If he wanted to, Darryl Brinkley could play the role of the bitter veteran to perfection.
It took him five years to simply prove he was worthy of being signed to a minor league deal’"even though he hit .529 as a college senior and was named the Caribbean Series MVP while playing against big leaguers. He then hit .355 for Nashville in his first taste of Triple-A baseball, followed it up by hitting .323 the next year and still found himself watching other players get the call to the big leagues.
Two years later he saw his only shot at a big league callup squashed, when he was stuck in Australia during the flight groundings that followed 9/11. His spot on the Orioles roster was gone by the time he made it back.
But Brinkley doesn’t lament what happened. He simply grabs his bat, goes back out and keeps on hitting. This year he became the first Northern Leaguer to hit .400, going 9-for-13 in his final three games to reach the mark, shattering the league batting average record by 24 points. He also led the league in hits, on-base percentage and runs scored while carrying Calgary to its first playoff appearance’"the Vipers lost in the Northern League championship series to Gary. And he did all of this as a 38-year-old, at a time when many of his former teammates have long ago hung up their spikes.
“To do it as a 38-year-old with a body that’s ready to break down, it’s absolutely fantastic,” Calgary manager Mike Busch said.
For all of that, Brinkley has been named Baseball America’s 2007 Independent League Player of the Year.
It’s Brinkley’s second honor from Baseball America, as he was BA’s Winter Player of the Year in 1996, a year after Carlos Delgado won that award and a year before Bartolo Colon won it.
That award seems to sum up the uphill battle that has been Brinkley’s career. Both Colon and Delgado received the honor as they were just beginning outstanding big league careers, while Brinkley’s award came as he was looking for a team to just take a chance on a 27-year-old who had never played in affiliated baseball.
That’s been the story wherever Brinkley has played. It seems that he had to set himself on fire to get noticed.
Coming out of Sacred Heart in 1991, his high average wasn’t enough to attract the attention of any scouts. With no independent leagues to turn to (the Northern League didn’t begin playing until 1993), Brinkley signed with the Dutch Major Leagues, which was his one option in pro ball. He spent three years in Europe before getting his first chance at playing in the U.S. in independent ball. That trip was part of a world tour that has seen him play in the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Korea, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in addition to the U.S.
All along the way Brinkley has usually hit well above .300, something he figures was essential for career longevity.
“I’m not a prospect no more, so you’ve got to do good to keep playing,” Brinkley said. “My motto was always if you hit for a high average you’ll keep a job.”
It’s a motto that has worked out well for Brinkley for nearly two decades now. He’s always hit, and he’s always found a team willing to give him a job. He’s also managed to compile a library of memories. While in Italy, Brinkley, a diehard Yankees fan, met Joe DiMaggio, who saw him play and told him to head back to the States because he was good enough to play there (he took DiMaggio’s advice). He still sounds like an excited kid when talking about his chance to face Joe Torre and the Yankees in spring training during a stint with the Dodgers. He’s dodged firecrackers tossed at him in Venezuela and been treated like a king in Korea.
It’s not easy to explain why Brinkley never ended up in the majors. He can hit, he can run and he’s solid in the outfield. But he never had that combination of luck and opportunity that would give him a line in the Baseball Encyclopedia. His late start (he didn’t reach Triple-A until he was 29) certainly didn’t help.
And then there was the case of the missed opportunity that took away his chance at a big league at-bat. Brinkley was playing for Triple-A Rochester (then an Orioles affiliate) in 2001 after spending most of the year in Mexico. He wasn’t called up when rosters expanded on Sept. 1, so when the season ended he headed to play in Australia.
While there he got a call from his mother telling him that Orioles general manager Syd Thrift was trying to track him down. The call to the big leagues had finally come’"on Sept. 10, 2001. He headed to the airport to get a flight back to the U.S. on Sept. 11, but the shutdown of flights after the terrorist attacks that morning left Brinkley grounded in Australia. By the time he got back, the Orioles had promoted Tim Raines Jr. instead.
It turned out to be his one shot at the big leagues. But despite having plenty of opportunities to play what-if, Brinkley is more focused on what-is.
“It hurt at first, but what are you going to do?” Brinkley said. “I’m not the biggest religious guy you’re going to find, but the man upstairs gave me longevity. I’m still playing. I’ve gotten the chance to see the world, and my family has gotten a chance to see the world.”
Brinkley’s colleagues aren’t necessarily as charitable about what happened.
“If you’re not drafted and brought up through the organization you’re not going to get the first chance, you’re going to get the third chance,” Busch said. “Guys that get drafted get the looks. Unless you completely dazzle them, guess who’s going to go up.”
Brinkley tells the story of a Triple-A manager who told him he was making his life difficult. The manager was supposed to be playing the team’s outfield prospects, but he kept putting Brinkley in the lineup because he kept getting hits. He kept making the manager’s life rough by hitting better than .300 all season.
He has had an impressive career, even if it didn’t include a trip to the big leagues. He’s not sure if he’ll call it a career after hitting .400 and go out on top, or if he’ll come back for another year. But he’s given himself options. He has kept on hitting, so there will be a job waiting for him.
Now he just has to decide whether he’s ready to become a coach or wants to play for another season. The Vipers want him back, but it will be Brinkley’s decision as to whether his legs have another season in them.
If he does decide to become a coach, Busch has little doubt that he’ll be a good one. He’s already a coach on the field for his younger teammates.
“I tell the younger players, if you want to watch one guy on how to prepare and go about your business, watch Darryl Brinkley,” Busch said. “He loves the game. He shows up every day ready to play. He’s the first guy at the park every day.”
