Friday Flashback: Chris Enochs
In the spring of 1998, Chris Enochs was on the fast track to the majors. He was wearing rocket boots going downhill on a banana peel, which, according to my 10-year-old son, is going really, really fast.
Ten months earlier, in June 1997, Enochs became the first player in West Virginia University history to be picked in the first round of the major league draft when he was the 11th overall player selected by the Oakland A’s. After winning his three professional decisions at high-A Modesto, Enochs won six of his first seven games at Double-A Huntsville with a sub-two ERA when fate intervened.
He injured his pitching shoulder – more severely than he originally thought - and instead of opting for season-ending surgery, he tried to pitch through it to stay on track for the bigs. Sadly, that turned out to be a dead-end decision for his pro career.
“I got hurt at the worst time in my career,” Enochs recalled recently from his home in Chester, W.Va. “I started off really well and I got injured and was really down and out for two years in the prime of my career.
“I wasn’t really able to go out and pitch (effectively) at all and when I did come back it took me another year or so to get back my complete health,” said Enochs. “Looking back on it, it definitely wasn’t the best thing for me, but that’s how it goes.”
At the time of his injury, Baseball America rated Enochs the No. 3 prospect in a deep and very talented A’s organization that also included top-notch pitching prospects Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. All three went on to enjoy success in the bigs.
And Chris Enochs was right there with them.
“That’s the hard thing,” Enochs admitted. “I enjoyed everything that came with baseball, I just wished I could go back and not get injured because you see guys you competed against along the way that you matched up pretty well with- if not a little better - and they found a way to make it and stay healthy. That’s a little tough to see sometimes.”
Enochs came to WVU from Oak Glen High, located at the tip of the state’s Northern Panhandle, as one of the most coveted signees in Mountaineer baseball history. Just about every school in the country was after him at the time.
“LSU wanted me to come down and take a visit, but it was one of those things where I knew I wanted to stay close to home and I really wanted to go to West Virginia,” Enochs said. “I grew up being a West Virginia fan and I took my visit there and then I went ahead and took one to Ohio State and I was really impressed with it. Those were the two it came down to choose from.”
Enochs also weighed an offer to sign a pro contract with the Cleveland Indians as well as football scholarship offers to play quarterback at Pitt and WVU before eventually deciding to stick with college baseball.
But Enochs struggled mightily out of the gate at West Virginia, losing five of his first six decisions as a freshman and then posting an 0-3 record to begin his sophomore season before turning things around in a mid-March Big East game against Rutgers at Hawley Field.
“Up to that point I was very mediocre,” Enoch said. “I pitched against Rutgers and I think I threw a complete game and from that point on that led into my junior year, which was a good year. In sports, a lot of it is confidence, and that was the first time I had major success at that level. It kind of clicked after that.”
It certainly did.
Following the Rutgers victory, Enochs won 19 of his final 21 decisions, including posting a 12-1 record during his junior season in 1997. He was the staff ace that season after pitching in the No. 2 spot in the rotation in 1996 – the last time West Virginia has qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Enochs nearly pitched a no-hitter against Rutgers in the 1996 Big East tournament, giving up just a cheap sixth-inning infield hit, and he was able to come back on two day’s rest and pitch the final inning of West Virginia’s championship-clinching win over Notre Dame.
He was named Big East tournament most valuable player and helped WVU to a pair of NCAA tournament victories over Tennessee and Georgia Southern down in Clemson, S.C. Then, as a senior, Enochs was named Big East pitcher of the year and was listed on several All-America teams.
Aside from no-hitting Villanova during his junior campaign, Enochs’ signature performance as a Mountaineer pitcher came in the 1997 Big East tournament in Norwich, Conn., against Seton Hall’s Jason Grili in front of a stadium full of pro scouts. Grili, today baseball’s top closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, lost a 6-4 decision to Enochs that afternoon.
