First Pitch: Serving as an Extra for the Major League Spring Training Games

This spring I’ve talked to quite a few minor league players who were extras on the roster for a Spring Training game. The Pittsburgh Pirates have brought over 48 players from Pirate City to serve as depth for games this spring. Exactly half of them have played at least one game. Every player I’ve talked to has said what a great experience it has been just spending time with the team, which is part of the reason that teams reward players with the “extra” assignment.

One of the players I talked to was relief pitcher John O’Reilly (pictured above). I got in contact with him about a week after his first game as an extra, which was a week before he got into his first game. I wrote him for a specific reason, hoping he could answer a question I’ve had for some time and I’m not sure why I didn’t just ask anyone else in the past.

O’Reilly was with the team quite a few times before he actually got into a game. That happens often with minor league relief pitchers, which made me wonder when they got their throwing in. They’re supposed to be getting ready for the season too, so if they are just sitting around available in the bullpen day after day, then what are they doing for work? As I said, it’s a great experience for the players just to go to the games, everyone agrees on that part, but after a few times without playing, it seems like it would be detrimental to the pitchers.

I also talked to a pitcher from a different team and got the same story about how teams handle these relief pitchers. What happens with them is that they have a set limit to how many days they can be used as a backup, and if they aren’t used during that time, then they will throw at Pirate City the next day. Then when they’re available again, the can serve as a backup for the big league team, repeating the same process. If they get into a game, then that will count as their throwing day and they wouldn’t be available to pitch the next few days.

O’Reilly got into Saturday’s game against the Yankees and struck out the only batter he faced, stranding an inherited runner in the process.

His positive result made it an even better experience, but don’t think that the results matter as much as just wearing a big league uniform for a day. Ike Schlabach pitched that same game and walked five batters, which recording just two outs. He didn’t allow any of his own runs, avoiding that by recording the final out of the eighth inning and the first out of the ninth. He also got an assist from Nicholas Economos, another extra, who stranded two inherited runners. Despite the walks from Schlabach, who issued just nine walks all season with Bradenton last year, he called it an unforgettable experience (in a good way).

If right now you’re wondering more about John O’Reilly, here’s an article I wrote on him back in November, talking about the progress he made in 2019.





By John Dreker

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, led by one of their greatest all-time pitchers.

Vern Law, pitcher for the 1950-51 and 1954-67 Pirates. His 16 seasons in a Pirates uniform have been topped by just eight players, seven of them Hall of Famers. His 162 wins have been topped by only five pitchers in team history. The Pirates signed Law as an amateur free agent in 1948 out of high school and that first year of pro ball didn’t go so well. He was in class D ball, a very low level of the minors, where he had a 4.65 ERA and 96 walks in 110 innings. It didn’t take long for him to start making a good impression though. The following season in class B, he posted a 2.94 ERA and cut his walks to 75 in 144 innings. He jumped up to Double-A to start the next year and pitched so well that he was in the majors by early June. For 1950 and 1951 he switched between the bullpen and starting role, winning 13 games and throwing 242 innings over those two seasons. His baseball career would take a short break as he joined the military and missed all of the 1952-53 seasons.

Law struggled when he returned in 1954. He pitched as a starter and reliever, posting a 5.51 ERA in 39 total games. The following season, at age 25, he showed his first sign of being a top notch pitcher. He went 10-10 for a team that finished 60-94. He lowered his ERA to 3.83 and pitched 200 innings for the first time in his career. Law made a high number of relief appearances, but his 1955 success led to a steady job as a starter for the first time. The Pirates were again bad in 1956 and his record suffered, losing a career high 16 games. He was just 40-57 through 1956, but during the next 11 seasons he was 32 games over the .500 mark.

In 1957 he went 10-8, dropping his ERA (2.87) below 3.00 for the first time. The next season would see him set a career high with 14 wins, a total he would then increase each of the two following seasons, going from 18 in 1959 to his only 20 win season in 1960. That 1960 season was a magical one for Law and the Pirates. He would go 20-9, 3.08 in 35 starts, with a league leading 18 complete games. The team would go on to the World Series and defeat the Yankees in seven games, with Law going 2-0 in his three starts. His regular season performance earned him the Cy Young Award. The high point was fleeting for Law though. In 1961 he suffered from a shoulder injury and all he could muster over the next three seasons combined was 17 wins and 42 starts. He still had one more great season left in his arm, the 1965 campaign that saw him go 17-9 with a career low 2.15 ERA. He pitched 217 innings that year, the only season after 1960 that he was able to top the 200 inning mark. He suffered injuries to his elbow and hip that would limit his success in his last two seasons and coax him into retirement after the 1967 season. Law finished 162-147, 3.77 over 2,672 innings. He turns 90 years old today.

