The cult of Warren Newson

The United States of America celebrated a birthday this past weekend. So did Warren Newson.

I have fetishized many different players at various points in my life. Usually it is a specific type of player, or more precisely, a specific type of left-handed hitter.

First there were the catchers named Mike who made contact but who didn’t hit the ball terribly hard (Mike Scioscia, Mike Lavalliere). Then there were the lanky center fielders who occasionally masqueraded as third basemen (Von Hayes, Andy Van Slyke).

I’m not alone in this. Bill James had Ken Phelps. The next generation of statheads had Roberto Petagine and Jeremy Giambi (or was it Erubiel Durazo and Hee Seop Choi?).

Today, I celebrate another of my favorite types, the guy who draws walks and crushes baseballs but struggles to find regular playing time because he’s built like a fire hydrant. Matt Stairs is the best current example, although he eventually got a shot at age 29, made the most of it and ended up enjoying a fine career.

Others of that ilk haven’t been so fortunate. Jon Nunnally and the recently recalled Paul McAnulty (whom I saw during last month’s road trip) come to mind, as does the subject of today’s article. His name is Warren Newson, and if he’d stood a few inches taller than his listed height of 5-foot-7, he might have gotten more of a chance to show what he could do on a baseball diamond.

There might have been things I missed, but don’t be unkind

Newson began his professional career in 1986. Taken by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round of the 1986 January draft out of Middle Georgia College (which also produced Glenn Davis, Kal Daniels and Jody Davis, among precious few others), Newson didn’t get off to a blistering start with Spokane of the Northwest League that summer. He hit just .233 with little power, but he exhibited the stellar plate discipline that would become one of his trademarks, drawing 47 walks in 54 games.

Once Newson reached full-season leagues, though, his offensive game came together in a Brian Giles kind of way:

Year Age Level  PA  BA   OBP  SLG Comments
1987 22  A/A+  453 .329 .463 .514
1988 23  A+    548 .297 .432 .532 Led California League with 22 HR
1989 24  AA    536 .304 .436 .506 Led Texas League with 103 BB and .436 OBP
1990 25  AAA   492 .304 .420 .465

Like Giles (or Stairs), Newson was a bit old and not blessed with the physical attributes one expects to see in a baseball player. Also like his successors, he hit the bejeezus out of the ball.

Still, blocked in San Diego by such luminaries as Shawn Abner, Jerald Clark and Thomas Howard, Newson was shipped to the White Sox eight days before Opening Day 1991. The Padres also parted with second baseman Joey Cora (no star, but useful enough for several years) and Kevin Garner (a first-round bust), receiving two forgettable pitchers (Adam Peterson, Steve Rosenberg) in return.

Given new life, Newson split time between Triple-A and the big club. As was his custom, the 26-year-old produced:

Team       PA   BA  OBP  SLG
Vancouver 143 .369 .497 .550
White Sox 160 .295 .419 .424

Newson’s reward the following year was to ride the pine and watch the likes of Dan Pasqua and Abner (who had gone from San Diego, to Anaheim, to blocking Newson’s path again in Chicago) underwhelm in his place. To be fair, Newson had a down year, hitting just .221/.387/.265 in 173 plate appearances. Even with such irregular playing time, he maintained his top-shelf on-base skills, finishing fifth on the White Sox in walks despite ranking 12th in plate appearances.

Won’t you come and save me?

One fun thing you can do in life is categorize people in such a way that it makes their accomplishments seem even more impressive than they really are. Construct a tight enough box and you can draw up very exclusive lists. For example, Newson is one of five players in MLB history to have a career batting average of .250 or lower and an OBP of at least .370 (minimum 1,000 PA):

Player           PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Gene Tenace    5525 .241 .388 .427 136
Ken Phelps     2287 .239 .374 .480 132
Jack Cust*     2027 .244 .377 .453 122
Warren Newson  1193 .250 .374 .401 104
John Cangelosi 2432 .250 .370 .319  91

* Through games of July 4, 2010.

Those are some cultish figures. I’ve espoused my adoration of Tenace previously in this space. My colleague Steve Treder has discussed Phelps, whose immortality is assured thanks to Bill James and Jerry Seinfeld. Cust has been a subject of interest for some time. Cangelosi… hmm, he may deserve an article of his own at some point.

Sure, I created these parameters to cast Newson in his most positive light, but the point is this: He had nice secondary skills and probably could have been put to better use by teams that insisted on running Abner, Clark, Howard, Pasqua and whomever else out there to not get on base. The White Sox, never figuring out what to do with Newson, eventually traded him to Seattle midway through the ’95 season for a player to be named later (who turned out to be marginal right-hander Jeff Darwin). Newson hit .292/.420/.403 in 33 games for the Mariners, who then released him after the season.

Newson hooked on with Texas the following year, where he remained for some time, hitting .235/.341/.445 in two seasons and change. His big-league run came to an end on Sept. 27, 1998. With his Rangers leading, 8-2, in the fourth inning of a meaningless game (they had already clinched the American League West), Newson replaced Rusty Greer in left field.

After grounding out against Mac Suzuki in the sixth, Newson struck out swinging against David Holdridge in his final plate appearance. Even then, though, our hero reached base courtesy of a wild pitch. Newson would be stranded at first base, a fitting place for a man with a .374 career OBP to end his career (well, technically he played a couple more innings in the field, but let’s not ruin the moment with details).

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Here is where the cult of Warren Newson gets its wings. At age 34, and seemingly without a future, the left-handed hitting machine persevered.

