Eliot J. Schechter
Will former Royals greats Reggie Sanders, Roberto Hernandez, Rondell White, Jeff Conine, and Lee Smith earn enshrinement in Cooperstown today?
The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its player selections for induction into Cooperstown today. Players selected will join former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, umpire Hank O’Day and 19th Century ballplayer Deacon White in the Hall of Fame Class of 2013. This year’s ballot is a loaded one with names like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, along with old-timers like Dale Murphy (in his last year on the ballot) and Jack Morris (in his next-to-last year on the ballot). The stacked ballot, along with the complications of performance-enhancing drugs has led to confusion among writers, with some even refusing to return ballots (a noble act or a juvenile tantrum, depending on your point of view).
Among the eligible names on the ballot are five former Royals. To be eligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot, a player must have played in the Major Leagues for ten seasons. Now, four of these players don’t stand a chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame, and including them with names like Barry Bonds makes them seem like crummy ballplayers. But in reality, it is quite a feat to last in the big leagues for ten seasons. So we salute these five fine ballplayers, who donned Royals blue.
Jeff Conine was a 58th round selection in the draft by the Royals in 1987, a draft that also netted them Kevin Appier (a borderline Hall of Famer) and Terry Shumpert (a starting second baseman for a year or two). It would be their last good draft for a couple of seasons (until 1991 when they landed Mike Sweeney and Joe Randa).
Jeff was kind of old when they took him out of UCLA, and they brought him up very slowly, blocking him at first base by terrible first basemen like Todd Benzinger, Carmelo Martinez, and Warren Cromartie ( who wasn’t terrible, but was just really, really old). In 1992, instead of giving Conine a chance, the Royals signed Wally Joyner to a lucrative contract. Conine learned to play some outfield in an attempt to get playing time, but the Royals then acquired Felix Jose and refused to trade or release Kevin McReynolds. Thankfully for Jeff, the Royals left him unprotected in the 1992 Expansion Draft, opting instead to protect light-hitting shortstop David Howard. Fans knew it was a bad idea at the time, but the Royals argued Howard was the only shortstop on the entire roster, and if you play baseball without a shortstop, you probably won’t win baseball games. Think people!
The Royals seem to have this recurring trend of not believing in first basemen in the minors who put up numbers but don’t fit whatever archetype they think a first baseman should fit. Before Jeff Conine there was Cecil Fielder, who languished in the Royals system before he was dealt to Toronto, jumped to Japan, and came back to become an All-Star slugger. Before Cecil there was Ken Phelps who was a Royals minor league stud before they let him go only to watch him become a slugger in Seattle and later a punchline on “Seinfeld.” Before Phelps there was Randy Bass who was a AAA slugger for several teams including the Royals before becoming a legendary gaijin slugger in Japan. More recently we had Justin Huber, Calvin Pickering and Kila Kaa’ihue who may have become great, or may have flopped, but we’ll never really know.
Conine went on to flourish in South Florida, becoming a fan favorite with the nickname “Mr. Marlin.” He hit .290 or better in each of his first three seasons in Miami and developed some power, hitting 25 home runs in a shortened 1995 season. The Royals reacquired him in 1998 to play left-field, but the strench of the organization brought him down and he had the worst season of his career. They immediately traded him the next season to Baltimore and Conine resumed being a league-average first baseman/corner outfielder for several seasons.
Before there was Roberto Hernandez 2.0 a.k.a “Fausto Carmona”, there was Classic Roberto Hernandez. The Puerto Rican-born Hernandez grew up in New York City, before attending the University of Connecticut, and later the University of South Carolina-Aiken, where a ballpark bearing his name now sits. He was drafted by the Angels, bounced to the White Sox, and made his Major League debut as a 26 year-old starting pitcher against the Royals in 1991.
The White Sox decided to move him to the pen, and Roberto’s career really took off. From 1993 to 2000, he saved 254 games, the third most in baseball over that stretch. He signed a big free agent deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but after two years of not competing, the Rays decided to move him. The Royals were trying to deal impending free agent outfielder Johnny Damon and were seeking a reliever in any deal to shore up their historically bad bullpen. When the Dodgers were unwilling to move starting pitcher Eric Gagne in a deal with reliever Antonio Osuna, Athletics General Manager Billy Beane swooped in with a three-team trade proposal that included the Devil Rays sending Hernandez to the Royals in a package that included A’s catcher A.J. Hinch and minor league shortstop prospect Angel Berroa. The Royals agreed, much to the derision of their fans.
