Obscure Athletes

Where the 15 Minutes of Fame Never End

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Obscure Spotlight: Matt Murton

"I was in the Nomar trade, ya know.."

Unless you’re one of our many, many Japanese fans, our next Obscure Spotlight will be a guy whose name you haven’t heard in quite some time. The Nippon league’s single-season hit leader, with 214, is not Ichiro, as you may expect, but instead that record belongs to American Obscure Athlete Matt Murton.

Murton was picked 32nd overall by the Red Sox in 2003. His time in the Boston organization was brief, however, as in 2004 Murton was involved in the trade that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. He made his Major League debut for the Cubs on July 8, 2005, two years to the date after signing his first pro deal with Boston.

Murton spent the ’06 season starting in the Cubs’ outfield. He became a fan favorite and enjoyed a successful campaign, hitting .297 with 13 homers and 62 RBI. Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry, ever the masterful evaluator of baseball talent, however, decided during that ’06 offseason that the team could do better in left field. So he brought in one of the true unsung kings of the Steroid Era, Cliff Floyd. Murton played in only 94 games in 2007 as a result.

Murton was never the same after being platooned with Floyd. In July of ’08 he was moved along with the truly obscure Eric Patterson and Sean Gallagher to the Athletics for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. He would play in just 38 more games in his Major League career, spending time with the A’s and then the Rockies in ’09.

Matt Murton’s greatest source of notoriety instead comes from his time in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League, where ‘s become one of the premiere hitters in the country. Perhaps one day the 29-year-old pro veteran will make a return to the Majors. For now we’ll have to settle for watching him from the other side of the world, tearing it up with the Hanshin Tigers. Not the Detroit ones.


Obscure Spotlight: Ron Coomer

Oft-forgotten is how smooth the Coom Dawg's swing was.

They called Ron Coomer the “Coom Dawg.” What a lame nickname. Like, the guy played in the majors for nine seasons, and that’s the best they could come up with? Ron Coomer really does sound like the name of an obscure athlete, too. I could never picture Ron Coomer being an all-star, yet his Wikipedia page informed me that indeed, Coomer was the Twins’ lone representative in the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. And with the all-millenium team in attendance, featuring a Ted Williams lovefest, Coomer is a mere footnote upon the 1999 baseball season. Coomer struck out in his only All-Star Game at-bat.

The Athletics took the infielder in the 14th round of the 1987 draft. Coomer kicked around in the A’s, White Sox’, and Dodgers’ farm systems before being traded to the Twins in 1995, for whom he would make his debut on August 1. Most of his major league success would come in Minnesota, where he would play five full seasons, including his all-star performance in 1999. Coomer hit .278 for the Twins with 77 home runs and a .746 OPS.

During the 2000 season, Coomer was moved from third base to accomodate the emergence of power-hitting third baseman Corey Koskie. The Twins released Coomer after that 2000 season, and he played a season each for the Cubs, Yankees, and Dodgers. The Coom Dawg was never the same after he left Minnesota. His last season was in 2003, when he played in just 69 games for Los Angeles.

Just because I was curious, other members of the ’99 AL All-Star Team? John Jaha, BJ Surhoff, Jose Offerman, and Brad Ausmus. Good thing Pedro was pitching.

Obscure Spotlight: John Wasdin

The Tokyo Dome is thundering as Wasdin takes the mound!

A quick look at John Wasdin’s career numbers will tell you why the 38-year old last pitched in the majors in 2007. His 39-39 record to go with a 5.28 career ERA make Wasdin, without a doubt, one of the most marginally talented pitchers ever to dawn a major league uniform. Seven major league uniforms in fact, starting with the A’s, by whom he was drafted in 1993. Wasdin debuted in the majors in August of 1995, and played a full season on the Major League roster in 1996, going 9-8 with an era of 5.96.

In January of that offseason, Wasdin was sent to Boston in exchange for Jose Canseco, where he earned the nickname “Way Back Wasdin” for his propensity to give up home runs, both numerous and untimely. Wasdin spent parts of four seasons in a Red Sox uniform, going 19-16 in 170 appearances, mostly out of the bullpen.

