Fate has terrible power. You cannot escape it by wealth or war. No fort will keep it out, no ships outrun it.- Sophocles, Antigone
Former Kansas City catching prospect Mike Tonis turns thirty today, a daunting horizon for any of us, and probably much more for a former athlete, wedded as members of that tribe are to the specific attributes of youth. Unlike many of us, Tonis came tantalizingly close to his dream, and with it a life of wealth and fame, only to be spurned by fate. As a good defensive catcher with a bit of pop, Tonis was poised to join the ranks of the Backup Catcher Society, the Paul Bakos of the world who bounce from team to team, play fifteen years, and retire rich. Tonis exists now only as a blog footnote, as fodder for arguments about how thoroughly the Royals botched the draft in the early half of this as yet unnamed decade. To merely write Tonis off as a bust however, is to overlook a certain tragic element to his story.
Tonis was first drafted by the Royals in 1997 in the 52nd round. Rather than join the organization however, Tonis elected to attend the University of California, a decision that was rewarded three years later, when the Royals drafted him again, this time in the second round, 44th overall. At the time he was drafted, Tonis was considered one of the top defensive catching prospects available. Hardcore Royals fans will recall that Allard Baird was long fixated on finding a catcher, and that this positional focus tended to influence and limit the scope of his transactions at times. The selection of Tonis,a defense first college prospect, although not lambasted as a horrible move at the time, would certainly fall into that category.
While lacking in stars, the second round of the '00 draft ended up yielding sixteen big league players. Unfortunately, other than obscure former Ranger Ryan Snare, Mike Tonis counts as the owner of the most fleeting Major League career from his draft class round. As late as December 2001, Tonis was considered a polished prospect, and one of the best players in the system.
For a college hitter, Tonis struggled in his 2000 minor league debut with the Royals, hitting .222/.282/.296. In 2001, Tonis had something of a breakout however, hitting .264/.334/.427 between High A and AA. At AA, Tonis was especially productive, slugging .447 in 63 games with Wichita.
There was something fundamentally Greek about the way things turned out for Tonis.
Although it didn't look like it at the time, this was to be the apex of Mike's performance, as a bizarre string of unrelated injuries would . Prior to the 2002 season, Tonis injured his shoulder and back, and the rehab for the injury forced Mike to miss most of 2002. While Tonis had already lost a year of development, the worst was yet to come. During a short rehab stint in Rookie Ball that year, Tonis was hit in the jaw with a pitch, and eventually had his jaw wired shut, and cosequently lost thirty pounds.
When he returned to full time play in 2003, his bat remained left behind in the inaccessible regions of the past, and he was essentially done as a prospect. His 2003 & 2004 numbers, both with AA Wichita, mark this stagnation: .238/.291/.316 in '03, .228/.290/.319 in '04.
In June of 2004 however, Tonis recieved a bit of good luck in the form of Benito Santiago's -- who randomly was a Royal during the dismal 2004 campaign-- broken left hand. In his last game as a Royal, Santiago broke his left hand, and, in a pinch, the Royals called up Tonis to serve as the backup catcher to Kelly Stinnett. Later that month, the Royals would also callup veteran backup Alberto Castillo, which would effectively end his chances with the Royals. In total, Tonis appeared in two Major League games, an 8-2 loss to the Phillies and a 12-3 loss to the Tigers four days later.
Here is Tonis's Major League career in its entirety:
- June 20, 2004: Tonis grounds into a double play in the top of the second inning, ending a Royal rally. In the 5th, with Desi Relaford on second and no outs, Tonis popped out to second base. In the seventh, he does the same, only this time to short.
- June 24, 2004: In the bottom of the third, Tonis grounds out. In the bottom of the fifth, Tonis grounds out. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Royals trailing 10-3, Tonis ignites a non-existent rally by drawing a leadoff walk. In the bottom of the 9th, Tonis pops out to end the game, a 12-3 victory for the Tigers.
- Career line: .000/.143/.000
On June 25th, Tonis was optioned back to the minors.
In August of 2004, Tonis left the splendors of Wichita behind for three weeks in Athens, representing Greece at the 2004 Olympics. Tonis's grandfather had been named Koutsantonakis, and during the games Tonis played under this name for the Greeks. The '04 games, were an odd affair, with neither the United States or Canada qualifying, thanks to the single-elimination format used by North America. Instead, it was Canada that qualified, after Mexico beat the United States and Canada beat Mexico. As for Mike Tonis and Greece, the host nation went 1-6, with their only victory a 12-7 victory over Italy. The Greek team -- comprised mostly of American-born players like Tonis -- was a competitive team however, and notably put a 5-4 scare into eventual champion Cuba. (In another moment typical of the Athens games, two obscure Greece baseballers were also busted for doping.)
Prior to the 2005 season, Tonis signed a minor league deal with the Astros, as the acquisition of John Buck in the Beltran Trade signalled the end of any real prospects with the Royals. Tonis failed to make any of the Astros' squads in 2005, and from there he drops out of the statistical record. Rated as a B prospect in 2002, by 2005 Tonis was out of baseball.
After receiving numerous gifts from the gods, was dealt a trio of successive injuries on the eve of his maturation. Humbled by the experience, Tonis told Dick Kaegel he was shocked when he was called up by the Royals in 2004,
"I haven't lived up to my expectations or to what the Royals wanted me to do," he said. "I just kept working and tried to call a quality game and catch good. Because I know that's worth a lot, too, knowing how to handle a pitching staff. Hopefully my hitting will kind of come along with experience."
Let us pause and honor Mike Tonis today, a proud former Royal.