To celebrate 25 years of Triple-A baseball in New Orleans, we are taking a look back at the best players at each position over the last quarter-century. The tour around the diamond reaches the hot corner this week, as we recap the top five third basemen.
Jeff Cirillo never appeared on a Top 10 Prospects list coming up through the Milwaukee Brewers system, but recorded a .302 batting average while spending the second half of the 1993 season and first half of the 1994 season in New Orleans en route to a 14-year big league career.
The Zephyrs simply won with Cirillo in the lineup. Upon his midseason arrival from Double-A in '93, the Z's charged from a 32-36 record to within three games of first place entering the final week. The 1994 club was starved for power, hitting just 79 home runs all year, but Cirillo had 10 of them in 61 games to help New Orleans to its first playoff berth.
When Cirillo was summoned to the majors in 1994, the job of holding down third base fell on John Byington, who typically was the team's designated hitter. And for good reason, as Byington wound up leading the club in hits (157), runs (71) doubles (32) and RBI (86). An American Association All-Star, he finished fourth in the league in RBI and batting average, hitting a career-best .310.
The only player in New Orleans history to have two seasons with at least 30 doubles (he had 33 in 1993), Byington is still in sixth place on the franchise's career doubles chart with 66. He also ranks seventh in RBI with 151, and 10th in hits with 291.
A prolific home run hitter at USC, where he finished behind only Mark McGwire and Geoff Jenkins on the school's career leaderboard, Morgan Ensberg immediately lived up to his reputation with New Orleans by slugging a minor league-leading 11 homers in April of 2001. Despite missing seven weeks during the summer of due to a fractured hand, he batted .310 and went deep a team-best 23 times for the eventual PCL Co-champions.
Ensberg homered twice in Game 1 of the playoffs against Iowa as the Zephyrs went on to sweep the series, then added seven more home runs in 2002 while splitting the season between New Orleans and Houston to move into 10th place on the franchise's all-time list.
Mike Coolbaugh turned in one of the finest displays of power in club history during his one season in New Orleans in 2004, batting .295 with 30 doubles, 30 home runs and 82 RBI, and caught fire in August with seven home runs and a .396 batting average. He went deep in the home finale to equal Daryle Ward's previous franchise record, but was jostling with teammate Phil Hiatt for the new record. Coolbaugh homered twice on September 5 in Colorado Springs, but Hiatt also went yard as the duo both finished with 30 home runs, the only players in New Orleans history to reach the plateau.
Coolbaugh finished with 258 home runs over parts of 17 minor league seasons, second-most among active players upon his retirement in 2006. A year later, while coaching first base with Double-A Tulsa, Coolbaugh was struck in the head by a line drive and killed, prompting a change in protocol for all base coaches to wear helmets. The Mike Coolbaugh Award, given to a Minor League figure who has shown "an outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game, and skill in mentoring young players on the field," is presented each year at the Baseball Winter Meetings.
A once-promising career seemingly cut short by injuries, Fernando Tatis enjoyed a renaissance during his time in New Orleans, leading to another 2½ years in the big leagues. After spending nearly three years out of baseball, Tatis came to the Zephyrs in 2007 and hit 33 home runs with 98 RBI in 168 games over parts of two seasons.
Tatis led the 2007 team with 31 doubles and 90 runs scored - the third-highest total in New Orleans history - and clubbed eight home runs in August and batted .370 with 11 RBI over the last 11 games as the Zephyrs surged from third place in the final week to win the division. Tatis returned in 2008 and led the PCL with 12 home runs when he was promoted to the Mets in mid-May, where he ended his career two years later.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.