Junior Felix knew how to make a great first impression. The Cat made his major league debut for Toronto on May 4th, 1989 and promptly swatted the first pitch he saw from Kirk McCaskill into the seats for a home run, becoming the 27th AL player to homer on his first at-bat, and only the 10th to do it on the first pitch. He made news later that season by belting an inside-the-park grand slam at Fenway Park, leading the Jays to victory. Yes, the Cat was taking Toronto by storm, and was even featured in one of the greatest films ever produced – Sky High: The Story of the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays.
When he made his debut in May of 1989, the Blue Jays were in the midst of a dismal start to the season, sitting 10-18 in 6th place in the AL East. While many people point the finger at the hiring of Cito Gaston to replace Jimy Williams at the reason for the turnaround that season, don’t underestimate Mr. Felix. His speed and versatility allowed Toronto to bat him lead-off or ninth, giving Cito numerous lineup options. Sure the Jays had Whitt, McGriff, Fernandez, Gruber, Moseby, and Bell, but Junior Felix became the sparkplug that made the team run. After his call-up to the bigs, the Jays finished the season on a 79-55 run to claim the division.
After a disappointing five game ALCS loss to Oakland, Felix was back in 1990. He hit .263 with 15 HR, 65 RBI, and 13 SB and wrote his name further into Blue Jay folk lore by catching the final out of Dave Stieb’s no-hitter in September. Felix the Cat t-shirts were selling like hot cakes in Toronto. I was only 11 years old so my memory is foggy, but I’m sure that women were throwing themselves at him wherever he went. It looked like there was a real chance that Junior might become a mainstay in the Blue Jay lineup for years to come.
Except for one problem – he really wasn’t that good. His OBP was substandard (.315 in ’89 and .328 in ’90). His defense was only decent, and his arm strength was virtually non-existant. And for a player who was supposed to possess supernatural speed, he was a terrible base runner. In two seasons with the Jays he stole 31 bases and was caught 20 times. He would finish his career with nearly as many caught stealings as stolen bases (40 to 49 – a 55% success rate). For perspective, Rickey Henderson had a career success rate of over 80%. All-in-all, Junior Felix was merely an average or below-average baseball player who happened to capture the hearts of fans.
In fact, his greatest contribution to the Blue Jays came in December of 1990, when Pat Gillick packaged him with Luis Sojo, sending the pair to the California Angels for a package that included Devon White. That remains one of the greatest trades in team history to this day, as Devo lead the Jays to three straight AL East titles, and two consecutive World Series.
Junior did have one more moment in the sun however. He was selected by the Florida Marlins with the 59th pick in the 1992 expansion draft, and was a member of their opening day lineup. Never mind the fact that he only lasted 57 games in Miami, with a .238 avg, .276 OBP, 50 K’s to 10 BB, and only 2 SB. He was on the field for Florida’s first ever game!!! After the Marlins released him, he was picked up for half a season by the Tigers in 1994, then called it a career.
So while it wasn’t a long career, it was a monumental one. A home run on his first pitch, the final out of a no-hitter, a playoff appearance, and a selection in the expansion draft. It is moments like these that ensure that Junior Felix – The Cat – will never be forgotten.
Junior Felix: Career Major League Statistics
6 seasons (1989 – 1994)
4 teams (TOR, CAL, FLA, DET)
.264 average, 55 HR, 280 RBI, 309 R, 49 SB, .730 OPS
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