Griffith Stadium in Washington, a shortstop named Jesse Baker made his major league debut for the Senators. Baker was 24 years old, nicknamed Tiny because he was only 5 feet 4 inches. He started at shortstop against the Detroit Tigers, and Ty Cobb spiked him on a slide into second base. Baker left the game without getting to bat, and never played again in the majors.
For nearly a century, that sad tale stood alone as the only known instance of a position player starting his one and only major league game without ever coming up to hit. For now, though, Tiny Baker has company in Dustin Fowler.
Fowler started in right field for the Yankees last June 29, on the road against the Chicago White Sox. He was a bit nervous, he said, but that was good; he plays better that way. He had studied James Shields, the opposing starter, and knew to look for sinkers and cutters.
“I was in a good spot when I left Triple-A,” Fowler said on Thursday. “I was getting hot again. I felt like some good things were gonna happen.”
With two out in the bottom of the first inning, Fowler bolted from his position to chase a foul pop by Jose Abreu. He slammed full-speed into an unpadded metal electrical box along a side wall, rupturing his right patellar tendon with an injury so gruesome it brought Joe Girardi, then the Yankees’ manager, to tears.
Fowler would have led off the second inning, but his season had come to a sudden and grisly end. A month later his Yankees’ career ended, too, with a trade to the Oakland Athletics as part of a package for starter Sonny Gray. Though he never expected it, Fowler said, he recognized the opportunity immediately.
“Getting hurt there was a big part of getting traded here,” Fowler said, by his locker at Hohokam Stadium. “But I’m happy for it. I think everything happens for a reason. Hopefully I’ll get my debut here sooner than later so I can go ahead and forget about that day.”
Fowler has appeared in just one of Oakland’s seven games this spring training, but he is scheduled to play again on Saturday, and every other day after that. He still needs to strengthen his right quadriceps and regain his old two-step burst when he runs. But the A’s want him to win their center field job, and he could be ready by opening day.
“He’s hitting every marker,” Manager Bob Melvin said. “You want to make sure he gets plenty of at-bats and does well, but he looks very graceful in the outfield, he’s got a nice swing, he runs well, he’s very athletic — some of the qualities we maybe haven’t had in the past.”
The A’s have finished in last place in each of the past three seasons, their longest such streak since the 1940s. Forever trapped in the outmoded, low-revenue Coliseum, they need to take risks to compete with the World Series champion Houston Astros and their other American League West rivals. The Fowler trade qualifies.
In moving Gray, whose rights the A’s controlled through 2019, Oakland received a second injured prospect besides Fowler: pitcher James Kaprielian, a former first-round draft choice who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Jorge Mateo, a shortstop who was not injured then but has a sprained knee ligament now, was the third — and most highly touted — prospect in the deal.
“We’ve been through this cycle a lot, in my and Billy’s time together,” General Manager David Forst said, referring to Billy Beane, Oakland’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “We’ve done the up-and-down, and hopefully can recognize when there’s a time to look at higher-upside guys. We’ve made trades for safer guys with a lower ceiling who could impact us sooner, but we were certainly in position last July to go for the most talent regardless of how far away from the big leagues they were.”
In Fowler’s case, the A’s had few precedents to study. The injury, Forst said, is more common in N.F.L. running backs than major league outfielders. Yet while Fowler is fast — he had 55 steals in his last two full seasons in the minors — the A’s feel he has enough skills to not depend entirely on speed.
“His hands are quick enough that he will drive the ball to all the fields, with gap-to-gap power,” said the Oakland first base coach Al Pedrique, who managed the Yankees’ Class AAA team last season, when Fowler hit .293 with 13 homers.
“He’s a very smart player, and defensively he got so much better last year with his routes and jumps. His throwing strength has improved, and his awareness of where to throw the ball has gotten so much better. He can play center field every day in the big leagues.”
As a center fielder, Fowler will not have to contend with side walls. He also hopes that his example will minimize risks for other fielders. In January, Fowler sued the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the agency that owns Guaranteed Rate Field, alleging negligence and seeking compensation for possible lost future earnings. Fowler said the suit was still in progress and had not been resolved.
“I’m just looking out for the guy next to me,” Fowler said. “Two outs into my big league career and I’m suing someone, you’d never want to do that. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.”
Whatever happens with his case, Fowler will always have a scar and a lonely Yankees stat line — one game and a row of zeros — to remind him of his cruel and unusual introduction to the majors. He wishes he had something else.
“The only thing that upsets me is I was so close to it and I wasn’t able to come up with it,” Fowler said. “After an injury, it looks a lot better to actually have caught the ball.”