Monday, November 19, 2007

Tony Saunders Joins the Devil Rays, 11/18/97

This month, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as we knew them ceased to exist – they will heretofore be known as the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago this week, not only were the Rays devils, but the team had no players – at least, not at the major league level. That’s why Nov. 18, 1997, should hold special significance as the day the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finally acquired major leaguers.

It was the day fans had longed for since March 9, 1995, when Major League Baseball announced that two new franchises would be placed in Phoenix and St. Petersburg starting in 1998. Up until November 1997, both franchises stockpiled their minor league systems with free agents and amateur draft picks. The expansion draft, however, presented the first opportunity to acquire bonafide major leaguers, and gave fans the chance to see the team’s Opening Day roster take shape.

With their first pick, the Devil Rays selected Anthony “Tony” Saunders, a coveted left-handed starting pitcher from the Florida Marlins. During his rookie season of 1997, Saunders went 4-6 and struck out 102 batters in a little more than 111 innings pitched, playing a key role in the Marlins’ first-ever World Series championship. Devil Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar likened Saunders’ changeup to that of another lefty, Tom Glavine, who has won two Cy Young Awards and more than 300 games. Conventional wisdom held that Saunders too would eventually become a dominant starter and assume the role of staff ace for the Devil Rays. Fate had other things in mind, however, for Saunders and Tampa Bay.

The term “hard-luck” barely even begins to describe Saunders’ debut season with the Devil Rays. He had the unfortunate distinction of winning just one of his first 19 starts, losing his first 12 overall at Tropicana Field. Even by the standards of an expansion team, Saunders seemed to get a raw deal whenever he took the mound. Despite a team-high 20 quality starts, no pitcher in the American League received worse run support in 1998 than Saunders. The Devil Rays, whose 620 runs were the fewest in the American League since 1992, scored two or fewer runs in 15 of Saunders’ 31 starts that season.

Saunders hoped to rebound from his dismal 1998 record of 6-15 with a breakout season in 1999. On April 22, he pitched one of his best games as a Devil Ray, a 1-0 victory over Baltimore in which he came within four outs of a no-hitter – despite plunking a batter and walking seven. The victory capped a three-game sweep of the Orioles, helping the second-year Devil Rays emerge as a surprise team in the American League East. The Devil Rays raced to a 22-20 start, and on May 21 found themselves only two games out of first place.

On May 26, Saunders took the hill against the visiting Texas Rangers. Facing Juan Gonzalez in the third inning, Saunders delivered a 3-and-2 fastball that went at least 10 feet wide of the plate. To those in attendance and watching on television, it quickly became apparent that what just transpired was more than a wild pitch. Saunders’ humerus bone – which runs from the shoulder to the elbow – shattered as he released the ball, leaving his left arm dangling grotesquely to the side. The sound of his arm breaking, followed by his screams of agonizing pain, are sounds those in attendance that day at Tropicana Field will never forget.

Tragically, history would repeat itself on Aug. 24, 2000. During the fifth start of his rehabilitation, Saunders broke his left arm again while pitching for the minor league St. Petersburg Devil Rays. This appeared to be the end of his career and soon after he took a job in Tampa Bay’s front office job as assistant to scouting and player development. Saunders officially retired from baseball in 2005 after an abbreviated comeback attempt with the Orioles in spring training.

Despite the disappointing trajectory of his career, it would be difficult to argue against Tampa Bay’s selection of Saunders. After all, who could have predicted that Saunders would only win just nine of his 40 starts for the Devil Rays? On that November day in 1997, his future, and that of the Rays, looked as bright as the team’s multi-colored logo. Few could have predicted the misfortunes that were ahead for Saunders, both in terms of his injuries and the shortness of his career.

As for Tampa Bay, after 10 seasons the newly renamed Rays appear to have finally found another staff ace on whom to pin their hopes. He’s another young lefty, just like Saunders, by the name of Scott Kazmir.

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