Jim Pankovits: They were Always F***ing Up His Name

One Man. Countless versions of his name.

The name is Pankovits, which doesn't seem so hard, and to be fair, there were 25 cards on which his name was spelled correctly, but still, no Astro depicted on baseball cards ever had his name so consistently bollixed.

Anyway, after being drafted in the fourth round by the Astros in the June 1976 draft, Pankovits began his professional career with the last ever Covington Astros team by playing in all 70 games and scoring 50 runs. He led Appalachian League second basemen for the year in assists with 212 and double plays with 47. The majority of '78 and 79 was spent at AA Columbus, with brief callups to AAA Charleston, while 1980 and 1981 were good, then better, years spent entirely with AAA Tucson. Coming off a .282-7-64 season in 1981 with a career high 34 doubles, Pankovits was traded to the Padres on March 28, 1982 for first baseman Doug Lulay, and he spent the year with the AAA Hawaii Islanders, establishing a career high in homers.

Pankovits became a seven-year minor league free agent for 1983, and on January 23, 1983, the Astros re-signed Pankovits, and invited him to spring training. Pankovits didn't make the club, but hit .287 with 11 homers and 62 RBIand a career-best 32 stolen bases, plus finished second (to Wes Clements) on the Toros with 129 hits. In 1984, Pankovits was again invited to spring training, again did not break camp with the major league club, and again was assigned to Tucson.

Pankovits never had and never would again hit as well as he did in the next six weeks. He had both a four-hit and a four-RBI game in the opening weeks of the season for the Toros, as well as notching four additional three-hit games. He was hitting over .320 on May 24 when the Astros recalled him, and he made his major league debut at the age of 29 three days later.

1980 TCMA Tucson Toros # 19 1981 TCMA Tucson Toros # 17
1985 Donruss # 502 1988 HCA/Deer Park # 16

With two outs in the ninth inning of a 2 - 1 home loss to the Pirates, Pankovits pinch-hit for Dave Smith and singled. As in that game, Pankovits was primarily used as a pinch-hitter during his first call up, but he did make his first major league start vs. the Pirates the following day, May 28. Playing second base, he went 0 for 3 with a strikeout and a walk, making three putouts and making three assists. Had back to back three-hit games June 2nd and 3rd at Los Angeles, but those were the last starts he got during the first tour. On July 13, though he was hitting .297, Pankovits was sent back down to Tucson.

It wouldn't be long before he would be back in the majors. The day after Pankovits was sent down, the Astros played (and won) a 16-inning game vs. the Phillies. As the game went into extras, manager Bob Lillis moved the starting first baseman, Harry Spilman, behind the plate, completing a double switch that had started promisingly the inning before. Phil Garner, pinch-hitting for Mark Bailey had singled with a man on and one out in the ninth. But Enos Cabell then hit into a double play to end the inning, and Lillis had to resort to Spilman at catcher to keep everything from going haywire in extras. And to be fair, seven times previous that year, Spilman had in fact played catcher. With a man on and an out in the Phillies' half of the eleventh, Greg Gross fouled one back that Spilman tracked down; only in doing so, he tore ligaments in his left knee. Spilman had surgery two days later, and that same day, to replace him, Pankovits was brought back to Houston for the rest of the year. In fact, he wouldn't play another game in the minors until the last week of May, 1987. Pankovits hit his first major league home run, a pinch-hit job off the Reds' John Franco, on August 11, 1984.

Pankovits ended 1984 hitting .284 for Houston. 1985 was a year of peaks and valleys for Pankovits, as he finished the year with only a .244 batting average, and endured two different stints on the DL. But he did post career highs in at bats, runs scored, and homers. He also hit his first major league grand slam on May 29, a seventh-inning shot off John Candelaria that blew open a tie game vs. the Pirates.

Pankovits had career highs in batting average and onbase percentatge for the 1986 Divison winning club. He made 15 starts at second base, including 9 between August 27 and September 3, when Bill Doran was out with a groin pull. The '86 Astros set a club record with 7 pinch-hit homers, and Pankovits had one of them, a June 21st shot off the Giants' Scott Garrelts. Pankovits, batting for hard-luck loser Mark Knudson to lead off the eighth, would thus score and drive in the only run the Astros would score that day.

After a 2 for 4 start to 1987 with two runs scored, Pankovits fell into a long hitless slump. With the hitless streak intact, the Astros optioned Pankovits to Tucson on May 24. He went 12 for 24 at Tucson with a homer and 9 RBI, and was quickly brought back up on June 5. His hitless streak, though, reached 21 before he was able to snap it. Hit .333 for July, but was still optioned back to Tuscon on July 30, and was only brought back when rosters expanded. That last might have been a raw deal: as he had been in 1986, Pankovits had been much better in the second half on 1987, hitting .357 after the all-star break.

1988 was Pankovits' worst year in terms of batting average and in terms of onbase percentage. He made more starts at second, 23, than during any other year, and the year also saw him tie a career high for doubles with seven. He also made eight starts at third base, chipping in during a particularly unsettled year at the keystone corner for the Astros. Still, after his .221-.272-.329 season, the Astros released him on November 17, 1988.

He played for the Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Boston organizations at their triple A affiliates until his retirement as a player following the 1991 season. Pankovits then managed for three years at Boston's New Britain AA affiliate, until rejoining the Astros organization in 1995 as manager of the Midwest League Quad City River Bandits. He managed the River Bandits in '95 and '96, and in each year Qud City won the Midwest League Western Division. He again managed in 1998 and 1999, this time at AA Jackson.

Jackie Moore was hired to manage the new-for-2000 AA affiliate at Round Rock, so Pankovits was offered the job as minor league infield co-ordinator, a post that has evolved into minor league defensive co-ordinator, and this was Pankovits' positon with the club until he was asked to manage again in 2006 with the High A Carolina League affiliate Salem Avalanche. Pankovits led a team that pitched well, but was somewhat light on hitting to a second half divisional championship.