Junge Gun

Eric JungeNearly seven years ago, Eric Junge pitched five innings of a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a meaningless September game. In fact, September of 2002 was one of the last few final months that were meaningless for the Phillies. In 2004 all that was left to decide in September was when they would mercifully pull the plug on the managerial career of Larry Bowa.

Those were the days when the pitching coach got punched in the face by a player, and some wondered if it was simply a matter of time until the manager suffered the same fate. Nope, those definitely weren’t the golden days of Phillies baseball.

More like Blood Sport.

Anyway, Eric Junge started and won his first Major League outing over the Pirates in rather dramatic fashion. See, Junge was finished pitching for the year after going 12-6 with a 3.54 in Triple-A in 29 starts, until then-GM Ed Wade called him at home in Rye, N.Y. in the middle of a pizza feast. The Phillies needed some fresh arms to get through the year and since the roster had expanded, Junge got a phone call inquiring whether he wanted to pitch in the big leagues.

Sure, Junge said, but first he had to cancel some plans.

Junge joined the Phillies on Sept. 11, 2002, exactly one year after that day. So instead of going down to Ground Zero with his trumpet to play a tribute to the three friends from childhood that died on 9/11, Junge was the Vet waiting to make his big league debut instead of “preparing to mourn and remember.”

“I would have been playing my trumpet, playing Taps. It’s something I used to do on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I would go down to the town square and all the veterans would be there,” he told us. “It would be my little way of saying thanks for our freedoms. Taps for me is emotional. I’d rather be pitching in the big leagues, obviously.

“I didn’t think I would get called up,” he said nearly seven years ago. “It’s all kind of surreal. I was getting ready to mourn and now I feel alive.”

I remember that day for a lot of reasons. First, there weren’t too many games in the 2002 baseball season that were too memorable. Brett Myers made his debut at Wrigley Field, pitcher Robert Person his a pair of homers and got seven RBIs in about two innings of a rout over the Expos, and Scott Rolen was traded.

Secondly, only two seasons into Bowa’s reign of terror, it was clear things had already come unhinged. Little did we know at the time that the franchise would have to take some decisive actions after some growing pains and old-fashioned time biding.

Otherwise, it was an underwhelming season.

But Junge was interesting. After he threw those five innings in which he gave up four hits and one run in his only big league start, I was all set to write about how he was the first Bucknell University alum to pitch in the big leagues since Christy Mathewson. Acquired in the Omar Daal trade with Los Angeles, Junge was the minor league surprise of ’02.

Instead of writing about the surprise start, the Mathewson angle and a promising future, someone saw three names scribbled on Junge’s cap while talking to him in the clubhouse after the game. The names “Fetchet,” “Mello” and “McGinley” were hard to miss there in black Sharpie just to the left of the Phillies “P” on Junge’s cap.

What was the deal with those words, Junge was asked.

Those three guys were Brad Fetchet, Chris Mello and Mark McGinley, Junge told us. All three died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center during the attacks. Mello grew up with the pitcher and the two played baseball and football all the way from little league to high school. He died when his plane struck the north tower.

Fetchet and McGinley were Bucknell classmates of Junge who were working in the Trade Center that fateful day and didn’t make it out.

Then there was Junge’s dad Peter, who was standing on the street corner adjacent to the buildings when the first plane hit, which was carrying Mello. A maritime attorney with offices a block away from Wall St., Peter Junge was on his way to court when the unthinkable happened. Junge was eating breakfast in a waffle house in Huntsville, Ala., preparing to pitch for the Dodgers’ Double-A club, Jacksonville.

“That was a hectic day,” Junge told us after his first Major League start.

It was a helluva story and forced a lot of us to re-do those Mathewson/Bucknell angles we were knee-deep in by the time we met with Junge. But aside from the emotional side of the story, there also was the work on the field. After all, it’s not every day a pitcher in his first big league start walks off with swagger. Junge might have been a surprise call up, but he was acting as if he belonged.

“Some guys might be apprehensive but he acts like he’s been here for 20 years,” Bowa said after that game. “With his makeup, he wanted the opportunity and he opened some eyes. He was walking around the dugout yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ and getting everyone fired up.”

Junge’s big league career lasted just 10 games. In 2002 he got another win when Vicente Padilla exited a game after just 13 pitches and Junge came on in the first inning and went into the sixth.

But injuries derailed whatever future he might have had with the Phillies or a chance to return to the Majors with another club. In 2003 he was shut down after 16 games between the Phillies and Triple-A. When he came back from  shoulder surgery, he pitched at three different levels in the Phillies’ organization before he was granted free agency at the end of the year.

Then came the life of the baseball nomad. In 2005 he pitched in Triple-A for the Mets and then released. In ’06 it was Triple-A with the Padres and then another release. For 2007 it was a handful of games in the independent Atlantic League until he wound up back at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the Yankees.

And then, of course, another release.

Junge spent 2008 in Japan pitching for the Orix Buffaloes, which was the former team of So Taguchi and Ichiro, as well as the organization that featured an Amarican cleanup hitter named Chuck Manuel. They called Chuck, “The Red Devil.”

Now 32, the same age as former teammates, Marlon Byrd, Johnny Estrada, Geoff Geary, Nick Punto as well as a year older than his ex-third baseman, Chase Utley, Junge is still out there playing. As fate would have it, the lean, 6-foot-5 righty signed to play for a team with a stadium less than one-mile from my home as the crow flies.

Yeah that’s right, Junge was pitching for the Lancaster Barnstormers in the Atlantic League. The Atlantic League is baseball purgatory… or maybe worse. No matter, in his first month with the team the baseball lifer (think Chris Coste had he been a prospect) was the league’s pitcher of the month with a 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and twice broke the franchise record with 12 strikeouts in a game. In 26 innings, Junge had 34 whiffs.

And then he was gone.

That’s what I learned this evening when I moseyed down to the ballpark with the kids to check out a game. I had hoped to see Junge, relive those days in Philly and see what’s shaking with Antonio Alfonseca, who is closing out games for the Barnstormers. However, Junge’s name was strangely omitted from the roster. A quick Google search later revealed he had left Lancaster to pitch for a team in South Korea.

How’s that for an indictment of the team, league and town? Junge would rather travel halfway around the globe to pitch in South Korea rather than for Tom Herr and Von Hayes in Lancaster, Pa.

You know, some days I know how he feels.

Nevertheless, good luck to Mr. Junge. Undoubtedly he could trade in the uniform for a career as a good baseball exec, but let’s hope his baseball journeys pay off with a trip back to the big leagues or at least some pretty kick-ass stories. He certainly gave us one seven years ago, and, as readers of the site know, it’s the stories that make the word go ‘round.