It can be safely assumed that many of the players from the Alaska Baseball League’s Peninsula Oilers come from a baseball background, and that their families have been involved in the sport.
But perhaps no player comes from a background as extensive as pitcher J.D. Salles.
Salles is the third generation of his family to play the game at a high level. His father, John Salles, played in the minor leagues with the Chicago Cubs, and his grandfather, also named John, played with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in the 1960s.
The youngest Salles currently plays in college for the Fresno State Bulldogs in California, and is pitching for the Oilers for the second straight summer. He pitched four innings in the Oilers’ 3-1 win against the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks last Thursday night, and recorded five strikeouts.
Salles came up to play in Alaska because he had heard good things about last year’s coach, Dennis Machado, and fast became good friends with current coach John Stevens and his brother Dave, the team’s pitching coach. Coincidentally, Dave used to play with Salles’ father with the Orlando Cubs in the AA Southern League.
“It was a good place that would work out, and one of my best friends from St. Mary’s is on the team, Jordan Mills, so that was kind of cool,” J.D. said. “It’s a good place to get away for a couple months and work on your stuff.”
Growing up with a father who played competitively, Salles was easily hooked on the sport from the beginning, learning the basic mechanics of throwing and hitting from his dad at an early age, and then getting a start on using those skills in Little League at age 6.
“Playing Little League — that was the most fun of my life,” J.D. said. “When I was 11, my team had a 23-0 record, and the next year we were 18-3, and that was when there were no worries in the world except baseball.
“(My father) taught me the mental side of the game, and how to be tough, and you got to be tough on the mound if you’re going to win games, and that’s where I feel like I have an advantage. You have to feel like you’re better than the hitter, or you have no chance.”
Salles played at Clovis West High School in California, and following that was admitted to Fresno State to play baseball, where he currently majors in kinesiology.
His father, John, also played at Fresno State, and was named an All-American in his junior year, in 1988.
John now owns a pest control business in California, but still coaches as a high school pitching instructor on the side.
“I played for a coach that was a great man, he was a hall of fame coach in AA, and he was one of the best pitching coaches I’ve had as a player,” John said. “Everything I learned there I’ve used with J.D., and he was a teacher of the game.”
John was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the 1988 MLB June Amateur Draft, and went on to play a successful career in the minor leagues, including stints with the Charlotte Knights in the AA class, and the Iowa Cubs in the AAA class.
“Once you start pitching all the time, it’s hard to do both,” John said of pitching and batting. “I mean, I threw 177 innings a year. Now 100 innings is considered a lot.
“I was a sandwich pick (in 1988), or whatever you want to call it, and when you’re growing up, that’s usually your goal as a player, to play pro ball and see how far you can go, so that’s what we did.”
As a player, John was mildly successful as a hitter, but found most of his success pitching. He averaged a 3.55 ERA in his six-year career, with a one-year low of 2.41 ERA in 1992 with the Charlotte Knights.
“J.D. was born in Charlotte my first year in AA, and every year you get better,” John said. “Each level everything changes, you need to get better every time something changes.”
Eventually, John had to decide between a baseball career and spending more time with his family. He had received an offer from the San Francisco Giants to play during a strike-shortened season in 1994, but he made the decision to end his career.
“You sacrifice a lot as a pro athlete, family life suffers, and so it was different,” he said. “I didn’t want J.D. to not see me and know me. Every parent wants their kid to supersede anything they did.”
John’s father, and J.D.’s grandfather, was drafted straight out of high school in 1964 by the Salem Rebels, a rookie-class team in the Appalachian League that is affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He moved to the Batavia Pirates, an A-league team in the New York-Pennsylvania League, in 1965, sporting a batting average of .286 that year.
J.D. plans on playing at Fresno Pacific University next year, but is nonetheless focused for the summer.
“The team last year was good, with all those guys being drafted (13 total), it was a great team,” J.D. said. “We come here to play in the summer, and it’s really fun, but we also come here to win.
“John Stevens does a great job, and I don’t see why we can’t win the ABL again this year.”
Being a third-generation player, J.D. is content to play for a team that holds the distinction of defending ABL champion, and hopes to sometime soon be drafted in the professional leagues.
“That would be big, it’s something I’ve wanted my whole life,” J.D. said. “It would be special, so we’ll see if that happens, and if not, I’ll move on and at least I’ll have my degree.”