Cooperstown Confidential: Seinfeld, Sabermetrics and Ken Phelps

His baseball people loved Ken Phelps' bat. They kept saying, "Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps!"

His baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying, “Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps!”

Could there be anything better than bringing Seinfeld and Sabermetrics together? As most of the free world knows, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the debut of Seinfeld, arguably the most successful sitcom in the history of American television. This month (August) also marks the 60th birthday of Ken Phelps, one of the poster children for Bill James’ Sabermetric movement of the 1980s. Rather remarkably, Phelps and Seinfeld came together in 1996, when the writers of the hit TV show decided to have some fun with George Steinbrenner, George Costanza, and “Digger” Phelps himself.

To borrow a phrase from Jerry Seinfeld himself, I was one of the “mental defectives” who thought the New York Yankees’ 1988 acquisition of Ken Phelps trade was a good idea at the time. I started thinking about Phelps again when I noticed that he turned 60 in early August. That not only makes me feel old, but it also stirs some good feelings in this baseball heart. Why? Well, Phelps was one of my favorite players of the 1980s. Much like many of the readers of this site, I devotedly read Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, where he sang the praises of the longtime minor league slugger who struggled to gain traction with teams like the Royals, Expos, and Mariners. James even devised a mythical team called the Ken Phelps All-Stars, consisting of unheralded, overlooked players who could be found almost anywhere in the obscure regions of the minor leagues.

Nicknamed “Digger,” Phelps was an old-fashioned left-handed hitter with Herculean power who drew plenty of bases on balls. He put up some monstrous minor league numbers, culminating in the 1982 and ’83 seasons, when he batted .333 and .341, respectively, while achieving OPS figures of 1.175 and 1.209. Pitchers in the American Association and Pacific Coast League learned to fear Ken Phelps.

With his knowledge of the strike zone, Phelps was the kind of player that Sabermetric fans adored. But as a slow runner and plodding defender, he faced roadblocks from scouts who felt he was a great Triple-A player, but nothing more. Then there were roster problems. In Kansas City, he was stuck behind first baseman Willie Mays Aikens, another young left-handed hitter of ample talent, and a capable veteran DH in Hal McRae. Then in Montreal, he found himself blocked by Al Oliver, a borderline Hall of Famer.

In 1983, Phelps joined the Mariners, where the roadblocks were not as formidable (Pat Putnam at first base and an aging Richie Zisk at DH). The following year, a reporter asked Phelps if he had ever thought about quitting. “Well, I must admit I’ve hashed it over in my mind,” he told the Associated Press in 1984. “But I’ve always come up with the same answer: ‘What would I do if I quit?’ Besides, I’ve never been a quitter.”

It’s a good thing that he didn’t give up the game. That same season, Phelps played himself into prominence in Seattle. From 1984 to 1988, Phelps emerged one of the bright spots on some mediocre to poor Mariners teams, slugging at least .521 or better every summer, with the exception of 1985. He consistently put up OPS numbers in the .900 range. Unlike many sluggers, he didn’t strike out often, and for one three-year stretch, drew more walks than K’s. Ken Phelps was a good, smart hitter who was now going to take the Yankees to the playoffs. Or something.

In terms of intangibles, Phelps also helped the Mariners. He played hard and provided leadership in the Mariners’ clubhouse. Manager Dick Williams respected Phelps, as did his teammates.

As an added bonus, Phelps was an old-school baseball guy who wore his uniform the right way. His baseball cards seem like throwbacks to an earlier era. He wore his socks high, the way that ballplayers used to do in the fifties and sixties—and the way that they’re meant to be worn. (And no, I can’t stand the way that players wear their uniforms today, with the pants draped down to the ground like pajama pants one size too long.) Additionally, Phelps had Popeye-like forearms and wore lampblack under the eyes. He looked ready for action, whether it was playing ball or stepping into a fistfight. Even the bushy mustache had a tinge of nostalgia to it, making you think of one of those rough-and-ready players from the 19th century.

