Jablonski Rico Noel hopes not to be another Moonlight Graham
NEW YORK -- Rico Noel was about to step into the batter's box after six seasons in the minors for his first swing as a major leaguer. Hoping to add to a seven-run lead at Fenway Park, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi called the rookie back to the dugout and sent up a pinch hitter.
Noel vows he won't join Moonlight Graham and become the 86th big league position player who never got to bat.
"Oh, I'm going to get one eventually. This ain't the only year. Don't think this is going to be it," the 26-year-old speedster said. "I've got the confidence to have an extended career. I'm not just here for a September call-up and that's it, you never hear about me again."
His life began with an unusual name selected by his mother and her niece -- Jablonski Rico Noel -- and his first major league call-up came at a tumultuous time for his family.
On the same day he joined the Yankees in Boston, his 24-year-old brother Orlandus had surgery in Texas to insert a heart pump doctors hope will be a bridge to an eventual transplant.
Because of the surgery, Noel's parents missed his debut. But Mom bought a plane ticket this week and plans to attend games at Yankee Stadium in late September.
"I told her she can go," Orlandus said.
Drafted by the Padres in the fifth round in 2010 out of Coastal Carolina, Noel had a .254 average in the minors, abandoning switch-hitting this year and sticking with his natural right side.
He was known most for bunting Will Ferrell's 55 mph toss during the actor's spring training pitching appearance for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
San Diego released him June 28 and the Yankees signed the outfielder two days later as they thought ahead to September.
While he swiped 283 bases in 344 tries as a pro, he was just 1 for 17 at the plate (.059) this year after the Yankees promoted him from Double-A Trenton to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"If the time comes to give him an at-bat, I'm going to give him an at-bat." Girardi said. "I'm not trying not to give him an at-bat, but his role is a pinch runner for us mostly, and we'll see. I'm sure it will happen."
The most famous position player who never batted was Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, who entered in the eighth inning and was on deck for the New York Giants when Claude Elliott flied out to end the top of the ninth inning at Brooklyn on June 29, 1905. Graham played right field in the bottom half and never made it to the big leagues again.
He became a doctor, was featured in W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe" and was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams."
"It was like coming this close to your dreams, and then watching them brush past you like a stranger in the crowd," Lancaster's Graham said.
No big league position player has failed to get at least one trip to the plate since Joe Hietpas, who caught the ninth inning of the New York Mets' 2004 finale -- the last game in Montreal Expos' history before the franchise moved to Washington, D.C. With the Mets ahead 8-1, there was no bottom of the ninth.
"At the time, you don't look at it as your one missed opportunity for an at-bat. It's the start. It's not the finish," said Hietpas, now a real estate lawyer in St. Louis. "I played long enough after that and had every chance to earn my way back, and I just didn't."
Just 5-foot-8, with a wide smile and a happy, chatty personality, Noel starred at Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. He played infield, and Orlandus, two years behind him, was at first base.
"He'd always nag at me: `Catch the damn ball," Orlandus said.
Rico helped Coastal Carolina reach the NCAA super regionals in 2010 and attracted the attention of scouts.
"He's probably heard it all: not big enough, can't do this, can't do that," said Adam Bourassa, who signed him with the Padres for a $163,800 bonus. "I think that pushed him and motivates him. He's got that upbeat personality that he can do anything."
When Mary Noel was pregnant back in Ville Platte, Louisiana, she and her husband, Vincent, decided they wanted Rico to be part of their second son's name.
"We didn't know if it would be the middle or the first," she said.
Mary Noel asked her sister's daughter, Sally Watson, to be the godmother and to select a name to go with Rico.
"I was sitting down in typing class," Watson said, thinking back to her senior year at Ville Platte High School, "and it just popped up. There was a name from the book, the story that I was typing from, and it just caught my attention because it was something different."
A military family, the Noels moved around -- to Lawton and Lakewood, Washington, then back to Lawton. Sometime during junior high school, Jablonski started going by his middle name.
"Everybody just started calling him Rico because he was well known in sports, so they just wanted to do that shorter name," his mom said.
The family's life changed forever last Nov. 9 -- "I remember that just as it was yesterday," Mary Noel said.
Orlandus, 23, was at his parents' home, and Mary felt something amiss. Her son felt anxious and said he had difficulty sleeping for three of four nights.
She remembered him saying he felt "like something is sitting on my chest."
She took him to a doctor, and he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
Orlandus has been at Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas since July 21, a week after his 24th birthday, was given a temporary Impella pump in August and awaited a transplant. But doctors decided they had to do something and operated to insert a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), which requires rehabilitation time of about three months. He then will go back on the transplant list.
"Being that he is young, the LVAD is probably a better solution," the father said of the short-term. "Transplant average lifespan is 12-15 years, you may get 20 years."
Orlandus may be transferred to a rehab facility this weekend. He sometimes misses Rico's calls.
"I'd be on these pain medicines and I'll be sleeping, and he'll be trying to call me late, and I'd be knocked out," Orlandus said.
And while Rico dresses at one of the six temporary lockers in the middle of the Yankees clubhouse with the other call-ups, he thinks of his brother.
"He's taken it well. He's positive with everything," Rico said. "It makes it a lot easier on me."
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press
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