Newson spent the entire 1999 campaign at Albuquerque, the Triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers. He hit just .260/.363/.421 in 95 games, which is not unreasonable given that he had now presumably entered the decline phase of his career. At this point, Newson gets credit for still going out there and doing his job, giving whatever his body had left to offer the game of baseball.

That would make for a decent ending. Except Newson didn’t stop there. The next year, at age 35 and unable to latch on with an affiliated club, he signed with Winnipeg of the Northern League. He played only seven games there before bolting for Mexico (where he had enjoyed success in the Mexican Pacific League on his way toward the big leagues, notably for Mexicali in the winter of 1989-90).

In 112 games with his new team, the Torreon Algodoneros, Newson defied all reason and hit .386/.496/.734, pounding 39 homers in the process. He led the Mexican League in all three slash categories, finished second in homers and RBI, and placed fifth in runs scored.

Newson slipped in 2001, hitting a mere .302/.424/.535, with 23 home runs. The following year was worse still: .247/.381/.443 in 59 games (including 20 with Memphis of the PCL, his final stint with an MLB-affiliated team). Newson rebounded in his age 38 campaign, hitting .299/.425/.424 in 112 games with two different Mexican leagues and the fabled St. Paul Saints of the Northern League.

Those were the last professional baseball games Newson ever played.

Would you recognize me?

It’s easy to forget a guy like Newson. Over parts of eight seasons, he collected 248 hits (fewer than Ichiro Suzuki at his best) and 34 homers (fewer than Albert Pujols in a down year). He never saw as many as 300 plate appearances in a single season, and his list of comparables at Baseball-Reference reads like a who’s-who of “who?”

Still, there are a few ways to keep Newson’s legacy alive. First, his nickname was “The Deacon.” I’m not sure how he got tagged with that, but a fun old-school moniker that is head and shoulders above the more obvious “W-New,” which might otherwise have burdened him.

Newson also enjoyed some spectacular individual games. Here are a few of them:

Date    Team Opp AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K
7/14/91 ChA  Mil  2 3 1  0  0  1   4  4 1
9/23/92 ChA  Oak  1 3 1  0  0  0   0  4 0
6/15/96 Tex  Bos  5 3 4  1  0  2   3  0 0
5/20/97 Tex  Oak  5 1 4  2  1  0   0  0 0

Finally, no cult figure can be complete without mention of superhuman feats. Lacking any such feats, we must settle for mildly amusing anecdotes, which seems more appropriate anyway given the nature of his career.

Newson once hit a homer that got special mention in the New York Times. From the Oct. 13, 1993, issue:

Bo Jackson predicted it. Before the ninth inning, Jackson said he told Ellis Burks that Warren Newson would hit a home run because his wife and infant daughter were watching him for the first time this season. Jackson was right. Newson, the designated hitter, homered off Duane Ward.

So, a guy told another guy that someone else would do something and it happened. That sounds cultworthy to me.

Newson also once robbed Michael Jordan of a base hit in Jordan’s first professional plate appearance. That’s not quite as cool as, say, dunking over His Airness, but you take what live gives you… and it’s still pretty cool. As Newson said at the time, “He smoked it. I wish I could’ve let it drop.”

That’s OK, Deacon. I wish we could’ve seen you play more. Now we’ll just have to settle for starting a cult in your honor. It may not be much, but it’s something.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, Baseball Cube, New York Times.

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Comments

  1. Dave said...

    Among my friends and I, Newson’s nickname was Shaft.  This is because during his time in Seattle, his pre-AB music was always the Theme from Shaft, which is, of course awesome/cult-worthy.

  2. Ralph C. said...

    Oh man, Newson was one of my favorite players and he had a few great Strat cards.  Bill James espoused the wonderfulness of Newson, too, in his early 1990s baseball books.  Count me as part of the Newson cult—Bless The Deacon!

    Another player the Padres had in the mid-1980s was Shane Mack, who later went to the Minnesota Twins and was part of their 1991 World Series championship.  I saw Mack’s 1987 Strat card and I thought he’d become a decent player if he got the chance, though I didn’t guess he’d be as good as he was for the Twins.

  3. lisa gray said...

    interesting how there is and always has been an extreme prejudice against short athletes

    i remind people that both mantle and mays were under 6’ and not exactly bulging with biceps

    and that the height of the pitcher has zero correllation to the velocity of the pitch.

    but i still hear that player X looks physically like player Y and therefore will/should perform as that player did. in spite of the fact that the minors are littered with all kinds of guys who looked just like player Y and went exactly nowhere

  4. Geoff Young said...

    Lisa: Yes, if a guy can play, he can play. Witness another of my favorites who enjoyed considerable success in your neck of the woods: Jimmy Wynn. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are players like Jeff Francouer who like look they should be great but aren’t.

  5. Brandon Robetoy said...

    According to wikipedia:  “Newson was given the nickname “The Deacon” by the team’s longtime television play-by-play announcer, Ken Harrelson.”

    In the first part of the 20th century, players were often given the nickname Deacon if they were religious or active in the church.  Not sure if that was the case with Newson

    Personally I think Harrelson is a moron so I have no clue if that is the reason he tabbed Newson with the Deacon monker.

  6. Geoff Young said...

    Ralph: I didn’t realize that James was a Newson fan (I only have the ‘80s books), although it certainly makes sense.

    Good call on Mack, whom the Padres lost in the 1989 Rule 5 draft, which also cost them Dave Hollins. Kinda makes you wonder who they protected instead.

  7. lisa gray said...

    geoff,

    jimmy wynn hangs at the Box a lot, shakes hands, gives out autographs. met him Opening Day.

    i’m 5’3 in shoes and there is NO way he is more than 3” taller than me

    and he hit TONS of homers at the Dome – which means that short guys ROOL

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