Every time I plop down in a seat at PNC Field to cover a RailRiders game, I do so knowing Twitter is going to throw the same handful of questions at me for the next four hours, and likely into the next game.
Why don’t the Yankees call Trey Amburgey to the major leagues? Wouldn’t Estevan Florial be at least as good an option to play center field right now as Brett Gardner is? Hoy Park is still hitting .360 in the minors? Do the Yankees even want to win?
Fact is, I’m used to all that. Phillies fans used to email them to me about Chase Utley and Joe Roa in the Red Barons days. Yankees fans weren’t patient with the front office, either, when Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez were ripping doubles and homers for the RailRiders just a few years ago.
That’s all quite understandable, and those discussions really are a fun perk of the job. Triple-A baseball exists both to develop players for the majors and tantalize big-league fans dreaming of a world championship. So, fans focus on those players they think can help achieve that ultimate goal.
Let’s not focus on them right now, though. Let’s talk about one who spent many days at PNC Field. One who got a step away from the majors. One who the Yankees clearly liked well-enough to have around. One who did the kind of job nobody in professional baseball wants to admit they have.
One who nobody ever emailed me or messaged my Twitter account to ask about, for one very frank reason: Because Daniel Camarena wasn’t going to be a factor in the big leagues anyway.
And yet, there he was. In San Diego, of all cities. In the batter’s box, of all places. Down, 8-2, in the fourth inning and facing Washington’s ferocious right-hander Max Scherzer, of all people. Achieving, of all things, maybe the most unlikely feat in baseball history.
Nobody would have bet that Camarena — a crafty left-handed pitcher, by trade — would take a healthy hack at a fastball from a sure-fire Hall of Famer and hit a grand slam in his first big league at-bat. But that scene Thursday night at Petco Park already is going down as one of the premier moments of the 2021 baseball season; and if the Padres go on to win the World Series, it could also be considered one of the seminal moments in the history of that franchise.
“I blacked out. I hit first base, and all of a sudden, I noticed the lights were flashing in the stadium,” Camarena said after the game. “That’s when it kind of hit: ‘Oh my God, I just hit a home run.’ And not only that, a grand slam.
“I didn’t put any expectations on myself. I was just, ‘Dude, put the ball in play somehow.’ And what a cool result.”
So, for the sake of bookkeeping: Camarena became the first relief pitcher since 1985 to hit a grand slam, and he’s the first relief pitcher to record a grand slam as his first major league hit since the immortal Phillies right-hander Bill Duggleby did so in 1898. And Camarena’s grand slam was the driving force behind the Padres’ comeback from eight runs down to beat the Nationals, making them the first time ever to come back from down eight runs or more to win a game in which a pitcher with multiple Cy Young Awards to his credit was on the mound.
Not bad for a guy who was 5 for 29 in his 10-year professional career at the plate.
It’s difficult to overstate how great a moment that was for a native San Diegan who really was the epitome of what clubs refer to with that backhanded baseball compliment — “an organizational guy” — during the parts of four seasons he spent pitching for the RailRiders from 2016 through 2019. But it’s important to stress what that meant not just for Camarena and the Padres, but so many others around baseball who were seemingly spinning their wheels in Triple-A, waiting for that one opportunity to live a dream.
The Yankees released Camarena a handful of times over the years and signed him again when they needed an arm who would offer a professional effort, a quality approach and an impeccable example. That’s what organizational guys tend to be; not prospects, but those who the prospects need around to learn how to compete.
Camarena last pitched for the RailRiders in 2019, when he went a rather forgettable 4-8 with a 6.27 ERA in 17 games. He was 10-14 in his RailRiders career, over 270⅔ innings spent toiling in the shadow of guys like Miguel Andújar, Clint Frazier, Deivi Garcia and even Chance Adams. The Yankees called him up once, on July 6, 2019, to do for them essentially what he was supposed to do for the Padres on Thursday night: Eat some innings and save the bullpen if a long reliever was needed.
The Yankees didn’t need one that July 6, and Camarena was subsequently sent down and designated for assignment. He was going to be a guy who got this close. There was no realistic expectation a moment like Thursday’s would ever come.
Until it did.
“The last couple years, I’ve just been grinding, just trying to keep my head afloat, just trying to keep my career going,” Camarena said. “For something like this to happen was just truly special.”
One last cool sidebar: Camarena doesn’t even own a bat or batting gloves. When he got his call to the bigs earlier in the day, he borrowed the stick and gloves he wore for that at-bat from Gosuke Katoh, his teammate at Triple-A El Paso and the highly respected former RailRiders infielder who hit 11 homers for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2019.
Reality is, that might be as close as one of Katoh’s bats ever gets to a major league batter’s box.
And that’s the lure of baseball, the pull of the major leagues and a dream so many youngsters have growing up. Rolled into one, it’s the story of how difficult it is to get there, and what simply doing so means.
Too few who come through clubhouses like the ones at PNC Field get to experience it.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: email@example.com; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT