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Tom Drees ran the emotional gamut in 1989, experiencing feelings that ranged from pride and joy to disappointment and disbelief. He earned a place in baseball history that summer while playing for the Vancouver Canadians, but learned along the way that carving your name into the record books doesn't ultimately guarantee success.
Drees tossed a trio of no-hitters, baffling his Pacific Coast League opponents on three separate occasions to become the first pitcher in nearly four decades to accomplish the feat in one season. Bill Bell tossed three no-hitters of his own in 1952 for Bristol of the Appalachian League, while Walter Justus threw an amazing four no-hitters in 1908 for Lancaster of the Ohio State League.
What made Drees' performance that year so special was the fact that his first two gems, 1-0 affairs against Calgary and Edmonton, came in consecutive appearances on May 23 and May 28, placing him in some very select company. He joined Johnny Vander Meer (1938, Cincinnati Reds), Bell, Justus and Clarence Eugene Wright (1901, Dayton of the Western Association) as the only hurlers to throw consecutive no-hit games.
"I wasn't the type of guy who had that type of stuff," Drees said. "For me to throw a no-hitter ... I was the last guy you'd expect to do that. You talk about being in the zone. That's what I was for those three days. Everything I threw was up, down, in and out, even though it was something I never thought about going into game.
"I was a lefty that tried to emulate Frank Viola, but I was probably three or four miles an hour short of him."
Drees, a 17th-round pick in 1985, had a solid season in 1988 at Double-A Birmingham, going 9-7 with a 2.79 ERA in 22 starts. But he had shoulder surgery after the season and got off to a slow start in 1989. The White Sox decided to send him to the bullpen, where he spent several days. But fate intervened when Chicago called up Jeff Bittiger, leaving the Canadians in need of a starter and providing Drees with the opening he used to make history.
The southpaw returned to the rotation and took the mound at home on May 23 against Calgary, on a dreary day in the Pacific Northwest. It was damp and foggy, but Drees provided all the warmth the Canadians would need, posting a 1-0 shutout while throwing the first no-no of his career.
"I realized I had a no-hitter in the first inning," Drees said. "As a pitcher, I never believed the guys who said they didn't know they had a no-hitter going. How do you not know you didn't give up a hit? I knew where I was right away in each game and [facing] each hitter.
"In that first game, Lance Johnson ran down a ball that Mike Kingery hit. It was a long fly ball to the left center-field gap. That's probably the only close call I can remember in those games."
The second no-hitter came five days later against Edmonton, though that effort was only seven innings because it was part of a doubleheader. Drees says the pressure that accompanied the second gem was greater that the other two simply because back-to-back no-hitters are so rare. He remembers feeling anxiety in the clubhouse before the game and in the dugout during it, but it was what happened afterward that would foreshadow, and set the tone for, Drees' ultimate disappointment.
"We were celebrating on the field and when we came into the clubhouse we found out the White Sox had called up Greg Hibbard, another lefty," Drees said. "We were celebrating and giving high fives, but he didn't want to tell anyone because he was embarrassed after I threw back-to-back no-hitters."
Drees, who allowed a first-inning hit in the game following the second no-hitter, didn't let the snub get him down, as he finished the first half with a 7-4 record and a 2.60 ERA. He pitched in the All-Star game that July and went three hitless innings, but for much of the second half of the season he struggled. He went 5-7 after the break and by the time the middle of August rolled around, the luster of his history-making effort in May was buried by the fact that he probably would not be headed to the big leagues.
But on Aug. 16, that disappointment was tempered when Drees tossed his third no-hitter, this one a 5-0 victory over Las Vegas.
"The third one probably stands out more, because the team we were playing was the Padres Triple-A team and they had a number of good players like Sandy Alomar and Shane Mack, guys who would be in the big leagues for a while," Drees said. "Plus, Larry Himes, the GM of the White Sox, was sitting behind home plate for the game."
While Drees' effort seemed good enough to earn him a place on a Major League roster, it never did. The White Sox never promoted him. In fact it would be another two seasons before he reached the big leagues, and even then his experience consisted of four mop-up efforts in September of 1991. Drees retired after the 1993 season at the age of 30.
That Drees was never called up to the White Sox, especially after pitching the third no-hitter, was a bit of a mystery in 1989, and served as a source of frustration at the time. Himes pointed to the fact that while Drees had those three wonderful games, what he did in between those starts didn't warrant a promotion to the parent club.
But Drees remains firm in his belief that the reason that he and his Vancouver teammates weren't promoted was because they had staged a one-game protest earlier in the season. The Canadians forfeited a game on July 6 in Albuquerque when their paychecks, due July 1, had not yet arrived. The Vancouver front office flew the checks to Albuquerque the next day, and the Canadians resumed playing.
"It wasn't a lot of fun at the end of that year," Drees said. "We won the Pacific Coast League championship, and no one got called up. There were a lot of deserving guys on that team, including me, and the White Sox weren't going anywhere. I think the one-game strike played a big role in it.
"It was frustrating, because I was having the best year of my career and I was getting partially punished because the whole team was getting punished. It was my first year in Triple-A, and we had a lot of veteran guys in their 30s who organized it. I don't think anyone thought that it would be a big deal at the time, but it turned out to be a big deal."
The Hall of Fame, however, didn't seem to mind that Drees and the rest of his teammates staged a one-game walkout. They put several of the balls used and jerseys worn by Drees that season on display, though the jersey the team sent the museum was a batting practice uniform and not one of the ones Drees wore during his no-hitters. He still has the original jersey in his possession.
When Drees finally did reach the Major Leagues, it wasn't what he expected. The stay was all too brief and certainly not rewarding, marking what would be the beginning of the end to his playing career.
"You never want to say making the big leagues is anticlimactic, but it pretty much was coming off '89, where I had a pretty good year and was on a roll," Drees said. "I had never pitched out of the 'pen, and then to get a couple of mop-up games at the end of '91. Starting was all I ever did in the Minors, and I never got a chance to start for 10 or 12 games in the Major Leagues, and that's what sticks with me the most.
"I don't think Larry Himes thought I had the stuff to pitch in the Major Leagues. He became GM in '87 or '88 and made a few trades, and was giving those guys the first shot. But the bottom line is, I think, that he didn't think I could pitch there."
Shed no tears for Drees, though, because his career has kept him close to the game and has proven to be highly successful. He lives in Minnesota and works for Merrill Lynch as a financial consultant. He has nearly 50 Major Leaguers as clients, including four players who were All-Stars this season. Drees also has a pair of Hall of Famers in his stable, but confidentiality issues prevent him from naming his clients.
Occasionally he'll share the story of his magical year with his clients or when the odd reporter calls looking for a story.
"I never get tired of talking about the no-hitters," he said. "That whole summer is a great memory for me. I think about my place in history. Someone will throw a no-hitter in the PCL and I'll get the reference for having thrown two in a row, so I feel that piece of history often during the season."