This Sunday Fox aired the 500th – yes, five-zero-zero – episode of its flagship program, "The Simpsons". Once one of the greatest shows on television, the show has had it's ups and downs since the turn of the century, but it's still going strong ratings-wise. To celebrate the remarkable occasion, I've pulled out an old favorite from the Wezen-Ball archives. The post doesn't quite analyze the single-greatest "Simpsons" episode ever – sadly, Hank Scorpio bought Homer the Denver Broncos and not, say, the Chicago Cubs for helping him take over the East Coast – but it does analyze the single-greatest baseball-themed Simpsons episode ever.
So – how good would a 1992 baseball fan have considered the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team of ringers to have been?
In the "Homer at the Bat" episode entry on Wikipedia, it notes that the episode first aired on February 20, 1992, putting it right in line with that spring's preview guides. A Simpsons viewer watching the episode that night would have been in the same preseason mindset about these players – how good will he be? will he make the actual all-star team? – as the preview guides themselves. These quotes from the 1992 Sporting News preview guides are about as apt as possible then.
Catcher: Mike Scioscia (Mr. Burns' initial pick: Gabby Street)
"At 33, Mike Scioscia is entering his 12th season as the Dodgers' starting catcher. Last year, he played in only 119 games, his lowest total in seven seasons. Also, more and more clubs are taking liberties with his throwing arm."
At this point in his career, Scioscia was getting a little old, but was still mostly effective. Apparently, Carlton Fisk was the writers' initial choice, but he turned them down. If I recall, it was pretty well accepted that Mike had a great head for the game, which is probably why he became a successful manager so quickly. Whatever the reason they chose him, he worked out perfectly. His desire to work in the blue collar world, and his subsequent radiation poisoning, seemed so… plausible.
First-base: Don Mattingly (Cap Anson)
"On the surface, there was no reason to get excited about Mattingly's 1991 season. His numbers (.288, nine homers, 68 RBIs) were far from overwhelming. But his number of games (152) and at-bats (587) were encouraging, considering he had missed one-third of the previous season because of chronic back problems, and he regained the Gold Glove. Now, if only he can regain the Silver Bat, there may be reason for the Yankees to be encouraged."
This was also a turning point in Mattingly's career, as his injured back was beginning to take its toll on him. Still, there were plenty of reasons to believe that Donnie Baseball would be able to finish out his Hall of Fame career. The funniest thing about this is that Mattingly's trouble with Burns over his "hippie sideburns" actually preceded the real skirmish over his hair.
Second-base: Steve Sax (Nap Lajoie)
"The acquisition of Sax, who led the Yankees with a .304 average and 38 doubles while stealing 31 bases, solidifies second base. The arrival of the 10-year veteran means the White Sox have no weak links in their infield. Chicago was going to start Craig Grebeck, who had spent most of his career on the left side of the infield, at second."
The Yankees traded Sax to the White Sox only a month or so before the airing of the episode, in order to make room for prospect Pat Kelly. He seems to have been a welcome addition in Chicago, providing a good batting average and some speed. Of course, if they knew about all those murders he committed in New York, they probably would have never made the deal…
Shortstop: Ozzie Smith (Honus Wagner)
"Smith, who set an NL record for fewest errors in at least 150 games (eight) at shortstop, probably is entering his last year with St. Louis. He's still a solid offensive player, and last year was his 14th straight with at least 20 stolen bases."
Ozzie had long ago solidified his reputation as the Wizard of Oz, and was already considered a (likely) Hall of Famer. The reference to his "last year with St. Louis" was regarding the Cards' management saying they wouldn't offer him any guaranteed money beyond 1992. He stayed with the team 4 more years, though, to the delight of St. Louis fans everywhere. Of course, everyone is grateful that he found his way out of that bottomless pit. I just wonder how long it was before he ran out of film for all those cameras.
Third-base: Wade Boggs (Pie Traynor)
"Wade Boggs will be Boston's regular third-baseman for the 10th straight year. His .332 average was the second highest in the majors last summer, and he was the league's toughest player to strike out (32 whiffs in 546 at-bats). Although back and right shoulder ailments limited him to 144 games, Boggs was steady in the field and committed only 12 errors."
