At 34, Skeeter Barnes is grateful to spend summer in the majors

July 31, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MINNEAPOLIS -- This is a story about perseverance, about playing 13 years and batting more than 5,800 times in the minor leagues. It's about trying and failing and trying again because that's the only thing you know how to do.

Tired of big-leaguers complaining about eking out a living on a paltry $3 million? Then ladies and gentlemen, meet Detroit utility man Skeeter Barnes, one of this season's best stories. He is 34 years old, and after more than a decade in the minors he is spending this summer in the majors. And having the time of his life.

"What I really enjoy about being a big-leaguer is just being a big-leaguer. That says you've accomplished something," Barnes said Monday before the Minnesota Twins' 6-3 victory over Detroit at the Metrodome. "But what is there not to like? What's there not to like about being a big-leaguer? It's interesting, you're always meeting new people. The only thing that's not great is the travel, but I've had a lot worse."

Yes, Skeeter knows about traveling.

Barnes began his pro career with the Cincinnati organization in 1978 when Sparky Anderson was Reds manager. In the years since, he has played for 15 teams in five organizations. He has played everywhere from Billings, Mont., to Nashville, Tenn. He entered this season having played more than 1,500 minor-league games. He had played in only 75 games at the big-league level. His career average was .156.

The Tigers signed him as a free agent last winter and called him up from Class AAA Toledo on June 13. He played the next day. And homered in his first at-bat. He entered Monday's game hitting .328 and had played everywhere except shortstop, center field, catcher and pitcher.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs and I appreciate it here because I know what it's like to be in the minor leagues for a long time," Barnes said. "I try not to abuse the game. You know, when you start thinking you're bigger than the game. When you think you're too big to sign autographs. When you think you're too big to be nice to people. You know what I mean. You should never be too big to be nice to people."

Minnesota catcher Brian Harper remembers playing against Barnes in his own long, multi-city, multi-organization tour of the minors. He understands what kept him going.

"You have to love baseball," Harper said. "Baseball has to be fun. Hey, when I was in the minors, I loved it. Some people play baseball for the money they can make in the majors, but that won't help a player in the minors. You have to love it. Skeeter always seemed to be a guy who loved playing baseball."

Twins manager Tom Kelly had the same sort of career as Barnes', spending all but 49 games of his 11-year pro career in the minors.

"The toughest part," Kelly said, "is sometimes you doubt your abilities. You wonder if you'll ever get a chance and you wonder if you're really good enough. And the day comes when you have to deal with the thought that maybe I won't make it and I'll have to do something else."

Barnes dealt with those frustrations over and over again.

There was the time in 1984 when Barnes was just certain this would be the year he would break camp with the Reds. They sent him back to the minors the day before the season began.

There was last winter when he and his wife talked about retiring from baseball, about giving up on his lifelong dream. "It wouldn't have been hard to quit baseball and get a good job," Barnes said. "But I love to compete. I want to strive to be the best I can be. And baseball lets me do it. . . .

"I'm not a dumb person. I'm not stupid. But if you don't have a college degree in this day and age, you don't get a good job. This is what I do best."

And he'll continue to give it his best for as long as he can.

"I want them to have to rip the uniform off my back," he said. "I don't want to leave the game and spend the next year or two wondering what if I had tried a little more. I'm going to make them make me stop playing. The game's in my blood."

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