For three Tacoma Rainiers, the season didn’t end with Monday’sPacific Coast League finale - it was extended by the Seattle Marienrs.
Third baseman Alex Liddi, outfielder Michael Saunders and rags-to-riches reliever Steve Delabar were called to the Seattle Mariners and will join that team in Anaheim Tuesday – arriving about an hour before early batting practice.
“No direct flights, so we’re connecting through Salt Lake City,” said Saunders, who homered earlier in the day.
“We’re flying first class!” said Liddi, who hit two home runs today to give him 30 for the PCL season.
“I started this spring coaching high school baseball in Kentucky,” Delabar said. “I broke my elbow pitching in ’09, so I’d gone back to school, was doing some part time substitute teaching, a little coaching.
"My summer goal was to play slow pitch softball.”
Instead, after pitching in Arizona for the Mariners, then Class A, AA and – two weeks ago – AAA, the 28-year-old right-hander was called to the Seattle bullpen.
“The first time I saw him I thought he might be special,” manager Daren Brown said. “He throws 94-95 mph and has a split that really moves. He’s been impressive with us, and you have to love his story.
All three have rich backgrounds, and Liddi and Delabar will be joining a major league team for the first time. Liddi is the first born-and-raised Italian player in big-league history – other Italian players have been raised in the U.S.
“I knew I wanted this when I was five years old,” Liddi said.
How many five-year-old Italian boys had that dream?
“Not many,” he said, laughing. “Maybe a few thousand? But everything I've done in my career is special, because I do it for myself and for everyone in Italy who has supported me.”
“Alex earned this, he deserved it,” Brown said. “He’s still learning, still has things to work on – like cutting down his strikeouts. But his hits producd.”
In 138 games with Tacoma, the 22-year-old Liddi batted .259, scored a league-leading 121 runs, hit 30 home runs and had 104 RBI. When he heard the news, he immediately called his mother and father – not in Italy, but in Cheney Stadium.
“They came over to see the end of my season, and thought I might get called up,” Liddi said.
Saunders, 24, has spent part of the last three seasons in Seattle, and earned the call Monday by working hard the past two months in Tacoma, fashioning a solid .288 season.
“His offense is coming, and he can play all three outfield positions,” Brown said.
“No looking back this time,” Saunders said. “I’m not going to worry about an 0-for-4 day. I have confidence I can play this game, and when you’re up and down a lot, you realize you want to play at the highest level.”
Of all the players in the Seattle system, only the Mariners Tom Wilhelmsen has a 2011 timeline remotely like Delabar’s.
After surgeons literally wired his elbow together again – he carries photos of an x-ray on his cell phone – Delabar didn’t start throwing again until this spring, when a friend saw him and called Seattle scout Brian Williams and told him he had to see this guy.
“We set it up the next day, and I had to pull our high school catcher out of class to catch me,” Delabar said. “I was probably throwing 94-95 mph, and Brian taped me and had the gun on me.
“A bit later they flew me to Arizona, had me throw a couple of live batting practice sessions, then called me and signed me. I started pitching in the extended spring, then went to High Desert. I was the oldest guy in that league, and one night I gave up three runs and thought, ‘What am I really doing here?’”
The rise continued. He was moved up to Class AA Jackson, where he closed, then on Aug. 5, was moved again, this time to Tacoma.
“I just called my wife and told her, ‘They want me to keep pitching,’ and I teared up on the telephone,” Delabar said. “I called my dad, and he said ‘What’s going on?’ and I couldn’t even talk for a second.”