October 7, 2001: Scott Sobkowiak
Scott Sobkowiak is our most recent "cup of coffee" player to climb into our thread so far as he made his one-and-only big-league appearance on this date 18 years ago. Born in Woodstock, Illinois, the same town the film Groundhog Day was filmed in, Sobkowiak excelled at baseball, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa. He was taken in the seventh round of the 1998 MLB Draft and didn't have to wait all that long to get his shot in the bigs.
After nearly four full seasons in the minors, Sobkowiak was summoned to the big club despite having posted a 5.54 ERA in 12 starts with the Double-A Greenville Braves. Atlanta had already wrapped up a spot in the postseason by winning the National League East and needed some youngsters to eat up innings in the final contest of the season.
Having waited for his chance to finally get into a game, it didn't seem like Sobkowiak would be asked to pitch in relief at all that October afternoon. His debut is by far the latest for a modern "cup of coffee" player. The MLB regular season in 2001 was delayed several days due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Just when it seemed like another game would come and go without Sobkowiak getting in, he was put in the game in the top of the ninth. In the batting order, he replaced Dave Martinez, the current manager of the Washington Nationals. The first batter he faced was Derrek Lee, one of the future heroes for the Marlins as they won a World Series title just two years later. On this night, he fouled out to first base. Sobkowiak then gave up a double to Cliff Floyd and coaxed a groundout from Eric Owens.
One out from escaping trouble, Sobkowiak allowed a Mike Lowell seeing-eye single, which scored Floyd and put the first blemish on the rookie's major-league pitching resume. Kevin Millar, a hero for the Red Sox three years later as the franchise reversed their curse, came up next for Florida. Sobkowiak got him to ground out to third to end the inning. Down 4-2, Atlanta was unable to mount a comeback in the bottom of the ninth.
Though he had pitched fairly well, Sobkowiak was tagged with a 9.00 ERA after allowing one earned run in one inning. Atlanta would lose to the Diamondbacks in the NLCS weeks later as Arizona advanced to the World Series, where they would knock off the dynastic New York Yankees, denying them a fourth straight title in grand fashion with a Luis Gonzalez walk-off bloop single in Game 7, one of the most iconic moments in Fall Classic history.
Sobkowiak was left wondering what was next for his big-league career. Would he get another chance to prove what he could do? After the 2001 season, he only appeared in 37 more minor-league games across all of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. Then, he went on a five-year run in the Independent League, a glorified men's beer league softball outfit. Sobkowiak pitched for the Rockford Riverhawks in 2003 and 2004 close to his hometown of Woodstock, Illinois. Then, in 2005 he pitched for the Somerset Patriots.
He rounded out his career with two more Independent League seasons with the Lancaster Barnstormers in 2006 and 2007. Five seasons in the Independent League is like an eternity. It is semi-pro baseball and is unaffiliated with organized baseball. Most, like Sobkowiak, play in an Independent League as a last hoorah, but he hung around for half a decade.
If that doesn't tell you how much love for the sport it takes to reach the majors, even for just one day, nothing will. All that love might get you one inning on baseball's biggest stage, but Sobkowiak's six-year journey to try to get back is a harsh reminder that sometimes no amount of love is enough to get you back to the place your career peaked for a few minutes on an October afternoon.