Former Major League Baseball All-Star Rafael Furcal can vividly remember his first game as a member of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
And what the now-retired shortstop did in his time with the Pelicans proved to pave the way for his illustrious career in baseball.
Furcal went 3-for-4 to lead the Pelicans to a victory in his debut with the team and went on to bat above .400 during his first month in Myrtle Beach. The Dominican – whose career has been filled with both triumph and tragedy – said it was the memory of his late brothers, Jose and Manuel, who both passed away in 1999 that served as motivation.
“I was so nervous, and my brothers died not long before and I came here. I was doing it for them,” Furcal recalled Saturday at the Legends Never Fade celebrity softball game at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark. “It’s very special because that is when I started to make a name for myself.”
In Myrtle Beach’s inaugural season of 1999, Furcal was called up to the Pelicans from Low-A Macon (Ga.) in late July, and it didn’t take him long to become a fan favorite.
He hit .293 in 43 games in Myrtle Beach while dazzling at shortstop, and stole 23 bases to give him 96 on the season in 126 games between the two stops.
He teamed with second baseman Marcus Giles, the Carolina League MVP that season, to form a middle infield of future MLB All-Stars and helped the Pelicans to a share of the Carolina League championship.
It took Furcal just 242 games in the minor leagues to make it to to the Pelicans’ then-parent club, the Atlanta Braves.
“Everything changed,” said Furcal, who retired from the game last May. “I was being talked about a lot and people were coming to see me. Man, it was a awesome. I loved it.
“I never expected to make that jump so quick. They invited me to spring training and saw what I had. I made the team and it was special at the time and I made the most of it.”
When he arrived, Furcal took the MLB by storm.
During his rookie campaign in 2000, Furcal batted .295 with four home runs, 37 RBIs, 87 runs scored and stole 40 bases in 131 games en route to being named National League Rookie of the Year.
“He’s a multi-talented player that any team could utilize,” said former St. Louis Cardinals coach Tony La Russa, who coached Furcal in 2011 and also took part in the celebrity softball game Saturday. “He has a great arm, he’s a switch hitter and he has power and speed.”
Furcal batted above .275 in his six solid seasons with the Braves and was named a National League All-Star in 2003.
After his time in Atlanta, Furcal signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and went on to have some of the best years of his career.
Furcal batted .300 in 2006 and again in 2010, when he was named an All-Star for the second time.
But something was missing.
“I wanted a ring,” Furcal said.
It just so happened that the St. Louis Cardinals were looking for someone of Furcal’s caliber in their hunt for a World Series title and traded for the shortstop just before the 2011 trade deadline.
“At that time of year, we needed a spark,” La Russa said. “[Furcal] gave us exactly what we needed.”
Furcal batted .255 with 7 homers, 16 RBIs and 29 runs scored in 50 games with the Cardinals, who beat the Texas Rangers in seven games to win the 2011 World Series – Furcal’s first and only title.
“We were fortunate to have him,” La Russa said. “He gave us a lift right when we needed it and carried it right over to October. … I never realized he didn’t have a World Series ring before that year, so he was real motivated to get it done and he had a lot of personality.”
Furcal was the one that coined the term “Happy Flight,” which referred to the state of the team’s plane ride home following a series win.
There were a lot of “Happy Flights” that season.
“I came up with it and those guys loved it,” Furcal said of the phrase. “They just took it and went with it. That there was such a special team. We all wanted it so bad. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.”
Furcal would play just one more full season, batting .264 with five homers, 49 RBIs and 69 runs scored in 121 games with the Cardinals in 2012, when he was named an All-Star for the third and final time.
He missed the 2013 season as he underwent Tommy John surgery and played just a portion of the 2014 season as a member of the Miami Marlins, batting .171 in nine games.
Furcal announced his retirement from baseball on May 19, 2015 after playing just seven games in the minors for the Class A-Advanced Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League and the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals of the Texas League.
With his playing career in the books, Furcal can only smile when he thinks back to some of his favorite moments as a player.
In 2003 while playing for the Braves, Furcal turned the 12th unassisted triple play in major league history. The feat has now been accomplished 15 times.
“Man,” Furcal said with a big grin. “Wasn’t that crazy?”
Although, he smiles even bigger when he looks to the future as he wants his sons, Rafael Jr. and Anthony to follow in his footsteps.
And they’ll have a wealth of knowledge to draw from.
“I’m still around the game. I still go to the ballpark. But it’s for them,” said Furcal, who finished with a .281 batting average, 113 home runs and 314 stolen bases in his 14 years in the majors. “Now I want to teach them what I know.”
Who knows? Maybe one day they will wind up wowing crowds in Myrtle Beach, where their father became the face of a franchise.
“It’s so exciting [to be back],” Furcal said while sitting in the Pelicans’ dugout once again Saturday night. “It’s an honor to be the first guy to have my number retired here and I have a lot of great memories playing for the Pelicans.”
Frederick Keys at Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Location: TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark
Starters: LHP Mitch Horacek (FRE) vs. RHP Jonathan Martinez
Online: Video – MiLB.TV; Audio – MyrtleBeachPelicans.com
Tickets: Ranging from $7 to $13; first 5,000 fans will receive a magnet schedule. Available online at myrtlebeachpelicans.com or at the stadium box office.