Since their establishment in 1977, there have been 593 players to appear in a game as a Toronto Blue Jay. This weekly series will provide a look back at those players you may have forgot, or are too young to have known. This week I look at Geno Petralli, more well known for his time as a Texas Ranger but got his start with the Blue Jays in the early 1980’s.
Though his time with the Blue Jays was very brief and relatively unproductive, Toronto introduced Eugene James Petralli to professional baseball. Born September 25, 1959 in Sacramento, CA; Petralli played high school baseball at John F. Kennedy and was then drafted by the Blue Jays in 1978 after playing at Sacramento City College.
Drafted in the 3rd round, 53rd overall, Petralli began his professional career with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays of the pioneer league immediately in 1978. The following season in 1979 Petralli was assigned to the Class-A Dunedin Blue Jays and after 52 games was promoted all the way to the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs where he appeared in 18 games batting .232. Petralli saw the entire 1980 season with Double-A Knoxville playing 116 games and earning a 1981 spot back with Triple-A Syracuse. The catching duties for 1981 were split between 3 Blue Jays prospects including Dan Whitmer (65 games) and Ramon Lora (40 games) meaning Petralli would only get into 45 games himself.
Major League Debut
Petralli would see his professional career turn for the better in 1982 where he was made the full-time catcher for the Chiefs. He appeared in 126 games, 117 of them behind the plate. Minor League career bests in average (.286), home runs (9), and RBI (58) earned him a September call up to the big club in Toronto. He made his major league debut on September 4th in Cleveland as a pinch hitter for starting catcher Buck Martinez in the top of the 7th inning. Petralli’s first major league at-bat was strike out against the Indian’s eventual game winner Tom Brennan. He would stay in the game as catcher but would not appear at the plate again in the game.
Petralli’s first major league hit came the next day, again in Cleveland, where he started the game at catcher batting in the #2 spot of the lineup. It didn’t take long as he doubled to left field off of Indians starter Len Barker. He played the entire game, going 2-4 with a sac bunt. The Blue Jays wound up winning the game 6-5 to salvage one win in the 3-game series.
For the month of September, Petralli would appear in 14 more games for a total of 44 at bats. His 16 hits (.364 average), 4 walks, and 6 strikeouts was impressive but not enough to earn him a spot on the major league roster in 1983. Both Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez would return to the Jays that season meaning there was no room for Petralli in the bigs, so he would have to spend another season with the Triple-A Chiefs. His numbers slid a little bit from ’81, appearing in 104 games (70 as the catcher) hitting .245 with only 3 HR and 40 RBI. Despite the lower numbers, Petralli was still called up in September though with severely limited use. Manager Bobby Cox only used Petralli in 6 games where he had 4 at bats with no hits.
The 1984 season saw Petralli break camp with the Blue Jays, though he wouldn’t stay in Toronto long. Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez were still around and playing time for Petralli would be microscopic. After only 3 appearances off the bench where he went 0-3, Petralli was traded to the Cleveland Indians on May 8 and was immediately assigned to the Maine Guides of the International League. As the back-up in Maine, Petralli only appeared in 23 games throughout the 1984 season and hit a paltry .217 with no home runs. He began 1985 with Maine once again but was released outright after only 2 games where he was 1 for 7 at the plate. On May 17 he signed with the Texas Rangers and reported to Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Petralli’s major league success came with the Texas Rangers, and it all began in July after Don Slaught was injured. Petralli split time in games with Glenn Blummer until Slaught returned, however rather than being sent back to Oklahoma City he remained with Texas as the backup essentially taking Blummer’s position on the roster. In that initial season with the Rangers, Petralli appeared in 42 games with a .270 batting average and only 12 strike outs. 1986 began just as 1985 ended with Petralli backing up Slaught, however Darrel Porter was brought in as a 3rd catcher and part time DH. When Slaught was once again injured in May a 4th catcher, Orlando Mercado, was brought in. The Rangers would carry all 4 catchers through the end of the ’86 season. On July 13 he would hit his first of 24 career home runs off of future hall of famer Phil Niekro, then pitching for Cleveland, marking another one of his career firsts to come against the Indians to go along with his major league debut and first major league hit from 1982.
As the Rangers continued to carry 4 catchers in 1987, Petralli’s game evolved to that of a multi-positional player. He appeared at 6 different positions throughout the season and wound up becoming the personal catcher for knuckleballer Charlie Hough. Through 101 games, he hit about .300 for the first time in his career (.302) though he set a modern day record of 35 passed balls in 63 games caught that still stands today, including another record of 6 in one game that he still shares. Through 1988 and 1989 the Rangers continued to split time between catchers and it wasn’t until Jim Sundberg retired after 1990 that Petralli got his chance to be the full-time starter. He appeared in a career high 133 games that season though he once again led the league in passed balls for the 3rd time in 4 years, a stat that is rationalized by the fact he once again had to catch Charlie Hough every 5th day. The highlight of 1990 was catching Nolan Ryan’s 300th career win against the Milwaukee Brewers. Petralli started the 1991 season once again as the full time Rangers catcher however he was on the bench on May 1 when Nolan Ryan tossed his major league record 7th no-hitter against the Blue Jays, Petralli’s former club. In mid-June Petralli was placed on the disabled list with a bad back. To replace him, the Rangers called up Ivan Rodriguez who would become the starting full-time catcher from that point until 2002. Petralli returned to the Rangers in August where he backed up Rodriguez at catcher and made occasional appearances as the DH. He would re-sign with the Rangers that off-season, knowing he would only be Rodriguez’ backup. In 1993 he hit below the Mendoza line (.198) in 94 games, and would make his final appearance with the Rangers on October 2. This would also be his last appearance in the Major leagues.
Post MLB Career
Texas would decide to offer former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia the shot at backing up Rodrigues in 1994 and declined to offer Petralli a contract. The bitter catcher signed with the San Diego Padres in March where he stated he was disappointed the Rangers didn’t give him an opportunity to prove himself. At the end of camp, however, neither Petralli nor Scioscia made their respective major league rosters and both were finished in the big leagues. Petralli signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs to be a player coach with Double-A Orlando when he was injured during a home plate collision that ended his playing career for good after only 8 games.
Geno Petralli married Susan Patterson on September 22, 1979. They have 2 sons, one of which is currently a minor league baseball player. Ben Petralli has been drafted 5 times 2004 and 2008, and made his professional debut in 2010 in the Frontier League. He is currently not the property of any major league team.
Next Week – First Baseman Willie Upshaw