Please be aware, this post has nothing to do with the Royals. It is about my childhood love, the Cincinnati Reds. Maybe long time Royals fans might identify with the feelings, if not the actual players.
Those of us who listened to Reds radio in the early 1980's have the name Skeeter Barnes burned into our memory. Skeeter was a local kid drafted out of Woodward high school in 1976 in the 16th round. He overachieved and by 1982 had established himself as a prospect in the high minors. The man-crush Marty Brennaman developed for Skeeter was almost embarrassing to listen to.
Marty - And down there at Indy our boy did it again. You know who I'm talking about Joe.
Joe - Did your favorite junior leaguer do it again?
Marty - You know who I'm talking about Joe. The fabled Mr. Barnes, better known as Skeeter, hit another dinger!
Joe - How many is that now?
Marty - I don't know! I'm losing track! How the Reds can play with our future and hold this kid back is beyond me!
Thing is, Skeeter Barnes was not going to be a good major league baseball player. But to hear Marty talk about him the casual fan might think the second coming of George Foster was rounding Indianapolis and on his way to Riverfront. Given this atmosphere, for the Reds to trade Mr. Barnes away, even for a blue chip player, would be seen as a terribly risky move. I remember the outrage when it was announced that Skeeter was not only traded, but traded for a player as unimpressive as Max Venable in April of 1985. The Reds needed bodies capable of playing in the outfield and somehow their gaze settled on the lowliest member of the Montreal roster. When Max Venable is the answer, clearly the Reds were not asking serious questions.
Ever since I started to follow the Reds closely I found myself adopting marginal players as my Charlie Brown heroes. Players holding onto their major league roster spots by their fingernails. I am not entirely sure why I took on Dann Billardello as my first Charlie Brown hero, but I knew when he was traded away I would need to find a new scrub to cheer for. With "Mad" Max Venable on the club, the choice was obvious.
Why did I love Max? First off, he met the main requirement. He was really not that good at playing baseball. He came to Cincinnati a 28-year old back-up outfielder who had already played himself out of two pretty shaky organizations (the Giants and Les Expos). He had opportunities. He had already played in 340 major league games. His problem was not finding playing time, it was accomplishing anything with it once it landed in his lap. Probably his best year was in 1983 with the Giants. He spent the entire campaign with the big league club, collecting 228 at bats. He parleyed these into the utterly unimpressive line of .219/.295/.364, with 6 homeruns and 27 RBI's. I do remember Max having a reputation as a decent outfielder, a scrappy player, and a reasonably useful threat on the base pads. In short, he was capable of holding off that DFA slip but only by the slimiest of margins.
Beyond his marginal skills Max also had another great point in his favor. He just did not at all look like a professional athlete. If you saw him at a Reds autograph session at a hardware store you would be more likely to ask him where the plumbing section was than for his signature. Max's unimpressive stature and coke-bottle eye glasses made him a dead ringer for everyone's high-school shop teacher. That somewhat awkward guy who yells at kids all day about the dangers of table saws and always seems painfully aware that his life didn't turn out quite as he had expected.
I also had a soft spot for Max because he would always be associated in Cincinnati with the mythical figure of Skeeter. I knew it wasn't Max's fault that he had been obtained in such a monumentally unpopular trade. And I felt sorry for him. Sadly, Max did live up the fan's scorn, and his tenure in Cincinnati was a relatively short one.
Max Venable, I cheered for him:
1985 - 135 at bats, .289/.315/.422 0 HR, 10 RBIs, 11 SBs.
1986 - 147 at bats, .211/.289/.313 2 HR, 15 RBIs, 7 SBs.
1987 - 7 at bats, 1 hit, 2 RBI's.
Max could generously be referred to as the team's pinch hit "specialist," and outfield defensive replacement. To me, he was the symbol of the normal guy, who worked hard, and somehow made himself just barely good enough to live his dream.
And in a way, Max had found a good home. In 1985 the Reds had two outfielders, and a "bunch of other guys." Dave Parker was still a monster, and Gary Redus could be seen as, at worst, not a problem. The third position was open to just about anyone who would not embarrass themselves. Eddie Milner , with his OPS .689, managed to find his name in the starting line-up an amazing 135 times that year. Cesar Cedeno was past the point of contributing at the major league level (OPS .643), but was able to put off retirement for another year due to this roster. The Duane Walker phenomenon was allowed to continue for 37 more games (OPS .634) in this environment. Truth be told, Max had found a team on which he could legitimately compete for playing time.
The emergence of Eric Davis, Kal Daniels and Tracy Jones the following year made Max's position on the team ridiculous and, in retrospect, it is rather surprising he lasted as long as he did in Cincinnati. Following his release after the 1987 season Max kicked around for a few more years. He enjoyed a bit of a second-life plaguing Angels fans from 1989 - 1991 in a role similar to the one he played on the Reds. After the 1991 season a 34 year old gritty veteran hung up his gear for the final time.
Max excelled at nothing. He did the small parts of his job pretty well, while failing across the board at the more important parts of the major league outfield job. Could an outfielder like this make it in today's game?
Max' career does contain one unambiguously positive note. In the final tally he did prove himself to be a better player than Skeeter Barnes. I think.
Mad Max - 727 games, 337 hits, .241/.302/.345. 18 homers, 128 RBI's, 64 stolen bases.
Skeeter - 353 games, 159 hits, .259/.306/.389. 14 homers, 83 RBI's, 20 stolen bases.