Pat Rice is the only player from those fabled Salt Lake Trappers teams to make the big leagues; now he’s back as a Bees coach

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Bees pitching coach Pat Rice is getting ready to start a new season as the team comes together for Media Day on Tuesday, April 3, 2019.

Pat Rice and five teammates slept in the living room, because that was the only air-conditioned area of their two-bedroom apartment in northwest Salt Lake City. They joined in a welcome-home barbecue for a neighbor’s relative who had just completed his sentence for murder — or that’s the version the story he likes to tell, three decades later.

That’s all part of what he labels an “awesome” summer that altered his career plans, thanks to Rice’s signing with a Seattle Mariners scout at Duffy’s Tavern during the celebration of the Salt Lake Trappers’ 1986 Pioneer League championship.

Back in town as the pitching coach for the Salt Lake Bees, Rice is the only player from the eight-year Trappers era to have reached the major leagues from that unlikely launch point of an independent rookie-league team. His stint in Seattle, although fairly successful, lasted only about a month.

He made a good enough impression to merit a coaching job in the organization, and he's still thriving in pro baseball. In his fifth year in the Los Angeles Angels system, Rice was named the pitching coach for the Pacific Coast League team in next month's Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso, Texas.

“He's easy to work with,” said Jeremy Rhoades, a Bees reliever who pitched for Rice at Double-A Mobile last season. “He doesn't seem like a coach; he's more like a dad figure for me, because I spend so much time with him. He's laid-back, keeps the mood light. … He's always there with support and fixes that'll help you get better.”

Rice, 55, aided in the development of Griffin Canning, a second-round draft pick who also pitched at Mobile last year and made three starts for the Bees this spring before joining the Angels and performing well. Yet the real success stories, to him, are the likes of Scott Atchison, a 36th-round pick who advanced through Seattle’s system when Rice was the minor-league pitching coordinator and enjoyed a long big-league career. “That part of the job,” Rice said, “is why I do it.”

It all started at Derks Field, the location of Smith's Ballpark that currently houses the Bees. Like his Trappers teammates, Rice went undrafted out of the University of Arkansas after being injured early in his senior season.

He accepted an invitation to try out in southern California, made the team and joined in a championship season that he remembers mostly for other stuff that happened — like the time Trappers part-owner Bill Murray took batting practice and was launching fly balls to the warning track early in the session. The actor became so obsessed with hitting a home run that he stayed in the cage for 40 minutes. By the end, he was too tired to even hit the ball out of the infield.

One player bought an old Chevy that broke down. To cover his costs, he persuaded Trappers management to allow fans to pay $1 to blast the car with a sledgehammer. And when the team clinched the division title in Idaho Falls, they celebrated in a hotel parking lot, having been warned about disturbing the guests inside.

“We had a blast,” Rice said. “There was really no pressure on us at all. We were here having fun, playing baseball.”

Rice’s $500 monthly salary was about one-fifth what he could have made working in Texas for Parke-Davis in pharmaceutical sales, the job he deferred — permanently, as it turned out — to pitch in Salt Lake City. “Monetarily, it would have been a way better deal, working for them,” he said, “but I can’t imagine having more fun than I’ve had.”

The Trappers played with something to prove against affiliated teams with drafted players. Their roster was designed to win, without orders from an organization about how to manage or develop athletes. Mainly, they just wanted to play.

And they bonded together, not worrying about what would happen next. A few players usually signed with big-league organizations. But no matter how much the Trappers were motivated by having been overlooked, the scouts were mostly right.

None of the three other pitchers the Mariners signed along with Rice after the ’86 season advanced beyond Class-A ball. Not even the ’87 team that won a record 29 straight games produced a major leaguer; outfielder Adam Casillas came the closest, reaching Triple-A in two systems.

Rice made it to Seattle in '91, beat the New York Yankees in his first start and allowed only one earned run in his first 16 innings on the mound. After two rough outings, though, he was sent back down to Calgary and never returned.

Playing for a job in an organization was different, yet Rice never lost the perspective he gained as a Trapper. His approach was to “ride it out as long as I could ride it out,” he said. “I figured when baseball's over, I could always go get a real job.”

Rice smiles as he sits the dugout after batting practice, knowing that hasn’t happened yet.

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