The “What Could Have Been” Team

May 19, 2010

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There is nothing quite as sad in sports as unfulfilled potential.  This team consists of players who fell short of their full potential for a variety of reasons.  For some, it was a simple twist of fate.  For others, the road was paved by their own actions.  Some still managed to achieve greatness even with the obstacles; the circumstances caused others to fall short.

Catcher – Thurman Munson – Munson was an All-Star seven times between 1971 and 1978 and won three gold gloves during this span.  Munson’s career came to an abrupt end when the private plane he was piloting crashed on August 2, 1979.  Munson ended his career with a .292 batting average and hit .300 or better five times.

1B – Lou Gehrig – Gehrig’s durability was legendary – he played in 2130 consecutive games.  After twelve straight seasons with a batting average higher than .300 and eleven straight seasons with an OPS of higher than 1.000, Gehrig fell off to .295 and .932 in 1938.  Those were still very good numbers, but not Gehrigesque.  Gehrig started the 1939 season very poorly and knew that something was physically wrong.  In June of 1939, Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which later became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease (the only disease to ever be named after a patient).  He was elected to the Hall of Fame via a special election (the standard five year waiting period was waived) on the merits of his .340 career batting average and 493 home runs.  On June 2, 1941, at the age of 38, Gehrig died.  Had Gehrig remained healthy, he could have threatened Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs.

2B – Chuck Knoblauch – Knoblauch was a five time All Star and was coming off a season that included 62 steals and a gold glove award when he traded to the New York Yankees.  A little more than a year later, Knoblauch contracted a severe case of the yips – the inability to throw accurately to first base.  The once stellar fielder’s throwing because an embarrassment, leading to his movement first to the outfield and later to designated hitter.  Eventually, his offensive game also fell off, and his career was over at age 34.

SS – Ray Chapman – Chapman was an excellent defensive shortstop with good speed – stealing 52 bases in 1917.  The 29 year old Chapman was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch on August 16, 1920.  Twelve hours later, Ray Chapman died.  A lot of people here would probably give the nod to Nomar Garciaparra.  Garciaparra was off to a great start to his career, but the fact that Chapman died from injuries suffered during the game gets him the spot.

3B – Ron Santo – Santo played his entire career while battling diabetes.  He was a ten time All-Star and hit 342 career homers.  The Cubs third baseman was traded to the White Sox before the 1974 seasons.  After a disappointing season with the Sox, he hung up his spikes for good at age 34.  A large contingent of baseball observers is pushing for baseball’s Veteran’s Committee to elect Santo to the Hall of Fame – but he is still waiting.

OF – Joe Jackson – You know the story.  Jackson was banned for life for throwing the 1919 World Series.  He has many defenders, but his lifetime ban keeps him out of the Hall of Fame.  Shoeless Joe’s .356 career batting average ranks third all time behind Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.  Jackson was 31 when he played his final game.

OF – Ken Griffey Jr. – In the early 1990s, Griffey established himself as the best all-around player in baseball.  During his 10 years in Seattle, he had 1742 hits, 398 homers, ten All-Star game selections, ten gold glove awards, and an MVP award.  He had hit 40+ homers six times.  At age 30, he signed with his hometown Cincinnati Reds.  It seemed that 3500 hits and 700 homers were well within reach.  After a 40 homer season in his first season with the Reds, injuries began to mount.  More than ten years later, Griffey has added just 232 more homers to his numbers, and is still short of 3000 hits.  His career seems to be very close to an end.  It’s likely that his 630 homers will get him into the Hall of Fame – especially since he was never linked to steroids –  but you have to wonder what sort of numbers a healthy Griffey could have accomplished.

OF Darryl Strawberry – Strawberry was a rising superstar with the World Champion 1986 Mets.  Between 1983 and 1991, he hit 280 homers.  Over the course of the next 8 years, Strawberry battled a drug addiction and added just 55 homers in 1189 at bats.  The man threw away a Hall of Fame caliber career.


Babe Ruth – Ruth was a dominant left-handed pitcher.  Ruth compiled a career record of 94-46 with a 2.28 ERA – low even by the standards of the time.  Ruth was traded to the Yankees after the 1919 season.  He was 24 at the time of the trade and only toed the rubber  five more times in his career.  It’s quite likely that Ruth could have been a Hall of Fame player as a pitcher.  As it ended up, he became one of the greatest hitters in history.

Sandy Koufax – From 1963-1966, Koufax compiled a record of 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA.  He also nabbed three Cy Young Awards during this span (finishing third in his “bad” season with a record of 19-5 and a 1.74 ERA).  At age 30, Koufax had a career record of 165-87 with a 2.76 career ERA.  After battling traumatic arthritis (that’s the medical name for the condition) for years, Koufax retired in his prime.

Denny McLain – McLain was the last Major League pitcher to win 30 games, compiling a 31-6 record with a 1.74 ERA in 1968.  He won both the Cy Yound and MVP awards and for an encore grabbed another Cy in 1969 with a 24-9 record.  McLain was just 25 years old.  McLain’s gambling and affiliations with organized crime figures earned him a suspension from commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  Arm injuries hastened the end of his career.  McLain was  17-34 over the next three years and was out of baseball at age 28.  That would be a sad enough end to the tale of Denny McLain – but it’s not the end.  McLain has run afoul of the law many times since – for charges of drug trafficking, embezzlement, racketeering, and mail fraud.

JR Richard –   Between 1976 and 1979, Richard won more than 18 games each year, topping out at 20 wins in 1976.  He also topped 300 strikeouts in two seasons, while also leading the league in walks three times.  During the 1980 season, Richard began to complain of health ailments.  On July 30, while playing catch before a game, Richard suffered a stroke.  He would never again pitch in a major league game.  By 1994, Richard had been divorced twice and was broke and homeless.  He sought and received help from the minister of a local church.  Later, Richard himself became a minister.

Dwight Gooden – Dwight Gooden’s career numbers are very good – 194 wins, 112 losses, and a 3.53 career ERA.  However, 119 of those wins (and just 46 losses) were recored before Gooden turned 26.  Injuries and drug problems derailed his career.  His record for the rest of his career was just 75-66 with a 4.32 ERA.  However, there was one more shining moment – on May 14, 1996, Gooden threw a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners.  Gooden pitched his final major league game in 2000, at the age of 35.  A healthy, drug free Gooden would have likely won 300 games and be awaiting induction to the Hall of Fame.

Do you have any suggestions for the team?

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. kosmo
    May 19, 2010 @ 09:46:02

    One thing to note – I excluded players who faced obstacles that were common for their generation – such as segregation and military service. Obviously, I could have easily cherry-picked a team of Negro League All-Stars and guys who lost time to World War II and Korea.


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