As well as Phelps played for the Mariners, he was too similar to fellow Mariners Alvin Davis and Steve Balboni, both slow-footed sluggers who knew how to hit. Phelps was older than Davis and Balboni—33 years old in 1988—so that also worked against him. On July 21, the Mariners traded Phelps to the Yankees for three prospects: outfielder Jay Buhner and right-handed pitchers Rick Balabon and Troy Evers.

At first, Phelps appeared to be a sensible addition to the Yankees in 1988. The Yankees had an aging team, a factor that created a role for a player like Phelps. Two of their veteran hitters, Gary Ward and Jose Cruz (near the end of his career after years of success with the Astros), had struggled badly over the first half of the season. The Yankees looked at several trade possibilities, including Baltimore’s Fred Lynn and Atlanta’s Ken Griffey, Sr. Unfortunately, Lynn wanted a contract extension, while Yankee scouts filed lackluster reports on the elder Griffey, indicating that he was washed up.

So the Yankees zeroed in on Phelps, a player whom they had actually drafted in 1974, but had failed to sign. More recently, Phelps had had drawn the Yankees’ interest since 1985, when Billy Martin had instructed the front office to do whatever it took to get him. Three years later, Phelps finally arrived, too late for Martin but just in time for new manager Lou Piniella. Here was the plan. Phelps would DH against right-handers, allowing the Yankees to alternate days off for Jack Clark, who was 32 years old, and Dave Winfield, who was 36. To make the trade even more favorable for New York, scouts had their doubts about Buhner, the primary ingredient the Yankees sent to the Mariners. Buhner, a onetime prospect with the Pirates, had several holes in his uppercut swing, struck out at an alarming rate, and appeared ill-suited for Death Valley at the old Yankee Stadium.

So on all fronts, trading Buhner for Phelps made me happy. Unfortunately, Piniella, who was early in his career as a field boss, couldn’t figure out how to get Phelps into the lineup more regularly. (In fairness to Piniella, the injury-prone Clark complained about having to move back to the outfield to make room for Phelps, making life more difficult for Sweet Lou.) Piniella limited Phelps to 45 games and 127 plate appearances over the second half. Phelps hit pretty well, pounding out 10 home runs to the tune of a .551 slugging percentage, better than any Yankee regular. Still, it was too little, too late for a Yankee team that finished third in the American League East.

That winter, the Yankees traded Clark to free up the DH role for Phelps, but his booming bat turned sour. Phelps was now 34—and it showed. He couldn’t catch up to good fastballs the way that he did in Seattle. He also struggled with the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. Though he was a left-handed hitter, he wasn’t a pull hitter; his power leaned toward left-center and right-center field, resulting in too many warning track fly balls.

By the end of August, the Yankees realized that Phelps was done. So they traded him to the A’s for a minor league pitcher named Scott Holcomb, who would never play a game in the Bronx. Phelps expressed relief at being traded out of New York, where the meddling of the owner and the constant prying of the press wore on him. A straight-laced non-drinker, Phelps also didn’t enjoy the heavy drinking that he saw around the Yankees. During the latter stages of the 1988 season, Phelps approached Yankee coach Mike Ferraro to express his concern about the extent of the drinking that took place on the team’s charter flights.

Phelps joined the first-place A’s, in time to participate in his first postseason and win a world championship ring with the team known as the “Bash Brothers.” On an individual level, Phelps didn’t hit much for the A’s. One year later, after an unsuccessful tenure in Cleveland, Phelps’ major league career came to an end.

In the meantime, the Mariners envisioned an outfield of Buhner in right, Ken Griffey, Jr. in center, and Mickey Brantley in left. Brantley (the father of current Indians All-Star Michael Brantley) did not develop, but Griffey and Buhner did their parts. A borderline star, Buhner overcame some early injuries to become a fulltime player by 1991, and brought even more power to the Mariners lineup than Phelps had, while also giving Seattle terrific defense and a cannon-like throwing arm in right field. Buhner would remain an effective player through 2000, before injuries forced him to retire in 2001. If only the Yankees had kept Buhner, they never would have felt the urge to make a later trade for Jesse Barfield, who came at the high cost of a young Al Leiter.

