LAKELAND, Fla. - Brad Eldred struck out 13 times and had only two hits in his first 23 at-bats after joining the Curve in late July of 2004, so manager Tony Beasley decided to give the struggling slugger a couple of days off to clear his head.
Pirates farm director Brian Graham didn't care for the strategy, so he called Beasley on Aug. 4.
"Brian said to me, 'Why is Eldred not playing?'" Beasley recalled. "I said, 'Well, he's struck out [so much], he needs a day off.'"
Mirror photo by Cory Giger
One-time Curve star Brad Eldred is hoping to find a home with the Tigers organization this year.
Beasley then was told by his boss, "Eldred came there to play, he's got to play."
So the next night, the Curve manager inserted Eldred back into the lineup at Akron's Canal Park.
That's when the legend of "Big Country" began.
Big hits and misses
Some of Brad Eldred's career highlights and lowlights:
* Hit 30 home runs in 60 games for the Curve between 2004-05, the most by any Double-A player ever in that few games
* Drove in 50 runs in August of 2004 for the Curve
* Has hit 227 home runs in the minor leagues, ranking sixth among active players
* Has 695 RBIs in the minors
* Hit 40 home runs in 2005 (13 for Altoona, 15 for Indianapolis, 12 for Pittsburgh)
* Hit 30 or more home runs three other times in the minors (38 in 2004, 35 in 2008, 30 in 2010)
* Drove in 137 runs in 2004, 102 in 2005 and 100 in 2008 in the minors
* .265 career average in the minors
* .204 career average in 85 big league games
* Has hit 15 homers with 33 RBIs in the majors
* Struck out 1,007 times in 3,375 minor league at-bats (29.8 percent of the time)
* Struck out 103 times in 260 big league at-bats (39.6 percent of the time)
"It was the start of the most amazing month I've ever seen in baseball," Beasley said.
Eldred crushed three doubles that evening in Akron, helping him get on a tear of epic proportions. The first baseman hadn't hit a lick up to then and had been a strikeout machine, then the light switch flipped on and he crushed everything in sight.
Eldred's story is the stuff of legend among Curve and Eastern League fans, who watched him drive in an astounding 50 runs that August, something perhaps no one has ever seen in the minor leagues. (The major league record is 53 RBIs in one month, shared by Joe DiMaggio and Hack Wilson, but no such record is kept in the minors.)
Eldred also belted 30 home runs in just 60 games for Altoona spanning late 2004 and early 2005. No hitter in Double-A history can match that figure over such few games.
Judging strictly by those incredible home run and RBI numbers, Eldred is the greatest slugger ever at the Double-A level.
He smiled a big ol' country grin when told that earlier this week and fondly recalled his somewhat brief stint with the Curve.
"My time in Altoona is definitely one of the highlights of my playing career," he said.
Seven years ago, many Curve and Pirates fans hoped and believed Eldred would be a big league standout. The mammoth 6-foot-6, 250-pounder possessed as good of a power stroke as anyone in baseball, and when he made contact, the ball usually launched off his bat.
He just didn't make contact enough, striking out at an alarming rate in the minors and during the few opportunities he received in the big leagues. In 260 major league at-bats, he fanned 103 times.
As one National League scout, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "This guy just didn't hit enough. If he could have hit and made contact, think about how many home runs he would have hit with all that power."
Today, Eldred is 31 years old and continues to chase his big league dream. He's still huge, still has tremendous power, but unfortunately for him, he's still playing in the minor leagues and waiting for some team to give him an extended playing opportunity in the majors.
He signed with the Detroit Tigers' organization over the winter and will be playing Triple-A ball with the Toledo Mud Hens this season, serving as their designated hitter. That's a good spot to excel for someone who ranks sixth among active minor leaguers with 227 career home runs.
A hitter who has produced that much could be bitter about never getting a legitimate shot to be an everyday major leaguer. But to his credit, Eldred could not be more positive about his situation.
