Baseball Is More Than Superstars
Thanks to Chad Finn for his fine article on Red Sox journeyman players. Like Finn, I have always gravitated towards baseball's "average Joes" rather than the game's superstars.
Why do I find .230 hitters and junkball pitchers fascinating? In a word, reality.
How many people are the Mickey Mantles or Ozzie Smiths of their chosen professions? Those of us who love baseball but had modest talent could only imagine being in the majors in any capacity. If everything went absolutely right, us mopes of meager ability might be the 24th or 25th man on the roster of a losing team for half a season or have gotten a September cup of coffee. Never mind being the next Ted Williams. Having Ted Ford's career would have been a thrill beyond description.
Why do people complain about the inflated egos and wages of the big names while they ignore the genuinely grateful guys who pull down a much lower salary? If your tastes run closer to Ralph Kramden than Ralph Lauren, pick a journeyman and support him. He'll appreciate your cheers far more than the overpaid and overhyped lug with a fat contract.
Here are some of my favorite blue-collar ballplayers.
Ray Oyler and his .175 lifetime average (lowest of the live ball era for a player with a minimum of 1000 career at-bats) in 1266 ABs makes the Tigers shortstop the poster boy of the good-field, no-hit crowd.
With just one .200 plus season (.207 in 1967) during a big league career that lasted from 1965 to 1970, Oyler was obviously solid with the glove. Johnny Sain described Oyler as one of the best fielders he saw in half a century in the game. With a career average exactly 40 points below Mario Mendoza's, Oyler kept several American League pinch hitters gainfully employed.
1968 was the epitome of Ray's career. The Tigers won the American League pennant and defeated the Cardinals in the World Series despite Oyler's .135 batting average in 215 ABs. He appeared in 111 games that season, often as a late-inning defensive replacement.
The weak bats of Oyler and fellow infielders Dick Tracewski (.156) and Tom Matchick (.203) motivated Detroit manager Mayo Smith to make one of the gutsiest gambles in baseball history. Centerfielder Mickey Stanley was moved to SS to make room in the lineup for Al Kaline, who missed much of the season with a broken wrist. Oyler appeared in four of the seven World Series contests, all as a defensive replacement for Stanley.
Oyler went to the ill-fated Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. Like many players, he feasted (relatively speaking) on 1969's expansion year pitching and jacked his average up to .165 in 255 ABs. The 305-foot left field line at Sicks Stadium undoubtedly helped Oyler smack seven of his 15 career home runs.
A hustling 5'6", 190-pound fireplug, Walt "No Neck" Williams was no slouch with the stick, as proven by his .270 lifetime average in a pitching-dominated era.
Originally signed by the Houston Colt .45s, No Neck (just one look at him explains the nickname) played briefly with the team in 1964 before being traded to the White Sox. He debuted with the south siders in 1967, and a .304 average in 1969 was good enough for sixth place in the American League.
What made No Neck special was his genuine and obvious enthusiasm. He didn't have much of an arm, but you knew he'd give an honest effort and more every time he took the field. Even with his lack of height, Williams seldom walked. Just 126 free passes in 2373 career ABs would make Billy Beane and the OBP crowd groan, but just 211 strikeouts attests to No Neck's skill as a contact hitter.
After hitting .289 in 350 ABs with the Indians in 1973, No Neck closed out his major league career with two seasons (1974-75) as a Yankees reserve. A top big league wage of $32,000 means Williams didn't get wealthy from baseball.
Another White Sox journeyman - slick-fielding first baseman Mike Squires - makes the list.
The ultimate stereotype buster, Squires is the extreme opposite of the typical slugger at his position. With just six home runs and a .260 average in 1580 career at-bats, the 5'11" Squires was known for his defensive abilities. He won the A.L. Gold Glove in 1981 while hitting .265 with 0 HR and 25 RBI in that strike-shortened year.
Squires was one first sacker who could do more than take routine throws, as he also filled in at catcher and saw some action as a defensive replacement at third base. Not unusual, you say? Keep in mind that Spanky was a left-hander, and it's obvious that he was a unique player.
Tony LaRussa was impressed enough with Squires to use him behind the plate for a pair of short stints in 1980. The White Sox's usual gaping hole at 3B and Squires' glove gave LaRussa the idea of using the southpaw on the other side of the infield in 1984.
Squires flawlessly handled a dozen chances in 13 games at 3B. He also played errorless ball at 1B (242 chances) and in the outfield (five putouts) for a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Sadly a .183 average in 82 ABs spelled the end of his big league career.
