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May 11, 2008
Like Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson, like Sandy Amoros and Bobby Richardson, like Ray Fosse and Rodney McCray, the defining image of Jim Edmonds' career will be one in which he was wearing a glove rather than carrying a bat.
Edmonds, for most of his career a very good defensive center fielder with a flair-some have argued a predilection-for the dramatic catch, was playing his usual shallow center field on the evening of June 10, 1997, in Kauffman Stadium. Light-hitting David Howard was at the plate with two on and two out, and Edmonds was in place to charge any bloops the career .229 hitter might dunk into short center. On this occasion, though, Howard made solid contact, roping a line drive over Edmonds' head towards the center-field fence. Edmonds turned and raced back, his #21 turned to the infield, and as the ball descended, he left his feet, extended his arms fully and made what is known in Angels' lore simply as "The Catch."
Determining the greatest defensive play in baseball history is beyond the scope of statheads, and is instead the stuff of bar arguments. Can a play in a fifth inning in June by a center fielder for a 32-28 team be compared to a World Series-saving grab? Does context matter more than degree of difficulty? For that matter, how do you define difficult? It's enough to say that Edmonds' catch is one of the greatest plays anyone has ever seen, a combination of athleticism, instinct, timing and a little bit of luck.
It's also the signature moment of a career that may have come to an end this week. Batting .178/.265/.233 and no longer playing the caliber of defense he did a decade ago, Edmonds was released by the Padres. It's not certain that he's played his last game-heck, he could be a Blue Jay before this article gets posted-but his steep decline since 2004, his advanced age and the complete disappearance of his power are all signs that this could, and perhaps should, mark the end of the road.
It's a sad moment for me; Edmonds has long been one of my favorite players, someone who I underrated considerably coming out of the minor leagues and grew to love watching, both for his aggressive defense and his deep-count approach at the plate. I have a soft spot for left-handed hitters with Three True Outcomes leanings, and Edmonds combined that with top-tier glovework at a premium position. He was probably the best center fielder in baseball in the first half of the 2000s, and a legitimate MVP candidate more than once at his peak. Despite being tagged with the labels "arrogant" and "hot dog," not entirely unwarranted, Edmonds was a key part of teams that made six postseasons, won two pennants and one World Series.
Two years ago, I examined the notion that Jim Edmonds would some day reach the Hall of Fame. The conclusion then was that he was in the gray area:
What Edmonds has going for him is that at 36, he's still playing at a high level. While he's not going to push his traditional statistics into the stratosphere--the only notable marker he has a shot at his 400 home runs-he should be able to accumulate some milestones and certainly add to his value. Barring a collapse along the lines of Jim Rice, where he loses the ability to hold a job in the next two seasons, Edmonds will finish his career as the second-best center fielder of his era, and a certain Hall of Famer.
The thing is, that's exactly what happened. In a decline that mirrored Rice's, Edmonds went from being a great player to out of the league in a bit more than two years, and instead of accumulating milestones, he was given away by one team and released by a second within the span of a few months, leaving him with just 1840 games played, 1817 hits, 363 home runs, and 1127 RBI. Those numbers don't mean that he can't make the Hall of Fame, but they won't work for him as well as they might have.
Evaluating a partial career is folly. A player's place in history runs on two tracks: peak value and career value. Few Hall of Famers are all one and not the other-Sandy Koufax comes to mind-so you need a mix of both to get into Cooperstown. You want to be among the very best players in the game for a while, and you want to contribute for a long time. Edmonds' career is all peak; from 1995 through 2005, he was a fantastic player save for an injury-plagued 1999. Outside of that period, he had 292 hits, 37 homers, and just 365 games played. Fred McGriff looked like a Hall of Famer at 38 before collapsing. Active players such as Gary Sheffield and Curt Schilling may find that a sharp descent and a rapid end to their careers has a deleterious effect on their chances. Without knowing the value that a player, particularly one short of full qualification, puts up in their waning years, you can't determine their viability for the Hall.
The sharp drop-off is a significant problem for many players. Some of the most emotional Hall of Fame debates are fought on this ground, where a player who "felt" like a Hall of Famer at his peak-Rice, or Dale Murphy, or Don Mattingly-falls short of the established standards because he couldn't extend his productivity past his peak. Edmonds doesn't quite fit this group, because the perception of his talents lagged behind his performance, but his inability to stay productive in the twilight of his career will have a similar, chilling effect on his candidacy.
Whether he is honored with a plaque one day or not, though, Edmonds will be remembered for that spring evening out on the Great Plains, when a Jason Dickson fastball was turned around with authority, then chased down and hauled in by a man parallel to the ground, perpendicular to the wall, prostrate in the air.
More than 200 men are cast in bronze, but it's much smaller group who have ever made a memory like that one. Thanks, Jim.