All 15 Year Team: First Base

Thunder Thoughts look at the All 15 Year Team nominees continues with a look at the four finalists at first base.

David McDonough is the featured writer in our position-by-position breakdown of the Thunder’s All 15 Year Team, and has covered the team since their inception in 1994.  He brings a smooth writing style, and a knowledge of the team’s history and players that few others have.  In short, few are as qualified as he is to be doing this.

The following is Dave’s breakdown, mine will follow after all of his are done…
Tony Clark: The first franchise player in Thunder history, Tony was the face of the team in its first year, the one season of Tiger affiliation. You have to remember, that was a truly bad team, the worst ever at Waterfront. What a relief to get that designation over with in the first year! The team went 55-85 and finished 33 ½ games out of first. Even the 2002 team, which finished last and played at times with a less than full roster, won 63 games.
So all hail Tony Clark, who hit 21 homers and batted in 86 runs in 107 games, which was pretty good considering there was never anybody on base in front of him. He slugged at a .503 rate, and is also the first player to hit a ball into the Delaware, a grand-slam, I believe. And was a super guy with the fans, the media, and the community. No wonder his was the first number ever retired by the Thunder.
David Gibralter: Numbers can be deceiving. Yes, the Rock hit 24 homers and had 97 RBIs for the 1999 team. He hit .299 and had two grand slams that year.
It was his third year in the Eastern League, and with the Thunder, and he had only been mildly successful in his first two years. He struck out a lot those years. And his 97 RBIs had a lot to do with having David Eckstein and Raul Gonzalez (who had a club record 103 RBIs) in front of him, and veteran Izzy (3 ½ minute home run trot) Alcantara behind him.
Gibralter had genuine power. I remember him hitting a ball up onto Rte 29 once. And he has the club record for grannies – five in three years. But basically I remember him as a guy who missed more than he hit, especially in the clutch. 1999 was a career year for him – he kicked around the minors for ten years without even getting out of Double-A.
Ryan McGuire: The best forgotten man of the Thunder, McGuire hit .333 in 414 at bats for the 95 team, the first year of the Red Sox affiliation. The 23-year-old had a good glove, too, but the 3rd round draft choice (out of UCLA) was overshadowed by other prospects, like Nomar Garciaparra and 20-year-old pitcher Jeff Suppan, who went straight from Trenton to the Red Sox, the first Thunder player to accomplish that.
Other factors have kept Ryan from looming large in Thunder fans’ memories. He had little power, only seven homers. Do I date myself if I compare him to Mark Grace? (I have to date myself, no one else will.) And 1995 was his last season in the Red Sox organization. The Red Sox had a pretty good hitting first baseman named Mo Vaughn, so McGuire was shipped off to the Montreal Expos in a deal that brought Wil Cordero to Boston. There was no place more obscure to play in the 1990s than Montreal. The other reason McGuire is forgotten is that he never hit in the big leagues. In parts of six seasons with the Expos, Mets, Marlins and Orioles, he hit a combined .211 in 368 games. He w as out of baseball by age 31, but he did have that good year in Trenton.
Shelley Duncan: There wasn’t one reporter out of Trenton who didn’t have a feel-good moment when Shelley Duncan hit a run-scoring single in his Yankees debut last July. It’s hard not to cheer when one of the good guys finally gets to the big leagues at age 27 – and proves he belongs there.

Shelley put up some good power numbers in his year and a half at Trenton – a league-leading 34 homers in 2005 and 19 homers in 92 games in 2006.
Now, let’s be honest – he was almost 26 when he got to Trenton and his average was never anything to brag about (.240 in 2005 and .256 in 2006). And he struck out 140 times in 2005. So he probably wasn’t the best first baseman ever to play here, and he’ll probably never play regularly in the big leagues. But he could be a really good role player for the Yankees and a really good clubhouse presence. You won’t meet anyone in baseball who doesn’t like Shelly.
Not on the ballot: Juan Diaz: Juan Carlos Diaz is one of those “What if?” players. He only played 50 games for the Thunder, but man, could he rake.