Five days before the trade deadline in 2000, the Red Sox and Rockies pulled off a much ballyhooed blockbuster that ended the Way Back Wasdin era in Boston. The Sox sent Wasdin along with Jeff Frye and Brian Rose to Colorado in the deal that brought Rolando Arrojo and Mike Lansing to Boston. Safe to say everybody was a winner that day. Wasdin was traded again mid-season, this time to Baltimore, where he achieved limited success.

Wasdin spent the ’02 season with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, and the 2003 campaign mostly in the Blue Jays’ organization. I went on John’s Wikipedia page, and found this hilarious bit of Wasdin lore:

On April 7, 2003, Wasdin pitched a perfect game for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds against theAlbuquerque Isotopes at Herschel Greer Stadium in Nashville. Fewer than 750 fans witnessed the perfect game, as it was the same night as the 2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship Game, plus unseasonably cold weather dissuaded some from coming to the ballpark.

I love minor league records and achievements, because they evoke the ‘tallest midget’

Getting it done for the Rangers

line of thinking.  I’ll say this– I would have been in the front row of that game were I in the area– especially if I were of drinking age in 2003.

Wasdin returned once again to the majors in 2004, this time with the Rangers. After a promising June 18 outing for Texas, the bottom fell out on Wasdin’s season, bottoming out on July 25, when he gave up 11 hits and 7 runs, including four homers, in 4 1/3 innings.

Way Back Wasdin would make 40 more appearances for the Rangers after the ’04 season, and Texas elected not to bring him back after 2006. He signed a deal with the Pirates that offseason, and in 2007 made 12 appearances, all out of the bullpen for Pittsburgh. Wasdin was last spotted playing for the Seibu Lions in 2009. This time, the Japanese baseball league couldn’t provide a springboard for John Wasdin to get back to the majors. Wasdin now coaches at Christian University. Hopefully he brought in a pitching coach.

Stay tuned for the début of Josh Wilson and Ben Ricker and their weekly hockey segment, later today on Obscure Athletes!

My theory on what happened to Ben Grieve

Grieve graced the front of the A's official pocket-sized schedule in 1999

When the Sandy Alderson-led Oakland A’s picked an 18-year old Ben Grieve with the second overall pick in the 1994 MLB draft, there was little doubt in the baseball community that he was bound for superstardom. By the time he made his Major League debut in September, 1997, there were even fewer skeptics. Ben Grieve’s outfield ability and raw power shone through in just a month of action in 1997, as he collected 24 RBI in 24 games.

1998 was Grieve’s first full season in the majors, and he picked up right where he left off a year earlier, playing in 158 games, hitting 18 home runs and driving in 89 runs, making his only All-star game and winning the AP Rookie of the Year award. Grieve’s next season saw his home run total take a jump to 28—a season he followed up with his best ever in 2000. That 2000 season, Grieve hit .279 with 27 homers and a career-high 104 runs driven in.

"What happened to my talent, and all the fans who used to come see me?" A defeated Ben Grieve grimaces.

That offseason, Ben Grieve was dealt to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a three-way deal that saw obscure athletes Angel Berroa and AJ Hinch being sent to Kansas City and brought Mark Ellis and Johnny Damon to Oakland.

Some speculate the move to Tampa Bay was Grieve’s downfall, others cite his work ethic and frustration. Still others point to his inability to stay healthy after his second season with the D-Rays. But I knew what was wrong. I’d seen it before. To me it was obvious that the Monstars stole Ben Grieve’s talent. Unfortunately for him, Bugs Bunny wasn’t walking through that door to help him get his talent back, and Grieve was never the same. He played just two full seasons in Tampa Bay, and his OPS saw a giant drop.

