When it comes to baseball, certain people are doomed to be remembered for one unfortunate moment. Ralph Branca gave up the “Shot heard ‘round the world.” Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long. Bill Buckner, the poor man, could find a cure for cancer but he’d still be the guy who let the ball go through his legs in Game Six.
Sometimes the player doesn’t really have much blame to take. Fred Merkle was just running the bases (or rather, not running the bases) like everyone else did in 1908, but he still is the namesake of Merkle’s Boner.
But there’s another group of players who are remembered for one unfortunate event. They deserve no blame but are nevertheless relegated to that department of history. Those are the players who were the other guy in a lopsided trade. Ed Hearn is the guy traded for David Cone. Doyle Alexander went for John Smoltz.
Being dealt for Jay Buhner made Ken Phelps a punch line on Seinfield while Milt Pappas (for Frank Robinson) fills that role in Bull Durham. And of course, this week’s birthday boy is Delino DeShields who was dealt straight-up for Pedro Martinez in a move ESPN once called the fifth worse trade of all-time.
Of course, none of these players choose to be the poor end of an embarrassing trade. Some trades were totally justified at the time; others reflect a total misjudgment of talent on the part of a general manager. But in any case, this week’s column will be dedicated to some of those players, and looking at their career outside of the one line they usually merit in baseball history.
If anyone was in any danger of forgetting that Pappas (along with Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson) had been dealt for Frank Robinson, Ron Shelton put an end to that. But of course, it is unlikely that people were going to start forgetting it.
After Reds’ general manager Bill DeWitt said that Frank Robinson—who had put up a 151 OPS+ the season before—was going to be an “old 30,” he dealt the right fielder to Baltimore. Robinson would, of course, win two World Series, four pennants, an MVP award and make six All-Star teams after leaving Cincinnati.
Pappas was therefore relegated to his role as the other guy in the trade. Pappas never had much success with the Reds—though he did make the All-Star team in ’72 after leaving Cincy. But he was a three-time All-Star, ranked in the top 10 in his league in ERA eight times and is still in the top 100 in all-time wins.
Also in the top 100 in all-time wins is John Smoltz, two behind Pappas coming into this season. But in 1987 Smoltz was just a Tigers minor leaguer, a former 22nd round pick who was dealt to the Braves for Doyle Alexander. Smoltz is a probable Hall of Famer—he is the only player with 200 wins and 150 saves.
But Alexander was brilliant down the stretch in ’87 for the Tigers. Our own Dave Studeman noted that despite pitching “just two months for the Tigers, [Alexander] actually came in fourth in the AL Cy Young voting.”
Alexander did not quite have Pappas’ career, but he still won nearly 200 games, pitched in four postseasons, made the All-Star team for the Tigers in 1988. Alexander was among the league leaders in victories five times during the course of his career, including 1984, when he went 17-6 for the Blue Jays.
He may not have been much of a parent, but Frank Costanza was a pretty decent judge of baseball talent. After being told—wrongly—by George Steinbrenner of the passing of his son, Frank responded instead by asking “The Boss” how he could’ve dealt Jay Buhner to acquire Ken Phelps. Frank berates Steinbrenner, noting that Buhner “had 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs last year,” not that he had “a rocket for an arm.”
Steinbrenner can only reply that his “baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying ‘Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps.’” And in different circumstances those baseball people might have had a point. Phelps was criminally underused during his time in Seattle. He mashed when given the chance but was often stuck on the bench behind the likes of late career Gorman Thomas.
Phelps earned a World Series ring with the A’s in 1989 but his most notable moment in an A’s uniform came in April of 1990. Brian Holman was pitching a perfect game for the Mariners, leading 6-0. Just one out away from perfection, Tony La Russa sent Phelps up to pinch hit for Mike Gallego.
The first pitch he saw Phelps drove into the stands, ruining on one swing Holman’s perfect game, no-hitter and shutout. While the home crowd was not thrilled that Phelps ruined their shot at seeing the perfect game, Phelps himself reportedly said he did not want to make an out and have to see the replay for the rest of the season.
Finally, we come to Delino DeShields. DeShields had a good, if not great 13-year career. Primarily a second baseman, DeShields had good speed, stealing 40 or more bases six times. His 463 stolen bases rank him in the top 50 all-time. He is also, in something of an obscure honor, almost certainly the greatest ballplayer ever to hail from the state of Delaware.
In 1993, however, after a season where he had hit .295, the Expos dealt DeShields to the Dodgers in exchange for Pedro Martinez. At that point Pedro had just gone 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA for the Dodgers. Since then, he’s become Pedro Martinez. DeSheilds meanwhile was his usual self, but even superstar performance could not have equaled what Pedro became.
The real blame in all these moves lies with the men who made them: George Steinbrenner and his “baseball people,” Bill DeWitt underestimating Frank Robinson and Tommy Lasorda who decided that Pedro was too slight to handle the Major League workload.
But for now, it is the players who largely carry the burden of being the other half of such famously one-sided deals. Such is fate.