Ten years into his career, Boggs had proven himself to be one of the best pure hitters in baseball history. Sure, he had some strangeness associated with him – feuding with the Red Sox, eating chicken everyday, an affinity for British Prime Minister Pitt the Elder – but, in the end, he was an excellent ballplayer who earned his way into the Hall of Fame.
Leftfield: Jose Canseco (Shoeless Joe Jackson)
"Canseco is an offensive force and more than adequate defensively. After hitting just 10 home runs with 35 runs batted in through June 10, Canseco proceeded to hit 34 homers and collect 87 RBIs over is last 100 games. His 44 homers tied for the major league lead."
At the time, it was difficult to find a better player in baseball than Jose Canseco (who normally played rightfield). We all know what happened to him since that time, but, in early-1992, he was a bona-fide superstar on and off the field. I'm not a fan of Canseco's, personally, but I do wonder if anyone ever took into account his heroic saving of that poor woman and her cat (and her washing machine and her…) from that fire when they were considering him for the Hall of Fame. Character counts, after all.
Centerfield: Ken Griffey, Jr. (none?)
"Even without any protection in the cleanup spot behind him last season, Griffey set or tied club records for batting average (.327), doubles (42), slugging percentage (.527), intentional walks (21) and grand slams (three). He was just as good, if not better, in the field and was awarded his second straight Gold Glove."
Okay, maybe Griffey had already taken the crown as best player in baseball away from Canseco. Thankfully, Kid Griffey has been mostly free from steroid talk all his career. It's good to see the nice guys succeed so tremendously sometimes. If I had been the Mariners trainer, or even an MLB official, though, I would've been worried about that addiction to nerve tonic. That had to have had some affect on his numbers…
Rightfield: Darryl Strawberry (Harry Hooper)
"Strawberry is starting the second year of his five-year free-agent deal with the Dodgers. Last year, he had two seasons in one–the dismal first half (.229 average, eight homers and 30 RBIs) and the sparkling second half (.290, 20 homers and 69 RBIs)."
Of all the players to visit Springfield on Mr. Burns' dime, it was Darryl Strawberry, who played Homer's rightfield, who was able to keep things clean the entire time. I don't know if that's technically "ironic", considering all of Strawberry's other problems, but it certainly makes for one heckuva coincidence. That tear, though, after the chants of "Darr-yl! Darr-yl!", always got to me. What if he was that sensitive? What kind of damage were we inflicting on the poor guy?
Pitcher: Roger Clemens (Three-Finger Brown, Jim Creighton – though I think Burns put Creighton in the outfield)
"Even with the addition of Viola, the Boston ace still is Clemens, who won 18 games with an American League-best 2.62 ERA en route to winning his third Cy Young Award last season. Other AL pitchers won more games, but none was better than Clemens, who also led the league in strikeouts (241), innings pitched (271 1/3) and shutouts (four)."
Clemens' talent and status as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time has never really been debated. Clearly, Clemens was an amazing pitching talent, and had already proven that by the time he joined the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. His attitude, on the other hand, has definitely been questioned, especially since his poorly judged day in Congress. I imagine his friends and family wished that they had hypnotized him to think he was a chicken before he made that decision.
Overall, the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team ringers ended their careers as a mixed bag. A few of the players – Ozzie, Boggs, Griffey, and Clemens – finished out their careers as imagined, with impossible to argue Hall of Fame credentials. Clemens, though, has been in a bit of trouble, so it's hard to decide if he is a plus or a minus. Sax and Scioscia didn't add much to their playing record after the episode aired (Scioscia retired in '92, Sax in '94), but neither of them were the writers' first choice, so we'll give them a pass there (Sandberg was the first choice for second-base, apparently). Mattingly also only played a few more years post-Springfield, but his career was shortened by injury. And then there are Canseco and Strawberry, who both played out the rest of their careers with dark clouds swirling behind them. The fact that those clouds were of their own making helps keep us from feeling too bad for the guys, though. They both have to count as strikes against the team, though.
In nine playing positions then, the writers' scorecard looks like this: 3 hits, 2 free passes, 1 hit-by-pitch, 1 groundout and 2 strikeouts. Technically, it's a .500 average, though we may have to see how they score Clemens in the end before we can get a final answer.