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Mudville: July 19, 2024 12:44 am PDT

Miles Ahead

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Aaron Miles always felt that he was pushed out of baseball a little soon, never getting the chance to complete a journey that was 17 years in the making.

Miles, 47, has been presented with an opportunity, though, that may ultimately provide him with a path back to the big leagues. When the independent Pioneer Baseball League [PBL] kicks off its spring training on May 14, Miles will be there, serving as the infield coach for the Oakland Ballers alongside manager Micah Franklin and bench coach JT Snow. Former Mariners and Indians manager Don Wakamatsu is the club’s general manager.

The Ballers are the first true West Coast team in the PBL, which is a 12-team circuit that has franchises in Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Utah. They play a 96-game regular season, which could provide Miles with enough time to show an affiliated franchise his abilities as a coach.

“I’m happy to be back working,” said Miles, who retired as a player in 2012 but then served as a player manager for four seasons with Pittsburg [CA] of the independent Pacific Association. “[Former Major Leaguer] Jim Dedrick is the pitching coach so we have one heck of a staff. I’m excited to go out on the field with some of these young players. There are only 20 rounds of the draft now so this is the new bottom of the draft; it’s a new path to the big leagues for them.

“This [job] just popped up in my hometown backyard. I wasn’t planning on getting back into the game but I did think that maybe I could. I would be delighted if this were a path for me, too. It all comes full circle. I’m not sure I’ll get there but I’d love to be back in the game at the highest level.”

Miles may not have been appreciated as much as he should have been during his nine-year Major League career but he certainly showed the ability to produce when given an opportunity, which makes his sudden exit from the game following the 2011all the more surprising. Such an unceremonious end didn’t likely when he was first starting out as a teenager in Northern California.

YOU CAN’T BREAK OUT UNTIL YOU BREAK IN

Miles had a strong prep career, starring for Antioch High School just east of San Francisco in the early and mid-1990s. He finished his high school career by winning Most Valuable Player honors in the California North-South All-Star Series, powering the North with a three-run homer in the series-clinching victory. That came two weeks after the Astros drafted him in the 19th round of the First-Year Player Draft and just before Houston sent him to play in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League.

He had a scholarship to Cal-Berkely that would have covered 80 percent of the tuition but even now, Miles isn’t sure he would have taken it. He said a more likely scenario would have involved him playing junior college for a year or two and then transferring to Cal-State Eastbay.

“There are times when I think I should have gone to school,” he said. “I feel like I have a good mind, though, to not dwell on things and decisions that I made in the past. I’m really good at looking forward and not dwelling. It’s hard not to, though, when you see that I played with a lot of guys who had degrees or needed only one semester after they had gotten done playing.

“When you’re in high school and you think you’re going to be in the big leagues in two years because you think you’re so good and that’s not the case, it’s a wakeup call.  I probably should have known. I was very confident in high school but when you’re seven years in and you look back, you can’t change it.”

Miles made his decision and embarked on what would be a six-year journey through the Houston farm system. He was solid but not spectacular, playing two years in the GCL, three years in the Class-A Midwest League and a season in the High-A Florida State League. He hit .317 with 71 RBIs in 1999 with Michigan of the MWL but by then he was 22 and the prospect label was fading.

Cardinals 2B Aaron Miles throws over Shane Costa to complete a double play during action between the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri on May 21, 2006. (Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images)

He appeared in 75 games for Kissimmee [FSL] the following season, hitting .292. It wasn’t enough for the Astros, who left him unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft that winter. The White Sox selected him on Dec. 11, 2000, and that move set in motion a series of events that would ultimately get Miles to the big leagues in 2003.

“Going to the White Sox from Houston was a long grind,” Mile said. “If you had asked me when I first signed if I would still be playing after eight years and never had a big-league inning, I would have said no. At one point, though, I had a good year when I made the Midwest League All-Star team so it got to a point where they had to protect you [or lose you].”

The White Sox sent Miles to Birmingham of the AA Southern League and he had what could hardly be called a breakout year in 2001. He hit .260 with 42 RBIs in 343 at-bats. The Barons, however, made a managerial change that winter and former Major Leaguer Wally Backman was brought in. The fiery former infielder, who was part of the 1986 World Champions Mets team, provided Miles with the inspiration and direction he needed.

Backman, at 5-foot-9, was small in stature like Miles [5-8]. The former first-round pick [16th overall in 1977] was a scrappy, physical player, proving to be a vital cog at the top of the lineup when he was with the Mets. He imparted that mindset on Miles and the results came quickly.

WALLY WORLD

Miles put together a spectacular season under Backman, hitting .322 with nine homers and 68 RBIs. He finished first in the league in hits [171], doubles [39] and total bases [239] while finishing third in batting to earn league MVP honors.

“Wally told me that you can and will play in the big leagues and that changed my whole mindset,” Miles said. “Finally, there was someone who thought I could hit at the big-league level. But would I get the chance? He said it would happen and the next year I went to big league camp with the White Sox. Knowing that someone valued me meant something because it seemed as if Houston just saw me as more of an organizational player. Wally was great.

“We were kind of cut from the same mold, the scrappy second baseman. He was just a true, unbelievable baseball mind. He knew how to attack the other team with the running game or what approach to have against certain pitchers. He was great, especially in affiliate ball where you can be handcuffed with some of the things you can do. He was able to run that team the way he wanted and we won a championship. I learned a lot about the game from him. That was one of my best learning years and I felt like personally, he liked me and he helped me and said [to himself] that he was going to prepare this kid for the big leagues.”

Aaron Miles #7 of the Chicago Cubs is safe on a steal attempt as Emilio Bonifacio #1 of the Florida Marlins misses the ball in the 5th inning on May 2, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Marlins 6-1.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Miles did get the opportunity to go to big-league camp with the Sox but he didn’t make the final cut and spent the entire season with Charlotte of the Triple-A International League, where he hit .304 with 50 RBIs and a league-leading 166 hits.

