The Seattle Times is celebrating the greatest Mariners performers of the past 40 years.
You won’t find Ron Wright on this list. In fact, by some measures, Wright had a uniquely disastrous major-league career — one solitary game with the 2002 Mariners in which he accounted for an astounding six outs in three at-bats.
But no one appreciated his ill-fated time more than Wright, who grew up in Kennewick. He has channeled what by all rights could have been lingering bitterness and turned it into a healthy attitude toward a post-baseball life he loves.
“My reaction now is the same as it always has been — I’m grateful for time I had up there, and to get into that game,” Wright said by phone from St. George, Utah, where he lives a quiet, happy life as a pharmacist, baseball instructor, outdoorsman, father and husband. “No regrets whatsoever.”
In the realm of MLB’s one-game wonders, Wright is not exactly Moonlight Graham, romanticized in “Field of Dreams,” or John Paciorek (former Mariner Tom Paciorek’s brother), who was 3 for 3 and drove in three runs in his lone game for Houston in 1963 before hurting his back and never returning to The Show.
In his first at-bat, Wright struck out. In his second at-bat, he grounded into a triple play. In his third at-bat, he grounded into a double play. The fourth at-bat never came. Seattle manager Lou Piniella sent Mark McLemore up to hit for Wright in the seventh inning of an eventual 9-7 Mariners win. Wright never appeared in another big-league game, sent back down to Tacoma a couple days later.
“If I got into one game,” Wright said cheerfully, “I might as well do something memorable. I wish it had been three home runs, but it wasn’t. It was kind of a weird sequence of events that led to the actual outcome. With different baserunning and different bounces, you never know.”
Road to The Show
Wright made his cameo appearance for the Mariners on April 14, 2002, in Arlington, Texas, against the Rangers. He was 26 and had gone from elite prospect with the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates to minor-league journeyman after back surgery in 1999 that didn’t go well. Wright had been a touted slugger known for 500-foot homers, but when the surgeon nicked his sciatic nerve during a disk removal, he was left with perpetual numbness in his right leg that effectively sapped his power.
“You can look at it two different ways,” reflected Wright, now 41. “You could be bitter, but he was the best doctor in the country. If not for him, I might not have even walked out of there. But looking back, I wish I hadn’t had surgery.”
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Wright grew up in the Tri-Cities after age 8 and played with Tony Mounce on Kamiakin’s 1994 state championship baseball team.
He had been earmarked as the Pirates’ first baseman of the future after being acquired from Atlanta as a key piece in a trade for All-Star starter Denny Neagle. He even got a September call-up from the Pirates in 1997 but did not play because of a wrist injury.
After the back injury, which cost Wright most of the 1998 and ’99 seasons, Wright drifted through the minor leagues, moving from the Pirates’ organization to the Reds and Devil Rays (now Rays), mired in Triple-A. The Mariners signed Wright to a minor-league contract in 2002.
“My leg was always fresher early in the year, and I got off to a torrid start with Tacoma,” he recalled.
The Mariners, coming off a 116-win season, had a deep, loaded lineup, and Wright understood that his chance of getting a crack with the big club was remote. But early in the season, designated hitter Edgar Martinez suffered a hamstring injury. The Rainiers were in Iowa when manager Dan Rohn told Wright to jump on a plane to Texas. The Mariners needed another bat. Wright excitedly called his family with the news but told his parents not to bother flying to Dallas. They could catch him in Seattle later down the line.
There was no “later,” of course. For Wright, forever, there was only April 14, after sitting on the bench for his first two games in the majors. He would have sat a third game, in fact, except that during batting practice on that fateful Sunday, a line drive by Mike Cameron bounced off the pitching screen and struck Jeff Cirillo on his head, opening a wound that required three stitches. Gerald Perry, the Mariners’ hitting coach, informed Wright that he would be starting at DH and batting seventh.
Just one regret
In his first at-bat, facing veteran lefty Kenny Rogers with two aboard in the second, Wright experienced the only regret he would have. He decided to take one pitch — and let a fat fastball from Rogers go by. Looking back, Wright thinks if he hadn’t sat for a few days, he would have come up hacking. But he felt he needed one pitch to reconnoiter. Rogers proceeded to paint the corner for the whiff.
