Monday, May 4, 2009
It's a phenomenon that goes on for years before it is fully recognized. It requires the perfect combination of uninterrupted incompetence, bad fortune, and overall futility. When all these things are melded together, and the Earth is rotating at just the right speed, you end up with the unstoppable force known as "The Steve Buechele Experience." The Experience comes to be when any team undergoes an extended lack of production at a particular position for a long period of time. As a professional sports franchise, it is a disease you do not want to be afflicted with. Sadly, the Detroit Tigers have been dealing with their own personal Steve Buechele Experience for a while now. The evidence is found in the gaping hole found in leftfield at Comerica Park. This vast space has been screaming for a new tenant for years, to no avail. First, a little background on the man that has come to personify this unfortunate reality.
Steve Buechele was a longtime Texas Rangers third sacker in the 1980's. He was basically the face of mediocrity, and his career was about as memorable as the overdone grilled cheese you put away late last Wednesday night. But when he came to the Chicago Cubs, he did more than just man the hot corner. He epitomized the franchise's immense struggle to find a respectable replacement for the long retired Cub legend, Ron Santo. Third base for the Chicago Cubs had grown to be the weakest position in baseball over the last 20 years. Since Santo hung up the spikes, the North Siders had trotted out a sad collection of castoffs, often trying out a new player every spring, with similar results. The name changed...the game didn't. The likes of Len Randle, Vance Law, and Luis Salazar all made their way through the revolving door. And then in 1992, our boy Steve Buechele arrived on the scene. He was the quintessential struggling Cubs 3rd sacker. He would show a little power, hit about .250, and boot a couple ground balls a week. Buechele would occupy the spot for a few seasons before passing off the infamous torch to the "great" Todd Zeile. Several more journeymen would try to end the curse with limited success. Finally, in 2003, after close to 30 years of third base failure at the Friendly Confines, a slugging hero in the form of Aramis Ramirez came to the rescue. Ramirez became an All-Star, providing a menacing presence in the middle of the order and helping the Cubs to become fixtures in the baseball postseason. The hex on the Wrigley hot corner was gone. Which brings us back to the Tigers...and the fruitless search for their next leftfielder.
The Tigers have played just 24 games in this young season, and they have already had four different players start a game in leftfield. Carlos Guillen was shifted there in the off-season. However, many people forget that while Guillen was born in 1975, his Achilles was born in 1931, making it very difficult for him to roam the outfield in Comerica Park for more than a couple games in a row. Josh Anderson was acquired right before the season to provide insurance at the position. His speed and defense would be welcomed, but there were doubts about his bat. Thus far, it's been just the opposite. He has swung the bat consistently, but his fielding has been shaky. Anderson badly misplayed a looping liner against the Yankees, leading to a disastrous 10-run frame when it could very well have been zero had the play been made. Marcus Thames made his annual appearance in left before he landed on the DL with a pesky rib injury that could keep him out for up to a month. Finally, the Tigers summoned Ryan Raburn from Toledo, hoping maybe he could grab hold of leftfield. Unfortunately, he has never really been a classic outfielder. To his credit, Raburn has managed to continue to live his life in peace with no legal repercussions, despite it being widely known that he stole the identity of Shane Halter in 2004, taking the man's family, possessions, and below average skills in the process. Guillen's old feet...Anderson's bum glove...Thames' same old story...and Raburn's quiet past in serious criminal activity. Leftfield is a scary place right now for the Tigers...and it has been for a long time.
Throughout most of the 1960's on through the 1980's, leftfield was actually a position of strength in Detroit. Willie Horton occupied the position for close to a decade, and was the picture of consistency while doing so. "Willie the Wonder" belted 325 long balls in his career and made arguably the most important play of the 1968 World Series by gunning down Lou Brock with a picture-perfect throw to rip the momentum away from the Cardinals. As a homegrown product that played high school ball at Northwestern High, Willie garnered great admiration from the fans, even prompting the High Socks Legend's Mom to pluck grass from Horton's front yard and wear #23 in her softball league in his honor. Following Willie in leftfield was Steve Kemp, the former first overall pick. Kemp would have a very successful five-year run in left, despite playing on less than stellar Tiger squads. He became an All-Star and even managed to pick up a few points on the MVP ballots in a couple years. Larry Herndon arrived on the scene in 1982 and picked up right where Kemp left off. Herndon became a fixture in the Tigers outfield for the next few seasons, culminating in his game winning 2-run homer at Jack Murphy Stadium in the opener of the '84 Fall Classic. There might have been certain things to worry about during those years, but leftfield was not one of them. Then it all changed...and the "Steve Buechele Experience" came to life.
While Herndon was still the Tigers regular in leftfield in 1986, it was clear that his best days were behind him. It's been a long, downhill trip ever since. Kirk Gibson was shifted to left for one season before he jumped ship to the Dodgers, where he would win the league MVP the very next season. After Gibson, a collection of journeymen and former greats would all try their hand in leftfield . An older Fred Lynn was brought on board. Pat Sheridan stopped in for a cup of coffee. The team tried grabbing players (Dan Gladden, Tony Phillips) from the past World Series champions, hoping to catch a little bit of that winning flavor. Didn't work. In the 8 seasons that spanned 1986-93, the Tigers employed 8 different regulars in leftfield. Looking back, you could make a strong argument that the best guy during that whole time period was Billy Young, the aging Tigers legend played by Roy Scheider in the underrated made-for-TV movie Tiger Town. Sure, he looked like he was about 75 years old in the movie, but Scheider could still mash. Leftfield was still a problem spot in Detroit, and things weren't changing anytime soon.