Greg Hansell, pitcher for the 1999 Pirates. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1989 and by the time he made it to the Pirates in 1999 he had pitched three seasons in the majors with three different teams. His best year was 1996 when he went 3-0 with three saves in 50 relief appearances for the Brewers. He had pitched a total of 73 major league games prior to 1999 and his career ERA was 6.22 up to that point. Hansell spent all of 1998 in Triple-A for the Royals and A’s, posting a 2.69 ERA in 59 games. Pittsburgh signed him as a free agent just as the 1999 season got under way, sending him to Triple-A, where he had a 2.00 ERA in 22 games. He was called up in June and pitched 39.1 innings over 33 games with a 3.89 ERA. The Pirates sold Hansell to a Japanese team in December of 1999 and he pitched five more seasons,split between overseas and in the minors, before retiring.

Raul Mondesi, outfielder for the 2004 Pirates. He was a Rookie of the Year winner, an All-Star, a two time Gold Glove winner and seven times in his career he drove in 84 or more runs, but by the time he reached the Pirates at age 33 in 2004, his career was nearly over. In 2003 playing for the Yankees and Diamondbacks, he hit a combined .272 with 24 homers and 22 stolen bases in 143 games. It was his sixth 20/20 season, while twice reaching the 30/30 mark. The Pirates signed him as a free agent in late February, 2004. He played just 26 games before he asked to return to his home in the Dominican Republic due to a lawsuit and what he said was concerns over his family and their safety. When he didn’t return to the Pirates on time they put him on waivers, then released him when no one picked him up. Just days later, he signed with the Angels but got hurt within eight games of signing. After missing his rehab assignment, he was cut. He played with the Braves in 2005 but they cut him after just two months, ending his career. He finished with a .273 average, 271 homers and 860 RBIs in 1,525 games.

Reb Russell, outfielder for the 1922-23 Pirates. He began his career as a successful pitcher, injured him arm, retired from baseball, then came back to the majors as a strong-hitting outfielder for the Pirates. Russell pitched 316.2 innings as a rookie in 1913, winning 22 games and posting a 1.90 ERA. Six years later he faced just two batters in his only outing before being sent to the minors where he played outfield for Minneapolis of the American Association. He tried to pitch for the White Sox in 1920 but didn’t make the team and decided to retire. He had a record of 80-59, 2.33 in 242 major league games and never had an ERA higher than 2.90 in any of his six full seasons. The Minneapolis team he played for in 1919 asked him to come back to play when they were short on players and he did, as a full-time outfielder. He hit .339 in 85 games in 1920, then followed it up with a .368 average and 33 homers in 1921.

In 1922 Russell was hitting .331 with 17 homers through 77 games when the Pirates signed him to play right field. He was not a good fielder but he could certainly hit. He played 60 games the rest of the way for Pittsburgh and drove in an amazing 75 runs, while batting .368 in just 220 at-bats. He hit a team leading 12 homers that year, thanks in part to two big days at the plate. On August 25th and September 1st the Pirates played doubleheaders each day. Russell connected for three homers on each day, doubling his previous home run output during a seven-day span. He actually didn’t hit a homer the last 23 games of the season so his team leading total came in just 37 games. In 1923 Russell wasn’t nearly the strong hitter he was the previous season and by the end of July, despite raising his batting average 33 points that month, the Pirates sent him to the bench. He returned to the minors in 1924, playing another seven seasons before retiring, finishing with a .329 minor league average in 1,314 games

Denny Lyons, third baseman for the Pirates in 1893-94 and 1896-97. He was a star in the American Association for five seasons before the league folded, forcing him to the National League. He played for the Giants in 1892 and did not hit well, batting .257, which was well below his .325 career average coming into the season. In 1890 he led the league with a .461 OBP and .531 slugging percentage. In 1887 he set a still standing record for putouts in a season by a third baseman with 255. He signed with the Pirates for 1893 and regained his form at the plate, hitting .306 with 97 walks, 105 RBIs and 103 runs scored. He also led all third basemen in putouts that year. He hit well in 1894, but missed nearly half of the season. He moved on to St Louis in 1895, where he played just 34 games. Lyons returned to the Pirates in 1896 and hit .307 with 67 walks and 71 RBIs in 118 games. That would be his last good season in the majors, and by July of 1897 his time with the Pirates (and the majors) was done. He returned to the minors for three seasons, didn’t play for two years, then returned for one more year in 1903. Denny was a .310 hitter in the majors over 1,123 games and he scored 933 runs while driving in 756 runs.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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