For Rays coach Chris Prieto, two games made his career

Tampa Bay Times
Tampa Bay Times
Rays first base coach Chris Prieto looks on from the dugout in the third inning of Sunday's game against the Blue Jays. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

ST. PETERSBURG — What happens when you spend a lifetime chasing a dream, then once you get there, it lasts only a few days?

Chris Prieto knows.

The Rays’ first-year first base coach played 13 seasons in the minors, with parts of nine a phone call away at the Triple-A level, without getting a chance in the big leagues.

By 2005, he was 32, playing for his sixth different organization, plus time in Mexico and an independent league, over seven years. He was resolute about not quitting — “Not even close” — but also realistic about his future.

“I was a career minor leaguer,” Prieto said. “I wasn’t the most gifted and I knew I had to work hard to able to hang with all these talented players. I had a built-in partner with my twin brother (Rick), and we kind of grinded it out together (in the minors, though on different teams). ...

“So I got to the point in my career where I felt like Triple-A was my big leagues.”
Chris Prieto has the lineup card, photos and other items marking his big-league debut in a frame at his Arizona house. [ Courtesy Chris Prieto ]

Which brings us to a May day in 2005, when he was a hard-charging, base-stealing outfielder for the Angels’ Triple-A squad in Salt Lake City, sitting in a hotel room after a game was rained out, pounding away on the portable piano keyboard he traveled with to help pass the time.

His phone rang, and Stingers manager Dino Ebel had the most unexpected news: Prieto, finally, was going to the big leagues.

“A total surprise, and what a weight lifted off your shoulders,” Prieto said. “I’ll never forget that call because he said, ‘This is one of my favorite phone calls I’ve ever made.’

“He knew my story. He knew how much I grinded it out. I tried to be a great teammate, tried to teach the younger guys and help them out. So it was a really cool experience.”

Prieto flew that night to Detroit to join his Angels team, and the next day walked into Comerica Park as a big-league player.

Prieto was in the May 14, 2005, lineup, playing centerfield. He got down a sac bunt his first time up, and flied to center his second. When his spot came up again in the seventh, Prieto was pinch-hit for by Vladimir Guerrero.

Prieto didn’t play the next day, then in the May 16 series opener at Cleveland he was used in the seventh inning as a defensive replacement, flying out in his only at-bat.

Then, just like that, it was over.
The Rays' Yandy Diaz (2) and first base coach Chris Prieto have a discussion at first base after Diaz’s single against the Detroit Tigers on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Prieto was sent back to the minors after that game as the Angels had to add a pitcher, then he was designated for assignment a week later when they needed a 40-man roster spot. He finished the season with Salt Lake and didn’t get a September call-up.

As it turned out, he never played again in the majors or minors.

Prieto sustained a shoulder injury the next spring in Yankees camp that sidelined him into 2007, and he finally had enough.

“I would have liked to get that one major-league hit, but it didn’t happen,” Prieto said. “In my mind, I always felt like I could play at the major-league level. Looking back now, you see how talented players are at this level. And it’s like, man, I was talented, but maybe, definitely, not enough to stick it out for any substantial amount of time at the big-league level.”

Prieto took some time off, got his life in order, then eventually started running a baseball academy and some travel ball teams in California. He ran into a friend from his Padres days, Chris Gwynn (son of Tony), who was scouting and asked Prieto if he wanted to try coaching in the minors.

He spent the 2011-12 seasons as a Class A hitting coach for San Diego, got hired by Seattle to manage a rookie-level team in 2013, then his phone again rang with surprising news:

Another call-up to the majors, this time to join the Mariners coaching staff in 2014.

“It’s very hard to do that as well,” Prieto said. “So I was very, very grateful and very blessed to have that opportunity.”

Prieto spent six years with the Mariners in various roles, then was got let go, joined the Rays as a minor-league outfield/baserunning coordinator in 2020, and got promoted to their big-league staff this offseason, thankful once again for a career he started 30 years ago.
Chris Prieto, left, heads to the dugout during a 2005 spring training game with the Angels. [ ROY DABNER | Associated Press (2005) ]

The opportunity to play in the big leagues — albeit for just two games — will be a forever highlight. He has the lineup card from his playing debut, some pictures another brother took, a game ticket and a newspaper article about his call-up in a large frame at his Arizona home.

The anniversary was Saturday, but Prieto, 49, had no special routine to commemorate the day. Given the hectic big-league schedule, he said he wasn’t aware until someone mentioned it, and thanked them for doing so.

“It should be a special day for me,” he said. “But I just grind things out wherever.”

Sounds about right.

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