Explorer Juan Ponce de León was way off. More than five centuries before Global Positioning Systems became commonplace, his obsession with the mythical fountain of youth took him from the Spanish Caribbean colonies to the still unexplored Floridian peninsula, where he met his demise when the natives did not take kindly to his quest.
In hindsight, perhaps he should have looked higher up the North American continent, especially in the Northeast. Maybe water did not hold the secret to eternal youth, but rather the green grass of a freshly mown outfield and the crisp dirt of a manicured infield. Dozens of players, from Cooperstown immortals Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson to veterans eager for one last shot like Carlos Baerga and José Offerman have made returns to the majors after spending time in the Atlantic League.1
For another group, the mere mortals, the circuit provided a way to prove their skills were still sharp enough to reach or return to the grandest of stages, after toiling for years in the minors.
Cory Jerome Aldridge was firmly in this latter group as he set the league on fire in 2008. Patrolling the outfield for the Newark Bears, he slashed .365/.440/.565, committed no errors on the field, and even pitched two scoreless innings. His former employer, the Kansas City Royals, were impressed enough to re-sign him to a minor-league contract that eventually brought him back to the major leagues. His story, however, began what seemed like a long time ago, on a baseball diamond hundreds of miles away.
Aldridge was born in San Angelo, Texas, on June 13, 1979. His mother, Jean, was a nurse in the school district he attended; his father, Jerry, played in the NFL and USFL and upon retirement, embarked on a career with the Texas Department of Corrections. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux was born in same hospital as Aldridge, a bond that would become strong once the latter reached the majors. Growing up, Cory played soccer, basketball, and football in addition to baseball, idolizing Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder. Though the Rangers were the closest big-league team, Aldridge followed the Cubs and the Braves thanks to the nationwide reach of WGN and WTBS.
He was chosen by the Braves in the fourth round of the 1997 amateur draft, an experience he found surprising. “I remember not knowing anything. I did not know anyone who had been drafted. My high-school coach told me I might get chosen. … I remember sitting at home and hoping for a call. I didn’t know I’d go as high as I did.” The class of 1997 featured Troy Glaus, J.D. Drew, Jon Garland, and Lance Berkman (first round), Randy Wolf and Scott Linebrink (second round), Jeremy Affeldt (third round), and Chone Figgins (fourth round).2 Michael Young and Tim Hudson were both picked after Aldridge. The Braves selected 69 players, four of whom made it to the majors.3 Five days after the draft, on June 8, he signed on the dotted line and began his professional career.
Atlanta assigned Aldridge to the rookie Florida Gulf Coast League, where he hit a respectable .278 in 46 games but displayed little power (.391 slugging). It was enough for the Braves to promote him to Danville (Appalachian League), led by phenom Rafael Furcal. In 1998 Aldridge was third on the team in batting (.294), prompting the franchise to send him to Macon of the Class-A South Atlantic League for 1999. Hurlers were more developed and Aldridge was overmatched; he struck out almost four times as often as he walked and hit a pedestrian .251. Undeterred, he attained similar results with Class-A (advanced) Myrtle Beach in 2000. Having been drafted out of high school, he was younger than most of his peers. “I thought I saw the world, coming from Texas and playing in all these places. Wilson Betemit was the first person from the Dominican Republic I met; I didn’t know he couldn’t speak English. I didn’t know what was out there.” In hindsight, he realized he lacked “world awareness,” adding, “Back then I didn’t know any better, so that’s part of what I do now with kids, help them understand what’s out there.” He jokes that his school Spanish was terrible, but he picked it up quickly when reaching base and talking to the opponents while reaching second: “Sometimes I was Puerto Rican, Sometimes I was Dominican.”
Aldridge opened 2001 with Double-A Greenville, collecting 508 plate appearances and reaching base at a .323 clip. While his numbers were respectable, they did not scream “blue-chip prospect.” Atlanta, however, had other plans. Aldridge had almost made the team out of spring training but was deemed not quite ready, which he came to acknowledge was due to immaturity that often accompanies youth. Prior to a game against the Orlando Rays, manager Paul Runge tapped him on the shoulder to tell him, “You’re going to Montréal. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox want to see you.”
