What outfielder was drafted by the Reds out of a small college in the East that had never produced a Major League player, selected after more than 500 other players had been taken, came through Dayton on his way to the top, reached the Major Leagues with the Reds, and has since played in more than 400 big league games? You probably guessed Chris Heisey, the 2007 Dragon who is now a hustling, highly-popular member of the Reds outfield. That description seems to fit Heisey perfectly. But Heisey is a few games short of the 400 mark. The correct answer is a player who could be described as the Chris Heisey, before Chris Heisey. This is the story of the 16th Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues, outfielder Chris Denorfia.
In June of 2002, the Reds drafted Denorfia in the 19th round out of tiny Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. After more than 150 years as a women only institution, Wheaton began admitting men in 1988 and did not field a varsity baseball team until 1998. The college home of longtime 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl, Wheaton, to this day, has seen only one other athlete drafted in any sport, a soccer player in 1999 named Jim Maganello. Denorfia became the second when the Reds called his name in 2002 after he finished his career at Wheaton with a batting average of .402.
In that summer of 2002, Denorfia was assigned by the Reds to their Gulf Coast League affiliate in Sarasota, Florida, the bottom rung of the farm system. Denorfia batted .340 to rank third in the league. When the GCL season ended in late August, the Reds found themselves in need of an outfielder in Double-A with Chattanooga. Not wanting to disrupt other farm clubs that were battling for playoff positions, they jumped Denorfia to Chattanooga. In just three games, he collected two doubles and a triple, going 3 for 7. After his third night with the Lookouts, the Reds reassigned him to the Dragons, who were headed to the Midwest League playoffs. He would serve as an extra outfielder, joining starters Chris Williamson, B.J. Hawes, and Domonique Lewis.
Just as Denorfia arrived in Dayton, the Dragons headed out to Burlington, Iowa for their final road trip of the regular season. Denorfia played in three games but went 0 for 10 to conclude the regular season. When the playoffs began against West Michigan at Fifth Third Field two days later, Denorfia entered the game as a pinch runner in the eighth inning, stole a base, and played one inning of defense in center field. That would be his only appearance in front of the big crowds in Dayton.
Denorfia's break-out season in the Minor Leagues came in 2005, when he batted .330 in a half season at Chattanooga, then hit .310 over the remainder of the year at Triple-A Louisville. He hit 20 home runs between the two stops combined while batting .317 to earn the Reds Minor League Player of the Year award. Meanwhile, the 2005 season was a rough one for the Reds, who fired manager Dave Miley after a 23-47 start. The team was void of starting pitcher, utilizing a struggling combination of Eric Milton, Luke Hudson, Paul Wilson, Elizardo Ramirez, and Randy Keisler, all with ERA's over 6.00, for 65 starts. The outfield, however, was deep and talented, featuring Ken Griffey Jr., Ryan Freel, and former Dragons Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and Wily Mo Pena, leaving little room for an unheralded youngster taken in the 19th round out of Wheaton College.
But on September 6, Denorfia and former Dragon Chris Booker were called up from Louisville. It was a great day for Denorfia, who represented small school stars everywhere. In Chris Kline's story in Baseball America, Denorfia gained some recognition.
"So much of why he's become the player he is, is because he's just a kid playing baseball," Wheaton head coach Eric Podbelski said.
Reds farm director Tim Naehring also praised Denorfia in the story.
"Chris is a good man, a high-character guy, he's got good makeup," Naehring said. "He plays the game like we'd like to see all our players play in the organization. He brings 100 percent to the field each night and does a lot of things well. He's not going to wow you with his physical size or lightning speed, but he doesn't have to.
"Marty Barrett once told me, 'You don't have to be a great player to play in the major leagues, you've got to be a good one every day.' Chris is that kind of guy."
Denorfia held his own in his brief opportunity that season, batting .263. The 555th player drafted in 2002 was now the #5 prospect in the Reds organization.
The next year, 2006, he appeared in 49 more games with the Reds and hit .283. He hit .349 in 83 games at Louisville. The 2007 season might have brought Denorfia even more opportunities with the Reds. He appeared in 20 spring training games, fourth most among outfielders in camp. But in late March, he tore a ligament in his elbow in a spring game and underwent season-ending "Tommy John" surgery. A month later, the Reds traded Denorfia to Oakland.
Denorfia made the Athletics opening day roster in 2008 but saw limited playing time over his two years in the A's organization. He signed with the San Diego Padres in 2010 and has found a home there. In 2012, Denorfia batted .293 for the Padres, playing in 130 games, fifth most on the team. He also added nine home runs and stole 13 bases. He has become a popular player with the Padres fans, who appreciate his aggressive style and hard-nosed play. In September, 2012, Denorfia signed a two-year contract extension through the 2014 season.
After the 2005 season when he was named Reds Minor League Player or the Year and made his Major League debut, Denorfia spoke to The Chattanoogan about the keys to his future.
"There's always room for improvement," Denorfia said. "I'm never really satisfied with any part of my game. I think the biggest part would be consistency. That's the best way to get to the Majors and stay there. If I can do that, I'll have a pretty good shot."
Those words have proven to serve Denorfia well. He will be 32 years old in 2013, assured of a big league job for the first time ever. In seven years of Major League service, he has a career batting average of .281, far better than almost any of the 554 players drafted ahead of him.
Click Here for Chris Denorfia's statistics, photos, and video clips.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.