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.
Short of being a contrarian, I typically shy away from the most popular option in whatever setting I’m placed. My favorite band when I was a kid was the Beatles when Vanilla Ice reigned supreme; later, I got into Pearl Jam just as the rest of America seemed to be leaving them behind. I think I was proven correct on both bands.
With baseball players, I shied away from throwing all my fan weight behind the most popular member of the team. Even at a young age, it never felt as though that player — Roger Clemens, for example — really needed any extra juice from me. I was drawn to hardworking players who had staked out a spot, played every day and had style. Dwight Evans and later Mike Greenwell fit that bill nicely, and they each rewarded me with hours of highlights in the process.
But neither Evans or Greenwell could be considered underdogs. Overshadowed? At times, perhaps. But they were All-Stars who made their way onto posters. It took no real leap to get behind either. Tim Naehring, however, was an underdog.
Naehring’s career started off with a shot, jumping from A to AAA to the majors in two years, a shortstop that Boston General Manager Lou Gorman thought highly enough to predict greatness. But injuries prevented such a meteoric rise to continue, as Naehring played just 20 games for Boston in 1991, 72 in 1992 (with 11 more in Pawtucket), and 39 in 1993.
It was then I first took notice of him. At this point, he was a utility player, lapped by Scott Cooper and John Valentin to starting spots on the big club. But he seemed plucky enough and easy to like. In 1994, he continued to play around the diamond, his year cut short for the same reason as everyone else — the strike.
When baseball returned in 1995, some dynamics had shifted. Cooper had been traded to St. Louis, opening up a slot for Naehring to play full time at third base. And this is when the Naehring love affair really began.
For starters, the newly overhauled Sox came barreling out of the gate, and before long they were in first place and playing with gusto. Valentin and Mo Vaughn seemed to be hitting everything in sight, Erik Hanson was anchoring the starting rotation, and a knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield rattled off a win streak for the ages, baffling hitters on three, sometimes two days rest.
In the midst of all this, Naehring was hitting and keeping the line moving. His .307 average and .415 on-base percentage were sturdy and put him among the best third basemen in the game. And, oh, the way he played third base. Night after night, Naehring added to the highlight reel, doing his best Brooks Robinson impersonation as he dove to his left or right, popping up to nail the runner at first. It was breathtaking, and he seemed to do it with ease.
This continued for two seasons. In 1996, the defense was there, the home run total ticked up from 10 to 17, but injuries nagged him again, allowing him to play only 116 games. Each year, too, his stellar first half was overlooked when it came time for All-Star nods. A miscarriage of justice, so I thought. The truly unfair act came later.
I was following along on TV one Monday night in 1997 when the Red Sox were in Toronto, probably scribbling along in a notebook or looking at CDs while the Red Sox were batting. They were firmly in fourth place that season, but it didn’t matter much to me. In the top of the 7th, Mike Stanley and Naehring hit back-to-back home runs, giving Boston a 7-3 lead. Toronto would chip away, but the final score would be 7-6, a win.
That win came with a terrible cost. At some point in that game, Naehring suffered an elbow injury that would turn out to be more along the “horrific” line than “nagging.” Naehring missed the rest of the season, all of 1998, 1999 and finally retired in 2000, realizing the damage suffered wouldn’t allow him to come back. All the injuries were matched and capped by the one to his right arm.
I made a red and white “11” that I affixed to my Red Sox hat that 1998 season, and kept it there the remainder of that cap’s life. Careers end prematurely to injury often enough; it’s part of the fickle nature of the game. It seemed especially cruel to cut Naehring’s career so short. The stars, like Roger Clemens, were allowed to carry on through injury, playing well into their 40s. Naehring took his last at-bat at 30.
But following Naehring was a good lesson in how quickly the game can leave a player. One minute, I’m doing homework in front of the TV, watching my favorite player. The next minute, he’s gone forever.
These days, Naehring has carved out a nice life for himself in the game, first with the Cincinnati Reds in their minor league department, and now as a scout for the New York Yankees, scouring the country for young talent year after year. Not that I saw a lot of interviews, but he never struck me as bitter, whether he was left off an All-Star team or he was fighting an injury. He seemed to play because he loved baseball, and I have to imagine he still works in the game because he loves it.
For a few seasons, I followed a guy that loved the game, a guy who played hard when he got a shot and worked harder when the future seemed dim. He wasn’t the most popular guy, and he didn’t make the biggest headlines, but he was mine, and he taught me to appreciate what’s here before it’s too late.
This is the third in a series chronicling my timeline of favorite players.
Monday: Dwight Evans
Tuesday: Mike Greenwell