Independent Leagues Preview: Berrios Is One Of Indy Ball’s Best

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Harry Berrios
never aspired to be one of the independent baseball’s greatest stars.

In the same way
that no one longs to be Broadway’s greatest understudy, the top
quarterback in Arena Football or a People’s Choice Award winner, no
one dreams of becoming one of baseball’s best in the independent
leagues. It’s a title you end up being handed while you’re hoping for
a chance at a spot in the big leagues.

But if the
Northern League ever creates a Hall of Fame, Berrios will be one of
the first inductees. He’s a reliable bat who holds the league’s
records for career hits (852) and RBIs (487). He also ranks in the
top two in the league in games played (644), at-bats (2,662), runs
(442), doubles (152) and home runs (101).

But as Berrios,
34, describes in a self-deprecating manner, “Those records just
show I’ve been here too long.”

Long enough that
his current manager, Rick Forney, was a teammate of his in the
Orioles farm system in 1994. “Harry’s a trouper when it comes to
Northern League baseball. He’s been on a lot of bus trips to a lot of
small cities,” Forney says.

There have always
been baseball players who managed to build 10- to 15-year minor
league careers, guys who were willing to live with the hassles of
minor league life for the chance to keep playing the game.

When independent
leagues returned to the minor league landscape in 1993 and started to
prosper through the 1990s and into the new century, it not only
brought baseball to cities that might otherwise have lost it. Nor did
it just provide second chances for players like Kevin Millar who
slipped through the cracks of Organized Baseball and needed a place
to prove themselves. Indy ball also opened opportunities to a larger
number of players, ones who in the past might have had the bat taken
from their hands before they were ready.

Berrios is one of
those players. The son of a sheriff’s deputy from Grand Rapids,
Mich., he seemed to be on the fast track to the majors early in his
career. He was a member of Louisiana State’s 1991 and 1993 College
World Series winners, and he was drafted by the Orioles in the eighth
round of the 1993 draft.

And yet this will
be his 10th season in baseball’s longest-running independent league.
He’s a baseball lifer. A guy who, as he describes it, will keep
playing as long as someone will let him. Some guys may dread another
10-hour bus ride; for Berrios, it’s just another sign that he is
still able to play the game he loves.

“I’ll keep
playing as long as someone gives me a job. I love being with the
guys. I love traveling. I love baseball. There’s something about
being out there on the grass,” he says. “I can’t have a
9-to-5 job.”

Promising Start

In his first full
season with the Orioles in 1994, he put together one of the best
years any O’s minor leaguer has ever had, hitting .343-19-107 with 56
stolen bases at high Class A Frederick to win the organization’s
minor league player of the year award. He earned a late-season
promotion to Double-A Bowie for one game, and seemed poised to
continue his progress at Bowie in 1995.

It didn’t turn out
that way. Like many players before and since, Berrios’ first exposure
to Double-A pitching proved to be a wake-up call.

“I was a
young guy and I wasn’t very smart,” Berrios says now. “I
went to the plate trying to do too much every at-bat. I buried
myself. Everyone wanted to help me; they were changing this and
changing that. If they’d leave me alone, I’d get on track, but being
young, I wanted to listen to everyone. It was a tough situation.”

Berrios hit .186
over his first nine games and was sent back to Frederick, a demotion
that he says crushed him. He never regained his stroke as an Oriole,
hitting .208 for Frederick in 1995. The next season he wasn’t much
better, hitting .230-4-20 before being released by the Orioles in
July. He latched on with the Indians for the rest of the season, but
was again released at the end of spring training in 1997.

“It was might
fault. I came to the plate and I didn’t do the job,” he says.

Less than two
seasons after being a prospect with a promising future, Berrios was
on the outside, wondering if his career was over. If it had been 10
years earlier, it likely would have been. But with the arrival of the
independent leagues, Berrios had a chance to keep playing.

He signed with the
Northern League’s Sioux Falls Canaries. His numbers that season
weren’t spectacular (.282-14-61), but they were good enough to ensure
that he was asked back for 1998.

“I got my
confidence back. No one got into my head. I just had fun,” he

Berrios hit .320
between Sioux Falls and Thunder Bay in ’98, though his year was cut
short because of surgery to fix two ruptured discs in his back–an
injury he discovered when his left leg went numb on a bus ride to

At the time,
Berrios wasn’t sure he’d be able to ever play again. But he promised
himself one season to recuperate, then one more to see if he could
latch on with an affiliated club.

Another Run
Toward The Majors

That’s exactly
what happened. He hit .309-11-59 for Schaumburg in 1999, and
.328-11-38 in 256 at-bats for them in 2000, including a league-record
four-home run game. That was enough for the Rangers to notice. They
signed him for their Double-A Tulsa squad, and he hit .324-5-18 in
102 at-bats late in the season.

Berrios made it to
Triple-A Oklahoma in 2001, giving him his first and only taste of
Triple-A. Even though it was just 61 games (he hit .255-7-33), that
was enough to ensure that Berrios would remain a baseball player for
quite a while longer.

“Now I know I
can compete at that level. Now that I’ve seen I can do it, that keeps
me going to now,” he says.

When the Rangers
released Berrios in spring training in 2002, Berrios signed with Hal
Lanier and the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Five years later, he’s still
sitting in the middle of their order.

“He’s been a
great player even before he came into the Northern League,”
Lanier says. “He puts up better numbers every year.”

Since he signed
with Winnipeg in 2002, Berrios’ worst batting average is .312. He has
driven in between 71 and 75 runs every year.

“You don’t
usually see that (consistency),” Lanier says. “Some guys
you think they’ll have that type of year, and the next two years,
they’ll fall down a little bit. Harry has probably been the most
consistent veteran player in this league in a long time.

“You need
reliability and you need guys who have a proven track record of
success in this league,” Forney says. “You need to make
sure that you’re bringing in good veterans who can play every day.
You want to count on a guy who will be there all seasons.”

As he gets ready
to start his 14th pro season, Berrios has proven he’ll be there ready
to play, no matter what. He’s gutted his way through foot injuries in
each of the past two seasons, and played with a pulled rib-cage
muscle to try to help Winnipeg beat rival Fargo-Moorhead in the

Berrios wants to
play a couple of more years, and then–as you would expect for
someone with baseball in his blood–he wants to coach. Forney has
already mentioned that he envisions Berrios eventually coaching for
the Goldeyes.

But for now,
Berrios is happy to stay on the field. Before he retires, he wants to
help bring Winnipeg a Northern League title. The Goldeyes are a
perennial playoff team, but they haven’t won a Northern League title
since 1994. And Berrios hasn’t won a championship since LSU’s 1993
College World Series title.

“Every year
they keep talking about the records, but I really want a championship
instead of these records,” Berrios says.

Spoken like a true