BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Down here in the Atlantic League, the players hear the stories of what Shane Spencer did.
He came out of nowhere and became an instant star. He walked out of the minor leagues and into the World Series.
He never played here, but leagues like this are full of guys with dreams of doing what Spencer did in 1998 with the New York Yankees. He can tell them what it was like, and as the third-year hitting coach with the Somerset Patriots, perhaps he could even set them on the way to doing it themselves.
But there's more to his story, and Spencer wants to make sure his players hear that, too.
"They'll ask me, 'When was the last time you played in the big leagues?'" Spencer said one day last week.
And he can only warn them not to do what he did six years later.
"I say, 'When I got a DUI.' It wakes them up real quick. It's like a reality check for them."
It was one bad night, one dumb mistake, one night in Florida when he was rehabbing an injury and trying to get back to the New York Mets. Instead, the Mets released him, and a major league career that began with one magical month of September was effectively over.
He was one of the best September call-ups ever, the guy who joined a Yankees team headed for 114 wins and became the talk of the town. He homered seven times in nine days and eight times in the month, still the most ever by a Yankee rookie in September.
He was "the reincarnation of Babe Ruth," in the words of Will Clark, and he had his own John Sterling home run call ("Shane Spencer, the home run dispenser"). He won a spot on the postseason roster and a chance to start a World Series game in his hometown when the Yankees played the San Diego Padres.
"I remember watching the playoffs on television and seeing Shane's picture come up on the screen," said Tim Schmidt, the Yankees scout who signed Spencer as a 28th-round draft pick. "I'll never forget, they were promo-ing the next game, and they said, 'The New York Yankees, led by Shane Spencer.'"
The next spring, he was back in the minor leagues.
Spencer has World Series rings from 1998, 1999 and 2000, and he was in right field for the Yankees when Luis Gonzalez got the hit that won the 2001 World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was Spencer's throw earlier in that postseason that led to Derek Jeter's famous flip play in Oakland.
It was a nice career, but when it ended, Spencer had never played as many as 100 games for one team in one season. He never had another month like that September of 1998, and when he came back to the Yankees on a minor league deal late in the 2004 season, the New York Times called him "the troubled outfielder" and not the guy who was once a surprise September star.
He had knee trouble and shoulder trouble, and even an irregular heartbeat that sent him to the hospital in 1999. He sliced his heel in a bar so seriously that he needed stitches and went to the disabled list (and to Florida, where he was charged with driving under the influence after he was caught going 98 mph).
By 2005, Spencer was in Japan playing for the Hanshin Tigers. By 2008, his playing career was over, and Spencer had a job as a hitting coach at Class A Lake Elsinore in the Padres organization.
Spencer has grown into coaching, earning a reputation as someone who not only helps hitters, but also reads the entire game. Joe Klein, the former major league general manager who is the executive director of the Atlantic League, says he could see Spencer as a manager someday.
For now, Spencer says he's happy to be where he is, working with Somerset manager Brett Jodie, his minor league teammate from the Yankees organization.
"We've just had a blast," Spencer said. "I've got a pretty good gig here."
He was meant to be a coach, he figures, and even the off-field trouble was part of it. The way Spencer sees it, he can relate to what players go through because he has been through so much himself.
"I knew I gave it all I had," he said.
"Of course, I made mistakes off the field."
He still gets recognized for that magical month in 1998. He still has a special feel for this time of year, and he still likes to look at all of the September call-ups, "to see what the young guys are going to do."
None of them ever do what Spencer did in 1998.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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