"There's plenty of stories of guys that don't get their real opportunity until about my age," he said. "I think I can definitely play at the highest level, and that's why I'm still playing right now. I can contribute to a major league team, so that's why I still come out here. Hopefully it's just one good year away."
SUBHD: Pirates plight
There's long been a theory among Curve and Pirates fans that if the Buccos had given Eldred a chance to play every day, he would have put up big power numbers. Sure, he may have struck out close to 200 times, but that would have been the tradeoff to a guy who hit 30-35 homers and drove in 90-plus runs.
"Brad's a great guy, a hard-working guy, and you're always rooting for those kind of guys for it to work out," former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "He certainly had tremendous success in Double-A."
Eldred belted 13 homers in just 21 games for the Curve to start the 2005 season, then hit 15 homers in 54 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. His best opportunity in the big leagues occurred later that year when Littlefield promoted him to the Pirates.
"There was tremendous intrigue at the time because of his power," Littlefield, now a scout with the Chicago Cubs, said. "Those numbers are close to historic, if not historic, as Double-A ball goes. We were definitely very intrigued by what he did."
Just not intrigued enough to make him their first baseman of the future.
The Bucs called Eldred up in late July of 2005, and in 55 games, he hit .221 with 12 homers and 27 RBIs. But he also struck out 77 times in 190 at-bats, and the Pirates were not willing to give significant playing time to someone with that kind of ratio.
"We're in a business where you've got to perform," Littlefield said. "Brad's a great guy, and everybody roots for him. But like a lot of guys - we all wish everybody had a lot of success - but it's not the nature of the beast. There's a lot of failure in our game."
Eldred's fate with the Pirates appeared to be sealed on Dec. 8, 2005, when the team traded to get first baseman Sean Casey from the Cincinnati Reds. That meant Eldred would have to go back to Triple-A to start the 2006 season, and in late April he broke his left thumb and missed the remainder of the year.
Eldred moved from first base to right field in 2007 and made the Pirates out of spring training as a reserve. But he got only 46 at-bats in 19 games the first month and a half of the season and hit just .109 with two homers, three RBIs and 16 strikeouts.
The biggest challenge for Eldred at that point was the same one faced by many young hitters when they reach the big leagues. They're used to playing every day and getting a lot of at-bats, so it's a very difficult adjustment only getting to hit a few times a week.
"Playing every day is how you're going to get 30-40 home runs out of me," Eldred said. "Until you get that chance, you never really know how things are going to turn out.
"I've always been able to put up good numbers when I get the chance to play every day, and I never was really used to playing a reserve-type role. ... There's guys that are well known for being good pinch hitters, and that's why they get paid to do that. I tried to do the best I could in that role [in 2007]."
He understands, though, that he didn't perform well enough in the reserve role for the Pirates to keep him in the big leagues.
Still, Eldred has always believed he could have been productive playing every day for the Pirates.
"You never know, and there's no way to really tell, I guess," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't get that opportunity with the Pirates. I'm sure if I would have, I definitely feel confident that would have been the case, that I would have put up big home run numbers."
"I just felt like it would be tough for him to succeed playing sparingly, not getting very many at-bats with any consistency," said Beasley, who's now managing in Triple-A with the Washington Nationals.
"I don't know how it would have worked had he been able to play every day. But I just felt like, with his swing, he was a high strikeout guy, and if you give him that one chance a night, pitchers are good enough to find the holes."
Give him four at-bats a game, though, and Beasley said, "With his power potential, he usually finds a way to take advantage of a mistake."
SUBHD: Beyond the Bucs
It's easy for some to blame the Pirates for not giving Eldred an everyday job at some point, but then, no other team has done so since he left the organization in 2008.
Eldred signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox in '08 and put up huge numbers at Triple-A Charlotte, belting 35 homers with 100 RBIs. He hit just .244, though, and struck out 144 times in 427 at-bats.
