- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

It was over in an instant, though the moment was 12 seasons in the making.

It was an otherwise meaningless plate appearance; the Washington Nationals trailed Florida 8-0, and Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis was on the mound. But Rick Short, a 32-year-old career minor leaguer, made his at-bat in the sixth inning Sept. 7 one he won’t soon forget.

Short knew Willis was throwing first-pitch fastballs, and he wasn’t going to wait for a second pitch. After 1,036 minor league games, 11 stops, six organizations and 12 seasons, Short had waited long enough. He hammered Willis’ first pitch over the left-center field fence for his first major league home run.

“When I hit it, it felt great,” Short said. “I got that indescribable feeling with the bat where you don’t even feel it come off. I knew it was gone. But as a rookie, you run the bases and run the bases hard. It was a personal victory for me, really.”

It didn’t take long for Short to do it again; in Sunday’s 9-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves, he went deep off another All-Star, John Smoltz.

And suddenly all those seasons of overnight bus rides, small crowds and poor field conditions everywhere from Bluefield to Edmonton to Japan seemed worth it. All those springs and summers away from Peoria, Ill.; his wife, Karyn; and his two children, Annabelle, 5, and Alan, 2, had been justified.

“It kind of validates my career,” said Short, who is 4-for-10 with three RBI in two brief appearances with the Nationals earlier this year and his September call-up. His first big league hit came in his first at-bat — an RBI single against the Seatle Mariners on June 10.

“Finally, I can say I played in the big leagues,” he said. “Finally, I can’t tell you how many times I said no to the question. Finally, I can say yes. Finally, I can say I got a hit. Finally, I can say I hit a home run. Just a lot of finallys.”

For a long time, it didn’t seem like there would be a “finally.” He always could hit — his .383 average for New Orleans led Class AAA and gave him his third minor league batting title — but the majors always seemed an impossible step, not for a player scouts said had too many flaws. He was too slow, they said. He didn’t have enough power. His defensive skills, at second base or any other position, were lacking.

Short considered retiring a few times but asked himself, “Why should I walk away from something that I was doing and was doing with success?”

He spent his first six seasons in the Baltimore Orioles system after they drafted him in the 33rd round out of Western Illinois in 1994, wondering whether anyone noticed his numbers. Despite winning the 1997 Class A Carolina League batting title in Frederick at .319 and hitting .331 at Class AA Bowie in 2000, Short was bypassed as the Orioles opted for high-priced free agents.

“I kept expressing that Short was certainly a guy you could bring up who could hit and could help them,” said Don Buford, the former minor league director for the Orioles and now the first base coach for the Nationals. “They always said he didn’t have a position. I said, ‘You can make a position if you can swing a bat.’ If you hit, someone can find a spot for you to play. It is hard to believe no one has taken a chance with him until this year.”

Instead, he became the butt of jokes for bush-league hecklers.

“They called me ‘Crash Davis,’ ” Short said. “They would yell, ‘Why don’t you quit? How many years are you going to play in this league?’ ”

It wore on him, so much so that he talked to Buford about making the transition to a minor league manager or coach a few seasons ago.

“I was going to cross over and be a coach and stay in the game that way,” said Short, who spent the 2001 season at Class AA West Tenn and Class AAA Iowa in the Chicago Cubs system. “But I decided to give it one more year. And I’m glad I did. I wound up winning the [Pacific Coast League] batting title, hitting .356.”

Still, the majors were no closer. In 2002, he was playing for Salt Lake, an affiliate of the Anaheim Angels, who were on their way to winning the World Series with a strong roster. From there, he went to Japan to “make some money,” playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2003, Short signed with the Kansas City Royals was sent to Class AAA Omaha in 2004. In midseason, the Royals traded him to the Montreal Expos, who sent him to Edmonton.

The Expos became the Nationals, and general manager Jim Bowden re-signed Short — with no guarantees.

“He told me, ‘You aren’t going to make the club,’ ” Short said. “He looked at my past and looked at my numbers and said, ‘Go down to Triple-A. If you produce, you have a chance of coming up.’ He is willing to take a chance on a few guys. That’s the kind of guy I need.”

And Short was the kind of guy the Nationals needed — to mentor another rookie.

He and first-round pick Ryan Zimmerman have become friends, and Short has become a baseball encyclopedia for Zimmerman, a 20-year old third baseman who has played only half a season in the minors after being drafted out of the University of Virginia.

“I can look up to him, and it is easier for me to ask him questions and approach him than the veterans who are the same age as him,” said Zimmerman, who gets hitting tips while they sit in the dugout. “He probably should have had his chance a long time ago. You feel bad for someone like that who has produced his whole career. It kind of makes you not like the game when you hear stories like that about such a good guy.”

While Zimmerman likely will be a fixture with the Nationals, the veteran rookie may be looking for work soon. Short doesn’t have a deal for next season, and he could start another season in the minors.

“I guess I would go back,” said Short, who turns 33 in December. “Personally, I don’t really feel like I have anything to prove in Triple-A. I have been there, done that. I jumped that hoop and put up the numbers. This is the next step, the next challenge, and hopefully I will get that shot.”

But the uncertain future and the long-suffering past don’t mean much right now.

After the season, Short will go back to Peoria with the home-run ball he hit off Willis. The team has given him a video of the homer, but he hasn’t watched it. He plans to do that after the season, relishing the excruciating journey.

“People at home ask what I do,” he said. “I say, ‘Play baseball.’ They ask, ‘Do you play in the big leagues?’ My answer was always, ‘No man.’ Now, I can finally say yes. It is nice to be able to say yes.”

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