Editor’s note: This week, pitchers and catchers officially report to training camps across Florida and Arizona, the first signs of spring beyond the unseasonable warmth we’ve felt here in New England. As such, I’m kicking off a week-long tribute to some of my favorite players since the earliest days of my fandom.
If nothing else, baseball was always there. In my earliest memories, I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have a basic knowlege of the game, didn’t own a baseball cap, or didn’t know the Boston Red Sox were the home team. The message that a real fan lives and dies with the home team stuck early, a true accomplishment given I was raised in a home without a sports fanatic by any means.
But true baseball fandom began in 1988, and it coincided with a family move to Dartmouth, Mass., and a a new school. Baseball, like Ninja Turtles or Transformers, were a popular topic, and with baseball, every kid seemed to have a favorite player.
The two most popular candidates were either Roger Clemens or Wade Boggs. Clemens was an easy call. He had won two Cy Young awards by that point, won lots of games, struck lots of hitters out and had the amazing ability to throw a baseball 100 mph. Whether or not I or any of my classmates had actually seen this was irrelevant; Roger Clemens could throw 100 mph, and by our analysis, did often and did it at will. If you were watching a game and he didn’t throw one past 100, then you happened to catch him on an off night.
Boggs was another popular, and obvious, choice. He won the batting title with alarming regularity, hitting well beyond .300 year after year. He was constantly in the All-Star Game, and as such, he was constantly featured on baseball cards beyond the standard issue — league leaders, All-Star cards, Diamond Kings, whatever they could think of. He hit at the top of the Red Sox lineup, and he was expected to lead.
But even at an early age, I would lean away from the obvious. It probably cost me popularity points later when it came to basketball (I didn’t care about the Charlotte Hornets), music (the same for Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer) or comic books (I preferred Uncle Scrooge to Batman or Superman). In baseball, it wasn’t so much divisive as it just became a personality quirk. My favorite player was a guy who everyone else seemed to like second- or third-best.
Evans, along with Rice, was a star of a poster in my room, one boasting of the “American League Champions” with the 1987 schedule pasted below. He looked like he meant business; his bushy eyebrows and mustache seemed to convey as much. I liked the way he held the bat, cocked at a bizarre angle behind his head as he peered in for the pitch, almost winking at the pitcher.
But mostly, I liked that he was a proven commodity. Watching snatches of games on TV 38, the announcers always seemed to laud his patience, his ability to get a hit when the Red Sox really needed it. When he was in right field, the gushed over his virtuosity over the position and the fear he instilled with baserunners. That ability to change the outcome of the game, solely because runners dared not challenge Evans’ fabled throwing arm, drew me in immediately. Here was this player, almost mythic in stature among the rest of the league, quietly plying his trade for my favorite team.
And at his advanced age, he still excelled. Look up the numbers for Evans in 1988 and ’89, and they’re still those of a great, productive player — more than 100 RBIs, at least 20 home runs, and by modern barometers, an OPS+ of 135 and 136, respectively.
Where his peer Jim Rice was beginning to show chinks in his slugging armor, Evans was still hitting, still fielding his position, still leading the Red Sox on the field every night. He was a leader, and someone I could happily proclaim to be my favorite at recess, my greatest rooting interest at a key point in my childhood.