Indy Playoff Wrap-Up
All the independent leagues have now completed their seasons, with several teams in the process of building mini-dynasties. The Fort Worth Cats have won three straight titles, while the Gary Railcats and Alexandria Aces are also becoming old hats at champagne celebrations. Here’s a look at how all of the leagues wrapped up their playoffs. Finals standings and leaders are on Page 34.
It’s hard to find a Fort Worth Cat who remembers what it’s like to go home unhappy at the end of a season.
After two years, the American Association has had one champion as the Cats rallied to beat St. Paul three games to two in the best-of-five championship series. Fort Worth also won the final championship in the now-defunct Central League.
When it came to the deciding game, Fort Worth turned to Joel Kirsten, the same ace who had pitched the team to titles in 2005 and 2006. Kirsten allowed six hits and one run, while Jordan Foster homered and Kelley Gulledge hit a two-run single as part of a three-run seventh that led Fort Worth to a 4-1 win in the deciding game. Foster was named the series MVP with 19 hits in the postseason.
Jose Herrera picked a perfect time for a once-in-a-lifetime game. Herrera hit three home runs in Newark’s 13-7 win over Somerset in the deciding game of the Atlantic League championship series. Newark, which sported Atlantic League co-player of the year Victor Rodriguez, beat Somerset three games to one in the championship series. The Bears finished the regular season with the league’s second-best record.
Nashua swept North Shore in three games to win the Can-Am League title. League MVP Olmo Rosario hit a two-run home run in the deciding game, while Rich Garces picked up saves in all three games.
After the Windy City Thunderbolts won nearly 71 percent of their games during the regular season, some thought the Frontier League playoffs would just be a coronation to acknowledge their dominance.
It didn’t end up being that easy, but in the end Windy City did earn its first title, winning three consecutive do-or-die games to beat Washington for its first Frontier League title. It was a disheartening end for Washington. The Wild Things have made it to the Frontier League playoffs in each of the past six years without winning a title.
Normally a championship team is built around a steady core of veterans who get some help from a a couple of new faces.
Chico had a different formula. Rookie Daniel Nava stepped into the cleanup spot from day one and led the Outlaws for their first title, hitting .371/.425/.625 while earning the league MVP honors. He was helped by league pitcher of the year Todd Gelatka, who picked up 18 saves. The Outlaws knocked off Long Beach three games to one in the best-of-five championship series.
If Willie Glen’s on the mound, the Gary Railcats feel pretty good about their chances. So it was no surprise that Glen led Gary to its second Northern League title in three years.
The Railcats ace improved to 8-0 in the postseason by holding Calgary to three hits in a complete-game win in the deciding Game Five of the Northern League championship series. Glen allowed three runs in 33 innings this year in the postseason, after throwing 17 scoreless innings in the playoffs in 2006.
The Alexandria Aces are still the only champ in United League history after winning their second straight title. Alexandria was the league’s dominant team and headed into the playoffs in fine fashion, going 33-13 over the second half. They were so dominant that no other team in the league finished above .500 during the second half.
Aces manager Ricky VanAsselberg had told the local newspaper before the series began that he knew he would be branded as a choke artist if his team didn’t win the title, but he didn’t need to worry. The Aces swept past Rio Grande Valley in the championship series, outscoring the WhiteWings 33-11 in three games.
|All-Independent Leagues Team|
|Pos.||Player, Team (League)||AVG||OBP||SLG||AB||R||H||HR||RBI||SB|
|C||Luis Alen, Winnipeg (Northern)||.333||.396||.453||285||43||95||3||44||2|
|1B||Jesse Hoorelebeke, Bridgeport (Atlantic)||.313||.396||.586||432||86||135||33||96||0|
|2B||Javier Colina, Newark (Atlantic)||.309||.375||.560||466||92||144||26||101||4|
|SS||Nelson Teilon, Edinbrg (United)||.364||.396||.620||374||62||136||21||95||15|
|3B||Carlos Duncan, Calgary (Northern)||.350||.441||.526||397||77||139||13||82||20|
|OF||Darryl Brinkley, Calgary (Northern)||.400||.482||.603||375||88||150||14||82||18|
|OF||Kane Simmons, Reno (Golden)||.326||.400||.628||215||47||70||18||54||1|
|OF||Daniel Nava, Chico (Golden)||.371||.475||.625||256||70||95||12||59||18|
|DH||Kelly Hunt, Aiken (South Coast)||.337||.422||.694||258||49||87||24||68||0|
|Pos.||Pitcher, Team (League)||W||L||SV||ERA||IP||H||BB||SO||AVGA|
|SP||Willie Glen, Gary (Northern)||12||1||0||3.03||140||111||36||162||.214|
|SP||Tanner Watson, Rockford (Frontier)||11||3||0||2.17||104||64||31||77||.176|
|SP||John Kelly, New Jersey (Can-Am)||7||3||0||2.34||146||125||42||130||.232|
|RP||Justin Dowdy, Alexandria (United)||2||3||24||1.37||53||53||22||102||.119|
C: Kelley Gulledge, Fort Worth (American Association). 1B: Mike Breyman, Gateway (Frontier). 2B: Rob Watson, Kansas City (Northern). SS: Travis Garcia, Chillicothe (Frontier). OF: Jon Armitage, Gateway (Frontier); Carl Everett, Long Island (Atlantic); Jeremy Pickrel, New Haven (Can-Am). DH: Sandy Madera, New Jersey (Can-Am). SP: Brian Adams, (Atlantic), Adam Cox, Alexandria (United); Pat Mahomes, Sioux Falls (American Association). RP: Derrick DePriest, Lancaster (Atlantic).