Kansas City sports writers reasoned that since the Royals had been a 77-win team in 2000 with 30 blown saves, and Roberto Hernandez had saved 32 games in 2000, the Royals were going to be truly competitive now! Except Roberto was now 37 years old, the offense took a major hit without Damon, the rest of the pitching staff was still awful, and the team lost 97 games. Roberto was pretty crummy in his short two-year stint in Kansas City, and the Royals were more than happy to see him go. Unbelieveably, he would pitch for six more teams after age 38, including two separate stints with the Mets.
Reggie was a really good player for a long time, but never great. He made one All-Star game, in 1995 early in his career, and that was the only year he received MVP votes. It was the only year of his career he finished in the top ten in the league in batting average, home runs, RBI, OPS, or WAR. But he was otherwise a pretty solid player when healthy, which was not very often. Not once in his career did he ever play more than 140 games in a season, despite spending his entire career as a regular.
Reggie Sanders spent his first seven seasons with the team that drafted him, the Cincinnati Reds. But once he hit free agency he bounced around the league. San Diego. Atlanta. Arizona. San Francisco. Pittsburgh. St. Louis. He was good enough to continue to find employment, but not good enough that anyone wanted to invest a multi-year deal with him. Everyone was afraid he was about to fall off a performance cliff, and they didn’t want to be the team left holding the bag. And of course, he fell off the cliff in Kansas City.
The Royals signed the 38-year old Sanders to a two-year $10 million deal in 2006, the biggest free agent contract ever handed out by Allard Baird. His legs were shot (so of course they asked him to steal bases fifteen times, and he was caught eight of those times) and he played just 112 games in two seasons.
He did join the 300 Home Run/300 Stolen Base club with the Royals, an illustrious club that included Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Andre Dawson, Bobby Bonds, and….Steve Finley (Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez have since joined the club as well). I always thought it was funny this was brought up as evidence that Sanders was some awesome player to be mentioned with Willie Mays, but really it meant that the club itself was probably pretty mediocre. As Groucho Marx said, “I don’t care to be part of any club that would have me as a member.”
Lee is the only one of these players that stands a chance of being elected. He retired as the all-time saves leader (since passed by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera), collecting 478 saves for eight teams.
Lee Smith was a Royal – kind of. If you look at his Player Record at Baseball-Reference, you will see no obvious evidence of it. But in 1998, the Royals signed the 41-year old Smith and invited him to spring training. I like to imagine how that went:
Smith, clad in a t-shirt with an expletive printed on it and some oversized zubas because the Royals could not procure baseball pants sized XXL, towers over the Royals coaching staff at their complex in Baseball City, Florida. After twice refusing to put out his cigarette upon calls from pitching coach Bruce Kison to please refrain from smoking while on the playing field, Smith lumbers to the mound, takes the ball in hand, and fires ten 95-mile-per-hour beebees at catcher Sal Fasano. He then turns, removes the lit cigarette out of his mouth and flicks it in the general direction of dumbfounded onlooker Glendon Rusch, and asks the trainer for some Ben Gay.
“What team am I playing for again?” Smith asks Kison.
“We’re the Royals,” responds a perturbed Kison.
“F*** this sh**, I’m goin’ back to Louisiana,” grumbles Smith as he trudges off the field, never to be seen again.
Rondell is the answer to the question – who is the only major position player acquired by the Royals at the trade deadline in anticipation of a pennant race? (the only pitcher was Brian Anderson, the same season – 2003). The modern trading deadline has only been around since 1986, conveniently missing most of the Royals success. But in 2003 the Royals got off to an unbelievable start, then tried to tread water while a weak Central Division tried to sort itself out. In the hopes of staving off a Twins comeback, the Royals acquired White and cash from the San Diego Padres that July for pitchers Brian Sanches and Chris Tierney.
White had long been a very good player, but could never stay on the field due to injury. 2003 was one of his healthier seasons, and he was rewarded with his only All-Star appearances. After the Royals acquired him, he was sensational, putting up a 1.013 OPS in 22 games and electrifying Royals fans with a near inside-the-park home run in his very first game in Royal blue.
The Royals made little effort to retain Rondell, instead “upgrading” that winter with slugger Juan Gonzalez in an attempt to recreate the magic in 2004. It failed. Rondell would go on to be useful in Detroit for two seasons, and not so useful in Minnesota for two more, before calling it quits.
Those are your former Royal "Hall of Fame Ballot Eligibles." Would you vote for any of them for Cooperstown? Who would you vote in? The complete ballot is here.