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Meet the Mormon 'Moonlight' Graham

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 4:02 p.m. MDT

Ron Wright of the Tacoma Rainiers. (Richard Trask) Ron Wright of the Tacoma Rainiers. (Richard Trask)

Thanks to the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” many know the story of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. The outfielder appeared in one Major League Baseball game with the New York Giants in 1905.

Ron Wright is the Mormon version of “Moonlight” Graham, with a slight twist.

Wright made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners in a 2002 game against the Texas Rangers. While Graham never came to the plate, Wright batted three times and accounted for six outs.

“It’s cool and not cool,” Wright said of his membership in baseball’s one-and-done club. “I could have fared better, but I did make my one game memorable. I’m just glad I made it. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Ron Wright and his wife, Annica, with their children. (Family Photo) Ron Wright and his wife, Annica, with their children. (Family Photo)

Wright’s long climb to his single appearance in the big leagues is a compelling story. Along the way he found his wife and started a family, overcame a debilitating injury, avoided steroids and emerged with increased faith and a stronger testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The gospel," he said, "kept my head on straight through it all.”

Dale Murphy

Wright was born in Delta, Utah, the son of a mason/beekeeper. His family, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moved to Tri-Cities, Wash., when Wright was about 8 years old. He developed a love of baseball at a young age and idolized the most prominent Mormon in the majors — Dale Murphy. He got a copy of Murphy’s biography and soaked up everything he could learn about the 1982 and 1983 National League MVP.

Ron and Annica Wright cut their wedding cake in 1996. (Family Photo) Ron and Annica Wright cut their wedding cake in 1996. (Family Photo)

“I’ve loved ‘Murph’ since he was with the (Atlanta) Braves,” Wright said. “I knew he was LDS, which set him up as a good role model.”

Wright recalls traveling with some relatives to San Francisco to see a Giants-Braves three-game series in 1987. The group was able to meet Murphy and even attended church services with the Atlanta baseball star.

“I’ll never forget that. It was really a neat experience,” Wright said. “The whole three days were surreal. It was crazy being in his presence. He was the idol of a lot of LDS kids back then. Right then I knew I wanted to play baseball as long as I could.”

Game-changing choices

The Atlanta Braves drafted Wright in the seventh round of the 1994 draft. As he adjusted to life in the minors in West Palm Beach, Fla., he found himself surrounded by 18-year-olds away from their parents for the first time. They had money to spend and no morals, Wright said.

As a young man, Ron Wright (sweater vest) got to meet his idol, Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy (left center), during a three-game series in San Francisco in 1987. They pause for a photo here in a hotel lobby as fans look on. (Family Photo) As a young man, Ron Wright (sweater vest) got to meet his idol, Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy (left center), during a three-game series in San Francisco in 1987. They pause for a photo here in a hotel lobby as fans look on. (Family Photo)

“There was everything going on down there,” he said. “It was like a college fraternity on steroids.”

It just so happened that the league Wright played in didn’t schedule games on Sunday, the only league in pro baseball with that policy, he said. But on his first Sunday morning, nobody was there to make him go to church, so he skipped out. A few days later, however, the 18-year-old had a game-changing epiphany.

“My parents made sure I knew the biggest priority in their life, besides us, was the church. But you have to decide whether you will go or not. My family is 3,000 miles away. They are done checking up on me. I can’t rely on their testimony anymore,” Wright said. “I realized right then I needed the church in my life and made a conscious decision to stay true.”

Ron Wright holds his daughter on the field after a game. (Family Photo) Ron Wright holds his daughter on the field after a game. (Family Photo)

That pivotal decision led to one of the greatest blessings of Wright’s life. Near the end of his second season in 1995, he was at church when he met an impressive girl named Annica. Despite his having shaved his head the night before, there was chemistry between them. They began dating and a few months later during spring training, they became engaged. The couple was married in the Salt Lake Temple in September 1996.

“She’s an incredible woman,” Wright said. “The gratification of my marriage has been, by far, more than I could have had by playing any amount of baseball at any level.”

The injury

Wright, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound slugger, displayed a remarkable talent for hitting the ball as he crushed 68 home runs in his first two full minor league seasons. Some soared as high as the stadium lights and as far as 500-plus feet.

Ron Wright holds his children after a game with the Durham Bulls. (Family Photo) Ron Wright holds his children after a game with the Durham Bulls. (Family Photo)

At that point, Wright’s future was so promising that the Pittsburgh Pirates traded one of their top pitchers, Denny Neagle, to the Braves for Wright and Jason Schmidt. Wright, penciled in as the Pirates’ first baseman for the next decade, was called up to the “bigs” in September 1997. At the time he had a sore wrist, so he didn’t play, but the organization wanted him to taste the future.

Things took an unexpected turn, however, in the spring of 1998. The Pirates considered putting Wright on their opening-day roster, but opted for another infielder. During his first week with Class AAA Nashville, Wright was stretching when he felt pain in his back. He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. The injury required surgery to remove a disk in his back. During the operation, damage was done to his sciatic nerve, leaving numbness in his right leg for the rest of his life.

Ron Wright as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (Family Photo) Ron Wright as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (Family Photo)

Wright missed the 1998 season and wasn’t fully healed at the start of the 1999 season. He was still a good baseball player, but he couldn’t generate the power in his right leg, making a long career in the majors more doubtful.

