Every ballclub consists of different pieces and parts that combine to form a team. Some parts are very important: superstars and everyday players. Other parts are less glamorous, like the second-string catcher or the mop-up reliever. But, no team is complete without them all.
One of Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson’s greatest strengths was the ability to piece together the smaller parts of the team puzzle. Perhaps because of his own modest playing career, Sparky identified with the players who were less than household names, the players who may only get into a game once or twice a week, the players with high uniform numbers but a low salary. The white-haired skipper recognized that these players served an important role on his team. He was famous for falling in love with players, and one of his all-time favorite role players was William H. Barnes, better known on the baseball diamond as “Skeeter.”
If one wanted a walking, tobacco-chewing personification of the word “perseverance”, Barnes would have been it. He was a 16th round draft choice of the Reds in the 1978 amateur draft after starring at the University of Cincinnati. Few 16th rounders end up stars in the big leagues, in fact the road to the majors is tough for players taken in the low-to-middle rounds. Often, those players are seen by organizations as “filler” to pad their minor league rosters.
Barnes languished in the minor leagues, boy did he languish. By the end of the 1988 season he had spent 11 seasons in pro ball, having gotten just 70 games at the big league level. In 1983 and 1984 with the Reds, and in 1985 with the Expos and 1987 with the Cardinals, Barnes had been called up for a cup of coffee. Most players in Barnes’ situation (and nearly 30 years old) would have retired before spending a decade as a minor leaguer. But Barnes was determined and he was confident in his skills. especially his ability to hit a baseball.
Skeeter could always hit a baseball, for sure. And because of that the Reds re-acquired him in the off-season in 1988. But the following season he only got a short call-up to the majors, getting into five games and three at-bats. After another season spent at the high levels of the minor leagues with the Reds he was an unrestricted free agent when he was signed by the Tigers in January of 1991. By that time, Skeeter was almost 34 years old, had appeared in just 75 games in the majors and hit .156 with 17 hits. He wasn’t a prospect, a big league hopeful, he wasn’t anything. He was an aging ballplayer who seemed to stubbornly refuse to retire. Detroit saw him as a veteran who could play at Toledo and maybe help some of their younger players in development.
But Barnes saw his arrival in Detroit as an opportunity to impress new people. He went into spring training determined to make the major league club. He had proven he could hit in the minors – he’d hit over 100 homers and batted over .290 at that level. he hadn’t played below the Triple-A level since 1986. But the trouble with Barnes had always been that he didn’t have a defensive position and he wasn’t known for being very talented with the glove. He had been tried at third base, right field, first base, left field, and shortstop.
In his first camp with Sparky’s Tigers, Barnes hit the ball well, but he didn’t have a chance to make the veteran club. He started the ’91 season at Toledo with the Mud Hens where he battered opposing pitching. In just over two months there, Barnes hit .330 with nine homers and 40 RBI in 62 games. He also still had speed at his age – swiping 27 bases. His performance was hard to overlook, and in mid-June he was called up to the Tigers. Sparky got him into the lineup immediately, batting him third and playing him in left field against the Mariners. In his first at-bat as a Tiger, Barnes blasted a home run off Brian Holman. Two days later he hit another homer, and on a team decimated with injuries and an aging roster, Barnes settled into a role as jack-of-all-trades. He played at third, in the outfield, at DH, even at second base for Sparky. By the end of the season he had played in 75 games, hitting .289 with five homers, 17 RBI, and 10 steals. Skeeter had won over Sparky.
Barnes went to camp in 1992 in rare circumstances – he had a job with a big league club. He spent the entire ’92 campaign in the majors – a first for him. He performed pretty much the same, batting .273 while being used as a utility man and to give the regulars rest at six or seven positions. In 1993 he did it again for Sparky, spending the entire year as essentially the Tigers 25th man. He added expertise as a pinch-hitter, batting .353 in that role that season.
The next year Barnes served in the same role but in June, after getting only 21 at-bats he was sent down to Toledo. Even Sparky didn’t have room any more for a 37-year old bench player.
Barnes retired rather than accept the demotion, but was back in uniform the next spring as a minor league coach for Detroit. He spent six more years in the Tigers organization, culminating as the manager at Lakeland in 2000.
Skeeter now works in the Tampa Bay Rays organization as an outfield and baserunning instructor. Like Tigers broadcaster Rod Allen, Barnes is known for his homespun catch phrases, like “that player is half-man, half-mule.”