In his new role as a minor-league coach for the Cardinals, Erik Pappas can speak authoritatively about the highs and lows of being a professional baseball player.
Pappas has joined the St. Louis organization as hitting coach for the 2013 Class A Peoria Chiefs. It’s the first professional coaching job for Pappas, 46, who has been a youth baseball instructor in the Chicago area.
A baseball and football standout at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Pappas was named the Illinois prep baseball player of the year in 1984. The Angels selected him in the first round (sixth choice overall) in the June 1984 draft, ahead of first baseman Mark McGwire and pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Pappas never advanced out of the Angels’ farm system. (“They gave up on me real quick … I never felt wanted with the Angels,” he later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) The Cubs signed him and he made his major-league debut with them in 1991, playing in seven games before returning to the minor leagues.
After stints in the minor-league systems of the Royals and White Sox, the Cardinals signed Pappas on the recommendation of their Class AAA Louisville manager, Jack Krol, and invited the catcher to spring training in 1993.
The Cardinals were committed that spring to the catching tandem of Tom Pagnozzi and Hector Villanueva. Pappas hit .250 in nine spring training games and was sent to Louisville to open the season.
Determined to show the Cardinals he belonged, Pappas hit .338 with four home runs in 21 games for Louisville. When Pagnozzi tore cartilage in his left knee in May, Pappas, 27, was promoted to St. Louis.
The Cardinals were planning to return Pappas to Louisville after Pagnozzi recovered. But Pappas changed those plans with his 16-game hitting streak from May 14 through June 5. It was the longest hitting streak by a Cardinals catcher since Ted Simmons had a 19-game stretch in 1975.
Five times Pappas kept the streak alive by producing a hit in his last at-bat. He did that on June 2, 1993, when he hit a RBI-double off the Dodgers’ Todd Worrell in the seventh inning at St. Louis, giving the Cardinals a 5-3 lead.
In the ninth, the Dodgers scored a run off closer Lee Smith and had Eric Davis on first base with two out. Davis was riding a streak of 34 consecutive successful stolen base attempts. Pappas was 0-for-8 in runners caught attempting to steal.
“Pap comes out to me and says, ‘Don’t worry about Davis.’ I said, ‘Bull,’ ” Smith told the Post-Dispatch.
As expected, Davis broke for second. Unexpectedly, Pappas’ throw arrived at the second base bag before Davis did. Davis was out, the streak was broken and the game was over, a 5-4 Cardinals victory preserved. Boxscore
“That was unreal,” Cardinals first baseman Gregg Jefferies said. “Everybody in the stadium knew (Davis) was going and Pap makes a great throw.”
Pappas’ hitting streak was snapped by Reds pitchers Jose Rijo and Greg Cadaret on June 6, 1993. Boxscore A week later, June 14, Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke broke his right collarbone while helping Pappas get his only big-league home run.
In the fourth inning at St. Louis, Pappas drove a Denny Neagle pitch to deep center. The ball glanced off Van Slyke’s glove and skimmed into a flower bed for a two-run homer as Van Slyke slammed into the wall, breaking the collarbone. Boxscore
A couple of days later, Pagnozzi came off the disabled list and Villanueva was sent to Louisville.
Pappas completed the 1993 season with a .276 batting average, 12 doubles and 28 RBI in 82 games for St. Louis. He started 53 games at catcher and also made 10 starts in right field and one at first base. He caught 41 percent of the baserunners who attemped to steal against him. The Cardinals were 29-24 in games Pappas started at catcher.
The Cardinals committed to opening the 1994 season with Pagnozzi and Pappas as their catchers. But Pagnozzi again tore cartilage in his left knee while reaching for a pitch in spring training. Torre declared Pappas the Opening Day starter and selected Terry McGriff to be his backup.
Pappas hit safely in each of the Cardinals’ first four games of the ’94 season. Then he went hitless in 33 at-bats. He caught just one of 16 baserunners attempting to steal.
On May 5, Pagnozzi came off the disabled list. After 15 games started at catcher and with his batting average at .091 (4-for-44), Pappas was demoted to Louisville.
“I got an opportunity to start and I didn’t take advantage of it,” Pappas told St. Louis writer Rick Hummel. “I cut my own throat … I was hoping to have a career here.”
Said Cardinals manager Joe Torre: “If he’s going to find his (batting) stroke, he’s got to find it as a regular player … I told him, ‘Go get straightened out and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see you in September, or sooner, if something happens.’ We just couldn’t get anything to relax him.”
Pappas never played in another major-league game. But he did spend one more day with the Cardinals.
When it became certain the players would go out on strike in August 1994, the Cardinals called up Pappas from Louisville for their final game on Aug. 11 at Miami. They did this, Hummel reported, “because (Pappas) makes $140,000 on a major-league contract. If the strike would last the rest of the season, the Cardinals would save about $40,000 in Pappas’ salary.”
Pappas didn’t play in his one-night stand, the strike did last the rest of the season and the Cardinals avoided paying Pappas $40,000.
“It’s a business, simple as that,” Pappas said to the Post-Dispatch.