Former big leaguer Pankovits relishes time in Cooperstown
By Bill Francis
It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center requesting to look at a clipping or photo file on a favorite player. But rarely does someone walk in the door whose adult life is on file.
Such was the case Friday afternoon when former big league player Jim Pankovits stopped by as part of a larger visit. Pankovits is in his first year managing the New York-Penn League’s Tri-City ValleyCats, a short-season Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, and before Friday’s scheduled game against the Oneonta Tigers he and his team made a trip to Cooperstown.
“I’d imagine most every team that comes in town to play the Tigers tries to make a trip over here and this was our only opportunity,” Pankovits said. “I think knowing the history of the game is very important for the players in their appreciation of what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.”
According to Pankovits, his roster consists of about a half dozen Latin American players as well as college players selected in this year’s amateur draft.
“And I know, especially the kids from out West don’t get the opportunity to get over here, that they’re especially excited to be here,” Pankovits said. “We’re very fortunately in that the owner of our team, Bill Gladstone, is on the Board of Directors here at the Hall of Fame.”
The ValleyCats got a taste of what it’s like in Cooperstown in the summertime when they played a game against the Tigers at historic Doubleday Field last Saturday, the day before this year’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
“The hustle and bustle of the town was real exciting,” said Pankovits, “and I think the kids got a real good feel for what it’s like to come here and how special it is.”
Prior to this year, Pankovits’ only previous Hall of Fame visit came in 1985 when his Astros played the Boston Red Sox in the Hall of Fame Game.
“We had a group tour of the Hall as a team and it was my first exposure. I’ll tell you what, I was very excited, having played a long time in the minor leagues and obviously growing up a baseball fan,” Pankovits said. “I was always wondering when I’d get a chance to come back, and I’m sorry to say it took 25 years, but I guess it’s better late than never.”
Better late than never may characterize Pankovits’ big league playing career. Drafted by the Astros in 1976, the versatile bench player didn’t make his big league debut until 1984. He would spend five years with the Houston (1984-88) before his major league career came to an end with a two-game cup of coffee with the Red Sox in 1990.
“It took me eight years to get to the big leagues so I really appreciated being there,” Pankovits said. “We had a couple of good teams in Houston, one notably in ’86 when the Mets beat us in the playoffs. That would obviously be the highlight of my big league career, but it was a blur to be honest with you. It just goes so fast, even though it was five years. As everyone does, I look back on those experiences with a lot of enthusiasm and thanks.”
In looking back at the 1986 National League Championship Series against the Mets, Pankovits immediately recalled the famous Game 6 that went 16 innings before New York won 7-6.
“That Game 6 I’ll never forget. It seems like I can remember every pitch,” Pankovits said. “I thought we had it won winning 3-0, but they came back and tied it with three in the top of the ninth. Then they took the lead in the 14th, but Billy Hatcher hits a home run to tie it for us. Then they score three in the 16th and we score two and have the tying run on second.
“In Game 6, if we’d have won that one, Mike Scott (who would go on to win the 1986 Cy Young Award) had already beaten them twice in the series and he was scheduled to throw Game 7,” he added. “It wasn’t meant to be, I guess, but it was exciting, no doubt about it.”
Pankovits, who turns 54 on Aug. 6, finished his major league playing career with 318 games played – mostly as a second baseman – a .250 batting average in 567 at bats and a lifetime of memories.
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.