Although Phelps’ Yankee career will never amount to a Yankeeography, he is far from forgotten. Quite the contrary, he has become a popular culture icon, thanks to the efforts of Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza, and the mythical George Steinbrenner (voiced by the brilliant Larry David). In 1996, during the seventh season of Seinfeld’s hit run, Phelps became an important part of the script, as Steinbrenner met George’s parents, Estelle and Frank, to inform them that their son had just died. (Don’t worry, he hadn’t.)

The reference to Phelps was one of just several connections that Seinfeld made to baseball during the show’s nine-year run. This should surprise no one, given Jerry Seinfeld’s longstanding presence as one of the game’s best-known celebrity fans. He has long followed the New York Mets, to the point that he has made several guest appearances on WFAN, the onetime flagship station of Mets baseball.

Using his connections, Seinfeld managed to bring in a number of past and present players to appear as themselves on the show. The list includes former Mets Keith Hernandez (who appeared as part of a special two-part episode entitled “The Boyfriend”) and Roger McDowell (who appeared only from a distance and without a speaking part), along with former and current Yankees Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, and Danny Tartabull, and manager Buck Showalter. Except for Hernandez and McDowell, all of the player appearances were linked to George Costanza’s line of employment: the Yankees’ assistant to the traveling secretary.

There are also numerous references to other players who did not actually make appearances on the show. They include Clete Boyer, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle Don Mattingly, Joe Pepitone, Mookie Wilson, and Hideki Irabu, the latter referenced in Seinfeld’s much-criticized farewell episode. Billy Martin, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are also mentioned along the way.

More than any of the references, the mentions of Ken Phelps stick with me all these years later. Much like Larry David did in voicing the role of George Steinbrenner, I found myself saying “Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps” a lot in 1988, to the point that his name became an obsession with me. I thought he would become the next big thing in New York. It never happened. But I understood where George Steinbrenner was coming from. And if you were a Mariners fan in the mid-1980s, you probably did, too.

References & Resources

  • Ken Phelps’ player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • he Associated Press
  • he New York Daily News
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Comments

  1. Jason B said...

    Thanks for this…I always enjoyed Kramer’s story about attending the Yankees’ fantasy camp. From socking the Mick to (an alleged) Joe DiMaggio sighting at Dinky Donuts (“He can eat a donut! But not a Dinky.”) there were lots of baseball references sprinkled in.

    (And they aged better than some of Jerry’s heinous outfits.)

  2. bob said...

    I think of Seinfeld every time I hear the name Jason Vargas, since Vargas was the Bizarro Newman in one episode. “Vargas!” I’m not the only person who makes that connection, as you can discover by doing a Google search.

  3. Paul G. said...

    Phelps came up indirectly in Sparky Lyle’s (and David Fisher’s) comedic novel “The Year I Owned the Yankees.” Owner Sparky is, if anything, more obsessed with Phelpsian type players than Steinbrenner was. He just keep accumulating more and more left-handed, power hitting first baseman/DH types on the roster, which he justifies as one can never have enough left-handed, power hitting first baseman/DH types in Yankee Stadium. I’m not sure how many he eventually collected; an Amazon review puts it at six. Funny book.

  4. Brian said...

    The article makes it sound like Piniella utilized Phelps poorly. Phelps was a 1B/DH and the ’88 Yankees had Don Mattingly at first and Jack Clark at DH. Mattingly was probably the best player in baseball from 1984-87 and had another great year in 1988. Coming off a season in which he finished third in MVP voting, Clark would lead the Yankees with 27 home runs and 113 walks.

    Maybe Phelps could have plausibly played a corner outfield position, but they had Rickey Henderson in left field and Dave Winfield in right, Hall of Famers having great seasons. Phelps simply wasn’t part of Piniella’s best lineup. Those Yankees finished third because they only had one above-average starting pitcher, John Candelaria, and he suffered a season-ending injury in late August.

  5. Joe said...

    The thing that always strikes me whenever I see that Seinfeld clip is that initial burst of startled laughter when George’s father delivers his first line. It sounds so shocked, and so genuine.

    But to your closing line: as someone who was a Mariners fan in the 80s, this is the only sitcom reference that applies. (Not surprising it rang so true since that episode, like many others, was written by Ken Levine who also did broadcasts for the Mariners from time to time)

  6. bucdaddy said...

