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Good times finally roll for Koonce
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO—Graham Koonce thought it was bad when he got released on March 26, 1997. After he batted .249 with 11 homers in three seasons in the lower minors, the Tigers told him they didn’t see him reaching the majors.
Koonce knew he hadn’t been producing, but the decision still stung. Calling his agent didn’t make him feel any better.
When Koonce told Arn Tellem Detroit had dropped him, he didn’t receive any sympathy or a promise to find him another team. Tellem did little but acknowledge him.
Koonce could have quit. He had taken offseason classes at UCLA, where he was headed out of high school before the Tigers took him in the 60th round in 1993 and signed him for early-round money. But after sitting out for two weeks, he missed baseball.
He hooked up with the Tri-City Posse of the independent Western League and hit the ball with a little more authority. That got him traded to the Mission Viejo Vigilantes, but they released him before the 1998 season started.
Koonce could have quit, but instead found a spot with a third WL team, the Chico Heat. He could have quit when the Padres, who signed him in December 1998, had him repeat high Class A at age 25. He could have quit when the Athletics, who claimed him in the minor league Rule 5 draft in December 2001, had him repeat Double-A at age 27.
But Koonce kept grinding no matter what curveball the game threw at him next.
“After my time with the Tigers, I had zero expectations,” he said. “I would go into the season or even an at-bat with no expectations because the more expectations I had had, the more I wouldn’t reach them. They would just compound on me and get me depressed.
“If something good happened, it was all a positive.”
Many good things have happened to Koonce in 2003, and they haven’t stopped.
It has been a year of firsts for Koonce. Before the season, he got married. Then he went off to his first big league camp. Ten years after signing, he finally made it to Triple-A.
Koonce caught fire after the all-star break, batting .315-21-62 to finish at .277-34-115 overall for Triple-A Sacramento. He won the minor league home run crown and the Pacific Coast League MVP award. The River Cats captured the PCL championship.
His 2003 would have been satisfying had it ended right there. While the champagne flowed in the Sacramento clubhouse, manager Tony DeFrancesco approached him with the best news yet.
After 1,069 games and at age 28, Koonce had proven the Tigers wrong. He was headed to the big leagues.
Koonce got to celebrate again when Oakland clinched the American League West title. He struck out on an Armando Benitez fastball in his first big league at-bat and fanned six times in his first seven trips to the plate. On the last day of the season, he collected his first major league hit, a double into the right-center gap off Seattle’s Rafael Soriano.
“After I hit the ball, it was neat to see a line drive over Bret Boone’s head with Ichiro chasing it,” Koonce said. “It was such a surreal moment, and then it was over. I was out there on the bases for a little bit, and my whole career flashed before my eyes. It felt like yesterday I was struggling in Bristol. So many awesome things have happened in my life.”
More were to come. USA Baseball tabbed Koonce as its first baseman for the Olympic qualifying team after he hit .600-3-14 in 11 games in the Arizona Fall League. At the qualifying tournament in Panama, he homered in the opener and went 3-for-7 and reached base eight times as the United States easily won its first three contests.
Fairy Tale Can Get Better
Koonce calls 2003 a fairy tale, and the best part is that he’s not about to turn into a pumpkin any time soon. He might be ancient by prospect standards, but scouts believe in his power and on-base ability and say he’s a legitimate slugger who keeps getting better.
“He’s a late bloomer,” an American League assistant general manager said. “Sometimes you look at the stats and you don’t like the swing. Sometimes you like the swing and they don’t have good stats. With Koonce, you get both.”
Koonce also happens to be in the perfect organization for a player with his talents. The A’s covet home runs and walks as much as anyone. He’ll get a long look in spring training, and he can’t wait to see what’s in store next.
“If you had told me everything that was going to happen this year, I probably would have said to you, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Koonce said. “But in my mind, I would have said, ‘That’s possible. I really believe I can do that.’ I know how hard I’ve worked and I know I’ve given everything to the game all the time. If that wasn’t enough, I’d still know I gave it everything I could.
“By no means am I done.”
You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to email@example.com.