Fans may be forgiven if they can't place the name Noochie Varner in Brewers history. Varner never was a first round pick, never played in a big-league game, and never appeared on a major league 40-man roster. In eight seasons in the minor leagues, Varner reached AAA only once. Without his endearing nickname, he might be completely forgotten in baseball. But despite not making a direct impact at the big league level, Varner is, in a tiny and mostly coincidental way, responsible for the Brewers' recent success.
Gary Lee "Noochie" Varner was born on December 7, 1980, in Cynthiana, Kentucky, a small town located on the banks of the South Fork of the Licking River northeast of Lexington and just down the road from Oddville. The seat of Harrison County, Cynthiana is known for, among other things, being over 200 years old, a meteorite fall in 1877, and being "a city as nice as its name!" Also in Cynthiana, the Harrison County High School baseball team had developed a tradition of winning by the time Noochie Varner suited up. The Breds had won the state championship in 1993 and looked poised to make a run in 1997. Led by a group of players including sophomore Varner, the Breds went 40-1 and captured the state title. The Breds weren't done, going 33-6 the next year en route to a repeat championship. Varner, fresh off hitting .480 for the 1998 season, drove in three runs and hit a home run in the state title game. Showing high school fame is fleeting at best, the non-champion 1999 squad got little lasting press.
That didn't stop Varner from playing baseball at the next level. Upon his high school graduation, he headed for St. Catharine College, a Kentucky junior college. His performance for the Patriots was good enough for the Cincinnati Reds to draft him in the 10th round of the 2000 draft. Drafted sixteen picks behind future Rockies shortstop Clint Barmes and eighteen picks ahead of future Brewers outfielder Corey Hart, Varner was on his way to the major leagues.
Though he had played third base in high school, the Reds moved Noochie to the outfield when he struggled defensively during his first full season as a pro. His bat had little trouble making the switch: in 2001, he hit .351/.409/.536 for the Rookie-level Billings Mustangs. Bumped up to Dayton in the Midwest League for the 2002 season, Varner shone once again. He hit .309/.350/.466 with 37 stolen bases and recorded 11 outfield assists. Noochie also made his first pro All-Star team, starting with guys like Edwin Encarnacion and Shawn Hill in his team's victory. At the tail end of the year, Noochie was picked as one of the players to be named later in a trade with the Tigers for Brian Moehler.
Despite having just acquired him and promoting him to AA for the 2003 season, the Tigers deemed Noochie expendable. A mix of Gene Kingsale and Andres Torres in center field on the big club was predictably terrible, so when the Brewers made Alex Sanchez available, Detroit jumped. On May 27, the Brewers shipped Sanchez to Detroit in exchange for two minor leaguers: LHP Chad Petty and Mr. Varner. Brewers fans know the story: waiver claim CF Scott Podsednik thrived and went on to be voted (second place for) Rookie of the Year. Sanchez was pretty much forgotten.
Varner's season in Huntsville was forgettable as well. The former .300 hitter struggled to simply get on base at a .300 clip and he wasn't developing much power. On the bright side, he was only 22 in AA and he had reduced his strikeout total. Whatever he took from the season, there was no doubt he was once again expendable. On December 15, 2004, the transactions wire contained Noochie's name yet again. For the third time in fifteen months, Varner was on the move, this time as part of the Richie Sexson trade between Milwaukee and Arizona. Along with Sexson and Shane Nance, Noochie was headed to Arizona in exchange for major leaguers Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano, and Jorge de la Rosa. Brewers fans would eventually look proudly upon the deal, but for Noochie it was becoming more of the same.
He started 2004 in El Paso of the Texas League, completing the circuit of AA leagues. An excellent start to the season earned him a promotion to AAA Tucson, one step away from the majors. He thrived in the desert, hitting .321/.393/.443 with six home runs in 100 games. Unfortunately, that was the closest he would get to the majors. In 2005, he was assigned to new AA affiliate Tennessee because of a logjam of Diamondbacks prospects in Tucson. He put up a solid season back in the Southern League but all it earned him was a release from the Arizona organization. He signed with the Reds for 2006 and played well for the Chattanooga Lookouts, making an All-Star team and being named the league player of the month for May. His contract was not renewed, however, and he moved into the Houston farm system. A torrid start in the Texas League earned him a spot on his third pro All-Star team, but a second half slump was the beginning of the end. By the end of August 2007, Varner had been released by the Astros.
Noochie hasn't appeared in a minor league game since the Astros let him go. His career minor league line at this point is .299/.355/.432 with 53 HR, 417 RBI, and 81 steals. He is two hits away from a .300 career minors batting average. Unfortunately, he seems to have disappeared from baseball, at least in 2008. He just might still be active in the online poker circuit, though. Whatever Noochie is doing these days, he is still part of the Brewers success. The trade that brought him into the Brewers organization didn't have a lasting impact on the Crew outside of Varner: Chad Petty was awful in his half-season as a Brewers farmhand and soon found himself elsewhere. The trade that sent him to Arizona is still alive in the Brewers clubhouse today. Chris Capuano is still with the team, Craig Counsell went away and came back, and Lyle Overbay was sent (with others) to Toronto in exchange for Dave Bush, Corey Koskie (acquired in different deal), Zach Jackson and Gabe Gross. Bush is still on the team, Gross started 2008 with the club, and Zach Jackson was part of the CC Sabathia trade.
You could very well scoff and say Varner was just a throw-in when the Brewers acquired and traded him. It's not as if those trades were impossible without Noochie. Most teams have low-minors outfielders who hit pretty well, or at least enough to be a respectable part of a major league trade. Maybe you think Noochie's involvement in both deals was coincidence. As for me, I think that Noochie Varner still deserves a little mention in the recent history of the Brewers. The next time Dave Bush takes the mound at Miller Park, let your mind wander from the game for a little while and ponder Noochie Varner, a forgotten part of a trade that still benefits the Brewers today.
Noochie Links and Such:
Noochie Varner's Career Stats
Noochie feature from 2007 at the Corpus Christi Hooks official site
Cynthiana Democrat story from 1998 about Harrison County's back-to-back titles
St. Catharine (KY) alumni in professional baseball