There are plenty of weak-hitting catchers, but Jerry Zimmerman stands out from the pack.
As a Reds rookie in 1961, the Nebraska native teamed with fellow rookie Johnny Edwards. A pair of newcomers behind the plate on the same team is rare, and that is especially true for a pennant-winning squad. The only other league champion with that distinction is the 1944 St. Louis Browns, who relied on Red Hayworth and Frank Mancuso during a time when even marginal players were extremely scarce because of World War II.
A rookie catcher with solid defensive skills can often be expected to improve offensively from a .206 average in 76 games and 204 ABs. In Zimmerman's case, it was an almost prophetic preview of his .204 career average. Batting average is only one component of a player's offensive contribution. In Zimmerman's case, it may have been his strong suit.
The power numbers - just 22 doubles, a pair of triples and three homers in 994 career ABs - adds up to a .239 slugging percentage, which is a dozen points lower than the previously mentioned Ray Oyler. A total of 78 walks and 11 hit by pitches pushes the on-base percentage to a whopping .269.
Those who love odd stats may want to check out Zimmerman's career. He scored just 60 runs over eight seasons. As a member of the pennant-winning 1965 Twins, the right-handed hitter appeared in 83 games, but had just 154 ABs. His .214 average and 33 hits included three extra-base knocks - one double, triple and homer. With just eight runs scored and 11 RBI, it's a good thing the Twins had Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva around. In four World Series appearances (two each in 1961 and 1965), Zimmerman batted just once.
Maybe this defensive whiz just needed more time at the plate to get his stroke down. Move to 1967, when Zimmerman had career highs in games played (104) and at-bats (234). The results? A .167 average (39 hits) with three doubles and a HR for a .192 slugging percentage. As a former catcher, I could never imagine being the next Johnny Bench or Pudge Rodriguez, but could I warm up pitchers in the bullpen and hit bloop singles like Zimmerman?
Gene Mauch hired Zimmerman as a coach with the first-year Expos in 1969. The former backstop also scouted for many years prior to his death in 1998.
Steve Fireovid is a frontrunner for the Rodney Dangerfield Award. With teams on a constant hunt for pitching, it would seem that this control artist would have gotten a shot or two as a fourth or fifth starter with someone.
The right-hander spent a decade in AAA with nine different organizations. Even though he consistently put up decent numbers, Fireovid was usually overlooked because he was a groundball specialist rather than a power pitcher.
What does Fireovid have to show for numerous trips to Toledo, Omaha, Des Moines and other trendy spots? Six widely scattered cups of coffee (small ones) with five different teams from 1981 to 1992 are the extent of his major league record.
He never pitched more than 26.1 innings or 10 games in any of those short stretches in the majors. If this sounds like someone with a 6.40 career ERA, guess again.
In his 31 games pitched (five starts) and 71.2 innings, Fireovid had a 3-1 record with a 3.39 ERA and just 19 walks. The hits (93) to innings ratio is high, but "Fire" also gave up a large number of groundball singles followed by double plays.
The hindsight scouting report: Deserved a decent shot, could have won 10 to 12 games at the back of the rotation. Would benefit greatly from a strong defensive infield behind him. Check out Fireovid's book The 26th Man for an inside look at the frustration of life as a career AAA type.
Speaking of perennial AAA guys and great baseball names, Razor Shines spent nine seasons (1984-1989 and 1991-1993) with the Indianapolis Indians. He also appeared in a total of 68 games for the Expos in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987.
A solid run producer with power in AAA, Shines didn't have much success as a Montreal pinch hitter and first baseman. He was 15 for 81 (.185) in the Show, with a lonely double as his only extra-base hit. Strangely, Razor never scored a run with the Expos.
Shines became the most popular player in Indianapolis history during his lengthy career in the city. In something that sounds like a story from the 1940s, he spent at least one offseason driving a heating oil truck in Indy.
Razor has become a successful minor league manager, moving up from Class A to his current position as skipper of the Charlotte Knights of the International League (AAA). I had the opportunity to hear Shines on a radio interview last year. This faithful baseball foot soldier bubbled over with enthusiasm as he discussed the players on the Birmingham Barons roster. Here's hoping that Razor gets a shot as a major league manager or coach.
There is much more to baseball than the big names. Some of the best stories and insights I've ever gotten have come from players on the lower end of the salary and fame scale. Give the average guys a chance, and enjoy the finest sport ever invented from a whole new perspective.
Al Doyle has been a regular contributor to Baseball Digest since 1986. He has also covered the Mexican League for the Mexico City News.