Player: Tony Saunders
Born: April 29th, 1974 (Currently 40 years old)
Drafted: Undrafted, signed as an amateur free agent on June 9th, 1992 by the Florida Marlins
Start of Tenure: On November 18th, 1997 selected with the 1st pick in the 1997 Expansion draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
End of Tenure: On December 20th, 2004 released by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Teams: Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the *Baltimore Orioles
* - Didn't play in a MLB game
Currently: Officially retired from playing in 2005
Rays Stat Line: 2.4 WAR, 9-18 (W-L), 4.53 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 7.8 K/P, 5.4 BB/9 with 234.1 IP in 40 games
In June of 1992, Anthony Saunders had just graduated from Glen Burnie High School in Glen Burnie, Maryland. He had hopes of being drafted and was eager to begin his career as a professional baseball player. But the draft came and went and he had received no calls telling him the good news.
That is, until the Florida Marlins decided to sign the young 18 year old southpaw out right as an amateur free agent on June 9th. They assigned Saunders to their team in the Gulf Coast League, where he demonstrated his talents allowing only 6 ER in 45+ IP.
The following year in 1993, Saunders dominated at Class-A Kane County. The next two seasons, Saunders dealt with nagging injuries. He spent time in Class A-Advanced Brevard County, where pitched 23 solid games across the 1994 and 1995 seasons. In 1996, the Marlins assigned Saunders to Double-A, where had his best year as a professional, finishing the year with a 13-4 record and a 2.63 ERA in 23 starts (167.2 IP).
Winning a Ring
In 1997, Saunders earned a spot on the opening day roster as the 5th starter in Jim Leyland's rotation. He'd make his major league debut on April 5th against the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 23. He'd have a solid start, going 6+ innings, striking out 3 and walking 2, while only allowing 3 runs. He'd receive a no-decision, but the Marlins would go on to win, 4-3.
After the game, Saunders was sent down to the minors, but only so he wouldn't miss any work. He would be called back up on April. On May 19th, Saunders went on the DL because of a sprained right knee that would sideline him until July. After the DL stint was over, Saunders became a staple in the Marlins rotation for the rest of the season, and he delivered a solid rookie season.
The 1997 Florida Marlins had reached the postseason for the first time in the club's short existence, and they chose Tony Saunders to pitch game 3 of the NLCS against the powerhouse Atlanta Braves. He'd go toe-to-toe with John Smoltz and was able to pitch a better game than the 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, going 5+ innings, only allowing 2 runs en route to a Marlins victory.
Saunders also appeared in game 4 of the 1997 World Series, but had a much worse outing. He allowed 6 runs in only 2+ innings of work. Nonetheless, the Marlins went on to win the series in a dramatic Game 7, and Saunders was awarded a World Series championship ring for being a part of it.
The Florida Marlins decided to leave Tony Saunders unprotected for the upcoming expansion draft that allowed two new teams (Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks) to select a certain amount players from each team in baseball. With the very first pick of the draft, the Devil Rays took Tony Saunders from the Florida Marlins. With the selection, the Devil Rays were hopefully taking their future ace in the 23-year-old Saunders.
Tony Saunders started the third game in franchise history for the Devil Rays and delivered the best start yet for the team. Saunders would go on to have a solid sophomore season, but would be plagued by inconsistency and a lack of offensive support. In 31 starts, Saunders pitched 192.1 innings to along with a record of 6-15, a 4.12 ERA and 4.20 FIP with 8 K/9 and 5.2 BB/9.
It wasn't a tremendous season, but Saunders looked poised to breakout and become the ace Tampa Bay was hoping he'd become.
In 1999, Saunders was the No. 2 in Larry Rothschild's rotation behind Rolando Arrojo. Saunders struggled to be consistent again though, as he mixed outstanding starts with putrid ones. On April 22nd against the Baltimore Orioles, Saunders came four outs shy from throwing the team's first no-hitter. Unfortunately, Mike Bordick laced a line drive into center field for Baltimore's first hit. Tampa Bay would go on to win, 1-0
Saunders' line on the day - 7.2 IP / 1 H / 0 R / 0 ER / 7 BB / 5 K / 127 pitchers (67 strikes/60 balls)
In May, Saunders mixed 3 terrible starts with one outstanding one. The 4th start contained one of the most memorable and horrible events in franchise history.
On May 26th, the Devil Rays were taking on the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field. Saunders cruised through the first 2 innings, retiring the Rangers in order. Meanwhile, the D-Rays put up two runs to give him an early lead. Roberto Kelly led off the third with a solo home run for Texas, making it 2-1. Saunders got into more trouble after that, allowing singles to Royce Clayton, Luis Alicea, and Rusty Greer, mixing flyouts in between the hits. Clayton scored on Greer's single and there were now runners on 1st and 3rd for Juan Gonzalez.
Gonzalez worked the count to 3-2, and with 2 outs, the runner on first would be off with the pitch. John Flaherty set up low and inside and waited for the pitch. Saunders went into his motion, turned, and fired. The ball sailed from his fingertips and flew just outside of the lefty batter's box. Flaherty attempted to catch it, but had no chance as the ball flew by him and to the backstop. Alicea scored easily, and Greer advanced to second as Gonzalez took his base.
Saunders though, as the ball left his hand, started hopping around and grabbed his pitching arm. He fell down to the grown and start smacking his right arm into the ground, screaming in agony. Flaherty and other Tampa Bay players rushed to his side and offered what comfort they could. On the replay, you could see Saunders' arm snap, then just dangle as he fell towards the ground.
Saunders would have to be carried off the field on a stretcher, as the pain was to intense for him to walk. He would spend the rest of the 1999 season on the DL.
In 2000, Saunders was thought to be healthy enough to return to the mound, so he began his rehab assignment. On August 24, 2000, after he was 33 pitches into his 5th rehab start, lightning struck twice as Saunders pitching arm once again snapped. Saunders knew this time that his career was pretty much over, and in an emotional tear-inducing press conference, he announced his retirement.
After he retired, Saunders took a job in the Devil Rays front office and also helped coach local youth. In 2004, Saunders threw batting practice to the local AAU team, and after doing so, he believed he had built up enough arm strength to return to the big leagues.
In December, the Devil Rays reinstated Saunders and officially released him making him a free agent. On January 19th, 2005, Saunders signed a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Saunders pitched in one game during spring training for Baltimore, but was then released. He then signed with the Mesa Miners in the independent league and despite pitching relatively well for them, he decided to retire for good this time.
Prior to the 2005 season, Jose Canseco released his tell all book, Juiced: Wild Time, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big. In the book, Canseco named multiple players that he had either assisted or knew had used steroids, including several Devil Rays. He claimed Saunders was one of those and that was the cause of his horrific injury, but the claims have never been substantiated.
MiLB Stat Line: 35-16 (W-L), 2.59 ERA, 7.89 K/9, 2.82 BB/9 with 462 IP in 105 games
Career Stat Line: 2.7 WAR, 13-24 (W-L), 4.56 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 7.9 K/9, 5.3 BB/9 with 345.2 IP in 62 games