November 27, 2012 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons
By the time most Dragons players arrive in Dayton, they have usually played one or two seasons of professional baseball. The Cincinnati Reds have two Rookie-level affiliates below the Dragons on the organizational ladder, and it is most common for a player to come to Dayton after a season with the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League and/or the Goodyear Reds of the Arizona League. Some have played more than two seasons, and occasionally, a player like Daniel Renken or Josh Fellhauer will arrive in Dayton straight out of the amateur draft, with no pro experience at all. But one player arrived in Dayton in his ninth year of Minor League Baseball, and two years later, he was pitching in Cincinnati. This is the story of the 15th Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues, pitcher Chris Booker.
Booker was drafted and signed out of high school by the Chicago Cubs in 1995 as a 20th round pick. A native of Monroeville, Alabama, Booker was 18 years old when he threw his first pitch as a professional for the Cubs' Gulf Coast League affiliate that summer. To put things in perspective, Booker was taken in the same draft as Sean Casey, now retired and an inductee in the Reds Hall of Fame. Booker first made it to the Midwest League in 1998, his fourth year of professional baseball, when he spent the season with the Rockford Cubbies. Two years later, Booker reached the Double-A level, and the following season, 2001, Booker was traded by the Cubs to the Reds for Major League outfielder Michael Tucker.
Booker, 24 years old at the time of the trade and in his seventh year in the Minor Leagues, reported to the Reds Double-A club, the Chattanooga Lookouts, to finish out the season. His teammates with the Lookouts included former Dragons Austin Kearns, Jose Acevedo, John Koronka, and Brian Reith. And while his earned run average that season was a rather mediocre 4.24 in 61 games out of the bullpen, his strikeout total was outstanding. He struck out 101 batters in just 68 innings. Booker, at 6'3" and 230 lbs., featuring a fastball in the high-90's, was drawing comparisons from scouts to Major League all-star Lee Smith.
But the spring of 2002 provided a setback for Booker during an era when the Reds were enduring a rash of injuries to their top pitching prospects. Booker suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder and missed the entire 2002 season. Despite the injury, the Reds kept the fireballer on their 40-man roster heading into 2003, and even though he had pitched only 16 innings in the Reds organization since coming over from the Cubs, he was still rated as the 25th best prospect in the Reds farm system by Baseball America. Some of the top Reds prospects that year were all bitten by the injury bug. Number one prospect Chris Gruler never reached the Majors. Number two prospect Bobby Basham, #6 Ty Howington, and #7 Ricardo Aramboles all also saw their careers cut short by injuries before ever reaching the Majors. Number nine prospect Josh Hall endured multiple surgeries and only briefly reached the Majors. Incidentally, the 14th rated prospect in the organization that year was a little known Canadian catcher who switched positions before eventually beginning a big league career of his own. That catching prospect was Joey Votto.
Booker bounced back in 2003 to take the mound again at the age of 26, this time for the Dragons as he returned from shoulder surgery. Based on results, no fan at Fifth Third Field would have predicted that Booker would eventually add his name to the list of Dragons in the Major Leagues. He threw just five innings with the Dragons and allowed three home runs, four walks, and five runs. He did strike out six in his very brief time in Dayton.
The next season, Booker dominated Double-A batters at Chattanooga. In 28 games out of the Lookouts bullpen, he posted a 1.38 ERA and struck out 57 batters in 39 innings. He moved to Louisville and pitched in seven more games there.
In 2005, now 28 years old, Booker's long ride finally struck gold. He opened the season with Louisville and was too much to handle for Triple-A hitters. He notched 20 saves in 59 games, went 8-4, and posted a 2.49 ERA. He also struck out 91 batters in 65 innings, continuing an amazing pattern of averaging well above a strikeout per inning.
When rosters expanded in September, Booker was called up to the Major Leagues, just two years after pitching in Dayton. One can only imagine the satisfaction Booker must have felt when he was handed his Reds uniform, more than 10 years after the day he was drafted. In a story at MLB.com on the day Booker arrived in Cincinnati, he relayed a message from his sister Kewanna, deployed in Iraq with the Army's 50th Signal Battalion.
"She had just gotten off work," said Booker. "I guess it was 4:00 in the morning there. She called me right when I was on my way over here. She told me to do a good job."
He made his big league debut for Jerry Narron on September 5 against the Brewers. Entering the game to start the ninth inning with the Reds trailing 3-1, he struck out the first batter he faced, Rickie Weeks, but then ran into trouble, allowing three runs without recording another out. Two days later, again against Milwaukee, he allowed a grand slam home run to J.J. Hardy and five runs over two-thirds of an inning. It was three more weeks before Booker got into another game, this time to throw one perfect inning in what turned out to be his final appearance in a Reds uniform. He was released after the season.
Booker pitched for seven different clubs in 2006 including two Major League teams, Kansas City and Washington. He appeared in 10 games for the Nationals, all in September, and allowed no runs in eight of the 10 outings. He spent most of 2007 with Columbus, the Nationals Triple-A club at the time, and posted 30 saves to rank second in the International League. Washington called him up for three games in July, the final three appearances of his big league career. He spent one more year in the Minors and retired after the 2008 season at the age of 31.
Chris Booker spent 14 years in professional baseball. He appeared in 464 Minor League games, and 17 Major League games. Over his career in the Minors, he struck out an amazing 821 batters in just 655 innings. His 17 Major League appearances spread over three years produced only one decision, a loss in his very last big league game with Washington.
Booker's route to the Major Leagues through Dayton was one of the most unique of any of the 57 Dragons to reach the big leagues. Not many Midwest League players have nine years of professional experience on the back of their baseball card, and of those that do, few are big leaguers just two years later. Booker was #15 on the list of Dragons in the Major Leagues. Next up: Chris Denorfia.