After an injury-plagued 2003 season, Grieve was released by Tampa Bay, and he signed a deal with the Brewers in an attempt to revitalize his career. In August of that season the Brew Crew sent Grieve to the Cubs, for whom he would only play only 38 games in two seasons (which were divided by the ’05 offseason, during which he signed with the Pirates and was released when Spring Training ended).  Ben Grieve, once one of the most highly touted prospects of the 1990’s, never played a game after 2005. Grieve’s career tends to live on today as the answer to the trivia question “Who won the 1998 AL Rookie of the Year award?” Such an obscure ending to a career once with so much promise. Damn you Danny DeVito!

Obscure Spotlight: John Jaha

Guys like John Jaha are my favorite baseball players. Because they’re obscure athletes with flashes of true greatness smattered about their careers. This is especially true during the steroid era, and it’s players like Jaha who remind us that the steroid era isn’t just Bonds, Sosa, and MacGwire—it’s Jaha, Matt Stairs, and David Segui, too. I first remember seeing John Jaha as an inordinately large first baseman for the Brewers in 1996, his breakout year, during which he hit .300 with 34 homers and 118 RBI.  This was the first Summer of Jaha, as I like to call it.

Jaha hit for average and power in his prime

Jaha never could stay healthy for the Brewers, however, and in his seven seasons in Milwaukee, played only two full years. His last season in Milwaukee saw Jaha play in just 73 games, logging 273 plate appearances.

The Brewers elected not to bring back Jaha after the ’98 season, and it looked like the Sun may have set on John Jaha’s day in the Bigs. But John Jaha wasn’t leaving baseball without one more magical summer: 1999. The Second Summer of Jaha.

The Oakland A’s took a flyer on John Jaha, giving him a minor league deal during the 1998 offseason, though it was not expected that he would make the team out of camp. Not only did Jaha make the A’s roster, but as a first baseman/Designated hitter during his first year in Oakland, Jaha hit 35 home runs and 111 RBI, almost perfectly mirroring his ’96 campaign with the Brew Crew, save for a dip in batting average. Jaha made the All-Star game for the only time in his career that season, and won the Comeback Player of the Year award.

Jaha’s resurgence in Oakland was short-lived, however, as you might expect—he appeared in just 45 games combined over the next two seasons, and he never played a game in the majors after the 2001 season.

I grew up a baseball fan during the steroid era, and was just as enchanted, if not even more so, by the incredible power displayed by MacGwire and Sosa in the Summer of ’98. But I’m just unable to talk about the 1998 home run frenzy without thinking about the two seasons sandwiching that record-breaking season—the Summers of Jaha.  Rock on, John.

Future Obscure Athlete?

Well, it looks like Mark Mulder retired today.  It makes me wonder, will we be talking about Mulder as an Obscure Athlete in three years? He was the second overall pick by the A’s in 1998.  Mulder, of course, was part of Oakland’s famed “Big Three” back in the early 00’s.  There was a time in baseball where all three of those guys could realistically compete for the Cy Young award.

Mark Mulder

Mark Mulder was a FORCE on the bump

From 2001-2005ish, Mulder put up arguably ace-like numbers; until about halfway through the 2005 campaign. His WHIP for that time period wasn’t higher than 1.38, which is staggering. Oakland ended up trading Mulder after 2004 to St. Louis for a package consisting of: Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton. Make no mistake about it, this turned out to be quite the haul for the A’s. Just another reason why I love Billy Beane, because he just knows much more than you do.  Like he’s trading you a pitcher, just don’t take it.

Suffering from rotator cuff issues and the norm of any declining pitcher, Mulder began to struggle more in 2006. He made only 17 starts and managed to have an ERA of 7.14 with a nice 1.70 WHIP. Mulder was obviously not the same pitcher after the injuries, and was up for free agency in the 2007 offseason with St. Louis giving him a 2 year $13 million dollar contract. He went on to pitch a total of 12.2 innings throughout the duration of that contract and hasn’t been in the big leagues since. Despite several attempts to rehab his arm, it fell short for Mulder.

Now, it’s up to you, will Mark Mulder be an Obscure Athlete someday?

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