“I remember there being a lot of general managers in the stands and we ended up beating them,” Enochs recalled. “I think I gave up a two-run homer in the first inning and then after that I was able to pitch well.”
Afterward, A’s general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters that he was impressed with the way Enochs handled himself after a rough first inning and was able to defeat one of college baseball’s top pitchers. Alderson used the first of two first round draft choices that year to select Enochs.
Enochs was predominantly a fastball-changeup pitcher at WVU who occasionally threw a curveball as a waste pitch. In the pros, he added other variations of pitches to his repertoire, but it was his 94 mph fastball that he always relied on.
That is until he got hurt.
“I always got people out with my fastball and when I came back after my injury my fastball went from 94 to pitching at 89-90 and touching 91,” said Enochs. “I didn’t make the adjustments that I needed to make while I was still young - when I was 26-27 years old. I was still trying to pitch the same way that I always did, and I wasn’t very successful doing that.
“Then, I went to winter ball and I learned some things and later on in my pro career I felt like I was more successful because I learned how to pitch.”
Enochs eventually reached Triple-A in 2002, pitching two seasons in Sacramento for the A’s before being released in the fall of 2003. He was signed by Houston in the off-season and went 6-8 for the Astros at Triple-A New Orleans in 2004 and a year later he ended his pro career in Pittsburgh with Triple-A Indianapolis.
“That was cool for me growing up as a Pirate fan,” said Enochs of his brief tenure with the Pirates.
In nine professional seasons from 1997-2005, Enochs posted a 45-52 career record with a 4.87 earned run average. He won a career high nine games at Huntsville in 1998 and won 16 decisions during his final three seasons pitching Triple-A, mostly as a starter.
“My last few years with the A’s I pitched out of the pen a little bit in a long-guy role,” said Enochs. “But I always liked starting and I always seemed to pitch better when I started games. Even later in my career, when I was with the Astros in ’04 and with the Pirates in ’05, my starting numbers were really good, and my bullpen numbers were very average.”
There is clearly a fine line between having a long and successful professional career and being almost forgotten. Enochs certainly understands that better than most.
“Health is obviously very important because when you get to Double-A everybody is talented, but what is going to set you apart is finding a way to stay healthy, finding a way to be consistent and getting the right opportunity,” explained Enochs. “At moments, everybody is really, really good, but who can prolong those moments and find a way to be consistent is the hardest part of all.
“I had a huge advantage being drafted as high as I was, but when I had that advantage I wasn’t able to pitch and there is always that next draft class that follows,” Enochs said. “All of a sudden, I go from being the guy to kind of falling back in the pack a little bit. I had bad timing as far as injuries go. If I was going to have them, I wish they would have held off for a couple more years because I would have been in the big leagues by then.”
Today, Enochs is teaching economics, civics and world history at Lincoln Park Performing Charter School in Midland, Pa., and is raising two daughters – Reece and Macey – with his wife Jennifer.
When he’s not busy going to soccer games, Enochs says he will turn on the TV once in a while to watch some baseball. Even today, at age 37, Enochs says that he frequently sees guys that he once faced in the minors.
“I don’t know if I will ever get past it, but I’m to the point in my life where I’m pretty content with where I’m at with my kids … they keep me busy and I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” he said. “Some of the things I miss, I miss the guys and I miss being in the locker room. And I miss the competition. There is no other way I can recreate that today.”
There is no doubt Enochs had a major league arm, but unfortunately, he also had some bush league luck.
“I think it would have been tougher if I looked back and realized (the shoulder injury) was something I could have controlled,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”
Actually an even greater what-if for Enochs was his decision to pick baseball over football. Many folks up in New Cumberland, Newell and Chester still believe football might have been his true calling.
“That is always something that kind of sticks with me more,” he admitted. “What if I would have played football? I think I have more what-ifs when it comes to football than I do baseball.”
Who knows? Perhaps his luck would have been a little bit better.
Chris Enochs, Major League first-year player draft, West Virginia Mountaineers, Oakland A's, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates
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