“I still remember looking at that first pitch and thinking I should have torn that ball up,” he said.
Wright came up again in the fourth with Ruben Sierra on third base and John Olerud on first, no outs. What happened next, he says, “is like a blur.”
Wright hit a chopper up the middle, thinking that at the very worst they’d get a force at second and he’d beat the throw to first for an RBI. But Rogers, a Gold Glove fielder, snared the ball and quickly threw to Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez for the force out.
Sierra, meanwhile, had broken late for home, and Rodriguez fired to Texas catcher Bill Haselman.
“It sounds like Ruben maybe was not running too hard,” Wright said. “I looked up and saw him in a pickle. The first-base coach waved me to second so I could at least get in scoring position.”
But Sierra was tagged out, and then so was Wright on the throw back to A-Rod. Wright had joined Larry Hesterfer of the 1901 New York Giants — a pitcher — as the only players in history to hit into a triple play in his only big-league game.
Piniella would tell reporters afterward, “I could see it developing, like a thunderstorm on the gulf.”
“When you put the ball in play, a lot of things could happen,” Wright said. “But Kenny was one of the best at fielding his position.”
Wright came to bat one final time in the sixth, this time with Sierra on second and Olerud on first. He hit the ball squarely, but right at Rodriguez, who started a 6-4-3 double play.
“That’s just the way baseball goes,” he said. “I was fine with that. The first at-bat, I was a little awestruck, keyed up.”
Back to the minors
Afterward, there was much gallows humor. Bret Boone presented Wright with a lineup card signed by the Mariners players — and Rodriguez. The next day, when another first-and-second situation presented itself, Piniella told Wright in the dugout with a grin he would have sent him up to hit but he was afraid he’d hit into another triple play.
“What can you do but laugh?” Wright said. “People around the game know how it goes. I had a short memory. It ended up a big story, but I was over it by the next at-bat, ready to roll. I’d hit into double plays before. The triple play was kind of a freak deal.”
The next at-bat was back with Tacoma. When the team moved on to Oakland after a four-game series with Texas, the Mariners’ bullpen was shot and needed reinforcement. When Piniella called Wright into his office to send him down, he apologized for not getting him another chance.
There would be no more chances. Wright tried gamely, moving on to the Detroit and Cleveland organizations, and finally, in 2004, to Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League. But his body had nothing left, and Wright finally quit.
“Before my injury, I probably would have been disappointed if I was not an All-Star two or three times,” Wright said. “But I knew in the back of my mind it would never be the same. I was missing pitches I hit before. It was good to be rewarded for all the hard work with one game, at least.”
More important things
After his retirement, Wright got his pharmacy degree at Idaho State University in Pocatello and settled into a job as a pharmacist in Utah, the state where he was born. He and his wife Annica, whom he met in church while in the minor leagues, have been married 20 years and have four kids ranging from 19 to 10.
“I was not raised to think the only thing in life was baseball,” Wright said. “I loved it and breathed it and wanted it more than anything else, but I had a good head on my shoulders and realized that there were other things more important, like family.”
Wright, who played in the heart of the steroids era, saw players juice up and pass him by. But if you think that made him bitter, you haven’t been paying attention.
“Suddenly, the one thing I could do, hit home runs, everyone could do,” he said. “And I’m gimpy, and they’re ’roided up. It was hard to watch, but I stick up for guys. A lot of good, honest people took them. I still think it’s wrong, I still think it’s the chicken’s way out, but I understand it’s more than black and white. If everyone is doing it, it’s hard to pass up.”
These days, Wright doesn’t watch much Major League Baseball until the postseason. He admits it’s still hard. He’s had a couple of stints coaching hitters at Dixie State University in St. George and would love to get involved in the college game again. Wright has written a manual to help with the mental side of hitting and does private instruction. He still has friends in the game, but most, such as Mariners first-base coach Casey Candaele, have segued from player to coach.
Every so often, someone will bring up the game — his game — and it doesn’t bother him.
“I knew I wasn’t going to stay there,” he said. “So I might as well have done something memorable.”