PITTSBURGH — When Shaeffer Hall fires off the first pitch at Waterfront Park later tonight around 7:05 PM, the eighteenth season of Trenton Thunder baseball at Waterfront Park will be officially underway.
But only one man remains from the team’s first Opening Day. And for the countless pitches that have been thrown at Waterfront Park, he just so happens to be the man who threw the very first one.
At the time, Trever Miller was a fresh-faced 20-year-old kid from Louisville, Kentucky who was starting just his fourth year as a pro ballplayer after being drafted 41st overall in the first round by the Detroit Tigers in 1991.
“It was my first year in Double-A, so I was just excited to move up a level. I was anxious to see how good I could become and how that level would treat me,” Miller said. “I remember the town was so happy to get a ballclub there and all the hoopla that went into that. There were a lot of politicians out there, and the fans were excited to have the new club there.”
Thing is, while the players were ready, the stadium was a bit of a different story, recalls Miller.
“One thing that does stand out is the field wasn’t quite ready for that Yankees series, the turf hadn’t quite taken yet,” he said.
“They came in, and their manager lifted up the turf. Off they went, and we didn’t get to play. It was kind of disappointing. But I got to throw the first pitch in that ballpark, and I still have a picture of that at the house. It was quite the honor to break in a ballpark with the first start and the first pitch ever there.”
All in all, 35 players suited up for the Thunder in their inaugural season, which also doubled as their only year under Tigers affiliation. Of those 35, ten went on to play in the major leagues, most notably Tony Clark. But only Miller remains as an active player from that special team that brought baseball back to the capital city.
At the time, Miller was a starter, and he went 7-16 for that abysmal squad with a 4.39 ERA to boot. Over time he eventually evolved into the successful lefty specialist you likely know him as now.
“I was a starter up until I got to the big leagues with Houston,” said Miller, who was dealt from Detroit to the Astros in a nine-player trade prior to the 1997 season.
“They had just a stacked staff and a stacked rotation there, and I wasn’t going to crack that. As a rookie, I was out of options, so Jerry Hunsicker put me into the bullpen as the long guy, and I did well. The next year, I had more of a late inning role and did decent with that. Once you do well at something, it kind of gets stuck with you, so I became a reliever. From there, it became ‘How can he get lefties out? Can this guy get lefties out?’ So I started dropping down a little bit, and it worked very well. That was probably the smartest move I’ve ever made career-wise. It’s kept me in the game this long and hopefully a lot longer. I want to keep playing until they tell me I can’t play anymore.”
With the way Miller, now 37, has been going, that time may very well be further away than most who had first seen him every fifth day in 1994 had thought. But despite his Major League success as a lefty reliever, Miller does occasionally think about what his career would have been like had he stuck to starting, as he got to do at Waterfront Park.
“I tell everybody my dream was to be the next Hall of Fame lefthanded pitcher, the next Tom Glavine,” he said.
“I think everybody comes up that way. But you get to the big leagues, and sometimes you learn your stuff might not be quite that good to be a starter and go through three times through the lineup. So you find your niche, and you accept that role. Once you do that, I think you can excel at it. If you fight your talent level in this business, you can be out of the game a lot sooner.”
Miller will never be one of the so-called big names, but his place in the game is secure as one of the better southpaw middle relievers to step inbetween the white lines. It’s a role that often leads to relative obscurity, so perhaps it’s only appropriate that he owns one of the more obscure records in the game: 121 consecutive appearances without a decision.
“When it first happened, ESPN called me and wanted me to do some interviews and so did some of the reporters. But it’s just kind of an oddity, not getting any decisions for I think it was 121 games and not to get a loss in 200-plus games,” he said.
“It’s very easy to get a loss out of the bullpen. One bad pitch you throw at the wrong time, and all of a sudden you’re on the hook for it. It wasn’t just me, I had a lot of guys bail me out, my bullpen buddies behind me to clean up my mess. Or just the team scoring runs at the right time, so it was just a culmination of all that. I was very fortunate to go that long without any decisions, especially a loss. No one wants a loss. Win, I’ll take. But you can have a loss.”
Unfortunately, there is a loss that sticks with Miller. The friendly St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was on the losing side of the 2008 World Series, when his Tampa Bay Rays were taken down by the Philadelphia Phillies. The experience, however, was worth it.
“It was a dream come true,” Miller said.
“I played in the Babe Ruth World Series twice, and that was pretty fun at the time for my age. But as you’re going into baseball as a young boy and you get into the pros and you finally make it into the big leagues, obviously you want to go to the ultimate stage, which is Major League Baseball’s World Series. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity, I feel blessed that we were able to go there. And I went there with a team that wasn’t supposed to go at all, we weren’t expected to do that well. It was magical on a lot of different fronts, personally and professionally.”
Miller has been with the Cardinals for the past three seasons now, and had arguably the best season of his career in 2009, posting a 4-1 record and 2.08 ERA in 70 appearances out of Tony LaRussa’s bullpen. He’s strung together six straight scoreless appearances to start out this season as well, but really seemed to get things turned around in his first year with the club after an ERA that was a few notches above four the year earlier in his only season with the Rays.
“I developed a little bit more of a sinker here,” Miller said.
“Yadier Molina’s the best catcher I’ve ever had behind the plate, he’s very creative back there. So if he calls a pitch that the entire ballpark knows you’re going to throw, if he does, he wants it bounced out of the strike zone or something like that. And I had a great bullpen behind me. Like I’d said, it’s tough to have a great year when you don’t throw many innings without your bullpen picking you up with their opportunities. If they don’t, you cough up two or three runs and your ERA’s inflated and it makes it look like you’ve had a bad year when you haven’t. These guys have been fantastic behind me, and we have quality defense here. Great defense. They work on it day in and day out, lots of ground balls. I’m appreciative.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com