One & Done: Cory Aldridge’s long and grinding road to a big-league hit
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
There’s something to be said for persistence in the competitive and often cruel business of professional baseball, and in the long history of the game, few have shown the dedication Cory Aldridge did to getting his first and only major league hit.
Once an outfield prospect for the Atlanta Braves in the late 1990s, Aldridge got his first taste of major league success in 2001, scoring his first career run at Shea Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11. It took another nine years — and so many stops and so much bad news — for Aldridge to add that lone hit to his record as a journeyman with the Angels.
The kind of layoff Aldridge endured is exceptionally rare in a sport where, frankly, most don’t make it, with only a handful of others in the last half-century watching nine or more seasons pass by between big league games. As Aldridge stood on third base secretly celebrating a seemingly insignificant RBI triple in a 15-1 loss to the Oakland A’s five summers ago, he knew that the opportunity to realize his life’s dream was well worth the wait.
"People might say it’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either," Aldridge told FOX Sports last week of his unusual path to and from the major league stage and the lone hit it earned him. "I could have easily just quit and figured out something else better to do, but I loved the game of baseball and all I ever wanted was to be a major league player."
A fourth-round pick out of Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas, in 1997 — the same round of the same draft that produced longtime big leaguers Chone Figgins, Eric Byrnes and Xavier Nady — Aldridge was a hot commodity early in his career. He quickly traversed the Braves’ minor league system and by 2001 had already been added to the club’s 40-man roster.
I could have easily just quit and figured out something else better to do, but I loved the game of baseball and all I ever wanted was to be a major league player.
Despite a solid showing that spring, Aldridge started the 2001 season with the team’s Double-A affiliate in Greenville, S.C. The sense was always that his time in the majors would come soon enough. Aldridge hit .246 with 19 homers and 56 RBI in a team-high 131 games that season, and in September, at age 22, Aldridge finally got the news he’d been hoping for.
"I remember I my manager called me in, and he says, ‘You’re not playing today,’ " Aldridge recalled. "I said, ‘Why?’ and he was like, ‘Well, you’ve got to go to Montreal.’ "
The next day, Aldridge made his big league debut, as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning of a 10-4 loss to the Expos. Then on Sept. 9, Aldridge pinch ran at Wrigley in the ninth inning of a 9-5 win over the Cubs. The 9/11 attacks two days later brought the country and Major League Baseball to a halt, but when baseball finally returned to New York on Sept. 21, 2001, with the Mets hosting Atlanta, it was Aldridge who found himself in the thick of one of the most emotion-packed games the sport has seen.
"As a 21- or 22-year-old kid, I didn’t know the magnitude of what was really going on, but I just remember going to New York and seeing nobody out there," Aldridge recalled of the scene in the city leading up to the game. "All you ever hear is ‘New York, the city that never sleeps,’ but nobody was on the streets at like 10:30 or 11 at night."
That particular evening, however, there were more than 41,000 fans in the seats at Shea Stadium, and in the top of the eighth inning, with the game tied 1-1, Aldridge came in to run for Julio Franco. The next batter, Chipper Jones, moved Aldridge to second with a single, then Brian Jordan sent Armando Benitez’s first pitch into left-center, plating Aldridge for the rookie’s first career run.
That, of course, set the table for Mike Piazza’s unforgettable, game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the inning, relegating Aldridge’s run to the tiniest of footnotes in an unforgettable game, but Aldridge says being part of it was more than enough.
"For the whole city and the country to come together and try to overcome what had happened to us, it was awesome," he said. "It was great for baseball, and playing in that game was something I’ll never forget."
The following night, Aldridge got his first career at-bat, pinch hitting in the second inning in place of Kerry Lightenberg, who had come on to pitch in the first after Greg Maddux left with an injury two batters into the game. The result was a three-pitch strikeout against Steve Trachsel, and nearly two weeks passed before Aldridge stepped to the plate again.
He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in that game against the Marlins, his first career start and the second-last game of the year, and after another cameo as a defensive replacement in the final inning of the season, Aldridge’s first major league campaign came to an end: 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and one emotional run scored.
"I had basically been sitting the bench for four weeks," Aldridge said of his first major league stint. "And the one thing I’d say about me is that I had a lot of ability, but at that time I don’t know if I was mentally prepared to play in the big leagues. I hadn’t had enough experience, and I didn’t have the confidence because I hadn’t played in any games. It’s great to be there, but when you’re there and not playing — you’re taking batting practice and then just watching games — that’s hard. It’s hard to focus and be ready to play."
Never did Aldridge imagine, however, that it would be so long before he’d finally get a shot at redemption. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury during spring training in 2002 put his career in jeopardy.
"I was supposed to be the (Braves’) fourth outfielder, and I came to camp and basically threw my arm out," Aldridge said. "They called in Dr. (James) Andrews and they said, ‘Listen you’ll never play again if we have to cut into your shoulder,’ and at that point, I’d already played a season where I was taking anti-inflammatory after anti-inflammatory and cortisone shot after cortisone shot just trying to stay in games."
After surgery, Aldridge did return to the field for Greenville in 2003. While his numbers were mostly comparable — .234, 16 homers, 49 RBI — he says he wasn’t close to the same player he was before the injury, and the team seemingly agreed.
"It wasn’t good," Aldridge said. "I had no power, I couldn’t really play every day, and they were basically like, ‘Listen, we don’t think you can do it anymore.’ Then I played less than a half a season in 2004 before getting released, and it was sad because coaches knew what I had been through. They knew I had the ability and I just couldn’t do it."
A week after being cut by the Braves, Aldridge latched on with the Kansas City Royals, and soon after his fight to get back to the majors took a hopeful turn. In half a season at Double-A Wichita, Aldridge hit 18 home runs, and in 2005 Aldridge slugged 30 more homers combined at Wichita and Triple-A Omaha.
"I figured out how the swing worked and the philosophy of hitting from a guy named Al LaBeouf," Aldridge said. "He was a great hitting coach to me and I learned to just go out there and have fun as opposed to worrying, and I was kind of on my way again."
An injury derailed Aldridge’s career again, this time a sore Achilles that ultimately led to his release from Kansas City.
An ill-fated 26-game tenure with the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate followed, then a season and a half with the White Sox’s Double-A team in Birmingham. Aldridge had begun to hit for average, turning in a .270 mark over a total of 208 games, but the power that was once his trademark had escaped him and Chicago elected not to bring him back after the 2007 season.
At that point, Aldridge, 28 years old and more than six years removed from his last taste of the majors, began doubting his future in baseball — until a word of encouragement from a friend changed his perspective.
"I remember sitting at my dad’s construction office saying, ‘Dad, I’m done, I’m quitting,’ " Aldridge said. "I told him, ‘I can’t handle the business of baseball, I can’t handle the disappointment, and I’m done.’ But then I got a call that same day from Josh Pressley (a one-time teammate in Wichita and at the time a first baseman with the independent Somerset Patriots), and he said to me, ‘Hey, how about you come play independent ball?’
"Sometimes you think you’re better than the game, and I told myself I would never play independent ball," Aldridge continued. "I didn’t want to play for no money and didn’t want to play in that league. I thought I was too good for that, but he said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to finish your career and retire anyway, how about you just come have fun and play and at least end it on a positive note?’ "
Next thing Aldridge knew, he was raking for the Newark Bears in the Atlantic League, hitting .365 with an OPS of 1.005, and soon he was back with the Royals, playing with the team’s Double-A club near Fayetteville, Ark. By 2009, he’d been promoted to Triple-A Omaha, with a season-ending injury to Shane Costa opening up a spot for Aldridge in the everyday lineup. He went on to have his best minor league season to date, hitting .316 with 22 home runs, but it never earned him a call-up to Kansas City.
"I was so locked in," Aldridge said. "I had a great season and ended up being (Omaha’s) Player of the Year. But I didn’t get a call, and that was the one thing I couldn’t understand. They were having a rough season (50-81 when play started on Sept. 1) and September came around, and nothing. I’d just think in baseball you’d reward a guy somehow, someway for having a great year."
Then, as they so frequently did, injuries sidelined Aldridge once again. This time it was a bum ankle that required yet another surgery. During his recovery, Aldridge had his agent look for work overseas, but he decided to remain stateside after finally getting an offer from the Los Angeles Angels for the 2010 season.
That spring, Aldridge led the Angels with a .395 batting average in 38 at-bats and also had a team-high 1.202 OPS thanks to seven extra-base hits. Early on in the spring, manager Mike Scioscia had stressed that the best 25 players would be the ones to make the Opening Day roster, regardless of where they came from. With that in mind, Aldridge was confident he’d be among them.
"But then I get called into the office and they say I’m going to Triple-A," Aldridge said. "I remember being devastated. It was one of those things like, ‘What do you have to do?’ It kills your confidence. You tell us you’re taking the best out of everybody, and clearly, at that time, I was among the best of everybody."
But Aldridge kept at it — maybe because he didn’t know any better, or maybe because he always believed deep down that he’d get another chance — and then, finally, while attending his brother’s wedding back home in Texas on July 3, 2010, he got to relive the highlight of his baseball career a second time, nearly nine years after the first.
"We’re at the reception, eating and having some drinks, and I look at my phone and I’ve got a message from (former Angels GM) Tony Reagins, saying, ‘Hey, give me a call. I’ve got to talk to you about something,’ " Aldridge said. "So I’m thinking I’m in trouble because I left the team to go to the wedding or something and that I’m going to get released or fined or something bad."
And who could blame Aldridge for his pessimism? At that point in his career, he wasn’t used to being surprised with good news.
"It was like 11 o’clock at night and I didn’t have (Reagins’) number, so I called my agent, and I’m panicking," Aldridge added. "Then as I’m on the phone with him, Tony calls again and says, ‘Hey Cory, how fast can you get to Anaheim?’ and I said, ‘Well, how fast can you get me there?’
"And I remember just crying, man," Aldridge said of his reaction to the promotion. "I remember crying just thinking about every game, every injury, everything that had happened to me over the last nine years of playing. I’d basically quit baseball twice already, and I’d been told that I’d never play again. I’d dealt with a divorce and money problems and had three kids, and all these things, all this adversity.
"So I went to my mom and said, ‘Mom, I got called up to the major leagues,’ and the whole wedding kind of stopped. I remember me and my brother and my mom just crying together. This was something I’d been doing since I was 5 years old. I’d spent half my life in professional baseball, and I was finally back."
So he gives me a fastball away, and when I hit it I thought it might be a homer. But as I’m rounding first, I see (left fielder Matt Watson) jump, and I think, ‘If this guy catches this ball, I’m going to lose it.’
The next day, Aldridge was in California for an Independence Day game against the Royals. He went 0-for-2 against his former team, then wore the collar again the following night in a start against another one-time employer, the White Sox. In his second start for LA, on July 8, Aldridge thought he’d recorded his first big league hit in the top of the third, only to have it scored as a rare error by Omar Vizquel (Aldridge was the only batter to reach base against John Danks during the first six innings).
Then finally, on July 10, 2010, 3,230 days after making his big league debut as a 22-year-old with the Braves, a 31-year-old Aldridge got the hit he’d been fighting to record for nearly a decade.
Aldridge entered the game against the Oakland A’s as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the sixth, with the Angels down 13-0 following a disastrous Scott Kazmir start. He finally got a chance to hit in the top of the eighth, with two outs and Brandon Wood on first, and on the fourth pitch he saw from Ross Wolf, Aldridge made firm contact.
"I’d gotten down 1-2 and told myself I was just going to take a pitch to left field and just use my strength to go the opposite way," Aldridge said, recalling the play in vivid detail. "So he gives me a fastball away, and when I hit it I thought it might be a homer. But as I’m rounding first, I see (left fielder Matt Watson) jump, and I think, ‘If this guy catches this ball, I’m going to lose it.’
"But then I hear the crowd go, ‘Ooh,’ and I knew he didn’t catch it."
Aldridge ended up with a stand-up triple, a play that — much like his game-tying run in the post-9/11 loss to the Mets — would be easy to overlook in the Angels’ eventual 15-1 defeat. But to Aldridge, it was the ultimate payoff after nearly 14 years and nearly 1,400 games in the minors to that point.
Sure, you love the game, but at the same time, you’ve got a family and kids and bills. For my minor league pension, I get a whopping $31 a month. So that’s the hard part about it.
"I played it really cool at third base, because nobody knew (it was my first hit)," Aldridge said. "Nobody in the stadium knew because everybody thinks I’d had all this major league time, and I remember (third base coach) Dino Ebel saying, ‘Hey, nice job, way to go the other way.’ But when I got to the bench, I had to go play right field and I was just trying my best not to cry because, once again, you think about all that time and effort that went into that one moment."
In keeping with the theme of his career, Aldridge was sent back down to Salt Lake City a few days after his first hit. The next few seasons were spent playing in Korea, Mexico and Venezuela in addition to another stint on the independent circuit. Aldridge also had a second go-around with the Angels and, just last year, a season in the Blue Jays organization. Even as recently as this April, Aldridge was playing professionally in Mexico.
But now, at age 36, he insists his playing career is finally behind him — unless it isn’t.
"It’s tough to keep playing when there’s no money," Aldridge said. "Sure, you love the game, but at the same time, you’ve got a family and kids and bills. For my minor league pension, I get a whopping $31 a month. So that’s the hard part about it.
"There are a lot of good players out there who are not playing," he added. "There are guys who could do a great job in Triple-A or Double-A, but they know they’ll never get the opportunity (to play in the majors again). I would love to play if a situation came up that was good, but I don’t think that opportunity is there."
And while most might look at Aldridge’s 1-for-18 career line as something to be embarrassed by, Aldridge says he has no regrets about the decade of perseverance that led to that "meaningless" triple in Oakland.
"In all of the years that baseball has been around, there have only been something like 29,000 major league ballplayers, whether that’s a day or an hour or a pitch, or just sitting the bench for a game and went back to Triple-A," Aldridge said.
"I’m one of those players, and I’m proud of that. I wish that I had the opportunity to play a lot more and to be able to prove myself better. I wish that I had a chance to have 500 at-bats in a season and play regularly in the big leagues. But I’m part of an awesome fraternity, so there’s nothing to be disappointed about."
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