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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Interview Part 2 of 3: Paul Noce, Most Exciting

Cubs photograph of Paul Noce in 1987, from Noce's collection.

Part 1: The Deal | Part 2: Most Exciting 
Part 3: Right There | Part 4: Card Story

Getting treatment on a sore shoulder in the Iowa Cubs training room, Paul Noce could hear the phone ring in the next room over, the manager's office.

To the trainer, Noce joked the call was for him, Noce recalled recently. He was getting called to the majors, the joke continued.

As it turned out, it was. And he was.

Called into manager Larry Cox' office, Cox relayed the news: In his seventh professional season, Noce was going to the majors.

"It was great," Noce told The Greatest 21 Days recently. "It was phenomenal. It was one of the most exciting days of my life, as far as baseball is concerned."

Cox just had one question for Noce. Did he want to play that night at Iowa?

"I said 'heck, no,' " Noce recounted. "'I'm not even chancing it, man.' I said 'I'm going to pack and get in my car right now.'"

The next morning, Noce and his wife were in Chicago.

Noce sat down with The Greatest 21 Days recently at a Wendy's near his home in Michigan. Noce has spent much of the last two decades as a coach in college, at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan.

Arriving in Chicago early that June, Noce started a season where he played in 70 major league games with the Cubs. After that season, he only got into one more.

Wrigley Field in 2004. Paul Noce played 70 games with the Cubs in 1987. G21D Photo

What got Noce to Chicago that year could be traced back to a trade, and a willingness to be sent down before being called up.

Playing in the Padres system in early 1984, Noce hadn't gotten above single-A in three seasons. Then, he was starting his fourth there. He'd played at least a portion of each season at single-A Reno.

But then Noce got noticed by a scout for the Cubs. The scout liked Noce so much, he got the team to trade for him. With the new organization also came a new level.

The Cubs sent Noce straight to AA Midland. Noce went on to reward their confidence with a .288 season. He stole 12 bases and knocked in 29 runs. He continued progressing in 1985, making AAA Iowa, though his average suffered. He hit .225.

Noce credited his versatility in the field. At Midland, he played second, third and short. At Iowa, he did the same, adding outfield to the mix.

Wrigley Field in 1988. Paul Noce played at Wrigley the year before. G21D Photo

Then, after that season at AAA, and starting 1986 there, Noce accepted the demotion to AA Pittsfield. With the move, though, came the promise from Cubs farm director Jim Snyder, of regular playing time at one position.

Noce took full advantage, hitting .307. He also got an invited to 1987 spring camp. Noce then took advantage of that opportunity, making an impression. Cubs manager Gene Michael liked him. The coaches seemed to appreciate his play.

Noce lasted until the final cut of the spring, before being sent down.

"I knew then that I was going to make it, that I was going to have a chance," Noce said.

That chance came May 31, when the Cubs called Noce to the majors.

Noce called it a blessing to make the majors. After being told of his call up, Noce and his wife Diane headed east. From Des Moines, they stopped for the night in the Quad Cities.

Noce also recalled talking to his wife as they stopped, putting the experience in perspective.

"I remember telling her, 'whether I'm there one day, or 10 years,'" Noce recalled, " 'I made it.'"

Getting up the next morning, the couple finished the drive, arriving at Wrigley Field. He was in the game that afternoon.

Hitting eighth, Noce struckout his first at bat. He grounded out his second.

In his third, Noce singled to center for his first major league hit.

The ball from Paul Noce's first major league hit, June 1, 1987.

Noce recalled almost every hand that ball touched after it returned to the infield. Astros second baseman Bill Doran had it. Then umpire Doug Harvey.

Harvey tossed it into the dugout, where Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano recorded the feat directly on the ball: "1st Major League Hit Danny Darwin."

Noce also recalled the hand he shook at first base, congratulating him. That hand belonged to the Cubs' new first base coach Jim Snyder. It was the same Jim Snyder who proposed a year earlier for Noce to go back down to AA for regular playing time.

Noce has the game on tape, with Cubs announcers Harry Carry and Steve Stone calling the hit.

In particular, Noce highlighted Stone's comments. Stone commented on the future significance. Noce would be telling the story of that hit to his boys someday.

Noce had no kids then. He and his wife now have three, 13, 18, and 21. All three have watched their dad's first hit.

"I tell them, 'that's you he's talking about,'" Noce said, "'I'm going to tell you this story someday.'"

After that first hit, Noce's first major league home run was still to come. (Go to Part 3)

Go to the final part: Paul Noce, Right There

Part 1: The Deal | Part 2: Most Exciting 
Part 3: Right There | Part 4: Card Story

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