Remembering Rudy Pemberton

Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

There really wasn’t anything special about Rudy Pemberton. In the summer of 1996, he was a nondescript corner outfielder in the Boston Red Sox minor league system. Little did anyone know that as the calendar flipped from August to September that year, Pemberton would have a brush with greatness.

According to his Baseball Reference page, Pemberton was signed as a teenager out of the baseball factory in San Pedro de Macorois in the Dominican Republic, and toiled in the minor league system of the Detroit Tigers for seven years before making the big league roster out of spring training in 1995.

Pemberton hit well for the Tigers over the first six weeks of the season, though his poor defensive play limited his opportunities. He only got to play in a couple of games a week, collecting 32 plate appearances, before the Tigers placed him on waivers. None of the other teams claimed Pemberton, so after the waiver period expired he was sent outright to the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo.

Playing minor league baseball in Toledo was a lot different than playing for the Tigers in Detroit, and Pemberton was still only getting sporadic playing time with the Mud Hens. He shook all of these disappointments off, and went on to hit.344 with moderate power during the summer.

Despite his outstanding production in the highest level of the minor leagues, nobody took any notice of Pemberton. He had a husky body and was a poor outfielder, and teams weren’t interested in those types of players unless they consistently hit the ball into the light tower. Furthermore, that summer in Toledo Pemberton was 25-years-old. A good minor league prospect will usually reach the majors by the time they are 23, and after the age of 26 a baseball player enters his prime and ceases to be considered a prospect. Pemberton was two years behind in his development, and his window was closing quickly.

That September, after the conclusion of the Mud Hens’ season, the Tigers did not add Pemberton to the 40-man roster nor recall him from the minors when the major league rosters expanded. The following month, Pemberton became a minor-league free agent. Cast away by the only franchise he had ever played for, and entering his age 26 season, this would be Pemberton’s last chance to establish himself as a major league player.

Young fans in Fenway Park.
Fenway Park fans. Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

Pemberton signed with the Texas Rangers that winter, and at the conclusion of spring training he was assigned to the Ranger’s Double-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, two levels below the major leagues. At 26, Pemberton was too old to still be playing in Double-A, and it looked like he was destined to become an organizational player who would never make it back to the big leagues. Pemberton struggled against younger players that he should have been dominating, batting.254 with only one walk in 74 plate appearances. He still did not show any power, hitting just two home runs.

On April 24, Pemberton was traded to the Boston Red Sox as the player to be named later from a trade between Boston and Texas a week earlier that sent left-handed pitcher Bryan Eversgerd to the Rangers. The Red Sox sent Pemberton to their Triple-A team in Pawtucket, his third team in three months of play.

At Pawtucket, everything suddenly changed for Rudy Pemberton. In the summer of 1996, Pemberton hit.326 with 27 home runs and 92 runs batted in, by far the best performance of his career. In September, in the final month of Pemberton’s last season to be considered a major league prospect, the Boston Red Sox added him to the major league roster.

Over the course of a few weeks in September of 1996, Rudy Pemberton hit an incredible.512 with eight doubles and a home run, good for a 233 OPS+. Those would be great numbers for a high-school player, never mind one playing regularly in Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox. For a few magical weeks, Rudy Pemberton was the greatest player in the history of baseball.

For one golden moment in time, a chunky, unknown man hitting a rapidly moving sphere with a club elevated the entire human race to a new height, and shone bright with promise. An unlikely hero had the briefest brush with immortality, and in that fleeting hour became a golden god. And it was beautiful.

The next season, Pemberton was sent back to Pawtucket, and eventually drifted out of baseball. He never again had a stretch like the one he had in those three weeks at Fenway.

Few remember Rudy Pemberton, but he touched greatness once. I raise my glass and cheer his memory.