Our Favorite Obscurities
You can have the superstars. No, really, take them. They're all yours: all the smirking, soulless, multi-multi-millionaires, the self-aggrandizing sluggers whose heads were hopelessly swollen long before they ever became acquainted with the cream and the clear. Go ahead, cheer your lungs out in tribute. Just don't expect them to hear you.
All I ask is in return is that you give me their polar opposites. Let me root for the nobodies and the obscurities of the present and the past, the no-names and misfits, the Oddibes and Bombos, the who's-hes?, never-weres and maybe an occasional one-hit wonder or two. Give me the guys who savor the cheers and every inning of their careers, and I promise I'll be a satisfied baseball fan.
Now, I realize I'm probably overthrowing my fastball here, so to speak: I don't mean to hyperbolically claim that every superstar ballplayer is automatically a superjackass; if you don't like, say, Albert Pujols, you're likely either a miserable person, a Cubs fan, or both.
It's just that since I fell in love with baseball and the Red Sox growing up in Maine in the late '70s, I've found myself rooting the hardest for the playing whose names aren't in lights - and often aren't even on the lineup card. While my buddies pretended to be the usual Boston superheroes - Jim Ed Rice, Pudge Fisk, Freddie Lynn - in our neighborhood Wiffle Ball games, I usually imagined myself as the hustling hyper-hypo of a third baseman, Butch Hobson . . . at least until some mysterious new player arrived via Triple-A Pawtucket and piqued my interest.
I suspect I was among a select (and strange) few New England 8-year-olds who preferred pretending he was Sam Bowen to Dewey Evans. And I'm pretty sure I stood alone in being at least as interested to say hello to Chico Walker as I was to say goodbye to the icon he replaced in left field in the eighth inning of the Sox's final game of the 1983 season. Good luck in retirement, Yaz, and don't sweat it. If I do say so, this Chico cat looks set to hold down the fort in left field for the next 10 years.
What can I say? I was weird like that. Still am. But here's the thing: We all have them, nondescript ballplayers we admire for reasons inexplicable, or perhaps personal. (Hell, Barry Bonds insists his favorite player is David Eckstein. Other than himself, I presume.) Maybe your personal Obscure Hero did something memorable to win a game you attended. Or tossed you a baseball. Or had a goofily unforgettable name (Greg Legg!). Or offered you an autograph, a handshake, or some other small moment that, when you're 10 years old and awestruck, could not possibly be any larger.
Here, then, are mine. Consider this my way of paying homage to random dudes I've liked through the years, ballplayers who were forgotten, others who were barely heard from in the first place. All of them played in the majors, however temporarily. Many of them played in the mid-1980s for my beloved Maine Guides, an ill-fated, generally talent-free, and all-but-forgotten Triple-A farm team of the Cleveland Indians, an organization whose haplessness inspired the Reel Classic film "Major League." None of them will be getting into the Hall of Fame. You know, the one in Cooperstown. But they all hold a hallowed place in the halls of my mind.
Chico Walker: Oh, all right, so maybe he shouldn't have been the guy to replace Yaz during his final game - common sense and tradition say it should have been Jim Rice, the heir apparent who DH'd that day. But Walker turned out to be a versatile and valuable utility guy once he broke free of the Sox system; he rotted in Triple-A purgatory from 1980 to '84 while Boston management favored the likes of Steve Lyons and Ed Jurak. Wrote Bill James in his 1993 Player Ratings book:
"Switch hitter, plays all over the field like Tony Phillips, and is still an outstanding baserunner at 34. He'd have about 1,500 hits by now if he'd come up with the Red Sox about 1980, but they didn't think he could play."
I appreciate James's sentiment here, but as author Howard Bryant notes in "Shut Out: A History of Race and Baseball in Boston," there was likely a more sinister reason Walker never got a real shot with the Sox:
"To Peter Gammons, (Manager Ralph) Houk's generational tendencies were best illustrated through his relationship with a black utility player named Chico Walker. In the case of Walker, Gammons thought, there was always a white utility player who would play ahead of him. There was always a reason Walker never received a real opportunity to win a job. 'Chico Walker was a bright, intelligent player who could have had a much better career,' Gammons said. 'He had a lot to offer. But for some reason, and I think Houk was the reason, there was never a place for him in Boston.' "
Fortunately, Walker did eventually find his place in the big leagues, though it took far too much time. He got over 100 at-bats for the first time at age 28 with the Cubs in '86, and played 100 games for the first time at age 33 in '91. He batted .246 in 526 career games, all but 32 of which came after wasting his baseball youth with the Red Sox. It's too bad. They could have - and should have - used someone like him.
