Monday, November 3, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know ('80s-'90s)

Willie Hernandez (1984 AL MVP)
Hernandez began his pro career with the Cubs in 1977. During his six seasons in Chicago, the team never placed higher than third. He pitched moderately well at times, but failed to make a name for himself until a trade sent him to Detroit in 1984. The Tigers had a banner season, capturing the AL pennant then cruising to a Series victory over the Padres. Hernandez played a major role, leading the league in closing appearances while posting a spectacular ERA of 1.92. He yielded just 2 runs in six postseason appearances and was on the mound when the Tigers clinched their first world championship since 1968. Hernandez used an assortment of screwballs, sinking fastballs and curves. At one point during his career, he converted 32 consecutive save opportunities--a record since broken. After receiving Cy Young and MVP honors in '84, he spent the next five seasons with the Tigers. He saved 88 games and posted a 27-28 record in that span. A native of Puerto Rico, he reverted to his birth name of Guillermo in 1987. When his ERA soared to 5.74 in '89, he fell from the major league ranks. He continued in the minors until  '95.

Willie McGee (1985 NL MVP)
Originally signed by the Yankees, McGee spent portions of ten seasons in the minors. He had an even longer major league career, playing for four teams over an eighteen-year span. McGee combined speed with clutch-hitting during his prime. He finished among the top ten in stolen bases four times between '83 and '88. He was among the Cardinals' top RBI producers several times in that same stretch. McGee enjoyed his greatest all around season in 1985, earning an All-Star selection, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. He led the NL with 216 hits, 18 triples and a .353 batting average. He was a resounding choice for MVP that year. Though McGee's averages dropped considerably over the next several seasons, he bounced back with a second NL batting title in 1990. The feat was somewhat unusual as he played 125 games for the Cards that year before an August trade landed him in Oakland. He hit just .274 for the A's, but since his NL average remained at .335, he was declared the batting champion by a somewhat narrow margin over Eddie Murray of the Dodgers. McGee had some good seasons after 1990, but never came close to matching his MVP numbers. He retired in '99 with a .295 lifetime batting average. During his career, he was a quiet, unassuming player who was hesitant to draw attention to himself.

George Bell (1987 AL MVP)
Bell was discovered by Blue Jays' scout Epy Guerrero while playing in the Dominican Republic. Guerrero is noted for having signed a slew of great Latino ballplayers, among them Cesar Cedeno, Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado. Bell had a breakthrough season with the Blue Jays in 1984, finishing among the league leaders in extra base hits. He would remain a regular in the Toronto lineup for the next six seasons. Playing alongside speedster Lloyd Moseby and slugger Jesse Barfield in the Blue Jays outfield, Bell saw his club rise to contention, going all the way to the ALCS in 1985. His most productive season came in 1987, when he led the league in RBIs (134) and Total bases (369) while hitting .308. At season's end, he was named AL MVP. A 1991 traded sent Bell to the Cubs. He ended up with the White Sox the following year. He had several good slugging seasons after his MVP year, reaching the century mark in RBIs twice. When his batting average fell to .217 in '93, he disappeared from the majors. He served as a minor league hitting coach for several years. In 2013, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  

Kevin Mitchell (1989 NL MVP)
As a teenager, Mitchell ran with an urban street gang and was allegedly shot several times. The Mets rescued him from the streets when they signed him as an amateur free agent in 1980. Known as a malingerer and a toxic clubhouse presence, Mitchell did not endear himself to management in any of the cities he played for. But he was periodically brilliant on the field. Serving mostly as an outfielder, his best offensive span came between 1988 and 1990, when he averaged 33 homers and 99 RBIs per year. He enjoyed his signature campaign in '89, leading the Giants to a World Series berth while pacing the NL with 47 homers, 125 RBIs and a .635 slugging percentage. He stayed hot in the postseason, hitting .323 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs in nine games. Injuries and unpleasant incidents began to pile up after 1989 and Mitchell played for five different teams between '92 and '98, which was his last season in the majors. Anyone interested in specific details of Mitchell's misadventures can pick up a copy of my book: Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities.   

 Terry Pendleton (1991 NL MVP)
Pendleton was selected by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the '82 amateur draft. He ascended quickly through the minors and made his big league debut in '84. It was a promising one as he hit .324 in 67 games and finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting. A slick-fielding third baseman, Pendleton led the NL in putouts and assists five times apiece. He won a fielding title in 1989 and captured three Gold Gloves. After helping St. Louis to a pair of World Series appearances in 1985 and '87, he joined the Atlanta Braves. A vital member of various star-studded rosters, he made frequent appearances on the October stage. From 1991 through 1996, he played in four National League Championship Series and three Fall Classics. Pendelton put up his best regular season numbers in 1991, leading the NL in hits (187) and total bases (303) while capturing a batting title. The MVP vote was extremely close, but he edged out Barry Bonds of the Pirates. Pendletton followed his MVP effort with another solid season, leading the NL in hits for the second year in a row. Injuries and age began to take their toll and he was finished in the majors after 1998. He has served as a Braves hitting coach since 2002.

Ken Caminiti (1996 NL MVP)
Ken Caminiti is perhaps best remembered for the way his life ended in ruin. After admitting to polysubstance abuse during his playing days, he died of a drug overdoes in a run-down section of the Bronx in New York City. He was suffering from an enlarged and weakened heart--a condition that was significantly affected by steroid use. In 2002, Caminiti admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his MVP season of 1996. He also confessed to abusing alcohol and painkillers earlier in his career. Just months before his untimely death in 2004, he tested positive for cocaine. Caminiti played for fifteen seasons, spending time with four different clubs. His best all around year came in '96 when he slammed 40 homers and drove-in 130 runs for the Padres. He finished sixth in the league with a .326 batting average and also captured a Gold Glove (the second of three he would receive at third base during his career). Caminiti's numbers gradually tapered off and, in 2001, he posted a substandard .228 batting mark. He was finished as a player after that. Teammate Trevor Hoffman praised Caminiti's determination, commenting: "He worked his ass off. But he obviously had help. His pain threshold was higher than most. He had things that probably would have crippled a lot of people."  

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