    Stunning to remember that Buhner was only the fifth best player (maybe sixth, depending on what you think about Jamie Moyer) on the 1996 Mariners, with Griffey Jr., A-Rod, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez. Team finished 85-76 under Pinella, which makes me question Pinella’s credentials as a great manager.

    OTOH, Wow, look at the ERAs on anybody who got more than 11 starts.

  7. Ralph C said...

    I became a Ken Phelps fan while reading the 1985 Baseball Abstract, as well as Bill James. Another player on those Ken Phelps All-Star teams was Randy Ready, another of my favorite players. He might make a good article subject, perhaps?

    Though I liked Phelps, I thought it was a bad deal. Not so much for losing Buhner but thinking that, with Jack Clark already there, Phelps wouldn’t get the at bats he warranted, at that time. A Yankee fan got used to losing prospects (please refer to Doug Drabek and Bob Tewkesbury, along with the earlier trade of Willie McGee for Bob Sykes). A waste of resources. Also in the 80s, the Yankees like to collect things, like All-Star outfielders, first basemen/center fielders and designated hitters, thinking a bunch of these clogging a position or positions would mean they’d win it all. Mis-management of resources is what I saw, especially after I learned to look at baseball more analytically throug reading Bill James.

    Excellent articles, as usual.

    • ROY said...

      I was at that Holman almost perfect game at the Oakland Coliseum… up in the 3rd deck (before the tarps) it was pretty cold… so it surprised me that the HR ball carried… I was initially glad my hometown A’s weren’t no hit… but looking back on missing out on history…
      Don’t forget, Holman had to come up to bat towards the end and got a base hit, too!

  8. said...

    I’m an M’s fan and yes I recall Phelps fondly, especially the bristly mustache. Happy we got Buhner out of him though. Yes to what DJG said. I vividly remember that Brian Holman 26 out near-perfect game when Phelps took Holman deep to right field, just over Buhner’s glove. My dad and I were listening in the car all the way home and then ran in and watched the last inning or two on TV. I think it was his last career home run, and it put a dagger in the heart of the fanbase for whom he played his best baseball. I remember minutes later Dave Valle in tears trying to explain the pitch selection he called for, knowing Phelps liked the low ball but he hit it out anyway, etc.

  9. Brent said...

    Valle, Holman and Phelps himself have all said that Phelps almost never swung at the first pitch. Valle and Holman knew it and wanted to try and sneak a first pitch strike past him. Phelps said on that particular night, Holman was doing so well that he knew he couldn’t afford to take a pitch and get in the hole 0-1. So he swung.

    Phelps was the starting first baseman in 1984 but was injured very early in the season; in the first week or ten days. Alvin Davis came up from the minors and basically Wally Pipped him at first base, winning Rookie of the Year. Phelps became the full-time DH when he returned to health and with the exception of 1985 when he was again injured, had an OPS of over .900 and OPS+ over 140 until he was traded. From the Yankees perspective at the time it would have looked like a fantastic trade.

  10. Jim Phelps said...

    I too was at the game when my brother broke up the perfect game. I brought Ken,s car up from Arizona and had seats behind home plate. About the 7th inning I realized Holman was throwing a perfect game. I got out of my seat and started to pace. I knew if Holman was still hot in the bottom of the 9th, Ken would come out of the dugout and hit one out of the park to break up the P.G.. Sure enough the bottom of the 9th Ken came out swinging 2 bats . I wanted to tell everyone around me what was going to happen but knew they didn’t want to hear it. That was Ken’s last home run as a pro and I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks for all the memories Ken.

  11. gary lester said...

    I remember Bill James speculating as to what the career of Cliff Johnson would have been like had someone taken him at age 21 or 22 and made him their DH or IB. Ken Phelps’s career offers a similar “what if”. Probably some 35 and 40 HR years with 100plus base on balls had someone been willing to stick with a guy whose batting average dipped in the low .200s from time to time.

  12. michael said...

    Thank you for commenting on how today’s players wear their pants like pajamas. Does anyone know how this happened? I think it really hurts the game

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