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Ferguson: Berkman, Young, and others who left on high notes

Scott Ferguson
1/31/2014 12:11:54 PM
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While reading this week that two very good players - Lance Berkman and Michael Young - had decided to retire, I started to wonder about the perfect way to go out. Berkman and Young both could have kept on playing, but decided the time was right.

I've alway been fascinated by Ted Williams' final at-bat for the Red Sox. He homered off Jack Fisher of the Orioles in the bottom of the 8th at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960. "The Spendid Splinter" trotted out to left field for the start of the 9th, whereby his manager Mike Higgins took him out of the game so he could get one last ovation from the fans in the Bosox' final home game of the season. Boston rallied for two in the bottom of the 9th to win 5-4. Williams opted to retire immediately and did not go to New York for the final series of the season against the pennant-winning Yankees. So Williams, arguably the best hitter of all time, ended his career with a home run.

What I was surprised to discover is this isn't nearly as rare as I thought it would be. Twenty-three American League players have homered in their final at-bat and 22 have done it in the National League. The last to do it was Jim Edmonds on September 21, 2010.

A couple of others who accomplished the feat had Blue Jays connections. Wille Mays Aikens slugged his final homer in a Jays uniform on April 27, 1985, and Tony Kubek, star shortstop with the Yankees who later worked on Blue Jays telecasts, homered in his final big league at-bat on October 3, 1965.

The saddest of all though was the home run hit by Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane on May 25, 1937 off the Yankees' Bump Hadley. Next time up in the game, Hadley nailed the Tigers player-manager in the head with a pitch. His skull was fractured, and it was weeks before Cochrane recovered.

He never played again so for the record, his final official at-bat was also a home run. Mickey - for whom Mickey Mantle was named - returned and finished out the 1937 season as manager only of the Tigers before calling it quits at the end of that season. Cochrane's .320 career batting average for a catcher was the all-time record, until the Twins' Joe Mauer broke it in 2009.

Hitting a home run in your first Major League at-bat is far more common. It has been accomplished 113 times - 47 in the American League and 66 in the National. Twenty-eight were hit on the very first pitch the batter saw. Four were grand slams and 19 of those who homered in their first Major League at-bats never hit another one in their entire careers.

Three Blue Jays homered in their first at-bats. Al Woods hit a pinch homer in the Blue Jays' first-ever game on April 7, 1977. Junior Felix followed that up nearly a dozen years later on May 4, 1989. J.P. Arencibia, the last in the trio, did it more than 11 years after Felix on August 7, 2010. All three homered on the first pitches they saw.

This is the real rarity though, and I didn't even realize it had ever happened before. There are actually two players in Major League history who slugged homers in their first and last Major League at-bats.

John Miller, a journeyman first baseman who later played five years in Japan, played parts of two seasons in the Majors back in the 60's. His first was with the Yankees where he hit a homer in his first Major League at-bat and then on September 23, 1969, he connected in his final Major League at-bat for the Dodgers. Oddly enough these were also his only two Major League homers.

The first to accomplish the feat was a catcher by the name of Paul Gillespie who was a back-up catcher with the Chicago Cubs during the Second World War in 1942, '44 and '45. He connected for his first in 1942 and then belted his final home run in his final regular season at-bat on September 29, 1945. If you want to add a caveat to Gillespie's mark, he did play in the World Series for the Cubs in 1945 - their last World Series appearance - and went hitless in the three games he played.

I started with Ted Williams, so let me add this personal footnote. I'm not old enough to have seen Ted Williams play in person, however there is a bit of a connection. The first Major League game(s) I ever saw was a doubleheader at old Tiger Stadium in August of 1968 against the Chicago White Sox.

Pitching for Chicago in that first game was the man who gave up that final home run to Williams, Jack Fisher. He was nearing the end of his career which would wind up the following season in Cincinnati. This particular night in Detroit wasn't good for Fisher. He only lasted four innings and wound up taking the loss. Strangely enough he gave up a home run to the Tigers' Gates Brown. Brown, a veteran by this time, is one of the 47 American Leaguers to homer in their first bat and so it comes full circle.


Dud of a Deal

Michael Young's retirement re-ignites the debate over the worst trade in Blue Jays history. This one just might be it. The Jays sent third base prospect Young to Texas along with swing reliever Darwin Cubillan for right-hander Esteban Loaiza. Esteban was supposed to help round out the rotation when he was picked up on July 17, 2000 for a Blue Jays playoff push under manager Jim Fregosi.

Instead Loaiza went 5-7 the rest of the way and was basically a non-factor. Adding on the next two seasons with the Jays, he went 25-28 with a 4.96 ERA. Then in 1993, he had the best year of career after signing with the White Sox, winning 21 games and coming close to winning the Cy Young Award. Young, meanwhile, played 14 seasons, was versatile enough to play all four infield positions and wound up with a career .300 batting average. He's not a Hall of Famer by any means but was a classy talented player who would have been of far greater value to the Blue Jays than Loaiza was.

Michael Young's best friend in his early years in the Jays organiztion was Vernon Wells. Still not sure yet if Vernon is going to try to play out the final year of his contract or like Young, call it a career.

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