“There were times when I would be walking along and almost fall down because my right leg would catch on me and it wouldn’t work. You’re a can’t-miss prospect one day and after a bummed operation you’re suspect the next. I was never, ever the same,” Wright said. “That’s when you have to draw close to God, family and things that matter. … Otherwise it will make you a bitter person.”

But Wright was not ready to give up on his major league dream. At a time when many players were using steroids to bulk up, Wright patiently worked his way back without taking shortcuts.

Ron Wright hits the ball during a game in Macon, Ga., as a member of the Atlanta Braves organization. (Family Photo) Ron Wright hits the ball during a game in Macon, Ga., as a member of the Atlanta Braves organization. (Family Photo)

“My 10 years was a big time for steroids. I sat there and watched guys sell their honor and everything else down the drain,” Wright said. “The church played a huge role in helping me understand what’s important, and knowing there was a bigger plan for me than to make money.”

For the next three seasons, Wright played ball in Durham, N.C.; Akron, Ohio; Greenville, S.C.; Altoona, Penn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Two days after one daughter was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2000, the family had to move to Louisville, Ky. There were a few minor setbacks, including the time he chased a foul ball into a wall and hurt his leg again. But he endured.

In the spring of 2002, Wright was playing for Tacoma, the Class AAA affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, when he got on a hitting streak. After a game in Des Moines, Iowa, he received some good news.

The game

Ron Wright played 11 seasons of professional baseball but only appeared in a major league game once. This is a photo of Wright when he was a member of the Atlanta Braves organization. (Family Photo) Ron Wright played 11 seasons of professional baseball but only appeared in a major league game once. This is a photo of Wright when he was a member of the Atlanta Braves organization. (Family Photo)

Tacoma manager Dan Rohn delivered the message that Seattle slugger Edgar Martinez had ruptured a hamstring tendon and Wright needed to jump on the first plane to Texas. Five years after his first trip to the majors, he was going back. When the shock wore off, he called his family with the news. He told his parents there was no rush to get to Texas — he would be there a while.

Wright remained on the bench for two games before a teammate was injured during batting practice. Wright was inserted as the designated hitter.

His only regret is that he didn’t swing at the first pitch, an 84-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, because it was the best pitch he would see before he struck out.

In his second at-bat in the fourth inning, Wright just wanted to make contact. There were runners on first and third and he wanted an RBI. He smacked a pitch that bounced up the middle, but Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers snagged the ball and threw to second base for the force out. Ruben Sierra, the runner on third, had drifted off the base and was caught in a rundown, but got tagged for out No. 2. Meanwhile, Wright attempted to reach second and became the last out as the ball was fired back to second base.

Wright’s last opportunity at the plate came in the sixth. This time, he swung at the fastball and connected, but the ball went right to Rangers’ shortshop Alex Rodriguez, who tossed the ball to second and to first for a double play.

Seattle manager Lou Piniella inserted a pinch hitter for Wright after that. A few days later, he was sent back to Tacoma. He never made it back to the major league level.

In the Mariners’ clubhouse after the game, he was presented with a souvenir lineup card signed by Rodriguez. Ben Davis, the Mariners’ catcher that day and now an analyst for CSN Philadelphia, said this of Wright’s big day in the majors: “It was like all these emotions in one. One, we were happy that he’s in the big leagues for this first game. Then he accounted for all those outs, which was not good obviously. But then we chuckled: What are the odds? They're astronomical,” Davis told the Sporting News.

“It stinks. Think about all the hours, all the batting practice, all the bus rides he took in the minor leagues — he finally gets to the big leagues with a chance to do something, and this happens. But I would say probably 99 percent of the people in the world would say they’d still love the opportunity to go and make six outs.”

Wright's one game has also well been documented by Lee Jenkins in the New York Times.

To this day, Wright continues to be grateful for his one MLB appearance.

“I would have loved to get a hit, but it’s a great memory,” he said.

Postgame report

Wright’s career spanned 11 seasons, from 1994 to 2004.

He graduated from pharmacy school at Idaho State in 2009. He and his wife have three daughters and one son with autism. The family lives in St. George, Utah.

Wright was the hitting coach for Dixie State under coach Mike Littlewood in 2004-05 and 2009-10. The team won the National Junior College World Series in ’04. Littlewood, now the head coach at BYU, said Wright was a valuable member of the staff because of his vast professional experience. Littlewood said everyone respected Wright for overcoming injuries and adversity to reach his goals.

“He (Wright) could relate to our guys and had so much to offer them with real-life experience,” Littlewood said. “He also showed you can be a really good (religious) guy and play professional sports.”

Murphy was not aware of his impact on Wright.

"I'm happy to hear about Ron Wright and his success in life and I am grateful to have had any kind of positive impact on him," Murphy said via email. "I don't remember specifically meeting him and, unfortunately, have not been aware of his baseball career. But I am humbled by his words and thankful to have had the chance to help him in some small way."

Wright wouldn’t trade his baseball experiences for anything. A career in minor league baseball has helped him develop the patience to care for his autistic son. It has also taught him persistence, hard work and the importance of priorities.

“I hope people see to never give up and that lessons you learn in hard work stay with you. That (the) glass is always half full. Be grateful. Keep priorities straight with church and family,” Wright said. “As much as it would have been nice to stay in the big leagues, I would never trade my family for it.”

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