Watching Dave Hansen: Living Vicariously Through the Career of a Pinch-Hitter
Dave Hansen, number five all-time in pinch-hits, was called up to the Seattle Mariners yesterday, extending a 15-year Major League career that seemed on the verge of winding down after the Chicago Cubs cut him at the end of spring training. From the Associated Press account:
"This is really exciting. I thought I bonded really well last year with these guys," Hansen said in between a stream of hugs and handshakes with teammates. "I hoped I would be able to come back."
This news brings me great cheer, for many reasons. Hansen, like me, was born in 1968 and raised in Long Beach, California, so every day he spends in the bigs provides me with at least some small sliver of evidence that I am still young enough to be of playing age. Put me in coach, I'm ready to play!
It's also inspiring to see a hard-luck story -- and behind every great pinch-hitter there's a hard-luck story -- squeeze a few last jackpots out of a bum deal.
But most of all I'm thrilled because I know Hansen to be a genuinely good, generous, and humble guy who deserves success more than most ballplayers you'll ever meet. I know this because I played with him growing up. And not just on the diamond, but in a rock band. In fact, he announced his signing with the Dodgers (who drafted him with the 47th pick in 1986) on stage, at the St. Maria Goretti carnival, where our cover band, The Ladds, was playing the second of two triumphant shows. It was definitely one of the best days in either of our lives up to that point. And it was one of the last times I ever talked to him.
IN THE LBC
I knew about Dave Hansen years before I actually met him. In Long Beach and Lakewood, where we grew up, the baseball tradition is so thick and all-encompassing that adults and kids alike spread excited or envious rumors about 10-year-old stars from rival Little Leagues and faraway elementary schools.
It helped that most Little Leagues within several square miles played in Heartwell Park, a lush, rectangular 122-acre spread stretching nearly two miles long. You could always ride your bike or skateboard up a few blocks to check out the rival talent you knew you'd be squaring off against come puberty. When I was an 11-year-old 6th grader at Mark Twain Elementary and an all-star for Lakewood Village Little League, I heard awestruck tales of three regional studs-in-the-making: Ralph Lakin, Troy Hamill, and Dave Hansen.
It does Dave no disservice to say he was easily the worst of the three. Lakin, by the time he was a sophomore in high school, was a square-shouldered mustache-boy who could drive the ball 400 feet from both sides of the plate and throw fastballs in at least the high 80s. Hamill was a mid-sized shortstop and surfer dude with astonishingly powerful wrists; think of Spicoli as Soriano. Hansen was a classic quarterback/shortstop type -- about six foot, 185; slightly slower afoot than the other two, strong and accurate arm but not a rocket, and a more patient approach at the plate. He was good enough at football to be one of the best high school quarterbacks in Southern California, but he didn't seem to drink from the same magic waters as Lakin and Troy-boy.
Here's a hint about how crazy our youth baseball competition was -- when I was playing in the Heartwell Pony League (ages 13 and 14), our 13-year-old team came second in the league, losing two out of three in the playoffs against the long-dominant Cobras. The Cobras' infield included not only Hansen, but future nine-year major leaguer Brian Hunter, and 13-year-minor leaguer Brian Grebeck, the younger and almost-as-good brother of 12-year major league veteran Craig. The Grebecks were the classical type churned out by my alma mater Lakewood High School -- undersized, overachieving middle infielders who lived and breathed the game of baseball, taking nourishment from the likes of such local Dodger retirees as Eddie Roebuck, Jim Lefebvre, and Norm Larker.
All this heavily nurtured talent was funneled into the Lakewood High School baseball program, and its legendary ear-splitting coach John Herbold, who would go on to run Cal State L.A.'s baseball program for two decades. Herbold managed to dominate a five-team Moore League whose other schools produced such talent as, oh, Tony Gwynn, Jeff Burroughs and Bobby Grich. Yet Herbold's Hustlers, as the name on our T-shirts from eight-year-old camp proudly boasted, would beat these marvelous athletes year in and year out based on a marinated knowledge of the game, "working it" day after day, and playing baseball like it oughtta be played.
It's hard to be an over-achieving Hustler when everything about the game comes easy to you and the surrounding sports-mad culture showers you with praise while excusing your excesses. This is what happened to Lakin and Hamill and a few other happy-go-lucky God-like talents in Lakewood and Long Beach. But Hansen always approached the game as if he was studying for a particularly difficult chemistry final, face screwed into intense concentration at the plate, footwork and angles at shortstop as methodical as David Eckstein's.
