If you read my May 25th blog-post, then you know that the purpose of this series is to resurrect the best largely forgotten baseball seasons by individual players that have occurred over the past several decades.
In Part 1, I focused on a pair of Mets players, Lance Johnson and Frank Viola, who each had extremely successful seasons with the Mets that even many Mets fans have already forgotten about.
My goal here in Part 2 is to continue to focus on a pair of players from each team who have had big seasons that have since largely faded from our collective memory.
One arbitrary ground rule I have set for myself is that I won’t choose any players from before 1950 because, by definition, the further back you go in baseball history, the less likely it is that anyone will remember a certain player that I may decide to dredge up. After all, isn’t it more fun to be reminded of someone you think you should have remembered rather than some semi-obscure player who you have no recollection of at all?
Also, the individual baseball seasons I have chosen will not be split seasons (when a player, due to a trade, splits his seasons between two or more teams), strike years, or seasons in which the player missed a significant amount of games.
That’s not to say there won’t be any surprises, however. In fact, I guarantee you that there will be more than a couple of surprise names in this series as we go along.
And those surprises may come as early as, well, right now.
So lets begin Part 2 of Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: A Team By Team Analysis.
Today’s team: The Chicago Cubs
This historic franchise has blessed baseball with Mordecai Three-Finger Brown, Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandburg…and Dave Kingman.
Dave Kingman? That Dave Kingman?
Dave Kingman came stumbling out of the Oregon woods as a child, as likely as your average circus freak to become a major league baseball player.
Tall, and thin as a rail, Kingman apparently learned English as a second language, his native language being a simple, occasional grunt. Never really comfortable with people, he spent 16 seasons in various major league uniforms steadfastly avoiding, and annoying, other players, managers, photographers, and just about anyone else with whom he shared a confined space.
Virtually no one, however, could hit the ball as far as Dave “King Kong” Kingman. And no one could make the rest of the game, you know, throwing catching and hitting, look as awkward and difficult.
Yet, after having played for four, yes four teams, in 1978, and for six teams in the previous four, the Chicago Cubs decided to give the enigmatic 29-year old grunter a chance at stardom.
Astonishingly, he delivered. Despite the fact that he’d never batted higher than .238 in any season before, he hit .266 for the Cubs in 1978 with 28 homers and 79 RBI’s. Overall, for Kingman, a successful campaign.
But his 1979 season was, for the Cubbies, proof that even the lovable losers get lucky sometime. His production in his age 30 season defied, I’m sure, even their wildest dreams.
In 1979, Kingman hit .288 (52 points higher than his career average) with a league-leading 48 home runs. He also scored a career high 97 runs (I still can’t picture him stumbling around the bases that often without falling over), 115 RBI’s, and an N.L. best .613 slugging percentage.
He led the league with an OPS of .956 and had an OPS + of 146. His 326 total bases were a career high. It was also the only season in which Kingman topped 150 hits, with 153.
Of course, Kingman also led the league in strikeouts with 131.
Strangest of all, though, is that Kingman ranked 4th among N.L. left fielders in put outs, and 3rd in assists.
One has to wonder what kind of quasi-humans could possibly have been stumbling around on the left side of N.L. ballparks that year to actually rank behind Dave Kingman in putouts.
But Kingman quickly wore out his welcome in Chicago, and was exiled back to the hapless Mets in 1981. Kingman played three more season with the Mets with declining batting averages of .221, .204 and .198. At that point, even the Mets had had enough.
Inexplicably, in his final three seasons as a major league ballplayer, toiling away in Oakland, Kingman hit at least 30 homers and drove in over 90 runs all three years.
Then, like a freak storm that swirls up out of the summer heat, does its fair share of damage, and kicks up all kinds of dust and dirt in your eye, he was gone. Perhaps the baseball powers-that-be suddenly noticed that Kingman was getting uncomfortably close to that magic, Hall-of-Fame triggering, 500 home run mark. (He retired just 58 home runs short of 500, a total he might have reached in a couple more years.)
Lucky for all of us, perhaps most of all for Kingman himself, he never had to face the awkward possibility of tripping up the steps to a microphone in front of a dubious throng at Cooperstown, and grunt something unintelligible at them. And which of the boatload of baseball caps that he wore as a player would be his induction cap?
My vote would have been for his Chicago Cubs hat, where he enjoyed his one truly excellent season back in 1979.
The second Chicago Cub I will analyze in this blog-post is someone who had an even more unfortunate, if not infamous, career as a major league baseball player.
Before his attempted kick-save that resulted in a Mookie Wilson goal in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner was an actual baseball player.
In fact, Buckner was, once upon a time, before he strapped those strange-looking Annie Oakley boots over his problematic ankles and feet in the fall of ’86, even a good fielder.
And he was often a good hitter.
In fact, arguably his best single season was in 1982 when, playing with the Cubs, he had 201 hits, 93 runs scored, 105 RBI’s, and a .306 batting average. Never a power hitter, he also managed 15 home runs that year to go along with his 15 stolen bases.
Just two seasons earlier, also with the Cubs, Buckner had won the N.L. batting title with a .324 average. Eight seasons earlier, playing with the Dodgers, Buckner had even stolen 31 bases in a season.
Twice Buckner led his league in doubles, and he was always one of the most difficult players to strike out, fanning only 453 times in a 22 year career that included over 10,000 plate appearances.
It also turns out, ironically, that Buckner was a skillful, aggressive first baseman. Four times in his career, twice with the Cubs and twice with the Red Sox, he led the league in assists, and he ranks 15 all time in assists by a first baseman.
But three times, due to his aggressiveness, he also led his league in errors at first base.
Still, it is, of course, unfortunate that a player who amassed over 2700 hits in his career, who drove in over 1200 runs and scored over 1,000, along with a .289 career batting average, should be primarily remembered for one fateful play in October 1986.
But four years earlier, playing for the Cubs in 1982, Buckner was one of the best players in the National League, with what appeared to be a reasonably bright future lying ahead of him.
It would be easy to finish this blog-post by saying something like,” Such is the fate of a Cubs player,” but, in truth, Buckner’s fate is not unique. Eventually, Fate frowns on many of us.
Which is why the humbling lessons of baseball are such useful lessons for us all to learn.