Former Texas Rangers outfielder Marc Sagmoen never saw Jackie Robinson, who died when Sagmoen was 18 months old. But when Sagmoen reported to big-league camp in 1997 and found a No. 42 jersey waiting for him on a clubhouse hanger, he understood the significance.
“I assumed I was going to be assigned one of those jersey numbers given to a backup offensive lineman,” Sagmoen recalled Tuesday. “Instead, I got the number Jackie Robinson wore. I knew all about him. I’d always been a huge fan of the history of baseball, and to be able to wear that jersey — it had a patch on the sleeve commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first season — I thought, wow, what an honor.”
The Seattle native had been playing a series at Iowa with Rangers’ PCL affiliate when he learned he’d be making his major league debut, at Texas, on April 15, 1997.
“I was kind of overwhelmed because everything was happening so fast,” he said. “I hadn’t been following the news, so I didn’t realize MLB was planning a ceremony to retire his number that night. They did it between innings. I’m in the on-deck circle before my second at-bat, and (Rangers designated hitter) Mickey Tettleton tells me, ‘You’ve got to take your jersey off.’
“After the game, it was really crazy,” Sagmoen continued. “Here I am, the new guy — I just want to do my job and stay out of the way — and there’s there’s this press corps around my locker, asking about the jersey number.”
Although players wearing No. 42 retained the option of keeping the number for the duration of their careers, Sagmoen declined the offer out of respect for the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who integrated the major leagues on April 15, 1947.
But Sagmoen had a slight request: Could he hold onto the jersey for a day or two and show it to his wife and family?
The clubhouse manager was unable to oblige, because the jersey was on its way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Before collecting his first big-league hit, Sagmoen had made baseball history as the last player assigned No. 42.
Two days later, Sagmoen made some more history when his first big-league hit caromed off the wall of Kansas City’s Kauffmann Stadium. By the time Royals right fielder Joe Vitiello retrieved it, the speedy Sagmoen was assured of a triple.
Then third base coach Jerry Narron waved him home, and when Sagmoen noticed catcher Mike Macfarlane was not anticipating a play at the plate, Sagmoen realized he’d hit an inside-the-park home run, joining Brian Downing (1973), Johnny LeMaster (1975) and Butch Henry (1992) as the only players to achieve such a feat with their first hit.
The remainder of Sagmoen’s life in pro baseball was not as eventful as the whirlwind week that found his jersey shipped to Cooperstown two days before he hit an inside-the-park home run. A graduate of Kennedy High School in Burien who went on to star at Yakima Valley Community College and the University of Nebraska — he was named Big Eight Player of the Year and a first-team All-America outfielder in 1993 — Sagmoen’s big-league career was confined to 21 games in 1997.
He retired four years later, went to work as project manager for the family business — building custom homes — before a conversation with a friend employed by the King County Sheriff’s Department inspired him to explore an occupation that appeals to his instincts.
Sagmoen has been a Seattle policeman since 2009.
“I’ve always been a people person and enjoy ministering to people in different ways,” he said. “To be be able to help somebody during a personal crisis, that’s pretty rewarding.”
The job also provides Sagmoen some flexibility to share his baseball acumen. He’s the coach of a 16-and-under team, in Federal Way, whose lineup includes his son.
“It’s fun to teach kids that age, 16 years old,” he said. “They’re still young enough to be excited about the game, and yet old enough to understand some of the technical adjustments they need to make.”
On those nights he’s at home during the baseball season, Sagmoen’s television usually is turned on to a Mariners game. He’s interested, but it’s his wife, Denise — they’ve been together since high school — who’s in charge of the TV remote: All baseball, all of the time.
“I wish I could have stuck around long enough to sign a big fat contract,” Sagmoen said, “and it didn’t happen. But some of those memories always come back to me this time of year. To be mentioned in any conversation about Jackie Robinson, that’s surreal.”
Marc Sagmoen wore a jersey for one game, his first game, and it’s in the Hall of Fame.
“For a guy who got to the big leagues and only had a cup of coffee,” he said, “it’s pretty cool.”
Sagmoen’s son wears No. 42. Retired by Major League Baseball, the number endures on the back of a teenager proud of his dad’s improbably eternal association with an American icon.