Diaz defected from Cuba in 1996, and was signed by the Dodgers. The big man (listed at 6’3, 230) clubbed a lot of homers in A ball before his contract was declared invalid for reasons that still remain obscure. The Red Sox signed him in 2000 and at 26, he found himself in Trenton, where for a month and a half he was unstoppable. In 198 at bats, he hit 17 homers, and had 53 RBI in those 50 games. He batted .313 and slugged at an alarming .652 rate. He hit one ball over the center field scoreboard that came down in Bordentown two days later. And Big Juan was surprisingly agile at first.
When the Red Sox promoted him to Triple A later that season, he continued to mash. He had 7 homers and 17 RBIs in 13 games before he smashed up his knee running the bases. He was out for the season, and, although no one knew it, it was a major downward turn. Over the off-season, Diaz, unable to exercise, discovered American fast food. He ballooned up over 260 pounds, and reported the next year vastly out of shape. He still had some power, but he wasn’t the same player, and he and his belly have been bouncing around baseball ever since. He’s been with a few organizations, has played Indy ball, and keeps being sighted in places like Mexico and, I think, Taiwan. He was 34 years old last Sunday. But for 50 games in the summer of 2000, he was as good a slugger as Trenton has ever seen.
Dave’s Vote Goes To: Tony Clark. You just can’t underestimate his impact in getting the franchise off to a successful start.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: Some of these guys I’m pretty familiar with, and some of them I’m not.  I remember David Gibralter as one of the more popular players on the Thunder, saw Juan Diaz hit many a bomb in Trenton, and covered Shelley Duncan in Trenton in 2006 and occasionally in the big leagues in 2007.

Tony Clark: On the baseball side of things, Tony Clark was perhaps the only reason to come see the Trenton Thunder during their horrific 1994 season.  On a team that went a putrid 55-85, Clark was one of the few bright spots, hitting .279 with 21 home runs and 86 RBI.  Clark and Trever Miller are the only two players from that team still playing in the big leagues.

Clark recently signed a deal with the San Diego Padres, where he’ll likely come off the bench, as he’s done so successfully over the past few years.

David Gibralter: A disgusting, dirt covered game-used black Trenton Thunder hat sits on one of my shelves at home, a reminder of the guy who was greeted by loud cheers and came out to WWE wrestler The Rock’s entrance music.  “Gibralter” is written under the bill, and he then signed it for me when he returned for the 2000 season with the Bowie Baysox.  Seeing him in a uniform other than Trenton’s was odd, but perhaps harder to comprehend was that despite his big power numbers, (he hit 53 home runs in three seasons for Trenton) he never advanced to Pawtucket with the Red Sox, and only got one brief look at Triple-A in the Brewers organization.

After hitting 24 home runs for Trenton in 1999, “The Rock” was out of affiliated baseball by 2003.

Ryan McGuire: McGuire played just three seasons in the Red Sox farm system, and his 1995 season in Trenton was the last of those three.  He hit a career high .333 that year, and hit seven home runs and amassed 59 RBI.  Dealt to the Expos with other household names Shayne Bennett and Rheal Cormier, McGuire spent three seasons in Montreal before bouncing around with the Mets, Marlins and Orioles.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, he finished his career just a level away from returning to where it really began, as some of his last at-bats came with the Yankees organization as a member of Triple-A Columbus in 2003, the first year of Trenton’s affiliation with New York.

Shelley Duncan: Beloved by the front office, fans and media, Duncan hit 53 home runs over the course of two seasons for the Trenton Thunder.  His 34 longballs led the Eastern League in 2005, and Duncan was a catalyst on that year’s team, which ended the Thunder’s six-year playoff drought.

Duncan emerged as a team leader, and was one of the go-to guys for the media.  Soft-spoken, but always thoughtful, he was one of the more popular players on the team, and could frequently be seen mingling with fans or signing autographs down the first base line.

My fondest memory of Duncan is from the 2005 Eastern League Playoffs, when he was on base when Michael Coleman hit his walk-off home run to send the series to five games.  As Duncan was rounding the bases, he got so excited that he stopped and rolled around for a little bit, giddy that the series had been extended.  He has a genuine passion for the game and wants to win, and if the team were name the most popular player from their past 15 years, Duncan would have to be near or at the top of the list.

Not on the ballot: Shea Hillenbrand: OK, so Hillenbrand is on the ballot.  But just not at first base.  Listed as a third baseman, Hillenbrand actually played more games at first base (65) for the Thunder than he did at any other position (35 at third base and 55 at catcher).  Hildy and Damian Sapp were my favorite players on the 2000 team, and I was kind of disappointed to learn that most stories told about Hillenbrand’s time in Trenton were negative.  But I think that’s something I can expand on a bit when his name comes up on the third base ballot.

As I paid particularly close attention to Hillenbrand during the 2000 season, I can vividly remember watching him do extra work at first base with the coaching staff.  He’d never really played first base before, and I can remember them teaching him how to step into the throws from his fellow infielders so the ball would get there a split second quicker.

My Vote Goes To: Shelley Duncan.  This vote is as much for Duncan’s impact in the clubhouse as it is for what he did on the field. 

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT

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4 Responses to “All 15 Year Team: First Base”

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