The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Kingdome”

The Best Players I Have Ever Seen (Live)

Tomorrow I will be purchasing a dozen tickets to a baseball game for a group of people I work with.  We will be going to a Greenville Drive (Single A Red Sox) minor league baseball game in early May.  I don’t get to as many games as I used to, and I haven’t been to a Major League baseball game in an embarrassingly long time.

Greenville Drive marquee sign

Greenville Drive marquee sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, baseball is baseball, and Fluor Field here in Greenville is a nice facsimile of Boston’s Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster of its own in left field.

This got me to thinking of all the players I’ve seen live over the years, in both minor league and major league baseball parks.  So, inevitably, I decided to make a list of the best players I’ve seen in person at each position since my first game at Shea Stadium in 1974.  I’ve included the year and the city in which I witnessed them play.

First Base:  Steve Garvey (Shea Stadium, 1974), Willie McCovey (Shea Stadium, 1977), Willie Stargell (Shea Stadium, 1979), John Olerud (Seattle Kingdome, 1993), Mo Vaughn (Fenway Park, 1998.)

I was lucky to have seen a pair of first baseman, Garvey in ’74 and Stargell in ’79, who would each win their league’s MVP award that season.

Second Base:  Dave Lopes (Shea Stadium, 1974),  Rennie Stennett (Shea Stadium, 1976), Dave Cash (Shea Stadium, 1976), Roberto Alomar (Kingdome, 1993).

Not a lot to offer here.  Alomar was just beginning to reveal his greatness in ’93.

Sorry, fellow Mets fan, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to add Felix Millan to this list.

Fenway Park on June 21, 2008

Fenway Park on June 21, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Third Base:  Ron Cey (Shea Stadium, 1974), Mike Schmidt (Shea Stadium, 1976, ’77), Lenny Randle (Shea Stadium, 1977), Richie Hebner (Shea Stadium, 1979),  Butch Hobson (Fenway Park, 1979), Robin Ventura (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000).

One Hall of Famer and…Lenny Randle.  Hebner supplemented his income in the off-season by digging graves.  Ventura’s career WAR of 55.5 is right there with several HOF’ers, including Boudreau, Medwick, Herman, Kelley, Terry and Gordon.

Shortstop: Bud Harrelson (Shea, 1974), Larry Bowa (Shea, 1976, ’77), Nomar Garciappara (New Britain, CT, Double-A Minor League park, while playing for the Trenton Thunder, 1995), Nomar Garciappara (Fenway Park, 1998), Edgar Renteria (Portland, ME, Double-A Minor League park, Portland SeaDogs, 1995), A-Rod (Fenway Park,  1999).

Hadlock Field, Portland ME. May 12, 2007 Photo...

Hadlock Field, Portland ME. May 12, 2007 Photo by me, alcinoe 06:36, 25 September 2007 . . Alcinoe . . 1,100×768 (256 KB) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s some real talent to choose from there.  Renteria was just 18-years old when he had a breakout season playing up north for the Portland SeaDogs.  I watched him play there several times in ’95.  I also watched a very skinny Nomar lash a triple and make an outstanding defensive play in Double-A for the BoSox minor league team that same year. He was clearly the star of the show that day.

Catcher:  This is where mediocrity rules the day.  Jerry Grote or Steve Yeager in ’74?  (both fine defensive catchers), John Stearns (at Shea in ’78?)  Stearns set the N.L. record for steals in a season by a catcher (25).  How about Ed Ott (Shea, 1979) of the Pirates?

Charles Johnson of the Sea Dogs was a fine defensive catcher who could hit with some power.  He became the very first draft pick ever for the Florida Marlins in 1992.  I saw him play in Portland a few times in ’94 and ’95.

But I suppose I’ll have to take Jason Kendall who turned in a fine performance for the Pirates back in 2000 (Three Rivers Stadium.)  Ironically, Kendall broke John Stearns N.L. single-season stolen base record for catchers a couple of years earlier.

Three Rivers Stadium

Three Rivers Stadium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I wanted to cheat, I would add Pudge Rodriguez and Mickey Tettleton, both with the Rangers, each of whom I saw play in Spring Training in 1996 down in Florida.

Outfield:  Jimmy Wynn (Toy Cannon came to Shea in ’74), Rusty Staub (Shea, several times throughout the mid-70’s), Dave Kingman (Shea, ’75 and ’76), Del Unser (Shea, 1975), Greg Luzinski (Shea, ’76, ’77), Lee Mazzilli (Shea, 1977-’81), Dave Parker (Shea, ’79), Freddy Lynn (Fenway, ’79)  Jim Rice (Fenway, ’79), Dwight Evans (Fenway, ’79), Bobby Bonds (Fenway, ’79), Ken Griffey, Jr. (Kingdome, 1993, Fenway Park, 1998), Jay Buhner (Kingdome, 1993), Joe Carter (Kingdome, 1993), Brian Giles (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000).

