Grave Story: Joe DeSa (1959-1986)

Here lies Joe DeSa, a first baseman/outfielder who never really got a fair shake in the majors, no matter how well he performed in AAA. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1980) and Chicago White Sox (1985).

Joe DeSa was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on July 27, 1959. His uncle, John Matias, played briefly for the White Sox in 1970, but he had relatives on both sides of his family who were active in baseball, according to his SABR biography. DeSa was being recognized for his athletic abilities by the state’s Puerto Rican Athletic Association while still in high school. He went to Damien High School and played both football and baseball there. He was named the MVP of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s Interscholastic League of Honolulu All-Star team after leading the league in RBIs and hitting a league-record 8 home runs. He would have played for the University of Hawaii, but the mainland came calling.

DeSa was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Third Round of the 1977 June Amateur Draft. His grandfather acted as his agent in negotiations and was said to have given the Cardinals rep a tough time. DeSa, however, had already made up his mind.

“No matter what, I’d have signed. I wanted to play baseball already,” he told the Star-Bulletin. The Cardinals signed another Hawaiian, pitcher Vaughn Yadao, in the draft and assigned both of them to the Rookie League team in Calgary, Alberta, Canada —about as different from Honolulu as you could get. Yadao’s career ended after one season, but DeSa hit a solid .272 in 70 games and began an orderly progression through the minor leagues.

He played for two A-ball teams in 1978 and hit a combined .293. He was promoted to AA in 1979 and hit .317 for the Arkansas Travelers with 13 home runs. He was promoted to the AAA Springfield Redbirds in 1980 and batted .293 with 74 RBIs. Along with his offensive skills, he was regularly at or near the top in all defensive categories for first basemen. His consistently good play merited a September call-up to the majors in September 1980, as part of a group that included Tom Herr, Ty Waller, Tito Landrum and George Frazier. He got into seven games, five of which were pinch-hitting appearances. He hit 3 singles in 11-at-bats for a .273 average.

DeSa spent the next three seasons in the Cardinals’ AAA team— Springfield in 1981 and Louisville in 1982 and ’83. He played very well in 1981 (.292 average, 12 home runs, 73 RBIs) and 1982. (.275, 14, 75), so there was no lack of effort or ability on his part. Part of the problem was that the Cardinals had Keith Hernandez as their starting first baseman, and DeSa hadn’t spent enough time in the minors as an outfielder to be tested there in the majors. Hernandez was dealt to the Mets in 1983, and DeSa got off to a great start in Louisville, batting .295 in 27 games. However, he broke his ankle while trying to avoid getting hit by an inside pitch and spent the rest of the summer recuperating. It was made clear to him that he was no longer a part of the Cardinals’ plans.

“I thought they had, but [director of player development Lee] Thomas told me I was going nowhere in this organization,” he told the Star-Bulletin in July of 1983. “The Cardinals go for speed. The Pirates seem to go more for hitting which may be a good chance for me.”

Source: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 15, 1987.

It was the White Sox rather than the Pirates who picked him up after he left the Cardinals organization as a six-year free agent. The team may have changed, but the result was the same. He spent 1984 in AAA (the Denver Zephyrs), piled up good stats (.282 average, 10 homers, 81 RBIs) and couldn’t get the call to the majors because of an established first baseman blocking his way (Greg Walker, in this case).

DeSa finally got to break camp with a major-league team out of Spring Training in 1985. He appeared in three early games for the White Sox, had two hitless at-bats and was sent back to AAA. He returned in August when Walker was injured and spent the rest of the year with the team. In his first game back on August 11, he went 2-for-3 with a double and his first MLB home run off the Brewers’ Ray Burris for a 4-1 win.

DeSa talked to the Chicago Tribune about the frustration of seeing other players get the call to the majors when he was stuck in AAA, with friends and family asking him when he was going to go up.

“I hope they read in the papers tomorrow that I got my first major-league homer. Oh, man, what a feeling that was. I thought about everything while I was running around the bases,” he said.

In spite of that great start, DeSa was used sparingly, mostly as a pinch-hitter or a defensive replacement. His other season highlight came on September 13, when he belted a pinch-hit grand slam in a 6-1 win in Seattle against the Mariners. He ended the year with a .182 average in 28 games and 44 at-bats.

DeSa spent one last year in AAA for the Buffalo Bisons before he was released in by the Sox October 1986. He was named the team MVP after batting .284 with 17 homers, 21 doubles and 83 RBIs. DeSa signed a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals about a month later and went to Puerto Rico to play Winter Ball. He played his final games for the Ponce Lions.

On December 20, 1986, DeSa and the Lions beat the Mayaguez Indians 11-8. He went to a teammate’s house for a party after the game and was returning home to San Juan, where his wife, Margarita, and son, Joe IV were waiting for him. The 17-month-old boy had been ill, so they did not travel with DeSa like they usually did. At about 3:30 in the morning, DeSa was involved in a head-on collision with another car. DeSa’s 1986 Mitsubishi and a Mazda driven by Nelson Toro Robles were destroyed, and both drivers were killed. Joe DeSa was 27 years old.

“Joey was an outstanding ballplayer who always gave 100 percent,” Royals minor-league batting coach Mike Lum told the Star-Bulletin. Lum was a former teammate of John Matias and knew DeSa as a child. “I was really looking forward to seeing him this spring.”

Alcohol was not a factor in the accident. DeSa had stopped for gas about 15 minutes from his house and got onto the wrong side of the highway after leaving the gas station. The White Sox and the minor-league Hawaii Islanders held a Joe DeSa Day on August 16, 1987. The White Sox presented Margarita with a check for $120,000, and proceeds of the game between the Islanders and Portland Beavers were also donated to the family.

DeSa played in a total of 35 games in the major leagues, with 11 hits in 55 at-bats for a .200 batting average. He hit 2 doubles and 2 home runs, driving in 7 runs and scoring 5 times. In his 10 seasons in the minor leagues DeSa slashed .289/.368/.439 with 105 home runs. He is buried in Hawaiian Memorial Park Cemetery in Kanehoe, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.

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