Before embarking on a minor-league managing and coaching career spanning nearly 30 years, Jim Pankovits played for two big-league teams: 316 games in the National League for the Houston Astros and two games in the American League for the Boston Red Sox.
Astros fans who saw him play from 1984-88 might remember him as a versatile player who worked 104 games at second base and 47 in the outfield, along with spot duty at all three other infield positions. The right-handed batter entered 182 of his 318 games as either a pinch-hitter or occasional pinch-runner. He had a .250 career batting average with nine homers.
Red Sox fans might not remember him much at all. He never played in a game in Boston and never had a plate appearance for the team. He took part late in two games in September 1990, but both were on the road.
James Franklin Pankovits was born in Pennington Gap, Virginia on August 6, 1955. The town is the most populous one in Lee County, in the far western part of Virginia, but home to only 2,090 at the time of the 1950 census. The population declined 14 percent during the 1950s (the local economy was based on coal mining). There is a federal penitentiary nearby.
He wasn’t there long, though. Around the age of a year and a half, the family moved to Richmond, which is where he and his older sister Debbie grew up. Their parents, Vincent and Phyllis (Smalley) Pankovits, met in Pennington Gap, where Vince was managing the local team.
In a 2001 interview, Pankovits once said, “I was born to be a ballplayer. My dad, Vince, managed and played professionally with the Boston Braves organization. He coached me when I first started playing.”1 Indeed, Vince Pankovits was a catcher who played minor-league baseball from 1946 through 1953. In 1947 and 1948, he was part of the Braves organization, playing mostly Class-D ball but reaching Class B for 31 games.2 In 1950 and 1951, he was player/manager for the Pennington Gap Miners. In his final season, 1953, he hit .286 while catching and managing the Class-D Knoxville Smokies on the Mountain States League.
The family move to Richmond came when Vince Pankovits changed professions. For many years, he managed Stork Diaper, a diaper service “until Pampers came along and put them out of business.”3 His son added, “he worked for a man who owned the business there in Richmond. They had three or four trucks and delivered all over town. Drivers had their own routes. I had to work down there part-time, too. Cleaning out the dirty bins. We had to wash the trucks, had to clean out the diaper bins – oh, man, did that stink!”
Phyllis Pankovits had been a telephone operator in Pennington Gap. Though she became primarily a homemaker, she also worked in Richmond behind the counter at the Miller and Rhoads Department Store.
Jim said he grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan, also rooting for his local team, the Richmond Braves. His father took him to see games at least a couple of times each summer.
Asked if awareness that his father had been a pro ballplayer influenced his desire to become one too, Pankovits said, “I basically had no choice. He put the bat in my hand when I was in the crib. True story – he used to come in and get me off the couch to go play catch in the back yard. Instead of vice versa. Yeah, I was destined to be a ballplayer. Fortunately, and obviously, I enjoyed it. But he was a big influence on my career.”
Even before high school, Jim had enjoyed success as a ballplayer. In the year he turned 13 – 1968 – he played on the Tuckahoe Little League team from Richmond which was the runner-up in that year’s Little League World Series. Three years later he was on the 1971 Senior League All-Star team, again runner-up in the World Series, losing to Japan, 1-0. In 1973, his American Legion team went to the World Series but was eliminated after losing the first two games.
Pankovits graduated from Douglas Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia. He then went to the University of South Carolina at Columbia and did well playing with the Gamecocks. “I liked USC coach Bobby Richardson and the players there. We lost the National Championship in 1975 (my sophomore year) to the University of Texas. I was an All-American third baseman in my junior year .”4
A couple of months before turning 21, Pankovits was selected by Houston in the fourth round of the June 1976 draft. The signing scout was Billy Smith. Pankovits was right-handed, stood 5-feet-10, and was listed at 170 pounds.
Pankovits spent eight seasons in the minors before reaching the top level. “Somebody was always ahead of me,” he said after finally joining the Astros in 1984. “First, Jimmy Sexton. Then Johnny Ray. And Bill Doran.” He was described as “slow to mature offensively” and observed, “I can understand why they soured early on me as a prospect.”5
His first assignment was in rookie ball for the Covington Astros. He had always played third base before turning professional but was moved to second base and played the full season there. He hit .247. For his first four years, he never appeared in a game at third base; he usually played at second throughout his 1,248 games in the minors.
In 1977, he was placed in Class A with the Florida State League’s Cocoa Astros. Almost all of 1978 was spent in the Double-A Southern League playing for the Columbus (Georgia) Astros; he played three games at Triple A with the Charleston (West Virginia) Charlies of the International League. In 1979, Pankovits played 92 games with Columbus and 22 with Charleston.
He spent the full seasons of 1980 and 1981 in Triple A with the Tucson Toros (Pacific Coast League), hitting .249 in 1980 and improving to .282 in 1981.
