You could call it a shrine. There’s nothing fanatical about it, but for a man who meant so much to the people he loved, it seems fitting. A few items on a shelf. Baseball cards. A figurine that, even in its pint-sized form makes the man look bigger than life. Some pictures and baseball cards, including one of a smiling giant of a man holding a small girl. And a ball. A glorious baseball that represents a small blip in Major League history, so tiny that if you weren’t looking for it you might miss it.
And yet, it represents so much more.
Brian Traxler was, and remains, well-loved. It’s evident because any time I mention his name in even the most simple ways online it seems to draw friend and family swiftly. In his wife and daughter’s home on the north side of San Antonio, the bookcase that holds the remembrances of his career is prominently displayed along a living room wall. Pictures. Cards. And the ball that represents the single major league hit he got, a pinch-hit double against Dennis Martinez of the Montreal Expos. “El Presidente.” One of the toughest pitchers of his era, who’s finest career moment, a perfect game he threw in 1991, came against Brian’s Dodgers. One has to wonder, if Brian had been in Los Angeles that day, and not at AAA Albuquerque, might he have broken up a piece of Major League history?
His wife, Gabrielle, whose athletic passion to this day involves running half marathons and 10Ks and participates in several a year, still casts a smile when she talks about what life with Brian was like during those years in the Dodger organization. She speaks fondly when remembering Brian and the life of a baseball wife, the craziness that came with winter ball, the warmness of the Dodger family, and the rock star-type feel to Brian’s season playing in Japan. She talks about flying to different places for winter ball and recalls a time when she actually saw a maintenance crew use duct tape on a wing as a method of repair. She recalls how Mickey Hatcher and his family took her and Brian in during spring training and his brief time in Los Angeles and how Hatcher decided to play a little joke on her by essentially simulating an earthquake outside her bedroom window, a scary moment for the Texas native who had never experienced an earthquake before. Together her and Brian had a daughter, Ashley, who inherited her parents’ athletic ability and has displayed her talent on the softball field as well as serving in the U.S. Army.
Brian Traxler in a way represents every other baseball player’s story. It could be argued that guys like Brian represent baseball’s Everyman. They don’t play under the brightest spotlights. They don’t become household names. But year in and year out, night in and night out, they chase the dream of playing in the big leagues, and without them, baseball’s history loses both its significance and its depth.
Certainly, there are greats who are beloved by large fan bases whose legacies live on in big league ballparks. They get trotted out for Old Timers game and bobblehead events. A lucky few find their way to Cooperstown, New York, where their images are cast in bronze and revered forever, and well they should be: greats who emerge from all the dreamers and play at the top of he game.
What gets lost is the ballplayer who gets to the cusp and briefly finds himself up for a cup of coffee. Often times these players’ stories are lost. The AAA All Star. The guy who plays in various winter leagues to try to draw just a little more attention and put in just a little more work. The guy who plays internationally to try to gain some professional experience and maybe make a little better living for his family.
Brian Traxler essentially epitomizes this sort of story. Here’s a look back on the man and his career.
Brian Traxler was born September 20th, 1967 in Waukegan, Illinois, a town about 25 miles to the north of downtown Chicago and just south of the Illinois/Wisconsin border. According to Rory Costello, who has written the most in-depth bio on Traxler and his life to this point, Traxler’s father was a pitcher who had once earned a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals and his mother was a softball player. From an early age, Brian was seemingly destined to play baseball. He grew up playing on the sandlots around Waukegan, American Legion Ball, for numerous all-star teams and he played his high school ball at Waukegan East High School, where his father had also excelled. Brian went on from there to play three years at the University of New Orleans before being picked by the Dodgers in the 16th round of the 1988 amateur draft.
Brian quickly tracked his way through the Dodgers’ minor league system. He found himself at AA San Antonio in 1989 where, while hitting .346 with 9 HR and 44 RBI, he met his future wife, Gabby. After half a season, Brian earned a promotion to AAA Albuquerque where he continued to excel, hitting .301.
Brian was no stranger to playing winter ball either, having played at least three seasons there. During the 1988 and 1989 off-seasons in Venezuela, he became known as “El Gordito” and was a very popular player with the locals. Brian was in Venezuela in early 1989 when civil unrest broke out in Caracas. In a phone call with his mother, gunfire could be heard in the background. Brian calmly explained that they “protected us (the ballplayers) well.” While some ballplayers may have kept themselves hidden or shielded their families from knowing how close they were to what was effectively a war zone, Brian played it off like it was no big deal and even seemed to make light of it.
Brian did not make the Dodgers out of spring training in 1990, but early season injuries to Jeff Hamilton and Kal Daniels left the Dodgers short on their bench, and just 2 1/2 years after being drafted, Brian found himself headed for the big leagues.
