As promised, Thunder Thoughts look at the All 15 Year Team nominees begins today with a look at the four finalists at catcher.
Anyone who’s followed the Thunder throughout their history is certainly familiar with David McDonough, who has covered the team since its inception in 1994. Dave is one of the most well-respected and likeable people in the Thunder press box. For what it’s worth, he was also one of the first people who would actually talk to me when I first started covering the team. That sounds like nothing…but trust me, that’s something.
Similar to what I did with Steve Rudenstein and the Top 30 Prospects breakdown (which will return this week with prospects #21-25, by the way), Dave’s going to be our featured writer and the following are his thoughts on Walt McKeel, Steve Lomasney, Virgil Chevalier and Dioner Navarro. With his experience in covering the team, he brings a unique and welcome perspective to Thunder Thoughts, and I hope you all enjoy both his analysis and mine for the Trenton Thunder’s All 15 Year Team.
The following is Dave’s breakdown, mine will follow after all of his are done…
Walt McKeel: Walt McKeel was never going to be an impact player, and he never did get much big league time, only 11 games in parts of three seasons. In his second year at Trenton, in 1996, he was arguably the MVP on a first-place team. The 24-year-old batted .302 with 16 home runs and 78 RBIs and handled the pitching staff in excellent fashion, including Minor League Pitcher of the Year Carl Pavano. When the Red Sox rewarded McKeel by sending him up to Boston just in time to miss the Eastern League playoffs, the Thunder sputtered without him, and lost in the semi-finals. The killer was that McKeel sat on the bench in Boston, and got into one game without an at-bat.
It was McKeel’s best year in professional ball. He stayed around until he was 30 with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers and Rockies organizations, but never did much. But the Thunder would not have been in first place in the Southern Division of the Eastern League in 1996 without him.
Steve Lomasney: The pride of Peabody, Massachusetts, Steve Lomasney was always going be the Red Sox catcher of the future. The future never happened. Lomasney was a 21-year-old power hitting backstop when he got to Trenton in 1999. He had crunched 22 homers in Single-A in 1998, but he had also struck out 145 times. He hit 12 homers in 47 games for the Thunder in 1999, and everyone thought he was on his way. The Red Sox even brought him up at the end of the season, and let him get into one game, to the delight of all his family and friends in Peabody. Turns out, that was his only big league game.
Injuries on and off the field and struggles at the plate did him in. He was hurt for part of 2000. After he hit 10 home runs for Trenton in 58 games in 2001, he got the call to Pawtucket. When he floundered at the start of the 2002 season, he was back in Trenton. A completely demoralized Lomasney struggled badly, batting .210 in 109 games with an astronomic 133 strikeouts. That was pretty much it for him. He hung around for a few more years but never got out of AAA. His lifetime Minor League batting average for 12 years was .229. Just a reminder to us all how hard this game really is.
Virgil Chevalier: Every team has one or two guys you look at and think, “Well, he’ll probably never make the majors, but baseball sure could use someone like that coaching or managing.” Guys like former Thunder players Gavin Jackson (96-98), Nate Tebbs (97-99), Tom Sergio (02), Andy Cannizaro (03-05) and Anton French (02), who, as it happens, is now a minor league instructor for the Phillies. And from last year’s club, Jason Brown and Noah Hall.
Chevy was like that, too. Over the 3 ½ seasons (98-01) he played for Trenton, he grew from a shy guy to a confident veteran, to whom the young players could go for guidance. The first Native American to play for the Thunder (sorry, Joba), he had been signed by the Red Sox as a free agent after an open tryout at Fenway Park. He was originally a catcher, but played only 9 games there for Trenton. He was mostly a first baseman and outfielder. In 1999, he hit .293 with 13 homers. In all, he played nine minor league seasons, and got mentioned in “Moneyball”, although not as prominently as Youkilis. I think the exact quote was, “Who is Virgil Chevalier?” I can tell you he is, Billy Beane – a class act all the way.
Dioner Navarro: He was a top prospect for the Yankees when he joined the Thunder in 2003. He had good hands, a good arm, and when he batted .341 in 58 games for Trenton, at the age of just 19, he was considered, along with teammate Robby Cano, to be a future regular at the Stadium. Some how, it never happened. In 2005, Navarro went to the Dodgers in a three-way deal that saw Randy Johnson got to the Yankees. He never did much with the Dodgers, and last year, with the Devil Rays, he was the victim of a freak accident in June and ended up batting .227. The Rays still call him their starting catcher, and he’s only 24, but so far, he has been one more example of the fact that the Thunder have never had a catcher who went on to be a big league impact player.
Not on the ballot: Joe DePastino: Joe hit 17 homers in 79 games as the Thunder catcher in 1997, and hit .295 in 73 games in 1998. All told, in 158 games for Trenton, he had 29 homers and 103 RBIs. He’s now the manager of single-A West Michigan in the Tigers organization.
