He toiled in the minors for 11 years before getting his first at-bat in the big leagues, but it took Ken Huckaby only one game to make a name for himself in the majors.
Huckaby, a 51s catcher in his 17th professional season, collided at third base with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on Opening Day 2003, when he was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Jeter suffered a separated shoulder on the play and missed the next 36 games. Huckaby was left with a pile of hate mail from Yankees fans and love letters from Boston Red Sox fans.
"It went both ways," said the 36-year-old Huckaby, who is batting .283 in 14 games for Las Vegas this season. "(Yankees) fans obviously thought it was a dirty play, so I was going to hear about it. It was a hectic year."
With Jeter and Huckaby sprinting toward an uncovered third base, Huckaby caught the ball from first baseman Carlos Delgado and then came down directly on Jeter’s left shoulder.
"It was just one of those fluke plays that has never happened as far as I’ve known baseball," said Huckaby, a .222 hitter in 161 major league games over the last seven seasons with five different teams.
"(Delgado) threw the ball a little behind me, which took my vision away from where the play was going to be, and when I came down to put the tag on, I was farther up the line than I thought and Derek was right underneath me. It’s just an unfortunate situation that happened."
Huckaby, who played in just five games for the Blue Jays that year, called Jeter that night to check on him and then went to speak with him in the Yankees’ clubhouse two days later. Jeter was apparently in no mood to talk, though, staring down Huckaby and saying nothing.
"He was a little cold," Huckaby said. "Understandably he was upset that he was going to be out for a while. But I don’t think he handled it very well. I was coming over as a human being, not as an enemy on the other side of the field."
In 2002, Huckaby showed he was all too human when he left spring training in tears, ready to quit the game. After getting in the best shape of his life, Huckaby, who has a strong throwing arm and handles pitchers well, was the first catcher sent out of Toronto’s camp.
"I walked out of there crying," he said. "I told (my wife) ‘I’m done. This is it.’ "
Huckaby was convinced to stay by Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, and he ended up playing in 88 games for the Blue Jays that year.
Huckaby has played in just 72 big league games since then, but he’s not ready to quit.
"I’ll play as long as people are willing to give me a job that will afford me the opportunity to get back to the big leagues," said Huckaby, who splits time on the 51s with fellow veteran Kelly Stinnett. "The time I’ve gotten in the big leagues has been unbelievable, and you can understand why it’s every kid’s dream to be up there. I’m still driven to get back to the big leagues."Las Vegas 51s
OKLAHOMA — 9 LAS VEGAS — 5 KEY: The first four batters for the RedHawks went 9-for-19 and drove in all nine runs, with cleanup hitter Jason Botts going 2-4 with a homer and five RBIs. NEXT: RedHawks (Ezequiel Astacio) at 51s (D.J. Houlton), 7:11 p.m. today