Pankovits spent the full 1982 season playing in the San Diego Padres system for the Hawaii Islanders, the Padres’ Triple-A team in the PCL. He had career highs in homers (15) and RBIs (77). Then he was back with Houston in 1983. “I was actually traded for myself,” is how he described it. “I was traded for a player who was hurt. The deal became a trade for a player to be named later then. When the two organizations couldn’t agree on a player after the season, I became property of the Astros again.”6
The record shows that he entered free agency in October 1982 and signed with Houston in January 1983. He stuck with the organization for the next six seasons, most of the time in the major leagues.
It took him a while to get there, though. Picking up where he’d left off (he entered his fourth season in the PCL), he hit .287 for Tucson in 1983.
He started the 1984 season with Tucson again but was elevated to Houston near the end of May. The Astros had traded Alan Bannister to the Texas Rangers for Mike Richardt and optioned Richardt to Tucson.7 “We always felt he was a guy who should get a shot in the big leagues,” said general manager Al Rosen. “Bob [manager Bob Lillis] has seen him throughout his career and liked him.” Pankovits himself admitted that he was surprised to get the call. 8
The 28-year-old rookie made his major-league debut on May 27 at the Astrodome against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. In the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates held a 2-1 lead. The Astros were down to their last out. Pankovits pinch-hit for relief pitcher Dave Smith. Pankovits singled and kept the game alive. Phil Garner then pinch-hit for Terry Puhl and flied out to center field, ending the game.
He started his first game the next night, playing second base and batting second in the order. Regular shortstop Dickie Thon and backup Craig Reynolds were injured, forcing Doran to make his big-league debut at short. Pankovits drew a walk, but otherwise made three outs.
In Los Angeles, on June 2, Pankovits went 3-for-5 and scored three runs in a 9-3 Astros win. His first run batted in was on June 3, and he had two of them, again going 3-for-5 at the plate. Houston beat the Dodgers, 5-3, the third and fourth runs coming on Pankovits’s fourth-inning single. He’d finally made it – after all those years in the minor leagues. “I’m up in the clouds, because it’s such a great feeling,” he said after the game.9
Throughout the season, he was used largely as a pinch-hitter. He appeared in 53 games but just 25 in the field (15 of those at second base). He hit .284 for the year in 85 plate appearances. He drew only two walks, so his on-base percentage was .298. He had 14 RBIs. He hit one home run, a three-run blow off John Franco on August 11 in Cincinnati; the Astros took a 7-2 lead at the time and won, 8-2. Houston finished the 1984 season tied with Atlanta for second place, both 12 games behind San Diego.
In 1985 and 1986, Pankovits spent the full season with Houston, though he was on the disabled list for a fair amount of time during the summer of 1985. “Hamstrings,” he said in a 2021 interview with the author. “The right leg. I couldn’t shake them.” He appeared in 75 games that season, hitting .244 with a .316 OBP over 191 plate appearances. He scored 24 runs and drove in 14. Four of those runs came on a grand slam that beat John Candelaria and the Pirates on May 29.10
In 1986, he avoided the DL yet appeared in a similar number of games (70), though more in pinch roles (entering 44 games as a pinch-hitter and one as a pinch-runner). Thus, he accumulated only 124 plate appearances. He scored 12 times and drove in seven. “We went to the playoffs. I hit .280-ish [.283, with a .347 OBP] and was their top pinch-hitter [11 hits in that role] and one of their better players off the bench.”
He made his only professional appearance as a catcher that July 7, in Montreal. (He’d helped his own cause in 1985 by volunteering to serve as the emergency catcher and bullpen catcher.11) He came in for backup receiver John Mizerock in the ninth inning of a game Houston won, 12-1. It was three-up, three-down, all three Expos batters hitting outfield flies off Aurelio Lopez.
As Pankovits noted, in 1986, the Astros placed first in the National League West. They played the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. Pankovits appeared twice, in Game Two and the epic series-ending Game Six. With the Mets leading 5-0 in Game Two, he pinch-hit for Nolan Ryan in the bottom of the fifth. New York’s Bobby Ojeda struck him out. A win in Game Six would have sent the NLCS to a seventh game; a loss meant it would be the Mets in the World Series. Houston scored three runs in the first inning, but the Mets tied it with three runs in the top of the ninth. After 12 innings, it was still 3-3. In the bottom of the 13th, with two outs, manager Hal Lanier had Pankovits pinch-hit for reliever Larry Andersen. He grounded out third to first. The Mets won in the 16th inning, scoring three runs and holding on as the Astros came back with but two.
