Very few baseball players make it to the major leagues without having spent a day in the minors. Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline is such a player that immediately comes to mind to baseball fans in the Motor City.
In the early 1990ss, the Detroit Tigers had another player who went straight to the major leagues, although he didn’t begin his career with Detroit. Pete Incaviglia enjoyed one of the most prolific college baseball careers ever, as a member of the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In his junior season, he hit an eye-popping 48 home runs, and set an NCAA single season record with a 1.140 slugging percentage. By the time his collegiate career was over, “Inky” was the all-time leading home run hitter in NCAA Division-1 baseball. His Cowboys advanced to the College World Series in each of his three seasons.
With a resume like that, it was no surprise that the Montreal Expos selected Incaviglia with the eighth pick in the 1985 amateur draft (He had actually been chosen by the San Francisco Giants in the 10th round of the 1982 draft, but had elected to attend Oklahoma State instead.).
Incaviglia (pronounced in-ca-VEEL-e-ya) was confident in his ability to succeed at the major league level. He refused to play in the minor leagues, a stance which didn’t sit well with the Expos. Before he ever suited up for the organization, they dealt him to the Texas Rangers in November of 1985. When Incaviglia was inserted into the Rangers lineup on Opening Day, 1986, he became only the 15th player (since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965) to make the jump to the majors without ever having played in the minors.
An all-or-nothing swinger, Incaviglia played five years in Arlington, averaging 25 home runs and 158 strikeouts. Incaviglia was your prototypical one-dimensional player: He couldn’t field, he couldn’t run, and he couldn’t hit for average. Texas tried to unload him, but couldn’t find any takers for his big contract. Finally, after two straight sub-.240 seasons, the Rangers released the 6’1”, 225-pound outfielder near the end of spring training in 1991.
Enter the Tigers, a team that had been floundering since coming close to winning the American League East in 1988. Detroit signed Incaviglia to a one-year deal on April 7, 1991. He joined a team that already featured Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, and Rob Deer, sluggers who, like Inky, put up high whiff totals. Said Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell at the beginning of the campaign: “I guess I’ll be pretty busy between saying ‘long gone’ and ‘he stood there like the house by the side of the road.’” Harwell was right. The Tigers led the majors in both home runs (209) and strikeouts (1,185) that summer.
As for Incaviglia, his season in Detroit was the beginning of a downward spiral to his career. In 97 games, he hit only .214, with eleven home runs and 38 RBIs. He struck out 92 times, with an unimpressive .353 slugging percentage. The Tigers had taken a chance on Inky, and the experiment had failed. He was not re-signed following the season, and latched on to the Houston Astros.
Incaviglia had a solid comeback season with the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in 1983, when he hit 24 home runs with 89 RBIs. From then on he constantly shuttled between the majors and the minors, including a second tour of duty with Detroit in 1998, when he managed one hit in fourteen at-bats. Inky’s last stop was in 2002 at age 38, with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. All told, he played a total of 17 seasons as a professional, in 15 different cities, in three different countries (the U.S., Japan, and Mexico).
After his playing days ended, Incaviglia stayed in the game. He was the hitting instructor for three years for the Erie Seawolves, the Tigers’ Double-A team. He also managed for the Grand Prairie (Texas) AirHogs of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. He is now the skipper of the Laredo Lemurs of the same league.
“I love managing,” Inky says. “I really enjoy it. I like working with the kids and still being in uniform. I feel very fortunate because this is something I love to do every day. I’m still putting a uniform on. I can’t complain. The game was really good to me and I feel like this is the best way I can give back.”