Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Place in History

Chris Jelic's entire major league career consisted of 4 games in left field for the Mets in 1990, which included 11 plate appearances, just one hit, and one putout in the outfield. Yet he had a number of unusual baseball accomplishments that hint at the elements of a rather poignant athletic biography gathered from various records available on the Web.

Let's start with a couple of odd statistical categories in which Chris falls. As I mentioned, Jelic had only one hit in his MLB career. As it happens however, that one hit was a home run. Only 14 men in MLB history (not including players active in 2007) have had a home run as their only career hit (13 players had only one career hit, a homer, and one player, Keith McDonald, had only three career hits, all home runs).

But not only that, Chris's homer came in his very last plate appearance in the major leagues. After an oh-fer in the first ten ABs of his little cup of coffee at the end of 1990, Chris came up for the Mets in the 8th inning of their last game of the season and slugged a homer. The next season he was back in the minors and never got another shot at the Show. According to Wikipedia, only 41 players in major league history have hit homers in their final at bat, including some well-known players such as Ted Williams, Mickey Cochrane, Albert Belle and Tony Kubek. Four guys were playing for the Mets when they hit a homer in their last career at bat: Mike Cubbage (who also managed the Mets for a few games), Todd Zeile, Chico Walker and Jelic. Joe Frazier, another Mets manager, is also on the list of players who homered in their last major league AB.

What I can gather of Chris Jelic's career from Googling him seems a story of a guy who seemed always on the verge of being a big star but never quite made it. His father was a running back for the University of Pittsburgh football team in the 1950s and subsequently was an assistant coach on the Pitt football staff. Chris himself was a famous high school quarterback at Mt. Lebanon High School in the South Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 80s -- just a few miles from where I had gone to high school a few year before (high school football is an almost religious pursuit in western Pennsylvania). Chris followed in his Dad's footsteps and went to Pitt to play football, looking to be the successor to Dan Marino, who had just graduated, but the Panthers had two other top QBs on the team, and Jelic never could manage to win the regular starting job, although injuries to his teammates seemed to open the door a couple of times. He might still have had NFL potential, but he was also a catcher on the baseball team and the Kansas City Royals drafted him as a catcher in the second round of the 1985 draft, the 45th overall pick that year (oddly enough, Dan Marino, who Chris had hoped to succeed a star QB at Pitt, had also been drafted by the Royals, in the 4th round of the 1979 draft).

His minor league stats show him as a guy who could get on base particularly well for a catcher, but who had little power -- how ironic given his final MLB stat line! In 1987 he was part of one of the greatest trades in Mets history when the Mets sent catcher Ed Hearn and pitchers Rick Anderson (now the Twins pitching coach) and Mauro (Goose) Gozzo to KC for a pitcher named David Cone and Jelic. Cone had been a Royals 3rd round draft pick, lower than Jelic, but of course Cone turned out to be the prize of the trade. In Jelic's first minor league stop after the trade, he had a .446 OBP at Lynchburg. On July 14 (and into July 15), 1988, Jelic was part of history when he was the catcher for all 25 (scoreless!) innings for the AA Jackson Mets vs. San Antonio Missions in a game that was suspended after 7 hours, and finished up on July 16 when the Missions finally scored a run in the bottom of the 26th -- one of the longest games in the history of organized baseball. In 1990 at AAA Tidewater his OBP was fine .406, but he was already 26 years old, he was playing mostly first and third base, rather than catcher, and his SLG was a meager .032 more than his OBP. Nevertheless on Sept 4, 1990, the Mets released catcher Barry Lyons and brought Chris up to the big club.

And there he had his short, odd, historic stay in the majors. That last game of the 1990 season, when Chris hit his last-shot homer that gave him a few little pieces of baseball history, came in Pittsburgh of all places, his home town, site of high school football heroics and his college football heritage and hopes. Here's an eyewitness account of the home run from the wonderful website Ultimate Mets Database

September 13, 2003 "I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh with Chris. Great guy and also excellent QB and Punter for the Pitt football team. Lost touch with Chris over the years, but did get to watch his only hit, a HR, against Pittsburgh. I was so excited for him and watching his smile as he rounded 3rd was awesome!"

His final career MLB stat line is 11 PAs, .091 BA, .091 OBP, .364 SLG. He went on to play three more years in the high minors, at ages 27 to 29, with numbers declining every year, before the Mets released him after the 1990 season. In all he played 739 games in 9 minor leage seasons with 2205 ABs, 44 homers, a fine .381 OBP and a non-stellar .392 SLG (minor league stats from I haven't found anything on the Web referring to Chris's activities after his playing career ended. Here's hoping he's gone on to satisfying work and a successful personal life out of the public eye.

Chris's was hardly a lucrative or spectacular career in pro sports, for a kid who started as a high school football hero and seemed to have promise all along the way. But still it was a career that contributed its small, unique pieces to baseball history -- without careers like this one, there would of course be no major league baseball at all, and Chris's small, unusual and poignant entries in the records of the game deserve to be remembered.

No comments: