MESA, Arizona — On Sept. 14, 1919, at 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 New York 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 Thursday. “I was getting hot again. I felt like some good things were going to 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.