Bone, the Bald Bomber, or
The Jay Who Led the Way
Elsewhere on this
site, I wrote a two-part history of the ballplayers
who have shared my first name a motley but nonetheless fascinating
(to me, at least) assortment of individuals brought together by the mere
coincidence of a not-so-popular name.
I began the project
on the heels of a late-season comeback by my all-time favorite Jay, Seattle
Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner. While I was largely unaware of many of the
other Jays, Buhner had been at the center of my baseball radar for quite
some time. In some weird sense, I always felt that his role in lifting the
Mariners into the realms of respectability (thanks in part to some other
fellas not named Jay Griffey,
Martinez, Johnson, Rodriguez) ran parallel to his role in lifting the name Jay
into baseball respectablity as well. Aside from the one-of-a-kind flake
that is Jay Johnstone, the history of those ballplayers, up to the point
of Buhner's arrival as a star, was mostly one of failed intellectual pitchers
(Jay Hook, anyone?) and cup-of-coffee banjo hitters.
Jay Buhner changed
all that, for me at least, and I always found myself pulling more than a little
bit harder for him because of it. A gritty competitor with a powerful stroke,
an equally potent arm, a distinctive, um, hairstyle, and an enjoyment of the sillier
side of the game, Buhner was a natural for me to root for. And playing for the
Mariners, a team with which I felt more than a slight bond (my hometown of Salt
Lake City had served as Seattle's AAA outpost for several years during adolesence
and I have several family members in the Pacific Northwest), made him that much
more visible to me.
Buhner took a roundabout
route to the Mariners. After starting his career in the Pirates chain, he was
traded to the Yankees along with Dale Berra for Steve Kemp, Tim Foli and $400,000
in 1984. A 31-homer season at Columbus in 1987 earned him a September callup with
the Yanks. After being promoted again from Columbus in 1988, he hit only .188
for the Yanks, who, in typical Dark Ages of Steinbrenner fashion, ran out of patience
with him quickly. On July 21, 1988, he was shipped off to the Mariners (along
with two pitching prospects) for Ken Phelps (see sidebar).
The deal turned
out to be one of the worst in Yankees history, bad enough that it earned a derisive
line on the most popular TV show in the country, Seinfeld. An irate Frank
Costanza (Jerry Stiller), after being informed by George Steinbrenner that his
Yankee-employed son is missing and presumed dead, blurts
out "What in the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for? He had 30 home runs,
over 100 RBI's last year. He's got a rocket for an arm. You don't know what the
hell you're doin'!"
Costanza had a
point. Buhner went on to become a fearsome slugger for the Mariners, hitting 307
homers, winning a Gold Glove, and becoming the fourth player ever to hit 40 or
more home runs in three consecutive seasons (the first three were Babe Ruth, Jimmie
Foxx, and Duke Snider; Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, Juan Gonzalez, Ken Griffey
Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all reached the mark in the next two years after
Buhner). Meanwhile, Phelps lasted only parts of two seasons with the Yanks, hitting
17 HRs. In Seattle, Buhner joined Griffey and Edgar Martinez as the power-hitting
nucleus of a club which built itself up from being a laughingstock to becoming
the Yanks' worst possible postseason nightmare in 1995. Serving up a cold dish
of revenge, Buhner was virtually unstoppable in that divisional series, hitting
.458 (11-for-24) with a 1125 OPS, as the Mariners won in five thrilling games.
his torrid pace in the ALCS against Cleveland, and provided one of the most poignant
moments of the postseason in Game 3. After homering early, he committed a two-base
error in the eighth inning which allowed the tying run to score. The game went
into extra innings, and Buhner, who'd been shown teary-eyed on the bench, atoned
for his sins with a decisive three-run shot off of Eric Plunk in the 11th. He
broke down again during the postgame interview. Who says there's no crying in
the classy Buhner was one of the Mariners's most beloved players. In 1994, the
team held a "Jay Buhner Haircut Night" in honor of the balding slugger,
and over 400 fans with shaved heads were admitted free of charge. Rechristened
"Buhner Buzz Night," the event became an annual affair for the M's,
growing to over 6200 shaved heads in 2001once, he even gave his own father
cut. Buhner was something of a cut-up himself. He could vomit on cue, and
during one spring training was seen skipping around the clubhouse, wearing nothing
but a pair of black socks and a bagel.