In 1987, Pankovits split time between Houston (50 games) and Tucson (34 games). He hit .327 (.425 OBP) for Tucson, but .230 (.299 OBP) for Houston. “I never really got a chance to play that year.” (Billy Doran appeared in all 162 games.) “They kept sending me to Tucson to get at-bats and stay sharp. I’d be on the bench in Houston, go to Tucson and play well, then come back to Houston and sit on the bench.” Following the first time Pankovits was sent down, Hal Lanier said, “We haven’t given up on Jimmy. He has too much value to us.”12 He had seven hits in 32 pinch at-bats for the season.
Pankovits played for Mayagüez in the Puerto Rican league over the winter. In 1988, described as a utilityman, he was once again with the Astros for the full season, appearing in 68 games. He drove in 12, scored 13, and had an average of .221 (.272 OBP). He was just 2-for-27 as a pinch-hitter in 1988.13
For the 1989 season, Pankovits signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was assigned to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons and played in 30 games for them, batting only .181. He explained, “We had an agreement that I would play every day. That wasn’t happening in Buffalo, so they agreed to sell me to the Dodgers.” That organization had a need and thought he might be able to fill it, so Los Angeles purchased his contract on May 23 and assigned him to their top team, the Albuquerque Dukes. In 82 games, playing regularly, he got 326 plate appearances and drove in 37 runs, hitting .251.
“I broke my wrist in the first game of the playoffs,” Pankovits recalled. “They had called up a bunch of outfielders, but I had played some outfield in the big leagues the previous few years. After playing second base the whole year, in the first game of the playoffs I was playing right field. There was a ball hit over my head and I go running back to catch it and ran smack right into the wall. Broke my right wrist, so I was done.”
On February 5, 1990, Pankovits moved to the AL, signing a free-agent contract with Boston. Why the Red Sox? “They were a contending team back then and I think they wanted some veteran players at the Triple-A level, in the event that they needed some help at the big-league level. An injury or whatever. Then they could call somebody like me.” He was 34 years old starting the season and played almost the entire year for the Pawtucket Red Sox, driving in 52 runs and batting .231.
After the International League season was over, and the major-league rosters expanded, Pankovits was summoned to the big club. “Two weeks after our season [in Pawtucket] was over, Marty Barrett was almost run over by a cab as he was putting some luggage in his car outside the hotel in Chicago. He hurt his knee really bad – he wasn’t hit, but [suffered the injury] in getting out of the way of the cab driver.” Barrett was limited to just three more appearances over the rest of the season.
The two AL games in which he played occurred in mid-September. Jody Reed had taken over for Barrett, and Pankovits didn’t have much to do. He played a total of three innings, without either a plate appearance or a fielding chance.
Through September 15, the Red Sox were in first place in the A.L. East, but only two games ahead of second-place Toronto. On the 16th, the Red Sox were in Chicago playing the White Sox. Chicago had a 4-1 lead after seven innings. Phil Plantier pinch-hit for Randy Kutcher in the top of the seventh and hit into an inning-ending double play. Pankovits took over for Kutcher at second base. No balls were hit his way in the bottom of the seventh or in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, as the Red Sox threatened to tie the game, manager Joe Morgan had lefty Danny Heep pinch-hit for Pankovits. Heep – representing the go-ahead run – walked, loading the bases. On a 1-1 count, Reed lined out to the pitcher, ending the game.
The only other appearance for Pankovits – his last in the majors – came three days later in Baltimore. The Blue Jays and Red Sox were then tied for first. The Orioles had a comfortable 8-3 lead after seven innings. Boston got one run, but Plantier pinch-hit for Barrett and made the third out. Pankovits took over at second base for the bottom of the eighth. Once more he was not involved in any plays and the game ended as an 8-4 Orioles win.
Despite his lack of action for the Red Sox, Pankovits has good memories of his time there. “I did get to take some batting practice at Fenway Park. I got to finish the season with the Red Sox and watch them clinch the division on the last day of the season at Fenway. It was a lot of fun.”
Pankovits and his wife Tressa decided they would stay in Providence over the winter and do some promotional work for PawSox owner Ben Mondor. He also sold suits in a local department store. In 1991, he played at Pawtucket, in 65 games, batting .265 with 30 RBIs. An old nemesis, pulled hamstrings, “came back and bit me in 1991, the last year I played. They basically ended my career. It’s a problem to this day.”
He was then given an offer he considered too good to refuse: the opportunity to manage the next three years in the Red Sox minor-league system. When hired, he revealed that as far back as 1980, he was “considered a managerial prospect before he convinced anyone he was a player prospect.” He said that “Houston management thought my immediate future would be as a manager. They said I didn’t project to be a major league player. Fortunately, I proved them – and a lot of other people—wrong and got to play five years in the big leagues.”14
Pankovits served from 1992 through 1994 as manager of the New Britain Red Sox in the Double-A Eastern League. In mid-1993, he said, “My dad was surprised when I took the job, but he said I’d enjoy managing more than playing. I know what he meant.”15 The team finished in eighth (last) place both in 1992 and 1993. After the league expanded to 10 teams, in two divisions, in 1994, New Britain finished last again in the North Division.
