When you’re a ballplayer you don’t control your own destiny. There are 24 other guys, a manager, and a general manager who all have to do their job in order for you to be “a winner.” If they do, you don’t necessarily have to be good yourself; you can just go along for the ride, and many do—Enrique Wilson played in five postseasons, Ernie Banks none. It’s an unjust universe. Or is it? In honor of World Series combatants Aubrey Huff and Michael Young, both of whom are enjoying their first postseason in their 10th full season in the majors, a non-inclusive All-Star team of players who more than paid their dues before finally getting to the postseason, with a couple who didn’t quite pay theirs mixed in.
1B: Don Mattingly. First Postseason: 1995, 13th full season.
Reason for the Wait: Mattingly came up in the aftermath of a solid run that included four pennants and two championships in six years, but the rebuilding which he inadvertently was a part of (as late as early 1984, the year he won a batting title, the Yankees saw him as a bench player) never paid off. The club was able to construct a decent offense most years, but starting pitching and a workable shortstop were always a huge problem. The club sank as the ‘80s ended, and it was only with the Gene Michael/Buck Showalter rebuilding that the Yankees were able to get back to the postseason in the last year of Mattingly’s career.
Closest He Came Before Making It: In 1985, the Yankees lost the American League East title to the Blue Jays by just two games. The two concluded the season with a three-game head-to-head series in Toronto, the Yankees needing a sweep to tie. They won the first game, but dropped the second and were eliminated.
Did He Help or Hurt That Year? He helped hugely, hitting .324/.371/.567 and won the MVP award. Teammate Rickey Henderson was more deserving (as were George Brett and Wade Boggs), but Mattingly certainly didn’t hurt. That said, in the decisive two games against the Blue Jays, he went 1-for-9.
Passed Over by Fate or Complicit in the Wait? Passed over.
How Did He Do Once He Made It? He hit .417/.440/708 in 25 ALDS PAs and drove in six runs in five games, but the Mariners chased the Yankees anyway.
2B: Nellie Fox. First Postseason: 1959, 11th full season.
Reason for the Wait: He was signed by the Philadelphia A’s when Connie Mack was in his hapless dotage. The White Sox liberated him in an infamously lopsided trade in which they acquired him for reserve catcher Joe Tipton. Though Fox helped the Sox break a seven-year streak of losing records and become a contender, they were in a league in which two teams, the Yankees and the Indians, were always just a little bit better. In 1959, the Yankees couldn’t overcome unexpected shortfalls on both sides of the ball, while the Indians were still good but hadn’t sufficiently been able to rebuild a staff that had lost their stalwarts of the 1950s, pitchers like Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn. Lemon and Garcia had simply gotten old, while Wynn had, ironically, been traded to the White Sox with Fuzzy Smith in return for Minnie Minoso and Fred Hatfield. At 39, Wynn would win the Cy Young award for Chicago in ’59. With Wynn leading the best pitching staff in the league, the “Go-Go” offense gave the team just enough to work with, and it was finally the White Sox’ turn.
Closest He Came Before Making It: In 1955, the AL had a close three-way race between the Yankees, Indians, and White Sox. All three teams took turns in first place, the White Sox making their last appearance there on September 3, when they led both of their competitors by half a game. From then on, the Yankees went 16-5 to finish first and the Indians 13-8, but the White Sox dropped off to 11-11, finishing 91-63, but five games out. The decisive blow was losing four of six contests to Cleveland.
Did He Help or Hurt That Year? He helped quite a bit, having one of his better offensive seasons (.311/.364/.406) and playing his usual excellent defense. He also hit .301/.330/.462 against the Indians, .310/.406/.356 against the Yankees, and went nuts in September, batting .402 for the month.
Passed Over by Fate or Complicit in the Wait? Passed over.
How Did He Do Once He Made It? Fox, the AL MVP, hit .375/.464/.500 in the World Series, but didn’t drive in a single run as the Dodgers disposed of the White Sox in six.
3B: Darrell Evans. First Postseason: 1984, 14th full season.
Reason for the Wait: Evans got his first call-up to the majors with a Braves team that had just won the National League West, the only title of any kind the franchise would earn between 1958 and 1982. Braves pitching was quite mediocre at this time, and despite oddities like 1973, when Evans, Hank Aaron, and Davey Johnson became the first trio of teammates to hit 40 home runs, the offenses weren’t very good either. In 1976, the Braves made a terrible trade with the Giants, swapping Evans and futility infielder Marty Perez for four players, the best of whom was first baseman Willie Montanez. Evans joined a Giants club in the midst of a long stretch of mostly mediocre teams; they would make no post-season appearances between 1971 and 1987. Lamed by poor attendance, ownership was so strapped that only a literally last-minute intervention prevented the team’s sale and relocation to Toronto in 1976.
Closest He Came Before Making It: The standings tell us that the 1982 Giants went 87-75 and finished just two games out, but the 1978 team, which finished six games out with an 89-73 record, actually came closer, spending nearly half the season in first place. From roughly May 15-August 15 the Giants held first but were unable to pull away due to a light offense and a pitching staff that didn’t quite have the horses behind starters Bob Knepper and Vida Blue. Both the Dodgers and the Reds passed them down the stretch as the team went 20-24 over the final six weeks.
