Elliott: Remembering minor leaguer Encarnacion
Originally posted Sept. 15, 2012
By Bob Elliott
The best prospect with the class-A 2001 Savannah Sand Gnats was first baseman Jason Botts.
He made it to the majors with the Texas Rangers for parts of four seasons playing 98 games, never more than 48 in a season.
“Botts could do everything but hit for power,” manager Bill Slack this week, manager of the Gnats. “You didn’t think Botts was fast, but he won races they had in the spring to see who was the quickest.”
The third and fourth best Rangers prospects were infielder Laynce Nix and catcher Scott Heard, a first-round pick, recalled Slack.
Nix is with the Philadelphia Phillies, while Heard was out of the game after the 2003 season.
And the second-best prospect?
“Edwin Encarnacion of course,” said Slack, 79 from Winston-Salem, N.C. “Isn’t that why you phoned?”
We haven’t seen Slack, Petrolia, Ont. born, Sarnia raised, since the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction in St. Marys in June and then it was only to say hello.
The two of us haven’t talked in years, but a baseball lifer knows which way the wind blows.
And this season it seems to blow out when Encarnacion comes to the plate.
Encarnacion homered off Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in Thursday’s 8-3 win for his 40th homer as he went over the 100-RBI mark. His previous highs were 26 homers with the 2006 Reds and 76 RBIs with the 2007 Reds, as well as double-A Chattanooga in 2004.
This run production by Encarnacion is not the same as Jose Bautsita, but it’s close.
The Jays thought so much of Encarnacion they allowed him to be claimed on waivers by the Oakland A’s Nov. 12, 2010. And 20 days later he was a free agent and two weeks after that he re-signed with the Jays.
Way back then? Encarnacion hit .306 with nine doubles, two triples, four homers and 25 RBIs, an .808 OPS in 45 games for Savannah and Slack, his reluctant manager.
The Rangers sent Ruben Mateo and Encarnacion to the Cincinnati Reds for Rob Bell on June 15.
The Gnats played at Grayson Stadium, which opened in 1926.
“It was short down the left field line (322 feet) but over 400 to centre and the fence veered out quickly,” Slack said. “Edwin hit a lot of balls to left-centre field for outs.”
Slack recalls a third baseman with “nice soft hands, who made good throws to first,” at Grayson. Encarnacion was an 18-year-old and had 12 errors in 110 chances for an .891 fielding mark.
“He could get a little mopey and was hard on himself after an error or strike out,” Slack said. “He didn’t speak English then. I’d tell our catcher to tell him it wasn’t his first error, it won’t be his last ... let’s try and make it a long time between errors.”
Slack said Encarnacion was “mature for his age,” compared to kids the same age when he coached in the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves systems.
During batting practice Slack would pitch Encarnacion low and away during in an effort to get him to hit the ball the other way to right field.
Slack was credited by the Braves for their success -- “our minor-league pitching coaches all have grey hair, they’re wise,” Atlanta executive Paul Snyder would say referring to Bruce Dal Canton, Bill Fischer and Slack.
“I’d pitch them outside so they’d learn to go that way,” Slack said. “Bobby Doerr and Willie Stargell were the same. Stargell would put two of those orange parking lot cones on the edge of the grass -- one where the second baseman stood, the other 30 feet towards first.
“He wanted his guys hitting the ball through there.”
Slack remembers Braves prospect Ryan Klesko hitting light-standard homers.
“I asked our manager Chris Chambliss if I could pitch to Klesko’s group,” Slack said. “I went away, away, away and oh he’d get mad, He signed a deal with a bat company that made unbreakable bats and they gave him two. I’m pitching and about the third pitch he hits an outside pitch and breaks his bat. Thought he was going to cry.
“I said ‘that’s what they’re going to do to you in the big leagues.’”
After leaving the Braves, Slack was out of the game when Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin called asking him to take the Savannah job.
Slack lost his daughter Cindy, 42, Oct. 29, 1999 and two month later his wife Priscilla.
His children, Victor, Kenny and Karen, told him to take the job.
“I told Doug yes -- on one condition: I can leave when I want,” Slack said. “Doug said “we’ll take you for two weeks if we can get you.”
Butch Wynegar went as a coach and near the all-star break Pedro Lopez took over managing.
“I played in Savannah in 1955 when I was with Montgomery, I didn’t want any of a Savannah summer,” said Slack. “They had mosquitoes as big as your fist. Outfielders spent the game waving them away. Humidity was around 200 degrees and a truck would spray to kill mosquitoes behind the fence. All you would see was a cloud behind the fence. The Gnats is a good nickname.”
Now retired, Slack, signed by the Red Sox in 1952, still watches games on TV each night.
“I follow Edwin, outside of Zach Greinke, there’s not many I had still playing. I’m glad to see Edwin do so well.”