Unfortunately for Hansen (and me, and a lot of other people), Herbold abruptly left Lakewood the same year we were supposed to arrive, replaced by a coach who preferred weightlifting football players to runty, tobacco-dipping year-round baseball fanatics. Dave's parents had moved to Rowland Heights, about a half hour away, but if Herbold would have stayed he would have used his uncle's Lakewood house as a residence, and the school would have almost certainly won some CIF championships during my tenure. Instead, he dominated the weaker local competition around Rowland, hitting .432 with 11 homers and 29 walks in just 44 at bats during the regular season of his senior year.
By then, we had become pals. He remained friendly with the Lakewood players he left behind, especially our lightning-quick second basemen Wayne Tennis (who turned the pivot faster than I've ever seen a teenager, keeping Damion Easley rooted firmly on the bench). Hannie was a Grade-A, 100% surfer -- crazy Bermudas, sandals and vans, and a lingo-rich vocabulary you had to hear to believe. We'd almost want to drop coins in the guy, just to hear him talk; never has the word "kook" sounded so funny.
The Ladds' Dave Hansen (center) jamming on guitar with cousin Tony (left) and Matt Welch (right).
I don't know how it all got started, but some time in the last six months of our senior years, we began hanging out at his uncle's house after school, bashing on some of the instruments lying around from his uncle's days in a surf/garage band way back when. Dave was a terrific guitar player, especially good on Ventures instrumentals like "Walk Don't Run," and early Beatles tunes. He'd screw around with a song like "You Can't Do That," I'd try my worst to sing like John Lennon; his cousin Tony would chip in on an axe decorated like Eddie Van Halen's, the heavy-metal troll who lived next door would play Judas Priest licks, and my childhood pal Dave Rima would beat the skins. Before you knew it, The Ladds were born, and started performing at junior high dances and the like.
You learn specific, intimate things about people when you play in a band with them. With Hansen, two things stick out in my memory -- his humble and respectful behavior toward his kin (extraordinary for any 17-year-old, let alone a doted-on two-sport athlete), and his submersion of ego in the cause of a Greater Good (specifically, a well-performed song). He was funny and handsome, and could certainly be the life of the party; yet I, who was none of those things, probably had the bigger ego.
We knew, after he'd been signed, that if there was anyone who wouldn't squander a $90,000 bonus, and the opportunity to play for his favorite team, it would be Hansen. High school ended 10 days later, and we started to scatter our various ways, but from that point on, all of us who had ever harbored dreams of a big league career lived vicariously through Dave.
THE MAKINGS OF A PINCH-HITTER
Dave Hansen shot up through the minor leagues, establishing himself as a Dave Magadan-type third baseman -- high average with walks, and gap power. He hit .299/.384/.377 in rookie ball as a 17-year-old; .262/.332/.338 the following year in the California League, .291/.361/.410 at Vero Beach (A-ball) in 1988. Then in 1989 he became the first Dodger in four years to go from A-ball to the big leagues in one season, even if it was a rather extreme cup of coffee -- Franklin Stubbs got hurt, so the Dodgers flew Hansen seven hours from San Antonio to Montreal, where he sat against the lefty Mark Langston, and then sent him back down 36 hours later when Mickey Hatcher came off the disabled list. His quote in the L.A. Times was classic; we all passed it around:
"I was in my hotel room today and I'm thinking, I don't know what I'm doing here," said Hansen, who was on the 28th floor. "This is a big skyscraper and I'm on top of it. It didn't all sink in until I came to the park and put on the uniform."
Back then, Hansen was clearly the Dodgers' third baseman of the future. The L.A. Times
ran a story on July 28, 1990 about the "New Dream Infield" that would finally erase the memory of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey -- Karros
, and Hansen. Dave was only 21, he'd won the Most Valuable Player award in the Dominican Winter League playing under Kevin Kennedy, was in the midst of an all-star season leading the Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes to the league championship, and the Dodgers were using place-holder third basemen like Jeff "career high OBP: .286
" Hamilton ... what could possibly go wrong?
Three things: An early leg injury, Tommy Lasorda, and one mediocre season.
The injury is in my memory, though I couldn't find any evidence of it while researching, so I may be mistaken ... but I have the distinct recollection that Hansen hurt his leg somehow, and lost his not-insignificant speed, some time before his 22nd birthday. He stole 31 bases and hit 19 triples in the minors over 2,718 at bats; but just 4 SBs and 6 3Bs in 1718 ABs in the bigs. No doubt his defense suffered as well.