The 2001 edition of the Braves dynasty took command of first place in mid-July. Once rosters expanded in early September, Atlanta had a small lead it did not relinquish the rest of the way. The major leagues were an eye-opening experience: “I was nervous, having never been in a stage that big. I had never been out of the country.” Chipper Jones, himself a wunderkind when he arrived in Atlanta at a young age, provided guidance, and Maddux showed him the ropes. They knew “the baseball player in me needed to figure things out. … All those guys were nice guys. I didn’t like B.J. Surhoff, I thought he was mean to me, but he wasn’t. Years later, I said, ‘Man, you were an a**hole to me.’ He said, ‘No, you were a young dumba**.’ We shook hands and laughed. He was like Kirk Gibson, he was that guy, never laughed. He would come out prepared for the game.”
On September 5, 2001, Aldridge debuted during a 10-4 loss against the Expos. Reliever José Cabrera was lifted to begin the eighth inning; his spot in the batting order was given to Aldridge, who took over for Brian Jordan in right field while Tim Spooneybarger took the mound. Aldridge fielded a single to right field by Geoff Blum, but Montréal did not score and neither did Atlanta in the top of the ninth. Aldridge made his way to the box score as an afterthought.
Four days later in Chicago, he was summoned to pinch-run for Bernard Gilkey, who had led off the ninth with a walk and had advanced to second on Marcus Giles’s single. A fly ball to center field by Julio Franco and a strikeout by Wes Helms kept the runners glued to their stations before Jordan took first base on six pitches. But pitcher Ron Mahay got Surhoff to fly out, stranding Atlanta. The true highlight for Aldridge was meeting former Brave McGriff, who now donned the Cubs uniform. “Maddux took me under his wing as a young guy, since we were both from a small town. I’d shared something about liking McGriff. … Maddux told me to go to the batting cage and there was McGriff taking batting practice. He had signed a bat for me and we chatted; that was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.”
The 9/11 attacks paused baseball activity as the nation struggled to comprehend the scale of the monstrosity. After play resumed, the Braves traveled to New York to meet the Mets in an emotionally charged series for both franchises. In a game on September 21, Atlanta took the lead in the eighth frame. Julio Franco walked with two outs, triggering Aldridge into the game as a pinch-runner. Jones singled, moving Aldridge to second, and Jordan doubled to the left-center-field gap. Though he had yet to have an official plate appearance, Aldridge was now credited with a run scored. The contest was decided in the bottom of the inning as Mike Piazza hammered a Steve Karsay offering for a two-run home run. Aldridge played in the other games of the series, striking out on September 22 in his sole at-bat and pinch-running in the finale.
The two franchises met again in Atlanta, with the Braves winning, 8-5, on September 29. Aldridge replaced Jones, this time in left field, but no ball was hit in his direction. Mark DeRosa pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the eighth. The Braves overcame a four-run deficit in the night to beat the Mets as Jordan hit a game-ending grand slam off John Franco.
Aldridge got his sole start in the team’s 161st game; facing young flamethrower Josh Beckett, he struck out twice and grounded to the pitcher, then struck out in a three-pitch at-bat against Vladimir Nuñez. He took the field as a defensive substitution the next day but did not enjoy either any fielding chances or plate appearances. The team did not include him in the postseason roster.
Despite the sudden end to his season, Aldridge beamed with excitement. The Braves “gave an opportunity for me to go to the big leagues, kind of feel it out and try to kind of find my place. I got to be around Chipper, Gilkey, and Jordan.”4 But spring, with its natural connotation of rebirth and renewal, was cruel to Aldridge: “I was supposed to be the fourth outfielder. I came up in the infield one day, I threw, and then I couldn’t throw anymore.”5
Aldridge returned to the Gulf Coast League to rehabilitate his injury. Back in 1997, as a wide-eyed 18-year old, he was one year younger than his peers. In 2002, he was almost 3½ years older; he played in 17 games before being shut down for the year. He returned to Greenville in 2003 but hit .234/.298/.395 and the franchise parted ways with the outfielder on May 24, 2004.
Eight days later, the Kansas City Royals offered Aldridge a minor-league deal. He remained in Double A but switched to the Wichita Wranglers of the Texas League. Patrolling the outfield for 79 games, he hit .239 but slugged .511, impressing the front office with his power. He began 2005 in Wichita but his .874 OPS prompted a call-up to Triple-A Omaha. The Pacific Coast League pitching proved tough, and Aldridge struggled to a .195 average, which the Royals found unacceptable. On October 15, 2005, he was granted free agency. Two moths later the Mets offered him a spot with the International League’s Norfolk Tides. His start to the 2006 season was inauspicious – 13-for-83 – and merited a release. The White Sox took a chance and he responded with a solid .287 average for Double-A Birmingham for the remainder of 2006. He again donned the Barons uniform in 2007 and hit .259 in 124 games, not good enough for the White Sox, with whom he parted ways after the season.
