“Flash” Listach! The Brief Career of Pat Listach
As we near the announcement of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s 2016 awards, it’s hard to fathom that it has now been 24 years since Pat Listach burst onto the baseball scene and captured one of the most unlikely Rookie of the Year titles in history. Listach went from a light-hitting borderline prospect to the American League’s top newcomer, setting up expectations for a career that he was never able to fulfill.
Oddly enough, it might have been Listach’s lack of top-prospect status that gave him his shot in the first place. A fifth round pick in 1988, Listach had bounced between second base and shortstop over four minor league seasons while posting unimpressive batting averages. But Listach could fly, racking up 172 stolen bases, and he showed a careful eye at the plate. Still, when starting shortstop Bill Spiers was lost to an injury in the first game of the 1992 season, Listach was promoted from AAA Denver to provide coverage as a utility man – a job more fit to a potential journeyman than a serious prospect. But Listach immediately played his way into the lineup, collecting eight hits in his first four starts. Within a few weeks of his call-up, Listach had taken over the starting shortstop spot from Scott Fletcher. By mid-May, he was batting over .350 and was the team’s regular #2 hitter.
It was the doubters within the Brewers organization that fueled his play. Although he saw himself as a natural shortstop, others thought he would be better suited for second base or the outfield. More assumed that, with a .250 career batting average in the minors, he would never hit and had no real potential as an everyday big leaguer. “I’m using that as incentive,” he told the Milwaukee Journal early in 1992, “to prove people wrong.”
But it was more than just Listach’s bat and speed that drove his success with the Brewers. He was a truly cerebral ballplayer with an excellent lineage. His grandfather, Nora Listach, played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League and his father and brothers had also played at various levels. From an early age, Listach was involved in the game’s intricacies. As an eight-year-old, he helped to manage his little league team and once, overruling the team’s adult coach, inserted himself in at pitcher during a tight game. But he was overlooked out of high school, forced to settle for a junior college before playing his way into a scholarship at Arizona State.
An incident on July 26, with the Brewers playing the White Sox at County Stadium, showcased both Listach’s grit and the team’s affection for his all-out style of play. With slugger George Bell on first, the Chicago batter rolled a grounder to second base – a tailor-made double play ball. Bell went out of his way to execute a swipe slide that knocked the 5’ 9” Listach off his feet. Bell went after Listach after the play, but the rookie refused to back down. After a brief scuffle, Robin Yount rushed in from centerfield to yank Bell away. The attention from Yount – who rarely got emotional on the field – was a testament to the team’s respect for the young shortstop. “We have to protect our little young phenom,” outfielder Darryl Hamilton said after the game. “We can't let anybody jump on him.”
Despite a series of nagging injuries, Listach played in every game from June 3 onward and did a remarkable job of silencing his doubters. And as he proved himself at the game’s top level, he was unafraid to show his confidence. “He’s cocky,” Manager Phil Garner said of Listach. “Watch him walk, watch him strut. He knows he can play. He knows he belongs here.”
In the final months of the season, the Brewers got very hot and became one of baseball’s most surprising contenders. On September 29 in Seattle, Listach punctured an eardrum in collision with outfielder Greg Vaughn. Although doctors worried he might lose hearing in the ear, Listach refused to take himself out of the lineup as the Brewers took the AL East pennant race into the final days of the season.
Although the Brewers could not catch the front-running Blue Jays, Listach was rewarded in the offseason with a clean sweep of American League Rookie of the Year awards, including the Baseball Writers Association of American award, which he won easily ahead of Cleveland outfielder Kenny Lofton. Listach was the first Brewer ever to take the honor.
Going into the 1993 season, Listach was one of the Brewers’ most highly-marketed players. This promotional image was used on game programs, baseball cards, and the 1993 media guide.
Expectations for Listach were high heading into the 1993 season. That offseason, the Brewers lost several key players to free agency. The biggest loss was 15-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. As a speedy, smooth-swinging infielder, Listach began to feel the pressure of being Molitor’s de-facto replacement in the lineup (During the 1996 season, Listach honored Molitor by switching his uniform number from 16 to Molitor’s #4, which the Brewers later retired). Further increasing expectations was the new contract Listach signed that April – a three-year pact with an option for a fourth that would pay Listach as much as $9 million.
When Listach struggled out of the gate in 1993, Garner felt that his shortstop was playing too timidly and was showing the effects of the pressures he had placed on himself. But the reasons for his struggles were not just in Listach’s head. A knee issue lingered from the end of the ‘92 season and hamstring troubles limited Listach to just 98 games in ’93. The knee problem was first diagnosed as tendonitis, and rest was prescribed to help it heal. It was not until after the 1993 season that Listach learned the issue was actually a bone spur and needed surgery.
Listach rehabilitated intensely to get the knee ready for the 1994, but it was only a few weeks into the season before knee pain forced him onto the disabled list. After a somewhat-experimental surgery to repair a tendon in the troublesome knee seemed to help, Listach was again back in the lineup for Opening Day in 1995 – reaching base four times and showing flashes of his past brilliance. But the toll taken by years of leg and knee issues had sapped him of the speed that won him the Rookie of Year. He also admitted to feeling a mental strain from his injuries, saying he was “scared to death” that the knee would give out again. By midseason, he had lost his starting second base spot to Fernando Vina.
Listach spent his final years in Milwaukee as a part-time player.
Trade rumors began to dog Listach by Spring Training, 1996. It was the year that Listach was due for the biggest annual salary of his contract: $2.2 million. The cash-strapped Brewers wanted badly to move his contract, but found no suitors until August, when he was sent to the Yankees in a multi-player deal. Just before the trade, Listach had suffered what was thought to be a bruised foot. When it turned out the foot was broken, the Yankees sent him back to Milwaukee. That offseason, the team declined the option year on his contract.
Listach played 52 more Major League games – with Houston in 1997 – and played in the minors in 1998 before retiring. He has since coached for the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros. He is presently the manager of the AAA Tacoma Rainers.