Pete Incaviglia, College Baseball's Home Run Champion, Retires
By Dana Heiss
May 01, 1999 -
The greatest college baseball player of the century has hung up his spikes.
After spending the past 13 years in professional baseball, former Oklahoma State great Pete Incaviglia asked to be released from the Tucson Sidewinders April 19. He appeared in just eight games with the Triple-A club of the Arizona Diamondbacks, batting .156 with no home runs and seven RBI.
Only two months earlier, Incaviglia spoke of his determination to make the Diamondbacks out of spring training and grab the chance to add to his 206 career big-league home runs. He had kept off the 40 pounds he trimmed last year to reach his college playing weight. He even showed up in Tucson for spring workouts before Arizona manager Buck Showalter did.
"You have to sell your soul for 162 games," Incaviglia told an Arizona Republic reporter then. "Everybody has got to do it. I'm willing to bust my (expletive) every day -- I feel like I did 10 years ago. My bat speed is still there. My strength is still there. I feel great."
But when Opening Day came, Inky, 37, wasn't on the big league roster. He was sent to the minors, starting the season there for the second consecutive season. Two weeks later, he cited personal reasons when he asked the Diamondbacks to release him.
Inky's playing days may be over, but he lives on in the NCAA record books as college baseball's greatest power hitter ever. He still owns six records, including those from his amazing 1985 season when he hit 48 home runs and drove in 143 runs in 78 games. His 285 total bases and 1.140 slugging percentage from that season are also records.
"I have not in my 35 years in baseball been around a player with that talent and that type of work ethic," former Oklahoma State head coach Gary Ward said. "He was just an amazing kid. He had to work tremendously hard to maintain his ability and his stroke because his body wasn't kinesthetically aware. The body that God gave him had to be worked and cranked and re-tuned every day."
Incaviglia hit 100 career home runs (in 213 games over three years) and amassed a .915 career slugging percentage with 635 total bases in 694 career at-bats.
Take in account how technology has enabled today's aluminum bats to perform far superior than they did during Incaviglia's era, and the records look even better.
"To hit in the high 40s in college with people pitching around you is incredible," said Tom Holliday, Incaviglia's assistant coach at Oklahoma State who is now the head coach of the Cowboys. "I don't see anyone hitting 48 home runs in college baseball ever again."
Both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball newspaper named Incaviglia as their choice for greatest college baseball player of the century.
Now that the final College World Series of this century is under way, what a perfect time to revisit Pete Incaviglia's remarkable college career.
Pete Incaviglia arrived on campus at Oklahoma State with a mission, said Holliday.
"He wasn't going to be deprived of reaching his potential," he said. "He was on a mission to utilize his three years in college the best he could."
It was Holliday who first saw Incaviglia's potential back in 1982 out of Monterey, California. The son of a former Brooklyn Dodgers player and brother to a ballplayer, Incaviglia possessed the right genes to flourish in baseball.
He also had the right fire.
"Passionate would be the absolute term for him," Holliday said. "His passion for the game was like nobody else. Baseball was all he lived for."
Hitting home runs was what Incaviglia did best. He was a power hitter by the time he graduated from Monterey High in Pebble Beach, California, with a career .460 batting average, 60 homers and 190 RBI.
Incaviglia, a third baseman in high school, arrived at Oklahoma State in 1983 and won a starting role in the infield. By season's end, Incaviglia had already made his mark in the Big Eight Conference, setting a record with 23 home runs.
The next year would be even better. Inky, playing in the Cowboys' outfield for the first time, shattered his own records with 29 home runs and 103 RBI. He led the Cowboys to the College World Series for the second consecutive year and finished the season as an all-American.
Around Oklahoma State, Incaviglia was thought of as a workaholic. He'd always show up to practice first, always pestering Ward into working with him before practice to get extra hitting in.