Prompted by former teammate Josh Pressley, Aldridge decided to try the independent Atlantic League. “I got a ticket to Newark, and I actually had the most fun I think I had in a long time playing baseball,” he said. “I went out there hit like .400 … I didn’t have to worry about any front-office things.”6 His batting line was .365 with a 1.005 OPS, proving he had plenty left in his tank. Though the love for the game loomed large in his decision to keep playing, Aldridge was cognizant of the financial reward. “Your average minor-league player probably makes five grand a year, and your average first (major-league) paycheck is probably 10 to 15 grand.”7 Looking back at this time in the minors, he shrugged. “I didn’t have anything better to do. I didn’t have a backup plan. The best thing I did was play independent ball. I was tired of the business, I was tired of being hurt, a lot of negatives in my life. I figured out I loved baseball and changed my mindset, not caring about the front office, going back to where I was.”
The Royals re-signed Aldridge and he returned to the Double-A Texas League for the remainder of 2008. He hit .269 in 49 games for Northwest Arkansas, earning a promotion to Triple-A Omaha in 2009. He hit well (.316/.361/.582) but surprisingly, Kansas City did not offer him a 2010 contract. The California Angels, who had seen him in the circuit against their Salt Lake City affiliate, signed him on December 3, 2009, and he quickly paid off with the 2010 Salt Lake City Bees: he hit a solid .318 in 83 games before receiving the call from the parent club.
Almost nine years after his debut, Aldridge returned to the major leagues. At first glance, few things had changed in the game: Bud Selig was still commissioner, 30 franchises participated in the regular season, and Mike Scioscia managed the Angels. However, most of his 2001 Braves teammates had retired, the iPhone and Facebook had been invented, and Anaheim had changed its name to the clunky “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”
Wearing home whites on July 4, Aldridge enjoyed two plate appearances in an 11-0 win over the Royals. Taking over for Hideki Matsui in left field, he caught a fly ball from his former teammate Betemit in his only defensive chance. At bat, he grounded out to second base against Victor Marte and lined out weakly to shortstop against Dusty Hughes. Despite his 0-for-2 line, he was ecstatic. He started the next day against the White Sox in Chicago, grounding out in his first two at-bats. He struck out swinging in the seventh before grounding out in the ninth, ending the day hitless in four plate appearances. On July 8 he hit ninth in the batting order but neither he nor his teammates could solve John Danks, who allowed only two hits in a 1-0 Chicago victory. Aldridge reached on an error and struck out twice.
The Angels next visited Oakland for a three-game set. On July 10 the Athletics jumped to an eight-run lead by the third inning which grew to a 13-run advantage by the fifth. Scioscia had lifted Erick Aybar and Bobby Abreu in the sixth, plugging Kevin Branden at third base and Aldridge in right field, moving Brandon Wood from third base to shortstop. In the eighth, Aldridge faced Ross Wolf with two out. (Paul McAnulty and Bobby Wilson had struck out.) With Wood at third, Aldridge turned on a Wolf offering to deep left field for a triple. Wood scored while Aldridge caught his breath, a scant 90 feet from his starting point. Howie Kendrick then went down swinging, but Aldridge had attained his first base hit with the rarest of them all: a triple.8 “I remember nothing at all about that game! I was not getting into the games I thought I would. … I am just going to try to do what I do naturally. … He had two strikes on me. … I just said, ‘I’m going with this pitch right here.’ I was tired of being nervous.”