Junior Noboa: This is how bleepity-bleepin' inept the Indians were at supplying alleged prospects to My Beloved Guides: Noboa was rushed to the majors in '84 at age 19, his .254 batting average and one (1) homer in Double-A apparently too enticing for the big club to resist. After Noboa hit .364 that September, the buffoons in the Tribe front office took frequent and misguided pride in claiming they had the youngest player in the majors, assuming in their patented warped way that his young age and high batting average (in a freakin' 11-at-bat sample size, mind you) guaranteed him of future stardom. It worked out just as you'd imagine it might: he pinnacled as a dependable if ordinary .280-hitting second baseman in Triple-A. In parts of eight big league seasons, Noboa hit .239 with one (1) homer for six clubs. Oh, yeah, and the other 19-year-old in the majors that season? Some kid named Gooden for the Mets. Heard that worked out better.
Shooty Babitt: The subject of one of the all-time cruelest (or funniest) baseball quotes, depending on your sense of humor: "If he ever plays for me again," said A's manager Billy Martin late in the '81 season, "please, Shooty me." Martin, who apparently considered Babitt one notch above marshmallow salesmen on the evolutionary chain, kept his word. Babitt's big league career began and ended that season. But his unforgettable name lives on.
Butch Hobson: Clell Lavern Hobson Jr. Red Sox third baseman, 1976-80. Former Alabama quarterback. Bat-rack-endangering, elbow-bone-chip-adjusting, 30-homer-hitting, 44-error-making, Zimmer-abiding, chain-smoking certified lunatic. Naturally, he was my boyhood hero. I remember meeting Hobson for the first time in 1984, nervously waiting while he scribbled his name on my tattered baseball card. I remember thinking he looked so much older than I expected; little did I know that the prematurely grey hair truthfully suggested a hard-lived life. I also remember those timeless words of wisdom he offered upon parting: "Hey, kid, don't forget your pen." Ah, sweet memories.
Sam Horn: The less-talented prototype for Ryan Howard, a batting practice Hall of Famer, the patron saint of the message board (the Red Sox' fans internet gathering spot, www.sonsofsamhorn.com), and an all-around gem of a guy whose effervescent personality somehow failed to shine through on ill-fated gig as a Red Sox studio analyst. I know at least three baseball lifers - former big-leaguer Bob Tewksbury being the most notable - who swear that Horn hit the longest homer they ever saw. And the thing is, none of them are talking about the same shot. Howard, the Phillies' phearsome young slugger, seems poised to accomplish feats Horn can only daydream about - it helps to be able to hit a curveball, and the pitches with wrinkles forever fooled Big Sam. Still, just about every time the Phillies' budding behemoth went deep during his rookie-of-the-year push last summer, I'd catch myself flashing back to Horn's mighty debut with the Red Sox in '87, savoring the memories of his majestic, sky-scraping homers, and tripping back to those promise-filled days when certain superstardom was just a moonshot away.
Dwight Taylor: With just two at-bats in four games for the 1986 Kansas City Royals, Taylor would rank as an unknown even in my warped world - that is, if not for these two personal semi-claims to fame:
1) Spotting my 9-year-old sister staring at him, jaw agape, while he chatted up fans before a Guides game in '84, he playfully tugged her pigtail and teased, "What's the matter, dear? Haven't you ever seen such a handsome black man before?" She hadn't as far as I knew, which I dutifully informed Taylor. I'm pretty sure he's still laughing.
2) According to Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley, the Guides' beat writer for the Portland Press Herald back in the day, Taylor and his wife were the parents of five children by the time they were in their mid-20s, thus earning the nickname "Try Some Sleep At Night" Taylor from his teammates. I suppose that passes for G-rated clubhouse humor. (Update, courtesy of a Google expedition: Taylor, now 45, has 10 kids and four grandchildren. That's what you call a productive ballplayer.)
Ron Jones: Never heard of him? You would have, had fate not been so cruel . . . or had AstroTurf remained an unrealized stupid-ass idea. Jones was one of the premier prospects in baseball in the late '80s, a line-drive hitting lefty who drew comparisons to Tony Gwynn for his sweet swing and Pillsbury Doughboy physique. He batted .371 in Class-A ball in '86; by late summer in the '88 season, he was playing regularly and tearing it up for the Phillies, whacking 8 homers the final two months. But soon he tore something else up: the ligaments in his knee. The injury ended his season, but he rehabbed, returned to the Phillies in '89, and seemed on his way to fulfilling the great promise that had earned him coveted Donruss Rated Rookie status along with guys named Sheffield and Griffey. The return lasted two weeks. He tore his ACL in both knees when his leg got caught in a seam in the brutal Veterans Stadium turf while chasing a fly ball. He made it back to the Phillies briefly in '90 and '91, kicked around Triple-A for years as a DH, even sipped a few Coronas in the Mexican League, but that disastrous day in Philadelphia, for all intents and purposes, spelled the end of a promising career.
