The date: Aug. 11, 1994. The game state: top of the seventh, one out, runners on second and third. The visiting Expos are getting shut out by Zane Smith and the Pirates. Randy Milligan is at the plate; at age 32, he’s been relegated mostly to pinch-hitting duty, but today he has the start at first base. It’s been a rough season, but he’s facing his former team in a big moment. A hit at a time like this can fix the memory, turn a season around. Maybe even a career.
Milligan grounds to the pitcher, who throws out an overambitious Wil Cordero at home, killing the rally. The Expos lose the game, 4-0. It is the last plate appearance of Milligan’s career.
Milligan didn’t know this at the time. No one did. The next day, the players carried out their threat to strike. Weeks, then months, then a World Series vanished. And when it returned the following April, Milligan was gone.
Most kids who saw Milligan thought the same thing: “common.” That’s the parlance for the bulk of baseball cards that are worth nothing more than pennies: the middle relievers, the utility infielders, and the unheralded rookies who make up the bulk of a 792-card baseball set. They’re the cards kids flipped past looking for the Will Clarks and Don Mattinglys. Now and then, a baseball card company will forgo the commons and give collectors nothing but stars, but strangely, these sets rarely did well. It turns out you need the worthless cards to make the stars valuable.
It’s not as though the numbers on the back of Milligan’s cards were going to impress anyone at the time: a .261 career average, 70 home runs, six teams in eight years. No bold numbers, no italics — he never led the league in anything. He was the kind of player who started for bad teams and never played for good ones, the human representation of systemic failure. If your team was starting Randy Milligan, something had gone wrong.
Teams did their best to solve the problem. The Mets traded Milligan to Pittsburgh, who gave him 100 plate appearances before shipping him off to Baltimore for an A-ball reliever. The Orioles were rewarded with a fine season, and in turn rewarded him by giving his starting job to Glenn Davis.
If this was a blow to his ego, Milligan refused to show it. Instead he responded gracefully to the media and spent spring learning to play left field. He admitted that the experience terrified him, and fans were no less wary, but the dismal Orioles had no one else and needed his bat in the lineup. The noble experiment went for naught, however, as their star first baseman quickly went down for the first of many times, and Milligan found himself back in his usual role of stopgap.
Eventually, Baltimore gave up on Davis and promoted a young David Segui. This time, there was no left field position waiting. Milligan was cut, and so began his journey on the narrow road through the north, through Cincinnati, Cleveland, Montreal, and theoretically on into the Yukon.
Two-thirds of everything in baseball is disappointment: at-bats, teams, players. Milligan is part of that remainder, a single name in an almanac. The only memorable detail in his career is a statistic in which he ranked fourteenth: his career walk rate, 17.2 percent, slotting him a little below Mickey Mantle and dead even with Mark McGwire.
Milligan’s keen batting eye was recognized. Orioles manager Johnny Oates considered the lumbering first baseman for the leadoff spot, though this too was scuttled when Brady Anderson seized the role. But if walks were understood ten years before Moneyball, they were far from being appreciated. With the Expos twenty years ago, Milligan was the last player to get his pay cut through arbitration — as he had $35,000 shaved off his previous salary — despite the fact that he posted a 133 wRC+. He had more money taken from him, and perhaps his only chance at glory, when the baseball strike hit and the league-leading 1994 Montreal Expos were wiped away.
Even considering the minor tragedies of his career, Milligan’s story isn’t unique in being underappreciated. But Moneyball came out a long time ago, and one would think that the modern champions of the base on balls would have their day in the retrospective sun. Instead, Milligan’s Wikipedia page is somewhat disappointing:
Randall Andre Milligan (born November 27, 1961 in San Diego, California) is a former first baseman in Major League Baseball who played from 1987 to 1994. He is currently a scout with the Baltimore Orioles. Milligan is nicknamed “Moose.”
That is all. it seems like a poor epitaph for a noble, if not necessarily heroic, career. Nor is it an outlier: the usual stalwarts of information, Baseball Almanac and Baseball Reference’s Bullpen, shed little more in the way of light. Twenty years later, Milligan remains an enigma.
