BY: MATTHEW PRESLAR
A few days ago at work, the question came up of who is the greatest baseball player in the history of Union County. A few names came to mind of some former major leaguers, all well past retired as active players. I also thought of a couple of names I knew that are currently moving up the ranks through minor league baseball. Hopefully these young men can continue to progress and help put Union County (NC) on the map on the biggest stage.
Hopefully these two will have great careers and be in the conversation as greatest Union County baseball players as history continues.
At least in recent memory, three names for “the greatest” came to mind. To be in consideration, the discussion will revolve around major league stats and service time. All three are from the Monroe, NC area: Jeff McNeely, John Tsitouris, and Andy Tomberlin.
Mr. McNeely played briefly for the Boston Red Sox in the early nineties. During the 1993 season, Jeff played in 21 games for the Sox, had no home runs and made two errors in the outfield. For many years now, McNeely, a Monroe High School product, has operated the Charlotte Megastars, one of the elite showcase baseball programs serving Union County and the greater Charlotte Area. I recently ran into Mr. McNeely as I umpired one of his showcase teams at a team camp hosted at UNCC.
Another strong candidate is John Tsitouris. I met Mr. Tsitouris 20 plus years ago now. After his baseball career he was a car salesman. Forgive me, but I can’t remember the dealership in which he was working. I only remember I was around ten years old and terribly bored as I sat there while my parents made the deal. I do remember that baseball was a topic of discussion and Mr. Tsitouris was very happy to talk about it. It completely blew my mind that a former MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER lived near me and sold cars. He has passed in the last few years but he lives on in my mind. Mr. Tsitouris was nice enough to mail me a signed card, a 1966 Topps card. All these years later, I’m glad I understood memorabilia at a young age. Over 20 years later, that card sits out in my baseball room. It’s not everyday you meet a former big leaguer. Through eleven big league seasons with three teams, Mr. Tsitouris played in 149 games, compiling 34 wins and an ERA over 4.00
My last candidate is fellow Piedmont High School graduate, Andy Tomberlin. During my high school days as late as 2001, Andy would actually attend some of our preseason workouts before he reported to spring training as his playing career was winding down. While nobody would consider Andy a very big guy, it was a huge presence and an honor when he would come out and practice with us. Andy played in the majors for several teams. His biggest season was 1996 with the Mets where he played in 63 games. Andy also has many stories from all over the world. He will likely never have any sort of living outside of baseball. Soon after his active retirement, he was a scout in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He actually specially ordered one of the first left handed catcher’s mitts I had ever seen. He said if he was out scouting a pitcher he wanted to be able to catch the pitches. Over the last dozen years Andy has been a hitting coach in the White Sox organization. For the last five years he has worked at the AAA level with the Charlotte Knights. What an honor and convenience it must be to work at that high of a level this close to his roots. Aside from the Knights games this year, I last saw Andy in January giving private hitting lessons to a teenager at a local indoor training facility. He loves the game and has been at it in some capacity on a professional level for nearly 35 years at this point. For his Major League career, Andy played in the bigs in parts of six seasons and 192 games. In 305 at bats he clubbed 11 home runs and a .233 average.
So now comes the debate...
Who really is the greatest baseball player to come out of Union County?
To me, the hard part is comparing stats of pitcher vs. hitter. It’s also hard to not have bias toward Andy Tomberlin, a man who wore Piedmont across his chest just like I did, let alone the personal interaction over the years. To make the comparison equivocal and quantitative I had to find areas of commonality. Based on similar stats I could actually compare, I felt like the key factors had to be seasons on big league rosters and games played. Major league games played will be looked at in relative terms hitter compared to pitcher. For example, a position player CAN appear in 162 games during the major league season. In comparison, a starting pitcher CAN typically make 30-35 starts a year. In Mr Tsitouris’s era, a pitcher was far more likely to pitch a complete game, making multiple relief pitchers in a game exponentially more rare.
Based on the stats and other relevant information, I have decided that the greatest baseball player in the history of Union County (NC) is: Mr. John Tsitouris. He was on a major league roster in 11 seasons, he pitched in 149 games which included 84 games started. From my adolescent memory, he was also a very nice and humble man.
Now for feedback. If anyone knows of anybody else FROM UNION COUNTY (at least played high school ball in Union County) that should be in consideration, you are welcome to provide me names to research. Leave a comment below or email me.
*All statistics courtesy of www.baseball-almanac.com