In 1995, Pankovits rejoined the Astros organization. He spent the first two years managing in Davenport, Iowa for the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Single-A Midwest League. The league had three divisions and Quad Cities placed first in the West both in 1995 and 1996, though the club did not make it through the playoffs.
Pankovits was out of baseball in 1997. “I decided I would try to get a real job. I went back to Richmond and worked for a friend of mine who owned an insurance-based financial services business. Sales weren’t for me.”
Pankovits eventually graduated from college, about 20 years after leaving USC. He transferred credits to Virginia Commonwealth University and went full-time to VCU for two off-seasons in order to finish up. When asked whether he thought it helped him in baseball to get a degree in business management, he said felt there were some positives, and that it helped him in his work as a field manager.
In 1998 and 1999 he managed Houston’s affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. The Generals finished third place in the Double-A Texas League both years. From 2000 through 2005, he worked as a roving defensive coordinator for the Astros, first working on infield defense and then handling both infield and outfield.
Then it was back to managing from 2006 through 2010, all in the Houston chain and all in Single A ball. He led the Salem (Virginia) Avalanche the first three years and then the Tri-City Valley Cats (Troy, New York).
“I really missed having my own team and competing,” he said, “I asked Houston if I could go back on the field and manage. They said yes, and that’s when I went to rookie ball. Salem first. We had a couple of good years there. In 2009, they asked me to go to short-season A Tri-City and manage that team. I was there two years. The second year, we won the championship. 2010.
From 2011 through 2013, he managed a team named the Jackson Generals once more, but for these three years it was a Double-A Southern League team affiliated with the Seattle Mariners and based in Jackson, Tennessee. He then returned to becoming an infield defensive coordinator for the Mariners
“My last year , they eliminated the infield coordinating position and I went to Modesto as the bench coach for the Mariners in High A, and we won a championship there. It was like every year I’d win a championship, the next year I’d leave.”
In 2018, Pankovits managed Mahoning Valley in the New York/Penn League. In 2019, he managed the Lynchburg Hillcats in the Carolina League. After that season, he announced his retirement. His decision to leave baseball preceded the pandemic that hit in 2020.
Jim and Tressa Pankovits had gotten married in 1988. There were no children and the marriage ended in divorce after about 13 years, but they had remained friends and resumed their relationship. Tressa had been a reporter back in 2001, then press secretary to the lieutenant governor of Illinois. She became communications director for a law group, while attending law school herself. After a period as an attorney and then a COO for an education consulting firm, as 2021 ended she was working at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, DC and was the Associate Director of the Project on Reinventing America’s Schools. Selling his house in South Carolina, Jim Pankovits was moving to Washington at the time of the 2021 interview.
Last revised: January 20, 2022
Thanks to Jim Pankovits for the November 2021 interview. Thanks to Rod Nelson.
This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Bill Johnson.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, SABR.org, and the Jim Pankovits player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 Ray Kerby, “An Interview with Jim Pankovits,” Astros Daily, September 21, 2001. http://www.astrosdaily.com/players/interviews/Pankovits_Jim.html . Accessed August 12, 2021.
2 Vince Pankovits’s career statistics can be found on Baseball-Reference.com at https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=pankov001vin . Accessed August 12, 2021.
3 Author interview with Jim Pankovits on November 4, 2021. Unless otherwise indicated, direct quotations attributed to Jim Pankovits come from this interview.
5 Harry Shattuck, “Astros’ Pankovits Is a Rookie at 28,” The Sporting News, June 18, 1984: 18.
6 Kerby. For more detail, see Shattuck, “Astros’ Pankovits Is a Rookie at 28.” The trade occurred in March 1982 and Pankovits played the full PCL season for the Islanders. It appears that Pankovits was formally released in October 1982 and resigned with Houston in January 1983.
7 Harry Shattuck, “Astronotes,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1984: 18.
8 Shattuck, “Astros’ Pankovits Is a Rookie at 28.”
9 Associated Press, “Rookie sparks Astros,” Galveston Daily News, June 4, 1984: 13.
10 Michael Lutz, “Pankovits grand slam gives Astros 8-3 win,” Paris News (Paris, Texas), May 30, 1985: 15.
12 “Astros,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1987: 21.
13 “Astros,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1988: 53.
14 Dom Amore, “Pankovits named Britsox manager,” Hartford Courant, November 36, 1991: C5A.
15 Dom Amore, “Pankovits” high approval rating,” Hartford Courant, June 25, 1992: C4.