It wasn’t until 1998 that the Tampa Bay Rays debuted as an Major League Baseball Franchise. But two years earlier, in 1996, the Rays first began operating as an organization, participating in the MLB draft, signing international free agents, and operating minor league affiliates. Among those affiliates was a team that was a Rays affiliate for only that year, the Butte Copper Kings. From 1988 to 1992, the Copper Kings were a Texas Rangers affiliate in the Pioneer League. From 1997 to 2000, they were an Anaheim Angels affiliate in the Pioneer League. In between, they had a few years in limbo, staying in the Pioneer League but not serving as the minor league affiliate of any major league team from 1993 to 1995, and then serving as a Rays affiliate for just one season in 1996. Just one year as an affiliate for a major league team that didn’t yet exist could not have meant very much, right? But in this case, it actually did, and in fact one member of that team remains with the Rays today.
The 1996 Copper Kings were a solid team, managing the fifth-best record in the 8-team Pioneer League at 37-35. The Pioneer League was extremely hitter-friendly, with the league average being a .290/.375/.432 line, 6.97 runs being scored by each team per game, and the league ERA being just 5.71. But the Copper Kings stood out even more than those league numbers. Statistically, the Copper Kings were very interesting team. Their offense finished second in the league in batting average and doubles, led the league in triples, and were third in runs scored. Their team batting line was .309/.380/.444 as they were a good-hitting team but had surprisingly little home run power, managing just 42 home runs, last in the league. On the pitching side, the Copper Kings managed a 5.33 ERA and a 1.86-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, both third-best in the league, managing an 8.5 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 compared to the league average of a 7.9 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9. They tied for the second in the league in strikeouts and allowed the third fewest home runs. Most interesting, though, is that their FIP was actually 4.06, second in the league and of course astronomically better than their 5.33 ERA. Why the enormous difference? First off, there were definitely major park factors at work here, but their defense was horrific as they allowed 136 unearned runs, the most in the league, reducing them from a team that could have competed for a South Division title to a middle-of-the-pack third place team. In any event, the statistics are intriguing, but let’s talk about a few individual players.
Third baseman Hernando Arredondo, 19 that year, was signed by the Devil Rays after three seasons in the Mexican League (beginning when he was just 16) and was easily the Copper Kings’ most impressive hitter in his US debut in 1996, managing a .357/.429/.544 line with 21 doubles, 7 triples, 4 homers, 49 RBI, and 8 stolen bases in 67 games and 288 plate appearances. He actually finished only 10th in the Pioneer League in hitting- the Diamondbacks’ Kevin Sweeney actually hit .424, future D-Ray Jason Conti hit .367, and the Copper Kings’ own Marcus McCain actually hit .379- but Arredondo was youngest player on the team and it seemed like the sky was the limit for him. Just 5’11″, 160 at the time, Arredondo wasn’t the most impressive athlete and didn’t feature much power or speed, but it seemed like he could do nothing but hit and he was named Baseball America’s No. 7 Rays prospect the next season. But Arredondo slipped to a .275/.333/.370 line at Short Season-A the next year and was released in 1998. Arredondo has been in the Mexican League ever since, managing a .295 career average with 116 home runs. He never lived up to the promise bestowed upon him, but never stopped playing and carved out a solid career for himself over in Mexico.
If Arredondo was the most highly-touted hitter on the Copper Kings, Mickey Callaway was easily the most well-regarded pitcher, and the results of his career have been much different. In a crazy hitter’s league in the 1996 Pioneer League, Callaway, then 21, pitched great, going 6-2 with a 3.71 ERA, an 8.1 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 11 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 63 innings pitched. Callaway didn’t have the most dominant arsenal, but he featured a good high-80′s sinker, a promising slow curveball, and a feel for a changeup, and it looked like he had a chance to be a strong mid-rotation starter in the big leagues. Callaway moved up to the High-A St. Petersburg Devil Rays for 1997 and was even better, going 11-7 with a 3.28 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 28 starts and 170.2 innings pitched. (They jumped him from 63 innings pitched one year to over 170? Oh my God.) He took a step back in 1998, managing just a 4.46 ERA and a 76-61 strikeout to walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A, but he pitched better at Triple-A in 1999, going 7-1 with a 4.20 ERA and a 56-28 strikeout to walk ratio in 15 starts and 81.1 innings pitched, and was in the big leagues by June. Callaway made his big league debut for the D-Rays on June 12th versus the Montreal Expos, going 6 innings allowing just 2 runs on 7 hits, striking out 4 while walking 3, and using his sinker to force an 11-9 groundball to flyball ratio as he earned the win in the game. But Callaway’s next start was a total disaster as he failed to record an out, allowing 2 walks and a hit, before being lifted for a hamstring injury. Callaway returned in late July but couldn’t get anyone out in 3 more appearances that year, allowing an 8.10 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in 13.1 innings pitched.
