Editor’s note: This week, I’m running a week-long tribute to some of my favorite players, stretching from my earliest days to the present.
By the time I was through with third grade, I’d become all too familiar with the reality of retiring athletes. That summer, Larry Bird had hung up his sneakers and Jim Rice had long since hit his last home run.
While not quite on the same level, Dwight Evans was no longer patrolling Fenway Park’s right field in 1991, nor was he penciled in at designated hitter. He actually was playing, a fact revealed by the next year’s baseball cards depicting him in a Baltimore Orioles uniform, but my level of fandom was still at a point where I didn’t realize he was still playing. I knew the history; he’d come up with Boston in 1972, had played forever, hit home runs, threw runners out with ease with his cannon of a right arm, and now that he wasn’t there, he must’ve been gone.
The transition to a new favorite player was necessary, and the choice was obvious. Mike Greenwell, a two-time All-Star, featured player in the 1989 Panini sticker album, and owner of a seemingly unique uniform number (39) was the way to go.
He had some great attributes for a kid to lock onto: He was a consistent .300 hitter, the universal benchmark of greatness in baseball; SABR-influenced numbers and all, the magic of .300 remains. He was a two-time All-Star, meaning he got to be in that lineup of the elite along the third- and first-base lines every summer, their exploits exalted by CBS, NBC or whoever had the All-Star game back then.
He played left-field, a position I already knew carried quite a bit of prominence in Boston. I might not have known who Ted Williams was, but I remembered Jim Rice, and I knew what Carl Yastrzemski had accomplished — if nothing else, he was one of the few players my parents would mention from the 1970s.
He hit third. Jody Reed and Wade Boggs would hit ahead of him, Jack Clark and later Mo Vaughn would hit behind him, but he was the lynchpin to the whole operation, the dynamic on which the fate of the American League East would hang. My understanding of sports was limited (I was nine years old), but I had a firm grasp on a few things. I knew the guard was responsible for a lot of the offensive success of a basketball team. I knew the center was the most important player on the ice for a hockey team.
And I understood the hierarchy of the batting lineup. The top two hitters set the table, and if one of them could run, he’d hit leadoff. The third player had to both drive them in and get on base; home runs weren’t as important as doubles and line drives. The cleanup hitter was, when possible, a hulking mammoth of a hitter, and from there, batters were weighed by their average and power numbers. Around this time, the fates of Clark, Ellis Burks, Tom Brunansky, Carlos Quintana, Tony Pena and Luis Rivera hung on Greenwell’s bat.
Finally, he had a look. He had a beard and wore eye-black, as old-school a look as I could imagine as a young baseball fan in the late 1980s and early nineties. Later, he’d shave his head. He almost always wore wrap-around sunglasses on bright days. And with all that came a swagger. He wasn’t a hulking beast of a player a la Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire. He wasn’t one of those unquestioned best players in baseball, the way Cal Ripken Jr. might have been. He had his own sense of style, he played his own way and, through thick and thin, he was one of the more important players of my favorite team.
He was an original, he could hit and he was the Gator. Of course he’d be my favorite player.
This is the second in a series chronicling my timeline of favorite players.
Monday: Dwight Evans