October 4, 1964: Elvio Jimenez
Elvio Jimenez was among the first wave of Dominican ballplayers to make the big time. Obviously, it was much tougher for ballplayers in the 1950s and 1960s to make it to the United States from the small ballplayer-producing country. Jimenez certainly put in his dues even once arriving in the United States and as a result, he got a shot with the New York Yankees.
At the age of 19, straight out of Jose Joaquin Perez High School, Jimenez made his professional debut with the Class-D St. Petersburg Saints, where he spent his entire rookie professional season. Slowly, he climbed up the ladder and after five full seasons, he knew 1964 might be the season he got his shot. He did not disappoint at Triple-A Richmond where he hit .296 and drove in 88 runs despite hitting just eight round trippers. He still clubbed 38 extra-base hits and captured the attention of the Yankee front office enough to get a September call up.
Of course, he didn't appear in a game until October, when on this date 55 years ago, he got his shot. Though Elvio was a "cup of coffee" player, you can't say he didn't get his money's worth. It was the final game of the 1964 regular season and just 10,809 fans had shown up to Yankee Stadium to show their support for the team already destined to represent the American League in the World Series. New York entered play at 99-62, looking for victory No. 100 to round out the season.
Visiting were the Cleveland Indians who were hovering around .500. The Bronx Bombers didn't bother starting any regulars in the field and Jimenez was slated to hit third and play left field. On the mound for the Yanks that day was Jim Bouton, who would go on to famously write Ball Four, one of the most noteworthy sports books of all time. Jimenez stepped into the box for his first career plate appearance with two out, nobody on. In front of him on the mound was Luis Tiant, the Indians' future star, who was wrapping up an excellent rookie season.
Tiant got Jimenez to ground out to shortstop and the side was retired. The game now tied 1-1, Jimenez came back up in the third inning, again with two outs and nobody on. This time, Tiant got him to fly out to right field, pushing the 24-year-old outfielder to 0-for-2 on the day. Tiant and Bouton trading zeroes, Jimenez didn't come back up until the sixth inning, where he stepped up with one out and nobody on base. Then, he knocked a single into center for the first hit of his big-league career. He was 1-for-3 and represented the go-ahead run. After Johnny Blanchard moved him to second with a single of his own, Tiant retired Hector Lopez and Mike Hegan to get out of trouble.
To the eighth inning, the game went and the score was still tied 1-1. The Indians called on Tommy John, who was pitching in his first full season in 1964. Of course, in 1975, he underwent a now-famous surgery to repair a torn UCL ligament in his elbow. The procedure was groundbreaking and saved his career. He didn't retire until after the 1989 season following 26 seasons in major-league baseball.
John, who would go on to have one of baseball's longest careers, dug in on the rubber, preparing to face a man who would have one of baseball's shortest careers. Jimenez stayed hot, singling to center once again and pushing his day to a 2-for-4 mark. He was stranded yet again, though, and still tied at 1-1 on the last day of the season, the Indians and Yankees were headed for extras. Jimenez led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a foul out to third base on a Sonny Siebert offering. Finally, the Indians struck in the top of the 13th as Leon Wagner's ground out to first scored a run, putting Cleveland ahead 2-1. New York would get one last crack at it in the bottom of the inning.
Elston Howard, the American League's reigning MVP and the first black player in Yankee history, led off the 13th as a pinch hitter. Howard, who would finish third in AL MVP voting in 1964, struck out against the Indians' Sam McDowell. Bobby Richardson grounded out to the pitcher, leaving the Yankees down to their final out. Joe Pepitone kept things alive with a single, bringing up Jimenez with a chance to be a hero. New York was down to its last out, but Jimenez was one swing away from sending the Yankee Stadium crowd home happy.
Instead, McDowell got the Dominican righty to ground out to shortstop, stranding the tying run on first base and ending the regular season on a sour note. Unlike Moonlight Graham and other "cup of coffee" players we've detailed, Jimenez got more than a few cracks at the major-league level. His six plate appearances are the most of any modern (1902 to present) "cup of coffee" player. He may have only played in one game, but it practically felt like he played in two.
Heartbreakingly, Jimenez played seven more seasons in the minor leagues, never again getting a chance to prove himself at the big-league level. In 1972, he began a run of four seasons in the Mexican League. In total, he played 17 professional baseball seasons and just one game during that stretch came in the major leagues. He shared a dugout with some future Hall of Famers on a team that 11 days later would lose to the Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series. Like so many other "cup of coffee" players, Jimenez's career intersected with some of the game's greats even if only for a moment. It won't keep him from wondering what could have been as he approaches his 80th year on earth, but in the grand scheme of things, his one day in the big leagues would be pretty hard not to smile about.