Milt Cuyler could have stolen 100 bags with his blinding speed if the rules didn't unfairly require him to reach base before attempting a theft. Melvin Nieves came to town with supreme power and the innate ability to strike out four times in a game when he only came to the plate three. Watching him play, I couldn't help but think "I wish we had somebody else." Then Geronimo Berroa arrived, and I realized, "I really miss Melvin Nieves." The inspirational story of deaf outfielder Curtis Pride made you really feel for the guy. Unfortunately, the opposing pitchers in the American League offered no such sympathy. Bobby Higginson was a prime candidate to end the Tigers' Buechele Experience, but he kept moving back and forth from left to rightfield. Eventually, he signed a monster deal that paid him close to $10 million a year, though by this time Higgy's production was dwindling, and he was mostly concerned with creeping out flight attendants on the team plane with inappropriate remarks and various "images" displayed on his computer screen. In the late 90's, the Tigers caught a break and picked up baseball vagabond Luis Gonzalez to handle leftfield duties. Gonzo was just starting to show signs of becoming a legitimate major league power threat when Randy Smith curiously shipped him off to Arizona for Karim Garcia and a generous side portion of rice pilaf. When you are deep in the throes of a Buechele Experience, pretty much anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It was no surprise when Gonzalez flourished in the desert, walloping a mind-boggling 57 homers in 2001 on the way to leading his Diamondbacks to the championship.
(Sidenote: that 57 home run year by Gonzalez has somehow flown under the radar despite all the rampant speculation over the last decade about steroid-fueled power surges. You hear about Brady Anderson's 50, Barry Bonds' 73, and Sosa and McGwire's crazy 1998. But Gonzo jumps from 31 to 57, then never again reaches 30, and not a peep from the conspiracy theorists. Something aint addin' up here...)
There were also players with the "can't miss prospect" label along this leftfield journey. Juan Encarnacion was hyped up to be the next great five-tool player in the Willie Mays-Roberto Clemente mold. Unfortunately, one of those five tools happened to be "the propensity to swing at any pitch that was within 12 feet of the strike zone." It seemed like pitchers even took a certain sense of pride in issuing a base on balls to Encarnacion since it was such a unique accomplishment. Fellow hot prospect/Tiger flameout Andres Torres only played one game in left. We can safely assume that Andres failed to hit the ball out of the infield that day.
The list goes on and on. Rondell White could have been the answer, but he was always one awkward check swing away from a trip to the 60-day disabled list. Then there was the apocalyptic year that saw legends like Craig Paquette, Wendell Magee, Jr., and Hiram Bocachica all spend time in leftfield . I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights just thinking about that summer. It really was a bone-chilling time period. But finally, in 2006, it appeared as if Craig Monroe was going to bring us back to the days of Horton, Kemp, and Herndon. He smacked a career-best 28 dingers, 5 more in the playoffs, and you could only imagine the numbers he would post in the years to come. Except one thing happened. The various scouts around the league noticed that Monroe's swing was loopier than a Robin Williams' stand-up special. Pitchers stopped grooving him fastballs and started working him over in a serious fashion. His habit of stepping up in the clutch was now a distant memory. With only about a month left in the '07 campaign, the Tigers cut ties with the punchless Monroe, and showing just how far his value had fallen league wide, dealt him to the Cubs straight up for Kerosene Clay Rapada. After his playoff dramatics just 10 months prior, everyone expected him to hold down the fort in left for the next decade. Now Monroe was silently exiting Motown with his anemic .222 batting average in tow. The Steve Buechele Experience is a most powerful force.
Not much has changed in the last couple of years. Jacque Jones was signed to bring some veteran stability back to the position. Turns out the only thing stable was Jones' pulse...and even that fact was hotly debated. Young Clete Thomas made some noise for a quick minute until you got a better look at him and realized he should probably be doing some kind of calf-roping activity on the Vs. network where the first prize is $5,000 and a brand new first name. Brent Clevlen is another kid that has all the necessary skills to be a big-league outfielder, but you can't help but worry a little bit when the guy has been in Erie and Toledo for what seems like an eternity. Clevlen is destined to be the next Mike Hessman, a fellow Tiger "prospect" that has hit approximately 800 home runs during his highly decorated minor league career. Gary Sheffield ventured out to left for a handful of games where it was tragically revealed that his once cannon-like throwing arm had now been surgically replaced with a foam swimming pool noodle.
Leftfield is a tricky position when you look back at past World Series champions. The Red Sox won a pair with one of the best of all-time in Manny Ramirez. The Cardinals knocked off the Tigers with the ghastly Preston Wilson-So Taguchi duo. It is proven that a title can be had without a superstar leftfielder in the lineup. But that is not the point of this piece. I am here to educate about the all-powerful Steve Buechele and the Experience that he has created. Once you are firmly entrenched in a Buechele Experience, the only way to get out is to first admit that you are powerless in doing so. The Tigers need to spend as much money as it takes to track down Lord Buechele and express their utmost respect for his empire. Only then might this dark cloud over leftfield at Comerica Park finally be lifted.
In today's game, Carlos Guillen started in left, went 0-4, and saw his average drop below the Mendoza line. If there was ever a time to reverse the curse, it is now. The Cubs eventually overcame their own version of the Buechele Experience by acquiring Aramis Ramirez, proving that the phenomenon while strong, can be defeated. Maybe one day the Tigers can do the same. But until then, it's a little Guillen, a touch of Anderson, a hint of Thames, and a shot of Raburn. It makes you wish the Steve Buechele Experience was merely a creation. A wild theory "out of left field." But this time, it is all too real, and it sits directly in leftfield. The only saving grace is that nowhere in the major league rulebook does it state that a team must station three players in the outfield. I think we may be on to something here...
Who was your personal favorite of the past 25 years of Tigers leftfielders? Drop a comment below or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org