Health the key to Snelling's success
Ability to hit never has been a problem for Padres outfielder
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Jim Colborn sensed apprehension on the part of his boss about outfielder Chris Snelling, he told a little white lie to make sure a deal got done and Snelling would become a Seattle Mariner.
It was 1998 and Colborn, who at the time was the director of Pacific Rim scouting for Seattle, was in Australia to look at Snelling, a player he had seen two years earlier and was impressed with as a 15-year-old.
With Colborn's boss, Roger Jongewaard, in tow, they watched Snelling more than hold his own in a professional league filled with players in their 30s, many with experience playing in the United States.
"That's when I really bared down on [Snelling]. Roger was with me, and I told him, 'That's the guy.' Roger wasn't so sure, and he wanted to see how he ran. I got him down on a pretty good time, but I cheated a little. He wasn't as fast as I said."
Jongewaard, Seattle's vice president in charge of player development and scouting, signed off on the deal, and Snelling became a Mariner.
It's a story Colborn, who now serves in the same capacity with the Rangers, likes to tell. It's been 10 years since the Mariners signed Snelling, though the image of Snelling hitting, that left-handed swing, the good, hard contact, is one that he can't get out of his mind.
The old axiom about hitters, that they can fall out of bed and hit, might well apply to Snelling, who on Saturday signed a Minor League deal with the Padres. But Colborn insisted there's a twist with Snelling, albeit a cruel one.
"He might fall out of bed, but he might break something, too. He might hit on the way down, though," Colborn said.
Colborn is kidding of course. However, the fact that Snelling's promising career has been derailed by a series of unfortunate injuries is no laughing matter to Snelling himself, though he's not exactly reticent about his past either.
"It has always been a matter of me staying healthy," Snelling said. "It's pretty simple."
Only staying healthy has never been that simple.
Snelling, so blessed with the bat, plate discipline and what many consider an instinctive knack for the game, has been betrayed by his body so often that reeling off a list of his injuries is no longer something he's interested in doing.
Can you blame him?
Snelling broke his hand in 2000, his ankle in '01 and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in '02 and did it again in '05. Snelling also broke his wrist and his thumb and has even lost two teeth. All told, he's had seven surgeries on his left knee.
This was a player who as a 19-year-old in the California League hit .336 with a .418 on-base percentage against players four years his senior and once was Seattle's top prospect and one of the most highly regarded prospects in the game.
Snelling was in the Major Leagues by the time he was 20 because he impressed then-Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who normally had a low tolerance for young players. But Piniella loved Snelling's hustle and all-out play, and, inevitably, the comparisons to former Mets and Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra started.
The emerging blogosphere, especially the popular and perspicacious ussmariner.com, got behind Snelling's cause and embraced him to the point in which it referred to him by his middle name (Doyle) in order to avoid cursing him to another injury.
The guy has an affinity for all things Yoda -- yes, the character from Star Wars -- and can best be described as a free spirit. He always has played hard, and people appreciate that. People like him; pitchers hate him.
"When I saw him with the Mariners, he was a guy, throughout baseball circles, was a guy who was known as a hitter. He was a hard-nosed player and someone people thought very highly of," said Padres manager Bud Black, who saw Snelling during his days as pitching coach for the Angels.
Snelling, who is now with his sixth organization since 2006, spent last season playing in the Phillies organization. He was a free agent until Saturday, when the Padres, who were impressed with the three home runs he hit during the World Baseball Classic, signed him to a Minor League deal, offering him nothing guaranteed other than a chance to play.
"I don't care about anything else other than playing baseball," said Snelling, who has a career .305 batting average in the Minor Leagues.
Even though the San Diego outfield situation can best be described as crowded, Snelling is a guy who has an outside chance to break camp with the team or, at the very least, help the Padres in '09.
On the day he signed with the Padres, Snelling had a walk and an RBI double. Then on Sunday, he fought off a tough inside pitch from Rangers veteran Kevin Millwood and dumped it into short left field to drive in two runs.
The guy can hit, always has. That's something San Diego general manager Kevin Towers remembers of Snelling, the Australian kid across the Peoria parking lot who was hitting rockets off Towers' Padres pitchers.
"I've always kept my eye on him. I'm hoping he's like Jody Gerut, and he's got all the bad knees behind him and that he can stay healthy for a couple of years," Towers said. "I think that he can help us this year, if not to start the season, then at some point.
"It's just a matter of him staying healthy."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.