But my favorite story about DePas comes from 2000, when he was a back-up catcher for the Bowie BaySox. The BaySox hosted the Double-A All-Star game. One of the catchers voted to the team was late, and Joe was in the stands, about to watch the game. So they hoisted out, gave him his shin guards and told him he was on the squad. He didn’t play, of course, but it is written now for posterity that a catcher batting .215 in 19 games was a member of the American League AA All-Star team. Surely an inspirational story for us all.
Dave’s Vote Goes to: Walt McKeel.
Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: As some of my regular readers may know, I started regularly following the team as a fan in 1999 before eventually covering the team as a writer in 2006. In terms of catchers, I came in somewhere around the Steve Lomasney era, if you want to be so generous as to call it that.
With that said, here’s my look at each of the four catchers. Also, to borrow Dave’s idea (see: steal) I’m going to take a look at someone who stands out for me who isn’t on the ballot.
Walt McKeel: McKeel was picked in the third round of the 1990 draft by the Red Sox, and became just one of 10 players selected in that round to make the big leagues. He went from prospect to suspect to journeyman pretty quickly, as five years came between his penultimate and final Major League cups of coffee in 1997 and 2002, with the Red Sox and Rockies, respectively.
McKeel caught for parts of three seasons in Trenton, and was eventually succeeded by Joe DePastino in 1997.
Steve Lomasney: Rather than essentially recap what I’ve written about Lomasney in the past, I’ll simply include my 2006 feature on Lomasney from when he came back to Waterfront Park as a member of the New Britain Rock Cats. After that, I’ll share my two favorite memories of Lomasney’s career as a fan…
Steve Lomasney enjoyed his finest season in 1999 as a member of the Trenton Thunder. The starting catcher of the most successful team in franchise history, Lomasney parlayed his year into a September call-up from the Boston Red Sox, where he got into the last game of the season against the Orioles and got two at-bats.
Seven years later, and all Lomasney has is that taste of what his career could have been.
After being named the Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year, Lomasney went into the 2000 season with lofty expectations. Baseball America considered him the number one prospect in the entire Red Sox organization and he seemed to be in line for another September call-up at the very least. But injuries ended his season two months early, so that call-up would have to wait.
In 2001, the Peabody, Mass. native was up with Triple-A Pawtucket, an injury away from getting another chance at wearing the uniform of his hometown team. But it was another injury of his own that altered the course of his season and ultimately his career. Lomasney was struck in the eye with a line drive during batting practice, fracturing his orbital bone and damaging his cornea.
As a result, the call-up he was waiting for never came, and the chance of wearing a Red Sox uniform again went away with it after not re-signing with the organization following his fourth straight season in Double-A in 2002.
He caught on with the Orioles organization in 2003 and with the Reds for 2004 and 2005, spending all three seasons with their Triple-A teams. But Baltimore and Cincinnati didn’t see anything from him that warranted a big league call-up either, his struggles being capped by a meager .160 batting average in limited action with the Louisville Bats last season.
Lomasney only played for a few innings in his only big league appearance in Camden Yards, but it served as a microcosm of the reason why he‘s never been able to stick in the show. He threw out both base runners who tried to steal against him, but also struck out in both of his plate appearances.
“Three-two counts both times,” Lomasney said. “I was swinging hard, but I had a little bit of the jitters in me.”
Always known more for his glove than his bat, Lomasney entered the 2006 season with 2,790 professional at-bats. He’d struck out in 961 of them, an alarming rate of one strikeout per 2.9 at-bats.
Numbers like that won’t get you anywhere, especially the big leagues, and that’s why the 28 year-old Lomasney finds himself in the visiting dugout of Trenton’s Waterfront Park, spending his fifth season at the Double-A level.
Now with the New Britain Rock Cats, the Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, Lomasney is again struggling, hitting just .194 with no home runs and three RBI. Having gone from the next Carlton Fisk to the next Crash Davis, he returns to the site of that breakout 1999 season at a very different stage of his career.
“When I first got here, I said I’d never been on this side of the field before,” Lomasney said, across the diamond from the home dugout he spent four seasons in.
“We had great fans and great players here, it was a great organization to be with.”
Even with his slow start, his teammates and coaches seem to be behind him.
“He’s a veteran presence behind the plate,” said Rock Cats manager Riccardo Ingram, who noted that Lomasney was working well with his other catcher, Jose Morales.
“Steve knows his role here, and his role is basically to be a veteran leader. I think he’s fitting the bill well.”
Lomasney, who’s already accumulated seven strikeouts in thirty-one at-bats this season said he’d been contacted by several independent league teams over the past few seasons, but feels his best chance to get back is by staying in the minors.
With his chances in affiliated baseball quickly diminishing, this is one opportunity where Steve Lomasney can’t afford to strike out.
My two favorite Lomasney moments involve a bench clearing brawl and a broken bat walk-off home run.
