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Where are they now? 

Although in the Low-A South Atlantic League only about 7 or 8 percent of ballplayers generally make it to the major leagues, there are quite a few prominent Sand Gnat and Savannah baseball alums making noise in the big show, and even more ex-Gnats furthering their development in higher levels of the minor leagues.

Because Savannah has affiliated with four different teams (Cardinals ‘94-’95, Dodgers, ‘96-’97, Rangers, ‘98-’02, and Expos, ‘03-current) in the last decade, there is an opportunity to see former Gnats scattered everywhere throughout the country in various minor-league levels.

In addition, as of the end of April, there were 19 former Sand Gnats or Savannah Cardinals on the big-league rosters of 13 different major-league teams.

One unique alumni reunion of ex-Gnats came at last year’s Major League All-Star game. Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, who played for Savannah in 1996 and started one of the first games of the season the team became known as the Sand Gnats, faced off in the 9th inning against Texas Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock, who was with Savannah for seven games in 1999 and the full season in 2000.

Blalock homered off of Gagne, leaving Gagne with his only blown save in a season where Gagne would set a Major League record for consecutive regular-season saves.

Both Gagne and Blalock have been quite good thus far this season. In his first 9 appearances for the Dodgers, Gagne has saved 6 of his teams’ division-leading 13 victories, while Blalock has hit .337 in 22 games with 4 homers and 18 RBI for the Rangers.

Other players are making noise in the bigs as well. Gagne’s teammate, third baseman Adrian Beltre, a 1996 alum still only 25 years old, looks to be on the brink of a career year. Beltre is batting .363 with 7 homers and 19 RBI for L.A.

Rangers outfielders Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix, who patrolled the outfield in Savannah in 1999 and 2001, respectively, are also lighting it up to start the season. Nix is batting .365 with 5 homers and 14 RBI in 20 games, while Mench trails only slightly

with a .298 average to go along with 3 home runs and 12 RBI in 21 games.

Former Gnats first-baseman Travis Hafner (1999-2000) is hitting .295 with 4 homers and 10 RBI in his second season as Cleveland’s starting first baseman.

His predecessor at first base in Savannah, Carlos Pena (1998) has 15 RBI in 21 games for a resurgent Detroit Tigers team.

Five other ex-Savannah players are used in utility/part-time roles in the bigs. Rigo Beltran (1992), Joaquin Benoit (1998), Wayne Franklin (1997), Donovan Osborne (1990), Ricky Stone (1996), and Jay Witasick (1993) are ex-Savannah ballplayers found in Major League bullpens this season.

Amongst former Gnats in the minors, their storylines range from former big-leaguers trying to make it back to the league as well as prospects that still haven’t fully become ready for baseball’s big show.

Last year’s stud hitter, Expos’ prospect Larry Broadway, has struggled to find his stroke with AA Harrisburg. In the first 16 games, the first-baseman hit a mere .148 with a pair of home runs and only 7 RBI.

Another slugger, outfielder Chad Chop, was facing similar circumstances with the High-A Brevard County Manatees. In a league known most for its humid air and pitcher’s parks, Chop is hitting .213 with 2 homers and 8 RBI in 20 games, which definitely doesn’t meet up to his “Choppa-style” of last season.

Outfielder Frank Diaz and third-baseman Shawn Norris have fared better in Brevard County, however. Diaz is batting .267, while Norris is hitting .329 with 16 RBI.

Right-hander Darrell Rasner, listed in Baseball America’s top-ten Expos’ prospects, checks in with a 2.25 ERA and a 2-0 record in 24 innings of work, covering 4 starts for the Manatees. Mike Hinckley, another top prospect, is 2-1 with a 2.77 ERA in 26 IP over 4 starts. Former first-rounder Drew Meyer, an infielder from the 2002 team, has struggled this far this year with the Frisco RoughRiders, hitting only .221.

Over a half-dozen former Sand Gnats are attempting to resurrect their careers by playing in the Mexican League.

One of the more surprising elements regarding Savannah baseball alumni is that while recent statistics indicate a trend toward better than league-average pitching for the home squads, the overwhelming majority of the contributing ex-Gnats on big-league rosters are hitters.

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Frank Novak

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