A Cup Of Coffee
Brian Traxler was only 22-years old when he made his major league debut on April 24th, 1990. Eddie Murray was ejected in the seventh inning and suddenly Brian found himself pressed into action. The left-handed Traxler was listed at 5’10” and 200 lbs., though his weight was thought to fluctuate as many as 40 pounds north of that at different points during his career. Earlier, pressed about his weight by members of the press, Brian stated he had lost 20 pounds in spring training and had 15 to go to meet his media guide weight. But now here he was, pinch-hitting for the just-ejected Eddie Murray in the bottom of the 7th inning at Dodger Stadium, and facing Bob Tewksbury of the St. Louis Cardinals. Brian struck out.
Welcome to the bigs, kid.
Brian stayed in the game at first base, but with the Dodgers winning 3-0 behind Mike Morgan and the Dodgers scoring all their runs early, Brian would not get another at bat that night.
Brian hung around Los Angeles for about a month. In that time, he’d start one game at first base and pinch-hit eight total times. Brian got one official start, on May 8th, 1990 at Montreal. However, Brian was still looking for a major league hit.
He’d get his hit on May 10th. Facing Dennis Martinez in a pinch-hitting appearance in the 5th inning with the Dodgers down 6-2 and one out, Brian hit a line drive double to left field. Officially, this would be the only hit of Brian’s career, although it should be noted that Brian was cheated by mother nature: a double off of the New York Mets’ David Cone on May 13th at Shea Stadium would be wiped out when rain caused the game to be postponed before it could be considered official.
By May 21st, Brian’s time was up. He was sent back down to AAA Albuquerque. While Brian was considered a “good organizational guy” and had a good amount of talent, he’d never see “The Show” again. By the end of the following season, he had been surpassed by Eric Karros on the Dodgers’ organizational depth chart. By ’92, Karros was the every day first baseman and winner of the Rookie of the Year Award and Brian found himself buried in minor league purgatory.
However, Brian certainly left an impression on those who got to know him in his brief time as a Dodger. In the clubhouse and the dugout, while most rookies would tend to shy away from.
A Fan Favorite
Although Brian never found success in the Major Leagues, he was immensely popular at the minor league level. The Albuquerque Dukes (now Isotopes) feature Brian in their Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 2011, and he was chosen by the Dukes as their most popular player three times during his time in Albuquerque. Brian played in Albuquerque from 1989 through 1993, and again in 1995. He hit .302 lifetime for the Dukes, hitting 49 homers and driving in 282 runs in a team-record 544 games spanning 4 1/2 seasons.
Brian also found a season’s worth of success in Japan in 1994. Looking for an opportunity to show off his talents on a bigger stage, Brian played one year for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He quickly became a fan favorite. A ceramic-cast model of Brian, of which only 6,000 were made, was very popular with the fan base and on the field he played 129 games, hitting .263 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. According to his wife Gabby, fans would come hang outside of their apartment, seeking autographs and some would even bring stuffed animals for their daughter Ashley. Brian loved Japan and the Japanese loved Brian. Unfortunately, the 1994 players strike began to extend into 1995 and Brian was cut loose in favor of Kevin Mitchell.
As the 90’s progressed, Brian seemed to move further and further away from a return to the Major Leagues. Unable to stick with the Dodger organization and unable to find a home with another AAA team in another organization, Brian instead turned to the independent leagues.
He caught on with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks of the Northern League in 1996, anchoring first base for the independent league team for a year and a half before switching over to the Sioux Falls Canaries for the second half of the 1997 season. Brian then played two seasons for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League in 1998 and 1999 before playing one final season with Sioux Falls in 2000.
Brian finished his career with a minor league line of a .294 average over 12 seasons. He hit 109 home runs and drove 653 runs in. As a tribute to his plate discipline, Brian actually walked more times in his career than he struck out (458 to 387), never struck out more than 49 times in a season, and held an impressive .366 on-base percentage.
After retiring from playing, Brian became a bench coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Tragically, in late 2004, Brian fell into a coma and died on November 19th, 2004.
Brian’s memory lives on through Gabby and Ashley. The mother and daughter have stories that can keep a person entertained for days. And though I only met Brian once, when I was 8 years old at a community event, my own memory was of a man full of life, cracking jokes with fans, being mindful to take a moment with each child that came through seeking an autograph. His daughter seemingly inherited his demeanor, quick wit and sense of humor, not to mention his ability to time a baseball. Or softball as the case may be.
Brian’s story is only one of many stories that have come about in the great game of baseball. And yet without stories like his, the game would not be as great as it is.