Jun 8, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Joe Saunders (47) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
In the fourth installment of Hokies where are they now we switch our focus to the boys of summer that play America’s pastime. We will focus on two Hokies who excelled on the diamond and continued this excellence in the major leagues. Joe Saunders and Kevin Barker excited fans in Blacksburg at English Field, even if they played two completely different positions.
Joe Saunders is from Springfield, Virginia and played for the Hokies for three years as a starting pitcher. Saunders developed each year with the Hokies and by his junior year was the team’s number one starter. He was selected as a preseason All American in his junior year. Saunders finished his career as a Hokie with 27 wins placing him third all-time among Hokies. In 2002, Saunders was drafted in the first round 12th overall by the Anaheim Angels.
Joe Saunders was promoted quickly in his first year in the Angels minor league system. However, Saunders missed the entire 2003 season with a shoulder injury. Over the next two years, Saunders steadily climbed up the ranks in the Angels organization finally reaching the major leagues on August 16th of 2005. Saunders made his major league debut against the Toronto Blue Jays receiving a no decision for his first start.
He bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the major leagues for the rest of the year. In 2006, Saunders was called up to replace and injured Bartolo Colon and remained in the rotation into the 2007 season with Colon staying on the disabled list. He continued to bounce back and forth during the 2007 season.
Jun 20, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Joe Saunders (47) pitches against the Texas Rangers during the third inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
However, on April 20, 2007, Joe Saunders being the only active player in the majors to be from Virginia Tech, was given special permission to wear a Virginia Tech cap to honor the victims of the 2007 massacre. Saunders also had VT on his cleats and made a VT sign on the back side of the mound. Saunders won the game behind a strong performance including six shutout innings.
Saunders continued to become a consistent pitcher for the Angels, eventually becoming a main stay in the starting rotation. His best years came from 2008 to 2009 where he accumulated 33 wins. During the 2010 season, Saunders was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He finished out the year and re-signed with Arizona for the next season.
Saunders was again dealt during the 2012 season, this time to the Baltimore Orioles. He finished the season not as strong as he had hoped only going 3-3. The next season Saunders signed with Seattle Mariners. Saunders continued to struggle and finished the year with a sub-par record of 11-16. In 2014, Saunders signed with a different team again, the Texas Rangers. However, the journeyman pitcher was released by the Rangers just a few days ago on July 4th.
A few years before Joe Saunders, another Hokie standout was patrolling the diamond at English Field. Kevin Barker is from a small southwest Virginia town and started for the Hokies for three years. In his last year as a Hokie, Barker was selected as a second team All-American as an outfielder. The same year he was voted as Atlantic-10 player of the year. Barker batted .361 with 20 home runs and 62 RBIs.
He led the team with 73 hits and 52 walks. Barker also set a school record for triples with 9 that season. Later that year, the Milwaukee Brewers selected Barker in the third round of the 1996 MLB draft. Barker spent three years in the minors before making his major league debut on August 19, 1999. Barker debuted against the Houston Astros and went 2 for 5 in his first major league game.
The Brewers had hoped that Kevin Barker would become their everyday first basemen. However, Ritchie Sexton passed Barker up on the depth chart. From 1999 to 2000, Barker appeared in 78 games batting .253. Barker spent the entire 2001 season in the minors. The following year, he was traded to the San Diego Padres. Barker only played in 7 games for the Padres in 2002.
From 2003 to 2006 Barker spent time with Marlins, Phillies, and Blue Jays in their minor league systems. He played well, even winning International League player of the week. On September 3, 2006, Barker got a call up with the Blue Jays where he recorded his first major league hit in three years, a home run. After the 2007 season, Barker signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
He spent most of the season in Triple-A Louisville. However, Barker did appear in 29 games with the Reds. Barker spent 2010 and 2011 in the Mexican league. Barker is now retired from professional baseball. He works now with Sportsnet in Toronto hosting a local baseball show.
Both Saunders and Barker were standouts for the Hokies but have had drastically different experiences since they left baseball. Their paths are somewhat similar to the paths of the two main characters in Bull Durham. Saunders playing the part of “Nuke” with his rise through the minors and Barker the role of minor league journey man “Crash Davis”. We will be watching to see how their stories end up and if they match the endings for “Nuke” and “Crash”.