A while back I wrote an article about a random D-Back with an introduction to the Cape Cod Summer league. It’s one of those leagues where pre-draft talent is able to show their skills, against the best other pre-draft talent in the United States. Obviously, playing well in the Cape Cod League is no guarantee for future success, as proven by stories like those of Charles Brewer, Mike Schultz and Matt Mercer, although, you could say, reaching the major leagues like Brewer and Schultz did is already a success.
Yet another one of those stories that can be added to the list is that of Jamie D’Antona. I have had Jamie D’Antona for such a long time on my shortlist, but my intention was always to read “The Last Best League” before wrapping up an article on D’Antona, who reached the Major Leagues but never broke through. The Last Best League is a book that follows the 2002 Chatham A’s, and one of the 3 main characters Collins writes about is Jamie D’Antona. By the time Jamie D’Antona played in the 2002 Cape Cod League, he had already made a name for himself.
An excerpt is available on the internet and it relates about D’Antona’s stay at Cape Cod and how his parents from Connecticut show up to visit his games, just like they attended several games per year of Wake Forest as well. His father is quoted when he talks about how his son is “big leaguing” his family, missing calls to his parents and not asking his dad for advice any more. But after struggling against better pitching and trying to lift the ball too much, Joe D’Antona asks his son to correct his swing again. It’s a wonderful insight in dad-son relationship, but it also provides us a little bit of information on D’Antona’s character, giving perhaps some clues about his future struggles as a pro baseball player.
ON THE CAPE, Jamie struggled for the first time in his life. He’d only begun to raise his batting average after managing just two hits in his first 24 times at bat. He’d struck out 29 times in 24 games. Joe saw some old flaws in his son’s swing. Instead of keeping his weight back and quickly snapping his hips to trigger the swing, Jamie was sliding his weight into the pitch as he swung, relying more on linear force than the more explosive rotational force. Jamie’s back foot wasn’t pivoting and providing purchase; it was light on the ground, “flopping all over the place,” Joe said disgustedly. His swing’s arc had shifted from an almost-flat plane to a pronounced uppercut, to generate greater lift, as George Greer taught at Wake Forest. That swing might have been fine during batting practice and against ACC pitching, Joe thought — especially with a metal bat. And it undoubtedly produced more distance and home runs for Jamie in college. But with a wooden bat against top-drawer pitchers, that swing took too long, and its upward arc intersected just a fraction of the pitched ball’s trajectory. That narrow tolerance too often produced strikeouts and pop flies. Joe wanted his son to get back to the swing Jamie had worked so hard perfecting.
Laurie said, “I got tired those first couple of weeks of Jamie’s woe-is-me routine. I came back one night, and Jamie was standing in the kitchen, banging his head right on the counter and saying, ‘I suck, I suck.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you do suck. And it’s about time you sucked it up around here. There are people who work their asses off all winter long for you guys, and the least you can do is go out and play like you mean it.’ But my whole relationship with Jamie changed. We became closer after that.” - Part of Jim Collins writing about Jamie D’Antona, retrieved from internet.
D’Antona played at Cape Cod as a player from the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons. The college is not unfamiliar to the MLB draft. As early as in 1965 baseball players from the North Carolina college were already drafted by the big league teams, but apart from Erik Hanson (1988-1998) no baseball player has ever made a real impact in the major leagues. Hanson was a second round pick in 1986 and after him Wake Forest delivered a first round pick in 1994 and 1999. The late 90s is when you can see a clear turnaround of the baseball programme that would win their ACC in 1998, 1999 and 2001. D’Antona is one of the star players in the years he is on the team, from 2001 to 2003, having joined the university because of the “warm weather” after getting scouted on showcase team Team Connecticut as he recalls in a Q&A of 2002. Each season he surpasses the 1.000 OPS, lowers the strikeouts and increases the free passes. The year he is drafted he has a terrific .360/.450/.752 batting line and more walks than strikeouts, swatting 21 homers. He earned All-American honours in that final season and until today he ranks sixth in ACC history in career home runs and seventh with 242 career RBIs. In 2017 he was introduced to his college’s Hall of Fame.
With numbers like that, it is easy to understand that D’Antona would become one of the top draft picks in the 2003 MLB amateur draft. His teammate Kyle Sleeth, a starter, goes 3rd overall in the draft, but D’Antona is a solid 2nd round pick at 66, signing reportedly for $560,000 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. 2003 is clearly the start of a new era for Wake Forest University draft picks because ever since the programme has delivered more and more baseball players to MLB organisations, with this year’s draft being the absolute highlight in history with 10 draft picks, of which two in the first rounds.
Back to Jamie D’Antona, who adds 70 more games to his 2003 stats in Yakima, where his batting stats take a hit, something that also occurs the following season at A+ in Lancaster. That doesn’t keep Baseball America from maintaining D’Antona in the higher echelons of the farm ranking, together with his other fellow 2003 top draftees, the Three Amigos. He has a miserable season in 2005 though, when he plays for the Tennessee Smokies and has to repeat at AA in 2006. The stats finally seem to confirm what the draft reports were already mentioning, that of a defensively limited 3B with a huge power potential, but who might not hit sufficiently, although he takes his walks.
D’Antona hardly strikes out, but the raw power that was so greatly showcased in the ACC has completely disappeared in professional baseball. That all changes when he is assigned to Tucson. In 2007 he has good though not stellar numbers in AAA, but his name is back on the shortlist. In 2008, however, he enjoys his best career thus far in the organisation. Until July 21 he hits .367/.407/.612, but with what looks to be an unsustainable high .395 BABIP. He is chosen to the Future Games, as the oldest player on the roster, and not much later is called up to the big leagues.
“He probably should be playing first base, Tucson manager Bill Plummer said. “That’s his best position. It’s a scenario where he’s having a great year, and there’s no place for him to be in the big leagues, unless it’s off the bench.” - Bill Plummer on D’Antona’s odds to reach the MLB, in 2008 on the Arizona Daily Star
Off the bench is what D’Antona got, and while it is a feat to reach the major leagues, you can hardly wonder whether D’Antona got much to enjoy. From July 22 to August 10, D’Antona plays in 10 games, getting just one start, and all other being either a late replacement or a pinch hit appearance. When he is back as a September call up Jamie D’Antona is once again only given a chance as a pinch hitter. Thus the season in the major leagues ends with a .440 OPS in 19 plate appearances. D’Antona is released in the off-season to pursue an opportunity in the NPB with Yakult Swallows.
He logically enjoys the best season of his career there when he achieves an .813 OPS in 118 games and gets MVP honours for the month of July. His second season is far less successful with a .771 OPS.
He tries it one more time in the States, but is released by the Marlins after just a month while on a minor league contract. The reason? Injuries.
Already during his Cape Cod time an article relates of his severe back injuries because of too heavy and wrong lifting with his upper body, in 2002. In 2004 his baseball season was cut short due to a biceps injury. Pains must have been frequently, as Jim McLennan recalls in 2015 that several other knee, hamstring and cartilage injuries/surgeries occur.
“I walk like a friggin’ old man, carrying a stool with me because I can’t stand on my feet for more than an hour.” - Quote on the AZSnakePit in 2015 from the book “The Last Best League”
After retiring from baseball he returns to the baseball world when he is voted on the Hall of Fame of Wake Forest and becomes one of the coaches on the Cape Cod team of Chatham. After that things go silent again and it seems like he is enjoying, above all, fishing and hunting.
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