While thinking about Milligan, research offered me two contrasting examples of a baseball player’s legacy.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a short article about a baseball player from the 1950s named Carlton Willey. I found Willey’s name in an old book; otherwise he was another common, a pitcher who hung around the majors, like Milligan, for eight years. The response to the piece surprised me. Readers from Willey’s hometown found it and commented on his fame; some even knew him personally. He was a legend in his little world, and his life story has become a perfect example of the SABR biography, an interesting glimpse into a single, small story within baseball.
Meanwhile, I gathered information about fourth-outfielder and one-time World Series hero Endy Chavez for a FanGraphs+ caption. Chavez’s Wikipedia page is nearly two thousand words in length. By the time he retires, it will be as long as Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. It provides an exhaustive description of his collegiate, minor league, and big league accomplishments, and is impossible to read. Every possible Endy Chavez factoid is there, buried beneath each other, dwelling below the bottom of the page.
Milligan receives the adoration of neither the past-leaning romantic writers of previous generations nor the forward-thinking analysis of today. He was not garrulous enough to achieve celebrity, nor quiet enough to stir curiosity. His nickname was quickly reassigned. He symbolizes nothing: the teams he played for are forgotten, and their small victories erased by time. There was no banner created for him in his hometown, no birthplace museum. San Diego, where he grew up, already has plenty of heroes.
If there’s a unifying theme to the articles that mention Milligan, it’s his search for that hometown. The tale is almost tragic: every article refers to him being traded, or being trade bait. After his first season in Baltimore, despite his humble salary, Milligan created a charity to fund a struggling Little League in an impoverished inner-city Baltimore neighborhood. Milligan and his wife ReNee wanted to do good, but at the same time, they wanted to create a sense of being home. Milligan spent his offseasons worrying about who would maintain the charity once he was traded.
And he was traded, of course. There’s no mention of the charity beyond that point. Milligan was forced to pack up and move on, leaving his adopted home behind. It’s only fitting that after his baseball career, he became that wayward soul of the baseball world — a scout.
Still, this is baseball. For every baseball player, from Albert Pujols to Joe Shlabotnik, there’s a boy out there who grew up idolizing him. Maybe they share a birthday; maybe he hit a home run on that boy’s first day at the ballpark. You’d think that someone from one of those six cities would want to tell Milligan’s story, or at least summarize it for Wikipedia.
There tends to be a divide in baseball history, conveniently split between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the prior being a shadowy realm of glovelessness and gambling, of a history assembled through yellowed newspaper clippings and last names in box scores. A hundred years from now, I think, the turn of the millennium will be seen as another line in history. Baseball has always thrived on its permanence, and the internet has multiplied the amount of information we can retain. Future generations will look back at this era, with its lack of accessible video footage for every pitch and plate appearance, and wonder how we understood the game at all.
In its tightly contained universe, baseball is a bundle of physical laws and causations, endless streams of data and scores. The explosion of data in modern baseball has been an unqualified benefit to our understanding of the game and our attempts to improve it. Each piece of data drives us toward more data, further and further in. Who wouldn’t want to know exactly how far each player leads off the bag at first? How infield chatter affects a pitcher? The microscopic powers of the Phiten necklace?
But no matter how much we analyze it, at some point we have to bring that analysis off the field and into ourselves; at some point, baseball has to relate to something. For most people, it’s for it’s own sake: the World Series, the fantasy championship. But we have to account for and find value in those lost seasons between. At that point, whatever numbers we choose, whether it’s Jack Morris’s wins during the eighties or Randy Milligan’s on-base percentage, tell a story about the game and how we live through it. And each story, like Endy Chavez’s Wikipedia page, needs an editor.
Randy Milligan, and the things that he did as a baseball player, have little importance for you or me. He’s not a hero in the dramatic sense, just one of the chorus. But it’s not only the stars who deserve stories, nor should readers only find interest in success. Art arises just as easily — perhaps more easily — out of failure and struggle. In some cases, at least in Randy Milligan’s case, it’s the lack of story that is the story, the fate of the common. And in a way, it’s that obscurity that makes Milligan — just a name in an almanac — so compelling. Enough for a paragraph, if not a full article.