The sudden and shocking death of Daniel Flores, a 17-year-old catching prospect for the Red Sox, is sadly reminiscent of the saga of Lynn’s own Harry Agganis.
Although the situations aren’t exactly the same, there are some eerie similarities. Agganis, who was only 26 at the time, was admitted to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge in June of 1955 after suffering fever and chest pains. He was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Ten days later, however, he was back in the lineup. There may have been reasons for this that go beyond medical. Agganis, Lynn’s “Golden Greek” who had led Classical and then Boston University to football glory, had lost his starting job early in the season to Norm Zauchin. He’d won it back, though, and was batting .315 when he fell ill the first time.
Upon returning to the lineup, he played two more games while the team was on the road and was flown back to Sancta Maria, where doctors said he’d relapsed because he’d come back too soon. He was showing signs of improvement when he was stricken, on June 27, with a pulmonary embolism and died.
Flores’ death came about in similar rapid and shocking fashion. The 17-year-old Venezuelan, who many had labeled a “can’t miss” prospect was playing in the Dominican Republic as late as Oct. 24 when he began complaining of pain in his back. He was diagnosed with a testicular tumor and flew up to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment.
Although the survival rate for testicular cancer is over 90 percent, Flores’ had metastasized into his lungs. Still, his sudden, and swift, death from the disease last week stunned people throughout baseball, and has left many questions unanswered.
This isn’t a medical column. I have no answers, either about Harry Agganis’ death in 1955 or Daniel Flores’ last week. But the similarities are haunting.
Anyone who has followed sports knows that the most imprecise science in the world is “draftology,” that practice of evaluating unproven talent and projecting where kids who have never seen a Major League pitch, or faced a National Football League pass rush, will land when they become eligible to play professionally.
Two months into the 1955 baseball season — which is barely enough time to go through the entire circuit once — Agganis was hitting .315. But because of his unfortunate and untimely death, we will never know whether he’d have continued to trend upward or if he’d fall back to less successful levels. We do know that he was a genuine high school phenom in football; and we do know that he put Boston University on the map with his quarterbacking. We do know that he was good enough in baseball to sign with the Red Sox and forgo offers from the Cleveland Browns. But that’s where it ends.
At the age of 17, Daniel Flores was turning heads all over organized baseball. And while it’s easy to say he’d have continued his upward mobility, the majority of 17-year-old phenoms are a Major League curveball, or a couple of Giancarlo Stanton home runs, away from being sent back home — branded as just another failed experiment.
What’s tragic, though, is the knowledge that Harry Agganis never got that chance to prove what he could do at the Major League level. We’ll always have our conjecture. But we don’t know whether Harry would have turned into another Ty Cobb, whether he’d have ended up as one of those solid .270 hitters, or whether he’d had ended up being a journeyman backup infielder. Or whether he’d have stuck around at all. He never got to finish his book.
Flores, on the other hand, never even got to start his. Baseball is littered with “wouldas, couldas and shouldas.” They come and go, and the ratio of those who spring up and fade away vs. the ones who end up making it is pretty one-sided — and not in a favorable way.
And that’s fine. The winnowing system that’s Major League Baseball is pretty foolproof. If “draftology” is an imprecise science, the uncompromising manner in which big-league prospects have to prove themselves is about as accurate as it gets. He who attempts to make it in the Major Leagues does so with the words “caveat emptor” ringing in his ears.
It’s a different story, though, when you don’t get that chance to prove you belong. It reminds me of the poignant side-story in “Field of Dreams” of Moonlight Graham, who asked for just one at-bat in a Major League game.
I’m betting if Daniel Flores could talk to us today, he’d be happy with just one at-bat. He never even got that chance. And that’s the tragedy of it.