Did He Help or Hurt That Year? Signing a five-year deal with the Giants after 1978 was probably the biggest mistake Evans ever made, because had he combined his longevity with a friendlier park he might be in the Hall of Fame. He and Candlestick Park were not a good match. In nearly 1,100 games with San Francisco, he hit .245/.355/.408 at home, .265/.361/.435 on the road. In 1982, the year the Giants finished three games out, Evans had a particularly difficult time with the park, hitting just .223/.346/.357 in San Francisco versus .286/.374/.477 everywhere else. In 1978, he hit .243/.360/.404 overall, which breaks down to .238/.371/.377 at home, .247/.350/.427 on the road. Note that the NL average hitter batted .254/.320/.372 that year. Evans hit some home runs and drew some walks during the last six weeks of ’78, but slumped overall, hitting .201/.315/.450 in 44 games.
Passed Over by Fate or Complicit in the Wait? Complicit. In 1978, a free agent couldn’t sign with just any team—a limited number of clubs could draft the right to negotiate with him. One of the clubs that claimed Evans’ rights was the Orioles, then a perpetual winner; they would win 100 games in both 1979 and 1980. They had a solid third baseman in Doug DeCinces and a star first baseman in Eddie Murray, so one suspects they were trying to find a designated hitter who could give them an excuse to get rid of aging, OBP-challenged Lee May. A native Californian, Evans apparently preferred not to change coasts, and after feelers from the Angels and Padres didn’t pan out, he returned to the Giants. The decision probably cost both him and the Orioles two rings.
How Did He Do Once He Made It? He went 4-for-25 with one RBI in the 1984 postseason, but a great Tigers team couldn’t be stopped.
SS: Julio Franco. First Postseason: 1996, 14th full season (includes one year with Chiba Lotte).
Reason for the Wait: At one time, the Philadelphia Phillies had three promising middle-infield prospects in their system at the same time, Ryne Sandberg, Julio Franco, and Juan Samuel. They traded the first two and kept the third, proving that even when they know what’s behind all three curtains, some people just can’t win at “Let’s Make a Deal.” It was Franco’s misfortune to be traded to the Indians (as part of a massive deal for Von Hayes) during a 40-year-stretch of almost complete futility, a time when being an Indian meant playing in a mostly empty, rat and spider-infested open-air dungeon. Traded to the Rangers after the 1988 season, he joined an up-and-coming team that never, er, came.
Closest He Came Before Making It: In 1994, the White Sox were leading the AL Central with a 67-46 (.593) when the lights were turned off on the season.
Did He Help or Hurt That Year? He helped. As Chicago’s primary DH, he hit .319/.406/.510 with 20 home runs.
Passed Over By Fate or Complicit in the Wait? Passed. He didn’t choose to go to Cleveland. Had he been traded to Chicago and Sandberg been dealt to Cleveland, the Hall of Fame might have a different look to it.
How Did He Do Once He Made It? He went 2-for-15 as the Indians lost the ALDS to the Orioles in four games.
C: Ted Simmons. First Postseason: 1981, 12th full season.
Reason for the Wait: One of the best-hitting catchers in big-league history, Simmons hit .298/.366/.459 in nearly 1,600 games (.293 TAv) with the Cardinals from 1968-80, but the rest of the team was rarely much better than mediocre. Despite having an old Bob Gibson (through 1975) and a young Steve Carlton (through 1971), pitching was often a problem.
Closest He Came Before Making It: As in 1973, when the Mets won the division with a record of just 82-79, the NL East was a collection of weak teams in 1974. The Cardinals, Phillies, and Expos jockeyed for first place throughout the early going, with the Pirates holding down the division basement. In sixth place, eight games out, at the season’s one-third mark, the Pirates began winning every day. Then at 23-31 (.426), they dropped roughly a run off of the team ERA and went 67-41 (.620) the rest of the way, blasting their way through the snarl at the top of the standings. The Cardinals didn’t just stand aside, but fought their way back into first on more than one occasion. They had at least a share of first as late as September 25 and game 157, but two late-season series against the Pirates in which they went 2-4 proved their undoing. Nonetheless, the two teams were tied on September 30 at 86-74 with two to play for the Pirates and at least one to go for the Cardinals (and earlier rainout had not been made up). On October 1, Gibson dropped a 3-2 decision to the Expos while the Pirates beat the Cubs 6-5. The Cards’ only hope was that the Pirates would lose their 162nd game, giving St. Louis a reason to make up their postponed game and force a tie. Alas, on October 2, the Pirates dropped the Cubs 5-4 in 10 innings and the race was over.
Did He Help or Hurt That Year? Simmons actually had one of the weaker seasons of his peak period in 1974, hitting .272/.327/.447 (.277 TAv). However, during the crucial 20-game stretch in which the Cardinals recaptured, then lost, first place, Simmons hit .333/.380/.543 with three home runs.
Passed Over by Fate or Complicit in the Wait? Passed over. Simmons was overlooked due to his career being concurrent with that of Johnny Bench and too much whining about his defense, which wasn't nearly as bad as his reputation had it. A true switch-hitter with power and excellent contact skills, Simmons might not have been able to lift the Cardinals to a pennant during his St. Louis years, but he also wasn't the guy who dealt Carlton for Rick Wise.
How Did He Do Once He Made It? Simmons had the first truly poor year of his career for the 1981 Brewers, hitting .216/.262/.376, then stayed cold in the Division Series against the Yankees, hitting .222/.300/.444 in five games (20 PAs) albeit with a double and a home run.