Former Butte players still leave their mark

This topic would’ve sounded a little better, a little more timely a couple of weeks ago. The Red Sox and the Yankees spoiled that, though. So did the tardiness of this writer’s thinking.

Back then, the American League East was a bona fide pennant race and involved the division’s top three teams — the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and, at the time, the Baltimore Orioles.

Since then, the Red Sox have opened up quite a spread in the standings and the Yankees have eked past the Orioles. The chain of events also disrupted the player standings of Mike Napoli, Joel Peralta and Francisco Rodriguez.

Those guys were once Butte Copper Kings. They’re the only Butte Copper Kings left in Major League Baseball. So, it won’t be long the fading memory of the Pioneer League minor league baseball team that provided a lot of entertainment and memories on local summer nights from 1978 through 2000 will just about be gone for too many Mining City residents.

Even the field is gone. Alumni Coliseum was dismantled in favor of building a Rose Bowl contender. Well, maybe not, but you have to wonder —don’t you? Anyway, the location is all-football, now. The baseball-football combination, though, is, if anything, an enticement to the ordinary, crazy sports fan. The coexistence debate, however, is not proper for this particular and immediate time.

Napoli, Peralta and Rodriguez are all in their 30s now and the pro athletes’ career life is not very long. The window has widened some, now, but it still doesn’t remain open as long as in the more common professions. Therefore, the athlete has to make his money fast. It is too bad not so many of them keep it or as much of it as they should. In their cases, too often the wealth arrives years ahead of the wisdom.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Napoli stood in first place as a member of the Red Sox, Peralta in second with the Rays and Rodriguez was in third place with the Orioles. The Rays and Orioles were in the thick of the hunt for a wild-card spot in case they weren’t able to catch the Red Sox.

They still could, of course. It is September yet, and the month and the Red Sox have not always been a compatible couple in prior seasons. Then, too, we have the Yankees breaking up the party and having nosed ahead of the Orioles in the standings.

Oddly, however, Napoli, Peralta and Rodriguez were all affiliated with the Angels when they were performing in Butte. Napoli was a catcher and Peralta a pitcher in 2000, the last year of the Copper Kings. Rodriguez was a teenaged phenom in 1999 who had a brand-new Mustang delivered by truck directly to the Butte ballpark just before his first pro season began. He was probably the richest Copper King since the actual Daly-Clark Copper Kings in Butte, having signed for just short of a million dollars with the Angels, who threw the money at him to lure the fireballer out of Caracas, Venezuela.

Napoli was a catcher in those days and remained such as he came up through the Angels system and played for the big club before moving on to Texas and then Boston. He was also a member of the Blue Jays for a couple of hours, having been traded by the Angels to Toronto, and then quickly by the Blue Jays to Texas. A back ailment that sidelined the then 18-year-old Napoli for much of the 2000 Pioneer League season seems to have caught up with the 31-year-old for good and taken him out of the position. But he has done quite well playing first base for Boston this year, showing good power in a strong lineup.

Peralta is a reliable mid-inning reliever for Tampa Bay. He might’ve have thrown to Napoli in 2000 in Butte, and maybe not, depending on whether either was available to play at the same time. Peralta has seen time with several teams in a fairly long MLB career, but his abilities seem most appreciated this year in Tampa Bay where 1996 Copper Kings manager Tom Foley is the third-base coach, a position he has held since the Rays’ first season in 1997.

Peralta, a 37-year-old from Bonao in The Dominican Republic, threw 19 innings for the 2000 Copper Kings. They spanned 10 games and he went 2-1 with a 6.63 earned run average that year, after having been salvaged from the Oakland Athletics cut list at age 24. Peralta had one save in 2000, and posted 10 walks against 17 strikeouts, leaving little to indicate he would turn out to be as successful a professional pitcher as he is.

Rodriguez was blistering fastballs in the 90s at Pioneer League batters as a 17-year-old Copper King on which the Angels readily heaped star status. Some of those heaters banged off the backstop, some were strikes. He worked in 12 games that Copper King season and wound up with a less-than-sparkling 1-1 record. His 3.31 ERA, however, was quite promising as a teenager in a hitters’ league that routinely chocked its roster full of batters with college ball experience, or who had been honed in play out of the young rookie and Caribbean leagues.

His 51.2 innings pitched for Butte included 21 walks and a whopping 69 strikeouts. Rodriguez went on to stardom with the Angels as a reliever, a closer extraordinaire. In 2008, he set the MLB single-season saves record of 62. Rodriguez, dubbed “K-Rod,” went on to pitch, too, for the Mets and Brewers before being obtained by the Orioles earlier this summer.

The Butte Copper Kings organization sent more than 60 young men on to Major League Baseball, even if for an inning or game or two or so. Some had long, successful, even all-star, careers. Napoli, Peralta and Rodriguez are the only ones who remain. Fate has put them into quite the competitive situation as rivals this last month of the 2013 season.

It might be a little more interesting to many of us in this part of the world than others would expect.

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