His confidence completely gone, Callaway spent 2000 at Triple-A Durham and struggled mightily, going 11-6 but with just a 5.29 ERA and a 64-50 strikeout to walk ratio in 117.1 innings pitched. But something seemed to clicd the next year for Callaway as he went 11-7 with a 3.07 ERA for the Bulls, managing an 81-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 129 innings pitched. Callaway also made 2 appearances for the Devil Rays, although he allowed 3 runs in 5 innings pitched, but nevertheless it seemed like things might be looking up for him. What did the Devil Rays do? They traded him to the Angels for a shortstop, Wilmy Caceres, who had speed, stealing 131 bases the previous four years, but couldn’t hit at all, managing just a .249/.281/.289 line the previous year. But the Devil Rays’ loss was the Angels’ gain. Callaway was unhittable at Triple-A Salt Lake for the Angels in 2002, going 9-2 with a 1.68 ERA and a 75-22 strikeout to walk ratio in 91.1 innings pitched before the Angels called him up in August. Callaway pitched well for the Angels as their fifth starter the rest of the year, going 2-1 with a 4.19 ERA and a 23-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 6 starts and 34.1 innings pitched to help the Angels to an AL Wild Card spot, and although Callaway didn’t appear in any games, he received a World Series ring after the Angels won the 2002 World Series.
As it turned out, those 6 starts in 2002 were the only time Callaway ever really pitched well in the major leagues. He began 2003 in the Angels’ rotation and tossed 6 shutout innings in his first start before allowing 3 runs in 5.1 innings in his second, but then he allowed 12 runs in his next two starts, leading to a demotion to the bullpen. After allowing 2 runs in his first relief appearance, Callaway only allowed a run in 1 of his next 8- but he allowed 6 runs in 3 innings in that game- and then he allowed a run in four straight appearances, prompting his release. Callaway would appear in 10 games with the Texas Rangers between the rest of 2003 and in 2004, but he managed just a 6.95 ERA and that was the last time he pitched in the majors. Callaway moved on to pitch professionally in Korea and China before returning to the US to be baseball coach of Texas A&M International University (not to be confused with regular Texas A&M), and he’s now a pitching coach in the Cleveland Indians organization. Callaway achieved his share of success- he remains’ Triple-A Durham’s all-time wins leader with 27 and pitched great at Triple-A, abroad, and even at times in the major leagues, but he never could put it together in the majors for an extended period of time. Part of that was a lack of opportunity- but a lot of that was his own fault because of too many disaster starts. However, at the end of the day, Callaway had himself a nice career highlighted by that 2002 World Series ring, and when observers of that Copper Kings realized they were seeing something special in Callaway back in 1996, they were not entirely wrong.
We’ll talk a lot less about the other big leaguer among the 1996 Copper Kings, lefty Trevor Enders. Enders, who had been an undrafted free agent signee by the D-Rays, was not so impressive for the Copper Kings, managing just a 4.88 ERA, and a 24-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 19 appearances and 27.2 innings pitched, but everything changed the next year, when he went 4-3 with a 1.88 ERA and a 73-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 44 appearances and 67 innings pitched for the Low-A Charleston Riverdogs. Enders followed it up by going 10-1 for the High-A St. Petersburg Devil Rays in 1998 with a 2.23 ERA and a 61-15 strikeout to walk ratio in 51 appearances and 68.2 innings pitched, and suddenly he was an impressive relief prospect. Enders’ strikeout to walk ratio slipped to 63-33 in 95.1 innings pitched at Double-A in 1999, but he still went 8-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 60 appearances. Then Enders put up a 3.07 ERA and a 57-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 93.2 innings pitched between Double-A and Triple-A in 2000, prompting the D-Rays to call him up to the major leagues. However, Enders was a disaster in 9 appearances, managing just a 10.61 ERA, and he was out of baseball two years later at age 27. Enders was a great story as he survived being an undrafted free agent and getting off to a tough start with the Copper Kings to pitch well the next four years in the minors and make the major leagues, but unfortunately for him, his bubble burst there. Enders is now a teacher at the high school he attended, James E. Taylor High School in Texas, and hasn’t severed ties with baseball completely, coaching the school’s softball team.
But who is the member of the 1996 Butte Copper Kings who is still in the Rays organization? The answer is Tom Foley. Foley spend 13 years in the majors primarily as a defense-first utilityman from 1983 to 1995, and the following season the Devil Rays hired him in a coaching role. Foley helped direct the first team workouts in Rays history following the 1996 MLB Draft and then went on to manage the Copper Kings and do a nice job, leading the team to a 37-35 record. It was the only time Foley ever managed, but the Rays liked what they had seen. Foley served as the Rays’ fielding coordinator for the next two years before getting promoted to the position of Director of Minor League Operations, and then in 2002 he moved onto the big league team as its third base coach. Foley has been there ever since. The Butte Copper Kings are long-gone as a Rays affiliate- but for Foley, it was the place where everything started for him as he began his successful second career in baseball as a coach for the Rays.
Between the start of Foley’s tenure with the Rays and beginning of the professional careers of future big leaguers Mickey Callaway and Trevor Enders, the Butte Copper Kings made quite an impression in their one year as a Rays affiliate. While the Rays’ contract with the Butte affiliate was not deemed to be worthy of renewal following the season, they are still worth remembering at least for a moment now 17 years later.