#66 on our list, but #1 in your heart is fan favorite Bill Pecota
For some, he will always be Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. But for me, he'll always be good ol' I-29
Bill Pecota was a utility infielder for the Royals in the late 80s and early 90s and has developed something of a cult following among Royals fans. He has been mentioned as ESPN columnist Rob Neyer's favorite player, has had a player projection system named after him, has been lampooned at Progressive Boink as a "protector of baseball's innocence", and was the inspiration for my moniker when I first began posting on Royals message boards. He was given the nickname "I-29" for constantly shuttling between Kansas City and the Royals top minor league affiliate in Omaha. "'I like the name when I'm going southbound, not northbound,'' he once remarked. Pecota was a likeable, hard-working, light-hitting utility player, endearing him to fans who probably thought he was not that much different from them.
Pecota hailed from northern California and attended De Anza Junior College. The Royals selected Pecota in the tenth round of the January 1981 Amateur Draft. He hit .317 that season in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, but responded the next season by hitting just .239 in a full season at Fort Myers. He repeated Fort Myers in 1983, and improved to hit .269, earning a promotion to AA. In 1984, he played a full season at AA Memphis and hit just .241, but with ninety-nine walks and forty-three stolen bases. He spent the next two seasons at Omaha who mediocre batting averages and little power, but showing good speed and walk totals. In late 1986, he finally made his Major League debut for the Royals.
Pecota failed to make the team out of spring training in 1987, but was recalled at the end of April to replace the injured George Brett. He played sparingly, with Kevin Seitzer moving from first to third to fill in for Brett, but Pecota hit well when called upon. On May 12, he went 4-4 with a home run, lifting his average to .556 (10-18).
"This one definitely lifts the spirits."
-Bill Pecota, on his performance
Pecota was shipped back to Omaha a day later, but later in the week was recalled when Brett was once again hurt. He logged more miles on I-29 in June when he was sent down again, even though his average sat at .455. He went on a twenty-five game hitting streak in Omaha before being recalled again when Hal McRae was released. Pecota ended the season with a respectable .276 average off the bench in sixty-six games.
In the spring of 1988, Pecota beat out Julio Cruz for the backup infielder spot and ended up spending the entire season on the big league roster. He struggled at the plate however, and by the end of May, his average was an anemic .136. The Royals appreciated his defense and versatility however, and he didn't disappoint. He committed just six errors and played every position on the field except pitcher and center field.
Pecota failed to make the club in the spring of 1989, but was called up for four different stints with the big league club that year. He appeared in sixty-three games, but only garnered eighty-three at-bats, hitting .205. He managed a career day on July 14 in Yankee Stadium when slammed three home runs in a double-header, with five hits in nine at-bats that day. Still, the constant shuffling between Omaha and Kansas City was taking its toll on the infielder.
"I wish I could think of something positive, but I just can't....'I can hardly rent an apartment because I might get called up.....There is nothing light about it....Baseball is the only thing I know. My career may be over before it starts."
Pecota did make the team in 1990, but was used only as a defensive replacement until he was demoted at the end of April. Upon his recall in June, he went on a tear, going 4-4 in a June game against California, and going 3-4 two weeks later against Minnesota. With his average above .400, it was hard to take him out of the lineup, so Royals manager John Wathan began to play Pecota more and more at second base sending aging veteran Frank White to the bench. Pecota finished the year at .242 in eighty-seven games.
By 1991, Pecota was solidly in the Royals plans as a valuable utility infielder. After a slow start, a couple of three hit games in May lifted his average above .300. He even filled in on the pitching mound, throwing two innings in a June 24 game against the Angels, giving up just one run. He became the first Royal ever to play all nine positions in his career.
In July, new manager Hal McRae made a stunning decision when he announced he was benching three starters - first baseman Jim Eisenreich, shortstop Kurt Stillwell and third baseman Kevin Seitzer. Replacing them would be Warren Cromartie, David Howard and Pecota. McRae cited defense as a major reason for the change. "I'd like to see if those guys can improve the defense on the infield."
Pecota responded well with the starting nod, with three three-hit games during July and a .338 average for the month. He ended the season with career highs in virtually every offensive category. He hit .286 with six home runs and forty-five RBI. He stole sixteen bases and drew forty-one walks, with just forty-five strikeouts. He committed just four errors at all four infield positions combined, and set a franchise record with a sixty-nine game errorless streak at third base.
That winter, the Royals had all but given up on Seitzer at third base and were considering both Pecota and outside options to fill the third base void. At the winter meetings, Royals General Manager Herk Robinson stunned fans when he shipped Pecota and star pitcher Bret Saberhagen to the New York Mets in a blockbuster trade for infielder Gregg Jefferies, outfielder Kevin McReynolds and utility player Keith Miller. Mets fans rejoiced as Royals fans simply shook their heads in disbelief.
"Someday General Manager Herk Robinson's trade of Bret Saberhagen may be known as the biggest blockbuster in Royals history. For right now, I am afraid I must refer to it as the most blockheaded."
-Kansas City Star columnist Gib Twyman
Pecota struggled badly with the Mets, hitting just .227 in 117 games all around the infield. He spent the next two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, appearing in a few games of the 1993 National League Championships Series. He retired after the 1994 season and became a championship bass fisherman.
While Royals fans may gnash their teeth at the ineptitude of some of the utility infielders that have occupied roster space over the years, Pecota has always found a place in the hearts of Royals fans.