days later. He got one more call up to the majors, on May 28, but again did not pitch.
I caught up earlier this month with Antonini, now 31 and still pitching in the independent Atlantic League. He said his parents were able to make the trip from Philadelphia back in 2012, but didn’t get to see him pitch.
“It was on one of the days I was being sent back down,” he said. “I was able to spend some time with them and go out to dinner before leaving in the a.m.”
Antonini was designated for assignment on July 31, 2012, removed from the 40-man roster to make room for trade acquisition Shane Victorino. The Dodgers outrighted Antonini to the minors.
“Being called up to the major leagues is a childhood dream for many people. I recognize that as a great accomplishment because the number of people who get to put on the major league uniform is a very small percentage,” Antonini said. “With being called up and not having your name called to pitch or play comes a disappointment along with that. I would have loved to pitch in Dodger Stadium or in any stadium in the major leagues.”
Antonini remained in the Dodgers organization until he was released at the end of spring training in 2013. He developed elbow problems that eventually required surgery, and in the last four years has pitched in independent ball, winter leagues, and the minors.
In 2016, he had a 3.92 ERA in 17 starts with Bridgeport in the Atlantic League, and hopes to one day return to the majors.
“Being a "phantom" player (I believe that's what it's called) fuels my desire to return back to the major league level. I continue to work hard and develop myself into making it back and being able to pitch for a major league team,” Antoni said. “A lot of people call it a cup of coffee but I see it as I only got to pick out my creamer!”