PORTLAND – Chris Cates got the word when he was a high school freshman. The growth spurt he was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, said the doctor giving Cates his sports physical. The kid had topped out.
Cates was 5-foot-3. He was crushed.
Today, Chris Cates is the starting shortstop for the New Britain Rock Cats, in town for a holiday weekend series with the Portland Sea Dogs. He’s struggling to hit .200 but he’s got a gun for an arm, impressive range and a motor that doesn’t quit. Add a sense of humor and an appreciation for living the dream.
Ten years after the doctor splashed cold water in his face, Cates hasn’t grown another inch.
“I remember my father telling me not to worry,” said Cates. “He was 5-foot-5 when he graduated from high school and grew to 5-foot-10 by the time he was 21. I’ve passed 21.”
He’s the shortest player in professional baseball. David Eckstein, the San Diego Padres’ shortstop, is listed at 5-6. Want all-time short for perspective? Eddie Gaedel was 3-foot-7 when he walked to the plate in 1951 for his one major-league at-bat. His appearance for the struggling St. Louis Browns was a stunt.
Albie Pearson and Freddie Patek were 5-foot-5 big leaguers 50 and 40 years ago. The list of little men playing professional baseball is short.
“So many times I hear I don’t belong at this level or this is as far as I’m going to make it,” said Cates. “I can’t control where the baseball is going to fall. I can control how hard I play the game.”
He gets letters from youngsters, asking how they can play big. He signs autographs for kids, realizing a connection because he can look them in the eye.
“Then I hear, ‘Daddy, is he really a ballplayer? I’m about as tall as he is.’ “
A fan yelled from the grandstands a year or two ago, asking if he got his clothes at Baby Gap. “That’s the one time I looked over. It was a middle-aged woman. I couldn’t believe I was hearing that from a woman.”
Cates has been at the receiving end of practical jokes, although he really is too big to be stuffed into overhead compartments. “My teammates know I give back double, so they think about it first.”
One of his best paybacks was smearing Icy Hot along the headband of a joker’s batting helmet. “He had to keep stepping out of the batter’s box to wipe his forehead. That one was pretty good.”
He played football when he was 10, until he was hurt and carried off the field in the arms of his father. “He told me that was my last game.”
To hang out and play with a brother and his older and bigger friends, Cates learned to work harder. Besides solidifying friendships, it got him into the starting lineups in high school in Brandon, Fla., and at the University of Louisville.
He led the Cardinal in hitting. He was a Big East third-team all-star. He played in the 2007 College World Series. “That gave me a glimpse of what playing in the major leagues might be like. That was an amazing experience.”
The Minnesota Twins drafted him in the 38th round. He was an all-star in two leagues in 2008 and again in 2009. The Twins call on him to give motivational talks.
Sunday, he hit a single in three at-bats to raise his average to .163. He scored a run in New Britain’s 8-4 loss to the Sea Dogs. He still draws double-takes from fans. Can anyone play pro ball and be that small? Sometimes he walks near Loek Van Mil, the 7-foot-1 pitcher from the Netherlands.
Two weeks ago at Hadlock, Cates was running to home plate where catcher Luis Exposito waited with the ball. Cates put his head down and ran into Exposito. He bounced off the much bigger man, who tagged Cates for the out.
Some women and children might have averted their eyes before the collision.
“I love playing baseball,” said Cates.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: