The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

 

Brian %$@#*! Doyle

Ask any Red Sox fan who their least favorite Yankee middle infielder from the 1978 season is, and as you've ducked the first projectile, you're sure to hear the name Bucky %$@#*! Dent; as every baseball fan knows, his unlikely home run off of Mike Torrez in the one-game playoff to decide the American League East winner is the stuff of legend.

Dent continued his unlikely heroics in the '78 World Series against the Dodgers -- my Dodgers -- winning MVP honors for a .417/.440/.458 performance with seven RBI. But ask any Dodger fan their least favorite Yankee middle infielder from that year, and the name that comes up isn't that of Dent but Brian Doyle. Excuse me, Brian %$@#*! Doyle. Playing in place of the injured Willie Randolph, Doyle hit .438/.438/.500, with three hits in each of the final two games; he was right in the middle of two key rallies in the decisive Game Six. He played stellar defense as well, making 24 error-free chances in 36 innings of action (he was a late-inning replacement for Fred "Chicken" Stanley twice) and taking part in six double plays. Brian %$@#*! Doyle.

A few years ago, I did a research piece for this site on a 19th-century ballplayer named Tony Suck who more than lived up to his name. I set out to find the most futile hitters in major-league history, using OPS+ and drawing an arbitrary cutoff of 200 plate appearances. Doyle, with an OPS+ of 11 (100 is league average) based on a career line of .161/.201/.191, was the second-worst of all qualifiers; only John Black, at 6, was worse. That finding was both gratifying and infuriating. Does pointing out how badly a guy sucked make the fact that he broke your heart any less painful?

Today I learned something about Doyle that I didn't already know. My former Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri reveals in an ESPN Page 2 piece that it took special dispensations to get Doyle on the roster for the postseason:
As a 23-year-old rookie in 1978, Doyle shuttled between the Yankees' big club and their Triple-A team five times and hit .192 with zero RBI in 52 at-bats. The Yankees kept Doyle in Triple-A for that league's playoffs, making him ineligible for the major league postseason. With standout second baseman Willie Randolph manning second base in the Bronx, though, that hardly seemed to matter.

But just before the end of the season, fate intervened, as an injury felled Randolph for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees lobbied the league and the Royals, their ALCS opponents, to allow Doyle onto the postseason roster. Doyle responded by going 2-for-7 with a run knocked in, as the Yankees knocked out Kansas City. After the Dodgers also granted Doyle special permission to play in the World Series, the Yankees started Fred Stanley at second in Game 1, an 11-5 New York loss. Doyle returned for Game 2, but the Yanks lost again, falling behind 0-2 in the series. Doyle went 0-for-4 in Game 3 and was on the bench for Game 4, both Yankee wins to square the series.

But in Game 5 and Game 6, Doyle and light-hitting double-play partner Bucky Dent took over. Batting in the No.8 and 9 spots, Doyle rapped out six hits and scored four runs in the two games, while Dent went 6-for-8 with two runs scored and three RBI. On a team that featured Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and other stars, the two little guys loomed largest.
Grr. The Dodgers certainly didn't think they were sowing the seeds of their own demise by agreeing to allow Doyle on the roster, but it just goes to show that October can make for some unlikely heroes.

Those heroes are the stuff of Keri's piece; "The Replacement Killers" (great title) examines a handful of scrubs who shone in a spotlight yielded due to injury. Leading off the piece is a personal favorite, Mickey Hatcher, who went 7-for-19 with a pair of homers and five RBI in the 1988 World Series, helping the upstart Dodgers shock the mighty Oakland A's. Reviewing a set of Dodger World Series DVDs recently, I was struck by how hilariously amped Hatcher appeared:
If the recent past has colored our view of the A's, led by Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, as juiced-up wonders, then it's only fair to admit that after watching this, one comes away with the sense that the Dodgers weren't skimping on the pharmaceuticals either. They look greenied to the gills from the moment Steve Sax, after getting drilled in the back by fearsome A's hurler Dave Stewart, sprints to first base in the home half of Game One's first inning. Indeed, what looked like a mismatch on paper between the heavily favored A's and the underdog Dodgers turns out to be one going in the opposite direction because of the super-energized play of Dodger scrubs such as Mickey Hatcher (who runs the bases with abandon, arms aloft, after homering) covering for the absence of injured Kirk Gibson.
My affection for Hatcher goes back nearly a decade before that series. In August of 1979, on a road trip to California in the back of my parents' station wagon -- the kind with the faux wood grain down the sides, of course, to preserve the illusion that those mechanics at Chevrolet carved the chassis out of oak -- I heard Vin Scully call a game for the first time, his distinctive voice cutting through the tedium of our nighttime travels. Hatcher, a week into his major-league career, went 3-for-3 with two walks and hit his first major-league homer, a solo shot off of Tom Griffin to lead off the fifth. Accompanied by homers from Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, and Derrell Thomas (who hit a grand slam), they smoked the Giants 9-0, with Don Sutton completing his 50th career shutout. Damn straight you could look it up.

Anyway, Keri not only relives the exploits of Doyle, Hatcher, and Buddy Biancalana -- Buddy Biancalana! -- he catches up with them today while pointing to D'Angelo Jiminez, Alexis Gomez, Scot Spiezio and other potential rags-to-riches stories on this month's rosters. Someday, you too might be cursing some of those names. Good times.

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