That led to a September call-up. Miles made his Major League debut on Sept. 11, 2003, during which he popped out to third against Minnesota’s Brad Radke in the seventh inning of a 5-2 loss. He picked up his first hit and RBI a week later with a run-scoring pinch-hit double off Minnesota’s Kyle Lohse in the seventh inning of a 5-3 loss. He ended the month going 4-for-12 with three doubles and a pair of RBIs.

The White Sox, however, traded him to Colorado for Juan Uribe that December. Miles would spend the better part of the next decade in the Major Leagues, including 2006 when helped the Cardinals to a 2006 World Series victory over Detroit.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Miles played a handful of games with Colorado Springs of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2004 but overall was the Rockies starting second baseman for much of the year. He hit .293 with 47 RBIs and a dozen stolen bases in 522 at-bats to finish fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Jason Bay, Khalil Greene and Akinori Otsuka.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing with Colorado because I finally got the validation of making that Colorado team and being one of the starters that got 450 to 500 at-bats, which was an amazing feeling,” Miles said. “I made it and I proved I could do it. My dream had been realized. Then you start to realize, though, that it’s tough to get there but it’s even harder to stay. It didn’t take but a year for Colorado to say they were trying some other guys and they fell out of love with me after a year and a half.

“I thought I played pretty well. It was surreal, though, because made it but there was another level that I had to get to. I had to continue to get better to stay. That was a big realization I came to when they traded me and I had to make the Cardinals.”

The following season couldn’t have started any better as Miles collected five hits on Opening Day on April 4 against the Padres. He is one of just 14 players with a five-hit game on Opening Day. He went on to appear in 99 games, hitting .281.

Second baseman Aaron Miles #6 of the Colorado Rockies makes an off-balance throw during a game against the San Francisco Giants at Coors Field on July 17, 2004 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The Rockies traded Miles and Larry Bigbie to St. Louis in exchange for Ray King on Dec. 7, 2005. He spent the next three seasons as a staple in the Cardinal infield, appearing in 135, 133 and 134 games, respectively. Miles hit .263 his first season in St. Louis and then hit .364 [4-for-11] in the post-season as the Cards defeated the Tigers in five games to win the World Series.

Miles hit a career-high .317 in 2008 but signed with the Cubs as a free agent after the season.

“When I swing I usually put the ball in play and I don’t think they [the Rockies] looked at me as anything but a leadoff guy” Miles said. “It was like you have to be this if you are in Colorado. At least that’s how they envisioned me.

“When I went to the Cards there was more of a just continue to be you approach. You made this team being you. Just play your game and we’ll put you where we think we should put you. I loved my time in Colorado but I didn’t feel completely comfortable until I got more validation in St. Louis, being valued by that team and penciled into the lineup. Nothing against the Rockies but that was my perception.”

That season with the Cubs [2009] proved to be the worst of Miles’ career. He hit .187 and appeared in only 74 games. The Cubs traded him to Oakland on Dec. 3, 2009, before the A’s traded him to Cincinnati of Feb. 1, 2010. He was released by the Reds on April 14 and signed with St. Louis two weeks later.

“I went through a divorce that year with the Cubs and it was one of the toughest years of my life,” Miles said. “The Cardinals were a playoff team at that point and it was just another notch for me to say I am this good and they just want me to be me. That’s 100 percent why I went back a year after being with the Cubs. I went back where I knew I was valued.”

THE END COMES QUICKLY

While Miles was thrilled to be back with St. Louis his playing time was cut considerably. Though he hit .281, he only appeared in 74 games, collecting just 139 at-bats. He found himself on the free-agent market again following that season and signed with the Dodgers, for whom he had a solid season in 2011. Miles hit .275 with 45 RBIs in 454 at-bats but Los Angeles showed little interest in resigning him.

“I was a little clueless as to why they didn’t have interest after I hit .270 in with close to 50 RBIs,” Miles said. “It was one of those things where you realized that you were only valuable in certain circumstances — if a team needed a veteran guy who was a switch hitter without much pop. I wasn’t a great defender on the left side of the diamond but I played a quality second base and played for a significant amount of time. And I could be a tough at-bat.”

Dillon Gee #35 of the New York Mets throws the first pitch of the game to Aaron Miles #6 of the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 7, 2011 at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

“I started looking around the league for anyone that might have deficiencies in the infield but if they feel they’re not having a competitive chance why not just give that job to a guy from Triple-A and make him a commodity. I was just a rental. My skills were good but they weren’t overwhelmingly better than a Triple-A player. It was a wakeup call when you feel like you’re in and then you realize you’re just slightly outside that bubble.”

Miles said that the love and passion for the game was still there but everything that went into getting another year or two as a backup just to grab a paycheck didn’t make sense to him. He appeared in 18 games with Albuquerque of the PCL in 2012 before calling it quits. Or so he thought.

He would spend parts of five seasons with Pittsburg, serving as player, player manager and then finally manager. He also became part owner of the club in 2015.

Miles now heads back out onto the field after four seasons of not having coached professionally.  He learned a great deal from each of his stops, both in the minors and Majors. And, he says he takes a little bit of Backman with him out on the field as well as Hall-of-Fame manager Tony La Russa, under whom he played in St. Louis.

“You have to get your point across with constructive criticism and then you have to pat the player on the back,” Miles said. “Wally and Tony were really good at that, being someone who gets to know his players and gets the best out of them.”

Miles will now have the chance in the PBL to take what he learned from his two mentors and help get a youngster or two on the path to the big leagues. If he can take that journey with them it will make his circle complete.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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