Rodney Craig: In "The Curse of Rocky Colavito," Terry Pluto's wonderfully wry history of the Cleveland Indians, Craig warrants one lonely mention, on page 231. Here it is:
The Indians brought up a player from the minors named Rodney Craig. He wore a batting helmet that was something like a size 9. The players called him Buckethead. He was also supposed to be a great pinch-hitter - he went 2-for-19.
Now, to me that seems like a rather cruel and simplistic legacy. He had a big melon. He sucked. End of story. Hell, I mean, even if it's the truth, doesn't a man's career deserve something else, a footnote, an anecdote, a tip of the ol' cap, something? I say it does. So we've done some digging and some reminiscing, and here's what can we tell you about Rodney Paul Craig:
Buckethead hit .385 in 52 at-bats with the God-forsaken 1979 Seattle Mariners, prompting Peter Gammons to tout him as a phenom in the same sentence as Harold Baines in his legendary Sunday Baseball Notes column in the Boston Globe.
He batted .238 in 240 at-bats with the God-forsaken 1980 Seattle Mariners.
He finished his major-league career with 94 hits, 2,770 fewer hits than Harold Baines. Neither won the 1980 AL Rookie of the Year award.
He batted .231 in 65 at-bats with the God-forsaken 1982 Cleveland Indians, where he could not beat out Bake McBride, Kevin Rhomberg, Miguel Dilone and, yes, 1980 AL rookie of the year No-Longer-So-Super Joe Charboneau for playing time.
He did not earn playing time, and Charleston soon beckoned. A year later, the Tribe sent him to Maine, where, as the starting right fielder for the Guides, he hit the first homer in franchise history. And finally . . .
He was once spotted by yours truly trolling the neon streets of Old Orchard Beach, Maine with an apparent wingman named - wait for it - Otis Nixon. Despite it being a sweltering August day, the duo was dressed like refugees from the Jackson 5's Victory Tour, Otis apparently the Tito to Rodney's Michael. And I feel comfortable saying the man they called Buckethead was undeniably the handsomer one. Now that's what you call a legacy, my friends.
Tom Newell: Two major-league games. One major-league inning. A career ERA of 36.00. And my personal "Moonlight" Graham. Tom Newell is without exception my favorite baseball player of all time. My cousins and I got his autograph so many times at Guides games (by then they were affiliated with the far more competent Phillies) that he knew us by sight, if not by name. "It's you guys again?" he'd say, then shake his head, smile and sign whatever we were waving at him that day. He looked like a ballplayer, tall, trim and tan. He acted like everyone's friend. I rooted desperately for Newell to make the major leagues, and he did, with the Phillies at the tail end of the '87 season.
I'll forever recall seeing him at The Ballpark the day in September he learned he'd be going to the majors. "So you got called up," I said. He looked up from signing his name. "Yep. Driving to Philly after the game. It's my dream come true," he said, his grin the honest confirmation. His dream came true only for a moment. The next spring, he blew out his rotator cuff. He bounced around the minors for a number of years, never quite regaining his health or his fastball. Newell never again wore a big-league uniform. Not too long ago, maybe a year or so, a reader of a whimsical magazine piece I had written about the Guides emailed me to say that he had recently run across Newell in Reno, Nevada, where he owned a restaurant and lived happily ever after.
The reader mentioned that Newell had signed a baseball for his grandson and could not have been nicer; the years had not changed him. He also added, in a postscript, that the quirk of Newell's restaurant was a telling one: It featured a baseball theme, including several indoor batting cages. Reading this, I smiled, thinking of Jim Bouton's classic line from Ball Four: "You spend your life gripping a baseball, and all the time it was the other way around." Tom Newell pitched one big league inning. He made The Show. While the moment was fleeting, the memory will stay with him forever. Ask me, there's nothing obscure about that.
Chad Finn is the founder of Touching All The Bases, a blog that takes an irreverent but passionate look at Boston sports. In real life, he is a sports copy editor at The Boston Globe. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife Jennifer, their two-year old daughter Leah, her David Ortiz jack-in-the-box that she shares with her daddy, and a baby to be born later.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]