As I’ve said before, one of my favorite reasons for owning and reading these preview guides is reading through the old previews and seeing what contemporary writers had to say about players at the time. Not only can this be entertaining (for a number of reasons), but it can also be quite insightful: it can show how certain players broke through into the national consciousness; it can remind you of the big stars of the day who have since been mostly forgotten; and it can tell you about all the unfulfilled expectations of the up-and-coming players.
The best example of this, where all three of these aspects intersect, is the “prospects” section. When a magazine like these are written, it’s impossible to know one prospect’s future from another – their possible fortune is just as likely as their possible folly. But when we look at them with the benefit of hindsight, we know who made good on that potential and who did not. So when we go looking through these magazines for players who we know are Hall of Famers, it makes the statements sometimes rather underwhelming (and rather overwhelming for those we know are flame-outs).
Tonight, I’ve decided to share some of these “prospects views” from the 1982 Street and Smith’s baseball preview guide. Looking back, it was actually a very strong year for rookies. In Rookie of the Year voting, there were three future Hall of Famers, and, among the other vote-getters, there were seven All-Stars, one MVP winner, and one Cy Young winner. That’s a pretty solid class.
Here are some excerpts from the magazine:
Tony Gwynn: Outfielder Tony Gwynn certainly needs more seasoning after blistering Double-A pitching over just 23 games. But his .462 average and 19 ribbies were impressive.
Now, this is cheating a little, as Gwynn didn’t really make it to the bigs until 1983 (though he did play 54 games, with 190 at-bats, in 1982). Still, you can clearly see that Gwynn’s biggest strength was noticeable right from the beginning.
Cal Ripken, Jr.: Third base in Baltimore has become crowded with Ripkens this season. Cal has been the Birds’ third-base coach for years. And now, son Cal Jr. has dislodged Doug DeCinces as the O’s starting third sacker. When a deal found DeCinces going elsewhere, to the West Coast, from where he hails, the younger Ripken was planted at the hot corner. Ripken can also play shortstop, but not nearly as well as third. His hitting is not in doubt. Last season, the International League was loaded with outstanding prospects at third, not the least of which was Ripken (.288, 25, 75 at Rochester). Impressive as a .276 hitter in Puerto Rico the year before, his winter ball improvement was tremendous this time around. Playing third for Caguas, Ripken was the league’s runaway RBI leader and a possible Triple Crown winner as the season neared its end.
It seems that Cal was a pretty highly regarded prospect because that synopsis was pretty spot-on. There wasn’t much hemming or hawwing there. I liked the comment on how he doesn’t play short “nearly as well as third”, and that the O’s needed to move DeCinces off of third in order to make room for Cal (he only played 71 of his 160 games that year at third). I wonder how the O’s brass felt when they switched him over to shortstop that first time. I suppose it worked out.
Chili Davis: Giants’ manager Frank Robinson knows a little about judging offensive prospects. He was one himself once, before going on to become the National League Rookie of the Year, MVP in both leagues (nobody else has done that) and…elected to the Hall of Fame. So when he suggests that center fielder Chili Davis’s talent is similar to Montreal’s Andre Dawson, you listen. Robinson said of Davis, who batted .350, had 19 homers, 40 stolen bases in 88 AAA games for Phoenix, “He simply can do everything – run, throw, steal 40-50 bases, hit 30-35 homers with power from either side.” What more can a manager say about his top prospect? “He’s a great kid,” added Robinson.
Davis certainly went on to have a fine career, playing 18+ years with three all-star appearances, 2,380 hits, 350 home runs, and a .274/.360/.451 line. But there’s some very high praise there – being compared to Andre Dawson in 1982 may be like being compared to Carlos Beltran or Vlad Guerrero today – that he didn’t quite live up to (I don’t see Rob Neyer debating Davis’s Hall of Fame merits after all) and it comes from a pretty respected source. In that light, this quote might be one of the more overly optimistic, but, all in all, I don’t think fans of the ’80s Giants and Angels were complaining too much.
Wade Boggs: What is it about Wade Boggs? All he does is slap out all those base hits, yet he continues to wear a Triple-A label. He’s been a first baseman, outfielder, and third baseman. He was nipped by less than a point for the IL batting crown two years ago, but in 1981 won it by .0006 points, hitting .353 for Pawtucket, where he drove in 60 bases. Surely he ought to find a niche with some club, even as a pinch-hitter, although he isn’t laden with home run power.
That actually may be my favorite write-up. I like how it nails Boggs the MLBer down perfectly, but still leaves plenty of room for things to go differently (a pinch-hitter? seriously?). I imagine it’s hard to predict greatness when all you see is base hits; for some reason, base hits don’t impress upon you the mantle of “greatness” the same way a towering home run ball might. It probably should, though, as we’ve seen some great pure hitters in recent times.
Looking through those comments from almost 27 years ago about players who eventually had long, productive, Hall of Fame careers (well, except Chili…), it’s hard to see anything that guaranteed greatness. In fact, if you pick up any preview guide today, current or past, you’ll probably find countless other entries making similar statements. Which I find fascinating… if I look at my 2008 preview guides, will it be possible for me to find the Wade Boggs’s and Tony Gwynn’s in its pages? After all, there’s a good chance that there are 2 or 3 future Hall of Famers waiting to be found…