Friday, January 13, 2012

You're out of position

All baseball careers have their highs and lows.

For many of the players who were huge stars, those lows don't come until the tail end of their careers.

In many cases, those players are just trying to milk the last ounce of baseball they've got left, often getting by on their name alone. But who can blame them for wanting to keep playing the great game of baseball?

Often times, position changes need to be made in order to preserve the player's health. Or maybe there's some young hot-shot who's looking to take their old job.

Because of those situations, some once-great ballplayers were forced to play unfamiliar positions at the end of their careers.

Cases in point:

The transition to first base is the most common position switch for aging players in the history of the game. It's been done since the beginnings of baseball.

The switch to first is still present in today's game, although it seems to be happening at a younger age. The Twins are looking to switch 28 year-old Joe Mauer to first base since he's had some injuries lately. With all the fuss about catchers and the toll baseball takes on them, I've come to wonder if we'll ever see another great lifetime catcher like a Johnny Bench or a Mike Piazza. (More on Bench later, though.)

Center field at Yankee Stadium is hallowed ground due to the man they called "The Mick". Few played center better than Mickey Mantle did during his career.

However, nagging injuries forced "The Mick" to play first for his final two seasons in 1967 and '68. I will never get used to the text "Mickey Mantle: 1st Base" that is printed on his final two Topps issues in '68 and '69.

It's just not right.

Warren Spahn pitched part of the 1965 season as a New York Met, splitting time between pitching and coaching. (Yogi Berra's 1965 Topps card also lists him as a coach, as well as a catcher.)

I guess you might also know your career is coming to a close if you're balding.

In his later days, Yogi Berra roamed the outfield for the Yankees. One of the reasons for this was that Yogi was getting up there in age; his legs were probably twice as old as the rest of his body due to catching for most of his career. In fact, if you look at the famous clip of Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 homer in the 1960 World Series, that's Yogi Berra going back towards the left-field wall before it goes out.

It didn't help that the Yankees had future MVP Elston Howard coming up as Berra's career was coming to an end, forcing Berra to the outfield.

However, not all replacements work out like Elston Howard did for the Yankees.

1982 and 1983 would be Johnny Bench's final big league seasons. In those final two seasons, he'd play 149 games at the unfamiliar "hot corner". He'd play just six games behind the plate in those two years.

The Reds' replacement for Bench? Some guy named Steve Christmas. In his lone season behind the plate in Cincinnati in '83, Christmas would post horrific batting average of .059. He'd be out of baseball by 1986, having played a total of just 24 big-league games.

In recent years, the most common switch has been to the role of designated hitter.

Interestingly, the first card to list a player at the DH position was Frank Robinson's 1974 Topps issue.

When the DH rule was implemented in 1973, it was basically just a ploy to stir up a little more offense. At the time, no one considered the impact it might have on the length of a player's career.

Since then, the DH position has enabled players to last a couple years longer than they would have in the pre-DH era. Players like Hank Aaron are a good example.

For that reason, I am in support of the DH. I still like to see pitchers hit, though. Otherwise, how would I get these cards?

The decline of a baseball career is much like a decline in any other career, as shown by these cards.

Just another example of how easy it is to relate to the beautiful game of baseball.


Potch said...

Great post! Informative and interesting.

Hackenbush said...

Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo was rooked into playing second base by Chuck Tanner in his one year with the White Sox. He retired after the 1974 season leaving a year's pay on the table.

Nick said...

Never knew that Santo played second in his lone year with the Sox. Makes sense though since the Sox had Bill Melton at 3rd in the early '70s.