Though his batting
average wasn't high, he was a potent hitter. His home run percentage of 6.18 per
100 At Bats places
him 22nd all-time. In 1995, he set a record with the highest RBI-to-hit ratio
for a 100-RBI hitter (121 RBI on 123 hits). He hit 20 home runs or more for seven
straight years, including the string of three 40+ seasons. Elbow
and foot injuries conspired to limit Buhner's playing time after 1997, costing
him a shot at 400 HR.
Still, he retained
his power stroke and his postseason prowess to the end. He hit a key home run
in Game 2 of the 2000 ALDS against the White Sox, and his final blast came in
the 2001 ALCS. Against the Yankees. In Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. The pitcher:
none other than Jay Witasick. Who writes this stuff?
If Witasick's real
name weren't Gerald, I'd suggest that maybe he grooved one for his namesake.
with a Mariners team that couldn't crack the upper half of the weakest division
in the majors for five straight years, but ended with one that made four
playoffs in his final seven seasons and set a single-season record for wins.
Truly he left a much stronger franchise than he'd found. Pondering retirement,
Buhner said after the season, "Based on the way I feel right now, I think
I got just about everything out of my body that I could get." In December,
he made it official (the Seattle Times ran a sizable tribute to him here).
So long, Bone going, going, gone.
The Other Guy
few words about the man on the other side of one of the most lopsided trades in
Yankee history. Ken Phelps was a power-hitting first baseman who spent the early
'80s yo-yoing between the majors and the minors, racking up huge home run totals
in places like Wichita (1982: .333, 46 HR, 141 RBI). Despite this, he was discarded
by short-sighted managers and general managers who fell victim to judging the
man solely by the shortcomings in his game
he was slow, with a low batting average and a tendency to strike out. Their distrust
of minor-league stats didn't help.
Phelps could jack the ball out of the park, and he did so with a frequency
which placed him among the most productive power hitters in the league.
Though he struck out a lot, he also drew a ton of walks and subsequently
had a high On Base Percentage. Had a more patient manager who understood
Phelps's virtues come along at the right time, Phelps might have ended
up as one of the '80s top
it was, it took until Phelps
was 29 for him to get a shot at a significant major-league role. Once he did,
he hit24 homers in only 290
At Bats for the '84 Mariners, a .378 On Base Percentage and a .521 Slugging Percentage
despite only a .241 average. Over the next three-plus years, Phelps homered
7.5 times per 100 At Bats, a level which would place him THIRD on the career
lists. His career average of 6.6 per 100 ABs would place him 14th, immediately
ahead of the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Mike Schmidt, Jose Canseco, Albert Belle,
and Willie McCovey. Yeah, some of those guys could hit.
the 1987 Baseball Abstract,
Bill James made Phelps a poster-boy of sorts. Creating
the Ken Phelps All-Stars,
James ran down a list of potentially productive players,
all saddled with one label or another ("Too slow," "Doesn't turn
the double play," etc) who could be had virtually for free. The idea has
stuck in the sabermetric community, and
last year a writer for Baseball Prospectus created a new Ken
Phelps All-Star Team. A website
bearing his name, devoted to covering prospects like him has also sprung up.
the Yankees traded Buhner fior Phelps, the latter
was in the middle of another strong season, with .434 OBP and a .548 SLG at the
time of the trade. But the Yanks were getting a 34-year old DH (albeit a lefty,
the side more favored by Yankee Stadium) in exchange for a 24-year old outfielder
with a rocket arm, one who they were giving up on despite only 81 At Bats at the
big league level. Phelps never took off in pinstripes, though his home run rate
was respectable. It took two more seasons for Buhner to develop into the hitter
he became, by which time Phelps had once more gone through the Yanks's revolving
door and was out of the majors.
the course of his career, Phelps was every bit as potent
a hitter as Buhner (see chart below). That said, it's indisputable that
the wrong end of the stick, not surprising given the other qustionable personnel
decisions the team made in its time of Steinbrenner-induced turmoil. In trading
for a ballplayer past his already-squandered prime, they passed up a chance at
the next Ken Phelps, the kind of player out there you really don't need to give
up anything of significance to acquire. They gave up a whole lot more.
AVG .254 .239
OBP .359 .374
SLG .494 .480
SL*OB .177 .180
HR 310 123
AB 5013 1854
HR% 6.2 6.6