Bobby Witt Jr.'s dad was pretty good at baseball, too
Baseball's top-ranked prospect has a strong baseball pedigree.
A 21-year-old phenom with a struggling franchise. The hope for a long and fruitful career. Star power.
With shortstop/third baseman Bobby Witt Jr., baseball's top-ranked prospect, hitting a game-winning double in his memorable Royals debut on Thursday, it's worth remembering his father's own fast-track to the big leagues and contributions to the game.
Junior made it to the show 37 days earlier than his dad did -- both were 21 when they made their debuts.
Bobby Witt Sr., a hard-throwing University of Oklahoma product, was one of the youngest players on the 1984 Team USA baseball squad that toured the country and won a silver medal at the Olympics. His teammates included a bevy of eventual MLB standouts, including Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, and Ken Caminiti.
Witt, like Caminiti, was invited to join the team due to his strong collegiate season in 1984, while thousands of would-be participants tried out for the team in nationwide camps.
"I got a phone call and they said I was one of the 30 that was invited to go to Louisville, so I took advantage of that," Witt told me in a 2017 interview for my upcoming book on Caminiti. The team trained in Louisville, Kentucky for about a week before embarking on a month-long tour ahead of the games, playing against local all-star teams, minor league squads, and national teams from other countries.
Some of the games were held in big league ballparks before MLB games, giving the players a taste of what was to come as they prepared to begin their pro careers.
"I remember we went to Fenway, and we played the Boston Park League All-Star Team, and Will Clark just put on an absolute show. He hit three home runs in three at-bats. One was over the Monster, one was in center, and one was in right field. The Angels were playing the Red Sox. Reggie Jackson yelled something at him after he hit the third one,” Witt said.
Another highlight for Witt was seeing Dwight Gooden pitch during his masterful rookie season for the Mets.
"He was 19. So we had guys on our team that were older than Dwight," Witt said.
Witt was selected by the Rangers with the third pick in the 1985 draft, after Clark and ahead of Larkin, and he was in the majors a season later. His debut was a lot more forgettable than his son's. He failed to hold a 5-1 lead and only lasted into the fourth inning, surrendering a home run to Cecil Fielder.
"I'm just going to have to establish myself and show them I can do it," he said following the game.
Senior did establish himself. Eventually. But he struggled with his control, leading the league in walks three times and wild pitches twice by the time he was 25. Bobby was with the Rangers until 1992, when he was shipped to Oakland in the Jose Canseco-Ruben Sierra mega-trade. From there, he did lots of traveling. Signed with the Marlins, traded back to Texas, sent to St. Louis, signed with Tampa Bay, then Cleveland, then Arizona in 2001, where he wrapped up with a world championship. He won 142 games during his career, including 17 in 1990.
The most fascinating moment of his playing days -- the one I hold most dear, anyway, as a Rangers fan -- came on June 30, 1997, the first year of interleague play. Texas was facing the Dodgers in Los Angeles, meaning pitchers had to bat due to National League rules, and Witt batted against Ismael Valdez.
The season prior, with Florida, Witt batted a paltry .063. But he swung through Valdez's offering and lifted it, and the ball improbably carried over the fence for the first home run by an American League pitcher in a quarter century.
"I really couldn't believe it. It was the last thing on my mind. It just kept going," he said at the time.
Bobby Witt Jr. wasn't alive when his father hit that home run. He was born in 2000.
After the father's playing days were over, he maintained a connection to the game as a scout and enjoyed passing his love of baseball onto his son.
"I got a younger son who's a sophomore in high school, and he plays, so I've been able to watch him and hopefully get him on the right path so he can go out there and at least have a shot to try to do something," the proud father told me in 2017.
Five years later, Bobby Jr. seems to be on the right path.