Inside pitch: No. 1 pick in 1979, Chambers looks back at the top

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Al Chambers, who once represented the hopes and dreams of the Seattle Mariners, is about as far away as you can get from baseball stardom.

He works the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift on the production line at Hershey Foods in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. He mixes the ingredients for chocolate syrup and wonders what might have been.

Chambers' name always arises this time of year, and he cringes, because he knows the drill. Inevitably, the subject turns to big-time draft busts, and that's where Chambers comes in.

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Mariners made him the first pick in the nation, a strapping (6-foot-4, 215-pound) outfielder from Harrisburg High whom they envisioned as the next Jim Rice.

"Chambers has the most power of any free agent I've seen," Mariners scout Bill Kearns said on draft day. "In a few years, people will pay just to watch this guy taking batting practice."

Chambers signed a letter of intent to play football for Arizona State, but when the Mariners threw an $85,000 signing bonus at him, the decision was easy. He envisioned a long and lucrative career.

He had neither. In the minors, Chambers hit for average but never showed the power the Mariners hoped for. He made it to the majors for parts of the 1983, '84 and '85 seasons, but those three stints totaled a mere 57 games and 120 at-bats, with a .208 lifetime average, two homers and 11 runs batted in.

Late in the spring of 1986, just before the Mariners broke camp, Seattle released Chambers. He never returned to the major leagues, though he kicked around the Houston and Cubs organizations, had a stint in Mexico and even went to camp with the White Sox in 1995 as a replacement player.

"I get tired of hearing, 'What happened to No. 1 pick Al Chambers?' " Chambers said in a phone interview. "Well, No. 1 pick Al Chambers didn't get an opportunity. Any high picks that don't get an opportunity will be in the same position I'm in."

Chambers is 43 now, with his first child on the way in November. He coached baseball at Harrisburg High for several years and is still active in youth baseball and clinics. Only lately has he let go of the bitterness he felt at the way his major-league career came crashing down.

"There was a time after I left the game, I didn't want to pick up the paper or watch baseball, because of everything that happened," he said.

Though Chambers insists he wishes the Mariners well and has no lingering bitterness, talking about his career seems to bring the hard feelings back. In his mind, he was thwarted at every moment of opportunity.

"What it really came down to," he said, "is I got drafted by the wrong organization. I can't compare myself to No. 1 picks getting an opportunity at the major-league level, because I never did. I did everything asked of me in the minors, but when it came time to come up and make money, then they started toying with me."

His first callup came on July 22, 1983, when outfielder Al Cowens went on the disabled list. Chambers was hitting .337 with 12 home runs and 77 RBI for Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League, and some thought he might never go down again.

In his first game, Chambers batted cleanup against the Boston Red Sox, and drove in four runs. But already, something felt wrong to him.

"The veterans on the team didn't take me under their wing," he said. "It was a tough situation for me. I talked to other rookies in the league who told me how the veterans showed them the ropes, but it never happened in Seattle."

Chambers stayed in the big leagues for one month, then was devastated when he was sent back down to Class AAA on Aug. 22.

"I was clearly proving to them I belonged," he said. "You'd think they would have said, 'We're going to let Al Chambers play, see what he can do.' No, they sent me back down. And that was my break. You only get so many breaks."

Chambers came back when the rosters expanded in September and finished with a .209 average in 31 games.

The next year, he had 22 games in the majors, and hit .224. In 1985, Chambers played just four games, all in September, all as a pinch-hitter. In 1986, he came to camp with an aching shoulder and a promise, he said, to compete for the designated hitter job. But that position went to Ken Phelps, and Chambers was released.

He went home to Harrisburg, had his shoulder operated upon, and was never the same. Finally, at the age of 27, buried deep in the Cubs' farm system after his stint in Mexico in 1988, he went home for good.

"When I went to replacement ball with the White Sox, their GM said, 'I was looking at your stats. What happened? Why didn't you get a chance?' I said, 'I ask myself that question every day.'

"Every year around draft time, I get excited, and wonder what player will be No. 1. I wish him well. I know I'm a name amongst names on a roster. I hope they get every opportunity to be a productive player. I don't say, 'I hope they're like me.' I never wish anything bad."

Chambers had one more thought before hanging up.

"If I had ever made it to the major leagues and been a veteran player," he said, "all the rookies that came up, I would have helped them. Even if they were trying to take my spot."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or