"He'd bug me and say, 'Coach, come look at my swing,' " Ward said. "I didn't have time to devote an hour each day to one player. So I assigned (assistant coach) Dave Holliday to work with him and get him off my back. And Pete would come to the ballpark shortly after lunch for short toss and batting cage drills. He'd work from 12:30 to 2:30 and never get worn out. He never thought he could get enough swings in. That kept his swing grooved so well. I don't think he ever had a bad streak."
When his junior season rolled around, Inky knew just what kind of season he wanted to have. He wrote his goals on a piece of paper and put it in his locker: "40 homers, 130 RBI, 75 games."
Problem was, Inky was a marked man. After two outstanding seasons, pitchers knew enough about the slugger not to throw him any good pitches. But Inky found ways to outsmart everyone. He boldly challenged ballclubs to pitch to him by swinging at 3-0 pitches in the dirt on purpose if it got him a better pitch to hit later.
"Pete learned how to swing though some pitches to get more pitches to look at later," Ward said.
Pete also enjoyed turning batting practice at Oklahoma State into a sideshow.
"His batting practice became like how Mark McGwire's is now," Ward remembers. "He had to put on a show. Several times during 1985 I had to chase him out of the cage to do some more soft tosses. I'd say to (assistant coach Dave Holliday) Dave, 'Go work with Pete a while.' "
To teammates and friends, Inky was a regular Gentle Ben, soft-spoken and caring. But opposing teams just hated Inky, with his menacing stare that matched his power.
Maybe that was because his disposition was always the same. When he struck out, he made a face that said, "Oooh. That was interesting. Just wait, eight more guys and then I get another shot."
"You watched him in awe, watched him in admiration and watched him in fear that nobody would hurt him because he was so valuable," Holliday said. "I think people at times disliked him because he was so brutally talented. He'd have a way of crossing the plate and turning the dial up."
Ward believes the ultimate compliment Inky received was given to him by Wichita State head coach Gene Stephenson. In the NCAA Midwest regional, Stephenson intentionally walked Inky seven consecutive times in two deciding championship games. He scored twice.
"I guess Stephenson thought he'd do less damage from first base," Ward said.
By the end of the season, Florida State's Jeff Ledbetter was displaced as baseball's greatest power hitter of all time. The NCAA home run records belonged to Inky.
That June, Incaviglia left Oklahoma State. He was selected in the first round of the 1985 amateur draft, 15th overall, by the Montreal Expos.
Inky wanted to skip the minors entirely. Montreal wanted none of this. So they traded the slugger to Texas. By the time the 1986 season rolled around, Incaviglia's wish was granted. He skipped the minors entirely, becoming just the fourth position player since the draft began in 1965 to go directly from amateur baseball to the major leagues.
Incaviglia played for the Texas Rangers from 1986-90 and finished with 124 home runs, which ranked second all-time among Rangers. He hit 20 or more home runs in his first five seasons. Incaviglia's best season as a Ranger was his first, when he tied a team record with 30 home runs as a rookie and drove in a team-leading 83 RBI.
Incaviglia left Texas for the Detroit Tigers in 1991. The following season he played for Houston. Both years were disappointments. In 1993, Incaviglia received a new lease on life when he signed as a free agent with Philadelphia. He helped lead the Phillies to the NL pennant that season, hitting 24 home runs and career-high 89 RBI.
Since that season, Incaviglia has played for the Yankees, Baltimore and for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. None of his pro seasons ever matched the production of his college career.
And now he's gone.
Incaviglia spoke to the Daily Oklahoman in 1998 about his irreverent baseball career, starting with his amazing first season as a big leaguer and ending in the minors: "I wanted to make sure I did everything before I retired, so I guess I kind of did it backwards," joked Incaviglia. "But I wouldn't have done it any other way. I'm very happy with how my career has gone. I think it's made me the person I am today, so I don't regret any minute of it."
Rest assured, Incaviglia won't be forgotten. He's too important a piece of college baseball history for that to happen.