But the more important roadblock was Tommy Lasorda, who was one of the worst managers in Major League history when it came to dealing with the third base bag. After Ron Cey left in 1982, the Dodgers starting third basemen the next six years were, in order: Outfielder Pedro Guerrero, someone named German Rivera, career .318 slugger Dave Anderson, 35-year-old Bill Madlock, Mickey freakin' Hatcher, and Jeff Hamilton. If there was an outfielder who'd proven he couldn't handle ground balls (Cory Snyder, Candy Maldonado), or a banjo-hitting infielder lying around (Enos Cabell, Bob Bailor), Tommy'd throw 'em out there. Even Eddie Murray had to play three games at the hot corner under Lasorda.
In 1991, Hansen was 22, coming off a .316/.425/.437 year at Albuquerque. The Dodgers finished five games out of first place the year before, featuring a makeshift injury-replacement platoon of 28-year-old second basemen Mike Sharperson and (ironically enough) a 25-year-old Lenny Harris, who would go on to set the all-time record for pinch hits. Both Harris and Sharperson had career years in 1990, and could have made an effective platoon at second base (where a 30-year-old Juan Samuel was stinking up the joint), but Lasorda elected to try Jeff Hamilton one last time, and sent Hansen down for further seasoning. After Hamilton broke down, Harris and Sharperson resumed their platoon, but with less success.
Soon, in a season marked by injuries, the Dodgers began using Hansen like a yo-yo, coming up to the big club to pinch-hit whenever another starter would go down. It was a curious role for the third baseman of the future, but Lasorda was always a curious manager. Here's a funny quote from the July 13, 1991 L.A. Times:
"I'm getting pretty good at this," said Hansen, who is in his second stint with the Dodgers this season. "The first time I got called up in '89, I brought four bags. Now I brought just one. Plus, of course, my guitar."
Here's another ironic one, from a week later:
Dave Hansen, who joined the team from triple-A Albuquerque to fill the roster spot vacated by the injured Darryl Strawberry, said he is prepared for the unfamiliar role of a pinch-hitter. "I've never really done it before, but heck, all it is is hitting, right?" he said. "And I love to hit."
That very day -- July 20, 1991 -- Hansen hit his first big league home run, a pinch-hit three-run job that helped lift the Dodgers to a comeback win over the Mets. I learned about this happy news several thousand miles away in Prague, Czechoslovakia, when I received a faxed copy of a Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram
article, sent by my friend Shannon (who, ironically, I'd met at that St. Maria Goretti show). Later, in 2000, Hansen would set the all-time record for pinch-hit home runs in a season, with seven.
After going .268/.293/.393 in 53 mostly pinch-hitting at-bats as a 22-year-old rookie, Hansen was finally ready for a starting role in 1992. Unfortunately, he tanked, hitting .214/.286/.299 in 132 games, as the Dodgers plummeted from 93-69 to 63-99. (It also didn't help him that the National League that year averaged a paltry 3.88 runs a game, its lowest total since 1968, making most offensive stats look far worse than they actually were, especially in pitcher-friendly Dodger stadium.) Regardless, that was basically the last chance at a starting job Hansen ever got -- the team's third baseman of the future in 1993 was 35-year-old Tim Wallach, who responded with a stirring line of .222/.271/.342, and yet kept his job in '94 and '95 as well.
Meanwhile, Hansen developed into a deadly pinch-hitter, spending Wallach's tenure by hitting a robust .318/.414/.412 over 330 at bats. After getting 341 ABs at age 23, he has never topped 181 in a season since, except for when he played in the Japanese league in 1998. He could have been a Dave Magadan, or even (with some luck) just like young Sean Burroughs is now. And, Lord knows, he could have easily turned into a bitter man.
Yet when you hear him interviewed on the radio, or see his quotes in a newspaper, or listen to people like Vin Scully wax poetic about the guy, you realize he took the exact opposite approach. As he told Sports Illustrated five years ago, "I choose to like it instead of bitching about it." He's the guy who will tell you that he's "blessed," that it's just great to be a grown man paid to play a boy's game, and that there's no point in losing perspective.
Some people make it, some people don't, and some people make it in ways they never expected. Hansen was a hard-working nice guy when he was 13 years old, and remains so now, which is a key reason why he's still playing professional ball and climbing up the pinch-hit list while the rest of his old pals thicken around the middle and complain of back pain. We still have many mutual friends (he has never, to my knowledge, put on any airs when hanging with the boys from the neighborhood), and keeping track of his exploits has long become a currency we all trade when catching up on old times. I hope he lasts long enough to pass Manny Mota and even old Lenny Harris himself, and I would dearly love to see him get a ring, but when he finally hangs up those spikes what I really look forward to is busting out the old guitars.
Matt Welch (mail-at-mattwelch.com) is Associate Editor of Reason magazine, where he contributes to the Hit & Run weblog. His work is archived at mattwelch.com, where he also blogs.
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