Dave Engle and his wife were playing host to a party several years ago at their San Diego home, their guests including the late Jim Fregosi, a longtime major league manager. Engle remembers somebody telling Fregosi, a six-time All-Star shortstop as a player, that the party’s host had also been an All-Star.
“Jim said, ‘Engle was never an All-Star,’ ” Engle said. “I think the guy who said it won $100 off Jim. Jim was like family to me, but even he didn’t realize it.”
Which tells you plenty about Engle’s career. He is perhaps the most obscure Twins player to be selected for an All-Star team but is one of many former Twins who were selected to only a single All-Star Game during their careers.
Many of those selected just once owe their appearance on an All-Star roster to the rule that requires every major league team to have at least one player represented. The Twins had only one player selected every season from 1978 to ’87, and again from 1995 to 2000.
The one-time All-Stars from that span include current hitting coach Tom Brunansky; TV broadcasters Roy Smalley and Tim Laudner; solid-but-unspectacular types such as Ron Coomer, Gary Ward and Brad Radke; and one player with a shrine outside Target Field, Kent Hrbek. Hrbek is deserving of an asterisk, since the first baseman became so miffed at having only one Twins player selected in 1984 that he announced he never again wanted to be considered for the honor.
A hitter first
Engle was not only obscure, but his career was one of the more unusual in Twins history. When he was selected to the 1984 All-Star team, Engle looked like a budding star. He was 27 years old, 6-3 and 220 pounds, and at the 1984 midseason break was batting .310. Plus, he was a catcher.
But even at the time of his selection, trouble was brewing in Engle’s career. He had always been a hitter first, but finding a position he could master defensively was difficult.
He was the starting right fielder when the Twins moved into the Metrodome in 1982, and he has the distinction of hitting the first home run there. But he quickly lost his right field job when he lost two fly balls against the Dome’s gray Teflon-coated ceiling.
The decision was made the next season to give Engle a shot at catcher, a position he had played in high school and two years in college at Southern California. He batted .305 in 120 games for the Twins in 1983, and he was deemed adequate defensively in 73 games at catcher.
But even then, Engle had a tendency to lob the ball back to the pitcher, rather than throw hard, even though he could throw strikes to second and third on stolen base attempts. The problem worsened in 1984. Engle complained of a shoulder problem in spring training, but tests showed nothing.
“Hopefully, it’s just muscles in his shoulder and not a problem with his head,” Twins manager Billy Gardner said at the time.
Engle’s lobs back to the pitcher grew increasingly higher during the summer of 1984. Then, on the late summer night of Aug. 27, Toronto’s Alfredo Griffin stole third base as Engle flipped the ball back to reliever Rick Lysander. Engle started only two games at catcher the remainder of the season.
He played one more season with the Twins, appearing in only 70 games in 1985 — 17 at catcher — and his batting average dropped to .256. He was traded to the Tigers after the season, playing sparingly over the next four seasons with Detroit, Montreal and Milwaukee, never appearing in more than 59 games in a season or hitting more than the .256 he did in his final season with the Twins.
Engle, a career baseball man who coached in the minors and majors with Houston and the New York Mets, is currently the western major league scout for Baltimore. He said in an interview last month that he “probably was thinking more about ‘what if’ [during the interview] than I did the last 30 years. It doesn’t do any good.”
He never did fully understand what caused his throwing problem. He remembers a spring training throw back to a batting practice pitcher that ricocheted off the cage and struck the pitcher in the head, although the injury wasn’t serious.
Griffin’s stolen base on his throw back to the pitcher was the demarcating line of his career, when he went from a regular to a part-timer.
“I had learned to make an easy flip back to the pitcher,” Engle said. “I never did play again every day.”
Engle came to accept that the throwing problem was psychological. If there’s any comfort, it’s knowing he is not alone. Infielders such as Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch encountered problems making easy throws, and other catchers, most notably Mackey Sasser, have had the same problem as Engle, getting the ball back to the pitcher.
Hrbek said he had “the weebie geebies” after fielding a pickoff throw with a runner at first. He said he always took a couple of steps toward the mound and lobbed the ball to the pitcher, fearful of throwing it past the mound.
“There’s probably a lot more guys than we know of who couldn’t throw the ball [on easy plays],” Hrbek said. “A lot of guys have the weebie geebies.”
Few, however, have had their careers affected as much as Engle, going from an All-Star catcher to not being able to play the position regularly by the end of the same season.
“The thing about David Engle, he beat out [Hall of Famer Wade] Boggs for the batting title in the International League , and he came to the big leagues with a reputation of being a hitter,” said former Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who worked hours with Engle on his catching problems. “Well, he couldn’t find a position. … You get a mental block like that, you start thinking. And the more you start thinking, then you start making corrections and pretty soon you get screwed up between the ears.”
Engle, a .262 career hitter in nine big-league seasons, has learned not to look back. He said he thinks of the big perspective of his career, a total of 36 years in baseball as a player, coach and front office employee.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to deal with,” he said of his throwing problem. “But I’ve had a remarkable run in the game. You’ll never hear me complain. Sure, I wish I never had anything like that happen to me, absolutely. But for whatever reason, it did.
“But I have nothing but fond memories, and a lot of thankfulness that I was able to play major league baseball in any capacity. Ninety-nine percent of it was positive, 1 percent ‘What if?’ ”