Scioscia granted Aldridge another start the next day, but he went 0-for-3 (two strikeouts) as Oakland beat Los Angeles, 5-2. Though he returned to the minors, Aldridge had now tasted success on the big stage. His career line (1-for-18, with one run, one run batted in) could not properly capture the roller-coaster emotions he had experienced. He still had a lot of baseball left in him; at his age (31), he was still in his prime and he was unwilling to hang up his spikes. Aldridge decided to pursue international ball during the winter; he joined the Águilas (Eagles) of Mexicali for the 2010-2011 Mexican Pacific League. The team finished in seventh place (out of eight) though Aldridge contributed a .299 average with a .922 OPS. He continued his foreign exposure in the 2011 Korean Baseball League, signing with the Nexen Heroes, though he was unable to replicate his recent magic: he hit .237 in 117 games. Returning to Mexico, he suited up for six games with the pennant-winning Tomateros (Tomato-pickers) of Culiacán during the 2011-2012 campaign.
He remained south of the border, working for the Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) of Mexico City. He smoked the league to a .363 clip in 2012, raising the interest of the Angels, who inked him to a Triple-A deal with Salt Lake City. Pitchers there baffled him, limiting him to a .215 average and 91 strikeouts in 251 at-bats. He returned to Mexico for another winter, rejoining Culiacán for 61 games and slashing .268/.385/.567 in 2012-2013.
Aldridge split time between two teams during the 2013 Mexican (Summer) League, playing for both the Quintana Roo Tigres and the Acereros (Steelworkers) of Monclova, though he failed to make a dent with either club. Returning to the Atlantic League, Aldridge hit .284 for Somerset in 89 games. He enjoyed a banner year with the Caribes (Caribs) of Anzoategui of the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .378 with an OPS of 1.129. He played in 19 additional contests during the postseason, garnering 24 hits, though his team lost the final series against Magallanes.9 “I loved playing in Venezuela, Mexico, and Korea. … The fans were awesome and loved the players. I wish I’d gone when I was younger; I had so many injuries I wish would have played winter ball. Winter league is great with so many cultures. … But Venezuela, the country is beautiful but it was in a terrible state. … Sometimes we had electricity blackouts; there was a lot of greatness spoiled with bad leadership.”
Aldridge began 2014 in the Mexican League for the Monterrey Sultanes (Sultans), clubbing .345 with a 1.122 OPS. The Blue Jays signed him, assigning him to Double-A New Hampshire, where he hit .271 and earned a promotion to Triple-A Buffalo but he hit .226 in 16 games. He returned to Latin America, playing played 15 games in the Mexican Pacific League with Culiacán before Venezuela summoned him back, and he played 38 games with the Caribes with a .246 average.10 He wrapped up his career with Monterrey in the summer of 2015, batting .273 in 18 games.
At age 36 and far removed from his high-school exploits, Aldridge retired from professional baseball. As of 2019 he lived in Katy, Texas and spent his time as a hitting instructor, seeking to mentor more players to understand the game. He was active on social media via his Twitter handle @aldridge32 and Instagram @coryaldridge, answering questions from parents and young athletes alike: “There’s a lot to be learned from someone’s successes and struggles, and I don’t mind using mine to help someone else.”
Last revised: August 1, 2021
To Cory Aldridge for graciously discussing his career via a phone interview. Unless otherwise specified, quotations stem from the author’s interview with Aldridge on August 29, 2019.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted game information on Retrosheet.org
2 Major-league amateur draft of 1997 selections, baseball-almanac.com/draft/baseball-draft.php?yr=1997.
3 Major-league amateur draft of 1997, Atlanta Braves selections baseball-reference.com/draft/?team_ID=ATL&year_ID=1997&draft_type=junreg&query_type=franch_year&from_type_jc=0&from_type_hs=0&from_type_4y=0&from_type_unk=0.
4 Nick Diunte, “Why Wilkin Castillo’s Decade-Long Major League Return Is All Too Familiar for One Former Ballplayer,” Forbes, June 28, 2019. forbes.com/sites/nickdiunte/2019/06/28/why-wilkin-castillos-decade-long-major-league-return-is-all-too-familiar-for-one-former-ballplayer/#3e02bf0e4d89.
8 As of the start of the 2019 season, of the 1,306 retired major leaguers with only one hit, 19 did so with a home run, 21 swatted a triple, 167 connected for a double, and the remainder singled. (baseball-reference.com/tiny/NUBHk) However, since 1876, the major-league historical record shows triples being the least likely, with 3.43 percent of all historical hits. (baseball-reference.com/leagues/).
9 “Cory Aldridge,” Registro Historico Estadistico del Beisbol Profesional Venezolano. http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=aldrcor001 . Accessed April 23, 2021.
10 http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=aldrcor001 . Accessed April 23, 2021.