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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Jerry Willard, Another Shot - 492

Originally posted Jan. 11, 2012
Without a team and with a hurt back, Jerry Willard thought his time in baseball might be done.

He'd spent parts of four seasons in the majors. In 1988, though, he tried a season without the game, he told The Associated Press years later.

"I started to work a 9-to-5 job in construction and other things, and I knew it wasn't for me," Willard told The AP. "I thought I'd give it another shot."

Willard gave it another shot. By October 1991, Willard found himself not only playing in a World Series, but winning a World Series game with a ninth-inning, walk-off sacrifice fly.

Willard's path to that game began more than a decade earlier, signed by the Phillies as an undrafted free agent. He played his first season the next year, at short-season Central Oregon, hitting .368 in 65 games.

The left-handed hitting catcher stayed in the Phillies system through 1982, one of five players sent to the Indians for Von Hayes. Williard played 1983 at AAA Charlotte. He played 1984 in Cleveland.

In 87 games with the Indians that year, Williard hit .224 with 10 home runs. He returned for another 104 games in 1985, hitting .270 with seven home runs. In August 1985, Willard knocked in three runs in a game. He knocked in 33 others on the year.

"I know I haven't contributed much, so I was glad to finally do something to help this team win," Willard told UPI after that three-RBI outing. "But I can do more."

Released by the Indians going into 1986, Willard signed with the Athletics. He got into 75 games that year, hitting .267. For 1987, though, he got into just seven games.

That year away from the game in 1988 and Willard returned in 1989 with the White Sox. He played largely at AAA Vancouver, returning there in 1990. He also returned to the majors in 1990, for all of three games.

Willard made the Braves in 1991, though for only 17 regular season games. But he did make the post-season roster, a left-handed hitter off the bench. He went 0-1 in the NLCS. In the World Series, he went 0-0, his only plate appearance that game-winning sacrifice fly.

"I wasn't nervous at all," Willard told Knight-Ridder after that Game 4 win. "I was smiling the whole time. I was nervous after I hit it, wondering if it was deep enough to score the run, but when I got up there, I didn't feel nervous or pressure at all."

Despite the sac-fly, though, Willard's time with the Braves lasted only into the next July, when he was granted free agency. He played 47 games in the majors that year, split between the Braves and the Expos.

Back with the Braves for 1993, Willard played the season at AAA Richmond. In 1994, after signing with the Mariners, Willard got six final games in the majors. His career finally ended for good in 1995, at AAA Tacoma.

In May 1994, in one of his final six games, Willard had one last big shot with a pinch-hit, three-run, game-winning home run to help the Mariners to a 10-7 win. It was his last big league hit.

"It can't get any better than that, it really can't," Willard told The AP. "It's a great feeling, it really is. I can't describe it. It's something I'll never forget for the rest of my life."

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