The first occured on my Dad’s birthday in 2000 and was against the Binghamton Mets. We were sitting on the first base side, and prospect at the time Leslie Brea was on the mound for the B-Mets. Brea had already hit Lomasney once in the game, and then proceeded to drill him again in his next at-bat. In what is still the only bench clearing brawl I’ve ever seen in over 400 games, Lomasney charged the mound, but never really got to his target. Mets catcher Jimmy Gonzalez got to Lomasney before he was able to charge Brea, and after a few minutes order was restored.
I asked Lomasney about this during our 2006 chat, and he said the following:
“Well, earlier in the year, Leslie and I…he was pitching a really good game, and I hit a home run off of him and it ended up being the game winning run, but it was earlier in the game. I don’t know if he took that too well. I got to know Leslie after all this, and he’s a good guy, but he hit me twice. He hit me twice, and they were both definitely intentional. After he hit me, I kind of just looked at him, and he yelled something to me, and I basically just snapped and charged him. I didn’t get to him, the catcher caught me, Jimmy Gonzalez. But we cleared it and had a pretty good one for a little bit. But that’s the nature of the game. Guys get hit, you get hit twice, and you’ve got to have your respect. You can’t just lay down for people. That was the only time I ever charged the mound. It happened, and it was just one of those things.”
The broken bat walk-off home run was against Bryan Malko and the New Britain Rock Cats. I was sitting behind the home dugout, and I can remember watching a part of the bat go flying instead of the ball…which of course went sailing over the wall for the game winning home run.
Again, I was lucky enough to ask Steve about this as well a few years back…
“I don’t really tell a lot of people about that, because a lot of people don’t believe it. It was unbelievable. I knew I hit the ball good, and the bat kind of exploded in my hands. I think part of it actually went in the New Britain dugout. I had the handle in my hand, and I was watching the ball and I remember thinking, ‘I think I hit a home run.’ I was jogging slow, and finally it went out for a walk-off home run, and I took the handle and put it in my back pocket and finished my trot. After the game, everyone couldn’t believe that just happened. I didn’t know if the bat was already broken or what, but I hit the ball good and the bat just exploded.”
Virgil Chevalier: I actually don’t remember Chevy as a catcher at all. I actually remember much better as an outfielder, where he permanently switched to in 1999. For someone his size, he wasn’t that bad of an outfielder either. At the plate, Chevy had some of his best years for the Thunder, hitting .293 in 1999 and .309 in 2000. He was one of the guys who would always sign autographs for fans, and was always very friendly.
As someone who had followed the team for three seasons at the time, I can remember how weird it was to see Chevy in a B-Mets uniform in 2002. One of his game used, signed red Thunder hats sits on one of my shelves back home as a memory of my days as a Thunder fan.
Dioner Navarro: Navarro was one of the more hyped prospects the Thunder had at the time he first put on a Trenton uniform in 2003. Following the somewhat painful switch in affiliations from Boston to the Yankees, both Navarro and Robinson Cano gave the Thunder the star power they hadn’t had in several years.
He played pretty well behind the plate in Trenton, and was usually pretty accessible to the media by all accounts. Unfortunately, he never really lived up to the hype that was placed on him, and has bounced around a few teams since being dealt by the Yankees in the ill-fated Randy Johnson trade.
Not On The Ballot: Damian Sapp. Sapp’s friendly nature, willingness to sign autographs, and occasional tape measure blast made him one of my favorites from the 2000 team. The 1996 Boston Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year, Sapp seemed destined to play in Fenway after quickly rising through their farm system in first three years.
Turns out, the only time he would seet foot in Fenway Park would be to pick up that award.
Injuries, specifically to his knees and back, wrecked any chance Sapp had at a Major League career. He eventually ended his career with Nashua Pride of the Atlantic League, where I got to ask him about his time with the Thunder…
“Oh, I loved Trenton. The fans, the place, the atmosphere, everything about that place I just loved. I mean everywhere from the front office to every last fan was nothing but warm and welcoming. Anything you ever needed, if they could help in any way, they would. Very faithful fans. It was a pleasure to actually get a chance to play there.”
Still only 32 years old, there had been rumors as recently as last year that he might return to professional baseball. Oddly enough, those rumors were preceeded by one that he was contemplating a career in professional wrestling.
Mike’s Vote Goes To: Virgil Chevalier. He deserves to be on the team somewhere, and if he isn’t going to be on there as an outfielder, then let’s stick him behind the plate…
Other Thunder Catchers: Pedro Gonzalez, Tim McConell, Joe Perona, Matt Brown, Alex Delgado, Dana LeVangie, Jeff Martin, Richie Borrero, Bill Haselman (rehab), Chris Madonna, Chad Epperson, Damian Sapp, Shea Hillenbrand, Luis Rodriguez, Mike Figga, Kelly Ramos, Michael Rose, Andy Dominique, Andrew Larned, Dan Mooney, Omar Fuentes, Dave Parrish, Sandy Madera, Nathan Griffin, Jason Brown, Omir Santos, Tommy Rojas, P.J. Pilittere, J.T. LaFountain, Dan Conway, Joe Muich
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com