While each player that played in the recent 81st All-Star Baseball Game has an interesting story of how he got there, it’s doubtful anyone has the tale that the former Bulldog standout Ty Wigginton had in getting to Anaheim. In fact, the Baltimore Orioles’ infielder was almost cut from the UNC Asheville team after his freshman year.
Wigginton played for Head Coach Bill Hillier’s Bulldogs from 1996–98. In 1998, Wigginton had an awesome week for Asheville where he hit eight home runs in six games, while driving in 20 runs. He tied a school record with three home runs in a game at East Tennessee State. For his efforts, Wigginton was named National Player of the Week.
However, before he could become National Player of the Week, he had to survive almost being cut. “We almost cut Ty after his freshman year,” stated Hillier recently. “He had some work to do both on and off the field. I was bluffing with him a little bit.”
Wigginton played shortstop for the Bulldogs and was a first team Big South All-Conference performer in 1998. He had a lot of scouts watching him in his junior year but most felt like he needed another year in college. There was one exception to that thought as Mets scout Marlin McPhail saw something in the Chula Vista, Calif., native. He recently told the Baltimore Sun that he just loved Ty’s work ethic, intensity and versatility.
“He would get dirty from taking ground balls before the game," McPhail said. "He was one of those guys who always had a dirty uniform.”
The Mets drafted him in June of 1998 and he began the climb to the big leagues. In May of 2002, Wigginton became the first and only UNC Asheville player to make it to the Major Leagues when he played for the Mets in San Diego. He played half the season in New York, getting to play with stars such as Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn.
The following year had Wigginton earning the starting third base spot for the Mets. He beat out veteran Jay Bell for the spot. Bell told the Baltimore Sun how he and the veterans liked the way he played.
“Probably the best compliment I can give him is he is a player that would be able to compete in the 1970s and earn respect from those types of players,” Bell said. “He hasn't fallen into the trap of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at what I have accomplished.’ I am just thrilled for him that he's in the All-Star Game.”
The Mets had a tough year in 2003, finishing in last place but Wigginton had a solid year, hitting .255 with 11 home runs and 74 RBIs. He even received some Rookie of the Year votes.
The next year he played well again but the Mets were in the midst of a pennant race and had a rising player to take Wigginton’s place. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Kris Benson. The player taking Ty’s place would be perennial All-Star David Wright.
After establishing himself as a major league player, things didn’t work out well for Wigginton with the Pirates. He was sent to the minors in the middle of the 2005 season and was cut by Pittsburgh at the end of the year.
Some players don’t make it back after being released but Wigginton found a team in Tampa Bay. They let him come to Spring Training but didn’t promise anything beyond that.
“Wiggy” quickly impressed everyone with the Devil Rays with his play. He hit .275 and slugged 24 home runs. His versatility really showed in Tampa as he played at third base, second base, first base, left field and right field throughout the 2006 season.
He played well in 2007 but he was traded again at mid-season to the Houston Astros. Wigginton gave the Astros a real lift down the stretch as Houston almost made the playoffs with Wigginton leading the charge.
In 2008, Wigginton was Houston’s opening day starter at third base until a thumb injury sidelined him. He didn’t like being sidelined but when he returned in the middle of the season, he returned with a vengeance. Wigginton hit 12 home runs in the month of August, more than any player in baseball. He was named National League Player of the Month for that month. Wigginton finished the season with 23 home runs and hit .283.
However, the Astros were in a cost-cutting move. Despite having a great season, Houston cut him rather than giving him a raise. It is a move Astro fans are still furious about as Houston hasn’t been close to a pennant race since.
So Wigginton signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. And it didn't work out as well as either side would have liked last year. He batted .273 with 11 homers, but with inconsistent playing time he never found his rhythm. Heading into this spring, it looked like Wigginton was buried again on the Orioles' depth chart. In one spring training game, he was used as a late-inning defensive replacement, a spot usually reserved for minor leaguers.
But when Brian Roberts aggravated a back injury in the fourth game of the season, Wigginton became the Orioles’ starter at second base. And when free-agent acquisition Garrett Atkins failed to hit, Wigginton moved to first full time. He has played in 83 of the Orioles’ 88 games, batting .252 with 14 homers and a team-high 45 RBIs.
And then on July 4 in Boston, Wigginton was told he needed to see Baltimore manager Juan Samuel prior to the O’s game with the Red Sox. Samuel told him he was going to the All-Star Game. Wigginton was going to the All-Star Game as Baltimore’s lone representative.
Hillier has followed Wigginton’s career closely.
“Making the major leagues is not easy and staying there is even harder,” said Hillier. “Ty had the talent but you have to have some luck to make it and stay there for awhile. He’s had some tough breaks but his work ethic has always been great and that shows you why he’s still playing major league baseball.
“The thing I’m most pleased about is that everybody you hear from about Ty is that he plays the game the right way,” added Hillier. “He runs out every ground ball. He’s always hustling.”
Wigginton was pretty humble about making the All-Star Game. He told the Baltimore Sun he had no idea this was coming.
"I don't think it's really set in yet," Wigginton said. "I think probably it is one of those things, when you are done playing, you can look back and say that was pretty cool."
Samuel applauded Giradi’s selection of Wigginton recently in the Baltimore Sun.
“It's nice to see them pick Wiggy,” he said. “As we all know in spring training, we didn't even know if Wiggy was going to be on the club. That's why you have to be patient, stay in shape and be positive and things will work out. Just look what happened. Brian (Roberts) got hurt and he got a chance to play. If you could imagine us without Wiggy’s numbers the first few months of the season, where would we have been? He was the guy carrying the club. It was really nice to see. He deserves it. He's been a model guy for us.”
Wigginton got into the July 13 All-Star Game and played third base in the seventh inning. He was pinch-hit for by Nick Swisher in the bottom of the seventh.
The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.