But Vladimir Guerrerro (Harrisburg Senators, Expos AA team, playing at Portland, ME, 1996) is responsible for my favorite jaw-dropping performance.  I watched Vlad take apart the Sea Dogs in a game in the summer of ’96 where he hit a ball so hard to straight away center field, that it was still rising slightly on a line over the raised, distant scoreboard, and it just kept going like a missile until it hit a clump of trees at the base of the railroad track up on an embankment beyond the stadium.

I’d never heard a ball hit that hard in my life.  Neither had anyone else in the park, for as young Vlad rounded the bases, the stadium was just stunned into silence.  It was as if a shotgun blast had just echoed around the park.  I remember turning to my brother after this homer and saying, “Looks like this kid’s got a pretty good future ahead of him, huh?”

Designated Hitter:  I think I’ve seen only about a half a dozen games in American League ballparks, but I have seen three of the best.

Carl Yastrzemski (Fenway Park, 1979), Paul Molitor (Kingdome, 1993), Edgar Martinez (Fenway Park, 1998).  Edgar did not play in the game I went to at the Kingdome in ’93.


Shea (Photo credit: Kethera)

Pitchers:  Don Sutton (Shea, 1974), Tom Seaver (Shea, 1975), Jerry Koosman (Shea, 1976), Randy Jones (Shea, 1976), Jerry Reuss (Shea, 1980), Dwight Gooden (on Rehab., pitching for Tidewater vs. Maine Guides, Triple-A, Old Orchard Beach, ME, 1987), Al Leiter (Kingdome, 1993), Roger Clemens (Fenway Park, 1996), Tom Gordon (Fenway Park, 1996), Pedro Martinez (Fenway Park, 1998), Al Leiter (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000), Josh Beckett (Hadlock Field, Portland, ME, pitching for the Double-A Sea Dogs, 2001).

So I got to see Al Leiter twice, seven year apart, pitching for two different teams (Blue Jays and Mets.)  I’ve seen five pitchers who have won Cy Young awards.

That’s it.  By my count, I’ve seen nine players who are already in the Hall of Fame.  I’ve also seen several others (A-Rod, Griffey, Jr., Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens) who certainly have a case for future HOF induction.  Also, players like Evans, Staub, Nomar and Edgar Martinez were all among the very best players of their respective eras.

But an entire generation of new, young players has emerged in the last few years, few of whom I’ve had a chance to go out and see perform live.

Guess it’s time to buy those tickets.


Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 19 – The Seattle Mariners

Downtown skyline with Kingdome, 1990

Image by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

Nearing the completion of their 34th Major League season, the Seattle Mariners are one of just three MLB franchises to have never played in a World Series.  The other two are the Washington Senators/ Texas Rangers franchise and the Montreal Expos / Washington Nationals franchise.

They are also a team that has engaged in what I call a “Four Year False Start Period” where they suddenly improve by at least ten wins from one season to the next, show no regression in year three (but also don’t make the playoffs), then completely collapse back to their original level of hopelessness in year #4.

The four-year period I am specifically referring to in Mariners history took place during the 1983-86 seasons.  Here is their record in each of those four seasons:

1983:  60-102

1984:  74-88

1985:  74-88

1986:  67-95

You can see that Mariners fans would have felt some reason to be hopeful after the ’84 season, and that they might still have felt somewhat optimistic going into the 1986 season.  But after 1986, it must have been back to the drawing board.

Why does a team suddenly show noticeable improvement for one year, sustain that new level of competitiveness for a second year, then completely fall apart yet again?  At some point, I’ll turn this phenomenon into yet another series of blog-posts.

But for our purposes in this blog-post, let’s take a closer look at the Mariner’s 1984 season.

Often, when a team shows significant improvement as the Mariners did in 1984, it is  at least partially attributable to a wave of young talent arriving at the Major League level.  This accurately reflects what happened with the Seattle organization in ’84.

Specifically, two 23-year old prodigies suddenly burst upon the scene.  One was flame-throwing lefty Mark Langston.  The other was slugging first baseman Alvin Davis.  Davis and Langston achieved so much success in their first go ’round in the Majors that they finished 1-2, respectively, in Rookie of the Year voting at season’s end.

Let’s begin with the ROY, Alvin Davis.

1984 was Alvin Davis’ Best Forgotten Season.

When Davis completed the ’84 season, he had produced one of the best seasons in franchise history up to that point.  Granted, the M’s had only been around for eight years, but that doesn’t diminish the level of his accomplishments.

To begin with, Davis showed promising power in his initial year, slugging 27 home runs and finishing 4th in the A.L. in RBI’s with 116.  He showed good plate coverage, drawing 97 walks against just 78 strikeouts, and his on-base percentage was an impressive .391.

Davis also finished with a respectable .284 batting average, 34 doubles, and an OPS of .888.  His OPS+ (which takes into consideration a player’s home ballpark and the era in which he played) was 147, good for fifth place in the league.  He also finished 2nd in the league in Intentional Walks with 16.

Davis made the A.L. All-Star squad for the one and only time in his career in ’84.

For his efforts, he finished 12th in the A.L. MVP voting, certainly a promising start to what Mariners fans could expect to be a long and productive career.

Nevertheless, there were some warning signs even in ’84 that Davis might not be able to sustain that level of success, let alone build on it, over time.

Even in his rookie year, Alvin Davis possessed what are now commonly referred to as “Old Player Skills.” According to baseball statistician / guru / man-about-town Bill James, “Old Player Skills” are defined as:  Power, Walks, Lack of Speed, Low or Mediocre Batting Average.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with a player displaying each of the first two skills on that list as a rookie.  Normally, however, it takes time for a player to fully realize his power potential, and strike zone judgment at the Major League level also usually requires a learning curve of a few years.

Speed is often a skill that separates a young rookie from his older teammates; if he begins his career slow afoot, he will be unable to beat out many infield hits, and his average will suffer accordingly.

Putting these four indicators together then, a young player with “Old Player Skills” generally has nowhere to go but down.  If he has already maxed out his power potential, has no speed to work with, and displays a curiously cautious  approach at the plate, he is not a player that has any significant room to grow as an athlete.

Alvin Davis showed just such a skill-set during his rookie campaign.  He stole five bases in nine attempts in his rookie year, then stole just two more bases  during the rest of his nine-year career!

He topped his 27 rookie year homers just once three years later when he hit 29. He also reached the 100 RBI mark only once more when he drove in an even 100 in 1987.

Despite a solid on-base percentage, he scored just 80 runs.

Even his initial .284 rookie year batting average was almost identical to his final career .280 batting average.

In short, although Davis’ rookie success helped Seattle improve by 14 wins in 1984 over the previous year, his lack of development was at least partially to blame for Seattle’s next prolonged slump a couple of years later.

Davis played just nine seasons in the Majors, all for the Mariners.  He did have three other seasons where his OPS was at least .875 or better, but topped a .900 OPS just once.  He hit 160 home runs and drove in 683 runs in his career.  But he never scored as many as 90 runs in a season, and his seven career steals were certainly not off-set by his ten career triples.

Clearly, then, Alvin Davis’ Best Forgotten Season was 1984.

His teammate, Mark Langston, would enjoy greater long-term success, but battled periods of inconsistency throughout his career.

Mark Langston, in 1984, was the epitome of raw, untamed talent.

Langston was thrown directly into a starting role in his rookie year, and he responded by posting a 17-10 record in 33 starts.  In 225 innings (forget pitch counts and innings limitations in those days), Langston struck out a league-leading 204 batters, but his wildness resulted in a league-leading 118 walks.

His ERA in 1984 was a respectable 3.40, but his WHIP was a troubling 1.360.

Langston’s 7.5 hits / nine innings was fourth best in the league, and his 8.16 K’s / nine innings paced the Junior Circuit.

Tough to hit, then, but a patient hitter could reach base against Langston.  But still, that raw potential.

Langston’s wildness, however, would catch up to him in his sophomore year when he walked 91 batters (against just 72 strikeouts) in 126 innings.  His ERA ballooned to 5.47, and his record was a dismal 7-14.

Just a couple of years later, though, Langston finally harnessed his stuff well enough to enjoy his finest overall season as a Mariner.

1987 was Mark Langston’s Best Forgotten Season.

It is no accident, too, that the Mariners enjoyed their best season up to that point as well, reaching 78 wins for the first time in team history.

Langston finished the ’87 season with 19-13 record, a career high 272 innings pitched, 14 complete games, three shutouts, and he led the league in strikeouts for the third time with a career high 262.

He won the first of his seven career Gold Gloves in ’87, made the All-Star team, and finished fifth in the A.L. Cy Young race.

One of the most durable, hard-throwing lefties in MLB history, Langston pitched at least 200 innings in ten of his sixteen seasons.  He struck out at least 200 hitters five batters, and topped 190 K’s in two other seasons.

Langston pitched in four All-Star games, and his 2,464 career strikeouts rank 32nd all-time.  A very good fielding pitcher as well, Langston won seven Gold Gloves in his career.

Yet Langston finished with a career record of just 179-158.  Certainly, he pitched on some bad teams, but his career ERA+ of just 108 indicates that despite all the strikeouts and a couple of dominating seasons, he was often just slightly better than your average replacement level pitcher.

In the end, nine seasons of 90 or more walks partially undermined what might have been an even better career.  Langston’s inability to ever seriously master the strike zone stunted not only his growth, but also the growth and development of the Mariners.*

The Mariners finally traded Langston in 1989, and he spent the next ten years pitching for the Expos (briefly), then the Angels (eight years) before finishing up his career with the Padres and Indians in ’98-’99.

Although he enjoyed an excellent season in 1991 with the Angels, Mark Langston’s Best Forgotten Season as a Mariner took place in 1987.

* By way of comparison, Nolan Ryan had 15 seasons of 90+ walks.  Randy Johnson had five. Sandy Koufax had four.  Roger Clemens had three.  Warren Spahn had two.  Tom Seaver had zero.

Author’s Note:  This Thursday, I plan on posting Part 20 of this series, focusing on the Minnesota Twins.

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