The Phillies found Bob Ayrault in an independent league out west, but he had felt ready for the big leagues for a while.
There were some big personalities on the 1993 Phillies. But they weren’t the only ones. As part of a commemoration of the team’s 25th anniversary, we’re taking a look at the back-ups, drop-ins, and less-remembered Phillies who didn’t make it into a lot of the archival footage.
Position: Beacon of self confidence
Stats: 9.58 ERA, 10 BB, 8 SO, 1 WP in 10.1 IP
The year is 1994. The Blue Jays are defending world champions of baseball. The Phillies are not good. The Expos are very good. But none of that matters now, because baseball has come to a grinding halt.
A labor dispute has led to a work stoppage, and though it seemed like the sport could return in time for the playoffs, it is now apparent that, without any players, baseball will just have to wait until next year.
In Pittsburgh, executives were scheming toward a plan to fill out a roster. With no major league players, the Pirates moved with particular aggressiveness toward signing… others. This included a man named Ted Williams, who, according to the second edition of The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia, “was no relation to the Hall of Fame [name] in blood or talent.” One of the other players they looked at to bring asses back to the seats of Three Rivers Stadium was pitcher Bob Ayrault.
Ayrault was 28 at the time, and he did not have a lot of big league experience: In two MLB seasons, he’d appeared in 54 games and 73.1 innings. It was an unfair showing for a right-handed pitcher who had come a long way to get there. Ayrault was drafted twice; once by the Padres in 1986, and once by the Pirates in 1987. The first time, he’d gone in the ninth round, but in the second, he sunk down to the 26th. It didn’t matter. He didn’t sign in either case.
Instead, he went to work for the Reno Silver Sox, a team in the California League, which was not affiliated with MLB. The 1961 Silver Sox are actually considered one of the best minor league teams of all time, but Ayrault was not on that team. He was on the 1989 squad, which would win 68 games under manager Eli Grba, a man who had, as a pitcher for the 1960 Yankees, became the first player to ever be selected in an expansion draft when the Angels were putting together their inaugural roster.
Ayrault was from South Lake Tahoe, CA and had attended high school in Carson City, NV (at the same alma mater of Matt Williams) and college at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, so that Reno team was likely his best local option. On July 29, the Phillies had gotten wind of him and bought his contract from the Silver Sox, installing him in their farm system.
Ayrault was ready for the big time in a hurry; if not statistically, then spiritually. In early August of 1990, one of Ayrault’s teammates in Reading was promoted right past Triple A and straight to the bigs.
“Good for him,” Ayrault told The Reading Eagle. “I’d like my shot. That was nice to see.” He saw the big leagues as requiring an uptick in consistency from the minors, but otherwise equaled it to throwing at Double-A, claiming “They’re both one step from Triple-A.”
He climbed the ladder, and in 1992, with a 4.97 ERA through 25 innings, the Phillies deemed him ready for a call-up on June 7. Tasked with holding a 3-3 tie in the ninth, Ayrault cut down the first two batter he faced, Todd Zeille and Tom Pagnozzi, with swinging strikeouts. The double and walk he then gave up were less comforting. Jim Fregosi yanked him out of the game, but an Ozzie Smith single got the Cardinals the win.
The Phillies put Ayrault into 30 games that season, and he finished up with a 3.12 ERA. With the scouring Lee Thomas did for bullpen parts all throughout 1993, it makes sense that Ayrault as still around, given the promise in his numbers. He would appear in some of the more prominent games from that legendary season.
On April 20, he showed up in the 14-inning, four and a half hour slog against the Padres that John Kruk won with a home run just after midnight. These heroics were preceded by Ayrault’s performance in the top half of the inning, when he allowed no runs or hits to the likes of Tony Gwynn, Gary Sheffield, and Fred McGriff—though he did walk Gwynn, who then stole second and third in the time it took Ayrault to throw two pitches.
Like last week’s entry into this series, Juan Bell, Ayrault also appeared in the infamous April 26 nine-run comeback victory over the Giants, though not nearly in as pivotal a role, unless you really wanted the Giants’ catcher, Kurt Manwaring, to get hit by a pitch. If that’s the case, Ayrault’s presence was deeply influential.
Actually, Ayrault was in the game in the sixth inning because the Phillies were already down 6-0. Ben Rivera had been bounced in the third and Jim Fregosi was tapping into his bullpen, starting with the less revered arms. Even though he’d gotten two quick outs, Ayrault gave up a walk, an RBI triple, the aforementioned HBP, and an RBI single, allowing the Giants an 8-0 lead and what would be their final two runs of the evening. You might say that it was Ayrault leaving the game that started the Phillies’ momentum.
As a member of the 1993 Phillies, Ayrault pitched over an inning in relief only once in ten appearances from April 17 to May 23: It was against the Marlins on May 17, and he’d leave that game with an 11.25 ERA. In fact, in May, he appeared in early relief for Danny Jackson in a similarly lopsided game against the Giants, for which the Phillies did not mount a miraculous comeback and actually lost 11-2. Five of those 11 runs were earned by Ayrault, who inherited a situation with one out and runners on first and second, with the likes of his fellow Carson High School alumnus Matt Williams and Barry Bonds waiting on deck.
Ayrault swallowed his gum and gave up RBI singles to both of them, as well as a walk, a bases-clearing triple, and a two-run home run (the only home run he’d allow as a member of the 1993 Phillies). Finally, he was able to get a double play ball and escape, if that’s what you’d call leaving a game down 11-1.
But Lee Thomas’ tinkering never ending that season, and on June 12, the Phillies GM traded Ayrault to the Mariners for minor league pitcher Kevin Foster. He’d left the Phillies with a 9.58 ERA, but for Seattle, Ayrault evened out to a far more sane 3.20. He was still walking batters, however, and Seattle put him on waivers and in early August he was snagged by the Dodgers. On July 25, he had been given mop-up duty after a horrific start by Dave Fleming. It was the last appearance of his big league career.
When the strike set in in 1994, it meant heartbreak for America’s innocent, baseball-loving children. But for Ayrault, it was an opportunity. “There probably aren’t millions of dollars in his future,” Bill James wrote of Ayrault in his 1994 player ratings, though he did refer to the 28-year-old as a “survivor.” The Buccos came calling, but whatever their plans were for Ayrault, nothing came to fruition. He returned to the Independent Leagues, including the Reno Hurricanes.
In 2010, Ayrault helped open a baseball academy called The Yard, but he lives on as an obscure reference, still fresh enough in the minds of some fans to warrant a mention in times of desperation.
Boy, I never thought it would be possible to miss Bob Ayrault… #PossibleBullpenSolutions
— Jack Redfern (@PhilEagFlySixer) May 10, 2012