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      W A L L   O F   F A M E

JANUARY 27 , 2002

Jay Buhner
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.

Buhner continued 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 baseball?

Nicknamed "Bone," 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 2001—once, he even gave his own father a 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.

Buhner started 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

A 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.

But 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
power hitters.

As it was, it took until Phelps
was 29 for him to get a shot at a significant major-league role. Once he did, he hit—24 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.

In 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.

When 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.

Over the course of his career, Phelps was every bit as potent
a hitter as Buhner (see chart below). That said, it's indisputable that Yanks got
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.

        Buhner  Phelps
 AVG    .254     .239
 OBP    .359     .374
 SLG    .494     .480
 SL*OB  .177     .180
 HR      310      123
 AB     5013     1854
 HR%     6.2      6.6