It was on to Triple-A with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 and the Colorado Rockies in 2010. Eldred did get a break with the Rockies when first baseman Todd Helton went down with a back injury, and he was called up to the majors.
He played in 11 games but batted just 24 times for Colorado, hitting .250 with one homer, three RBIs and 10 strikeouts before getting sent back to Triple-A.
"I played pretty well for them. It was a good chance," Eldred said. "Obviously you'd like to get more at-bats, more opportunities, but I was grateful and appreciated that chance I had with them.
"That's what you're looking for - get in that kind of situation, you really take off and open up some eyes."
Eldred finished with 30 homers, 84 RBIs and a .264 average for Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2010, striking out 119 times in 394 at-bats. He missed the first month of the 2011 season with a broken right foot, then had a solid year with 23 homers, 57 RBIs and a .278 average for Triple-A Fresno in the San Francisco Giants' organization, striking out 94 times in 371 at-bats.
Asked if he thinks teams hold the stigma of striking out too much against him, he said, "I don't think so. There's not very many guys that hit 30-40 home runs that don't strike out quite a bit."
Eldred now calls himself "mentally more disciplined at the plate," but he also noted it's a constant battle for power hitters like him to be more patient and let the ball get closer to him before starting his swing.
"When I was younger, I felt like I was just so aggressive, and I wanted to go after everything instead of really trusting myself and getting that chance to really see it for a long time," he said.
SUBHD: Lasting legacy
No matter what he accomplishes the rest of his career, Eldred will always be a Curve and Double-A legend. To this day, people still tell stories about his 50 RBIs in one month or his gargantuan home runs.
He last played for the Curve on May 2, 2005, and he blasted two home runs in that game against Reading. He had homered in a club-record six consecutive games and belted 13 homers in only 21 games early that season to earn a promotion to Triple-A.
The longest home run ever hit at Blair County Ballpark came off Eldred's bat on April 19, 2005 against Akron, a ball that hit at the base of the parking garage up the hill beyond the left field wall.
Curve officials measured that blast at 460 feet at the time, and this week they measured again and came up with a figure of 470 feet.
"That's wrong," Beasley said of those estimates. "There was no way that was under 500 feet."
Beasley believes the ball still would have traveled a good distance had the elevated hill not been in the way because it was hit on such a line.
"That is absolutely no-man's territory," Beasley said. "That was the furthest ball I've ever seen hit."
There's also more to the story, as well, as Beasley revealed something this week that's never been told.
"That day, before he hit that one, the clock that's on the scoreboard, he hit that clock," Beasley said. "I said to him, 'Hit the clock,' and he hit the clock in BP."
Eldred mashed a ball estimated at more than 500 feet during a game at New Hampshire in 2004. Speaking of that moon shot, Beasley joked, "I don't know if that ball has landed yet."
Littlefield also recalled a tremendous blast Eldred hit with the Pirates in spring training.
"I remember [former manager] Jim Tracy talking about one he hit at Tampa Bay," Littlefield said. "The wind was blowing 100 mph in, and he hit an absolute monster shot. It probably only went over the fence 40 feet, but if it wasn't for that wind, it would have been a long, long ways."
Eldred still hopes to create some of those lasting memories in the big leagues, and he believes he has time to do so despite his age. No one calls him "Big Country" or talks about him once having 50 RBIs in a month any longer, except for occasional Pirates fans or former teammates, but he's still slugging away hoping to someday make a name for himself in the major leagues.
If he doesn't, he won't be upset or bitter. He talked about how he's accomplished more in baseball than most people do and that he did get to the major leagues. He seems content with that.
"Obviously there's a lot of things you wish might be different," Eldred said. "Whatever I do, whatever numbers I put up are just a bonus. I'm 31 years old, I'm still playing the game of baseball, and you can't really trade that for anything.
"I can be proud of everything that I've done, and hopefully there's a lot more to come."