You see Andy Van Slyke trot out to first base to assume his coaching duties, and you might figure he's just another one of these coaches that never quite made the impact on the field that they hoped for. Maybe like Chris Woodward. Or Rich Donnelly. Or Jason Phillips. Heck, even Lloyd McClendon finished an 8 year career with just 0.7 WAR. And hey, that's okay. They get paid to be around baseball. A lot of us would cut off appendages for the priviledge, which would probably make us less useful. So it goes.
You very well may have to be a member of Generation X or beyond to remember this, but there was a time when the guy coaching first base for your Seattle Mariners was considered one of the best players in the game. From 1985 to 1992, Andy Van Slyke amassed over 4,600 plate appearances, hitting .280/.351/.465 with 129 home runs, 624 runs, 600 RBI, and 171 stolen bases, playing outstanding defense in center field, totaling 36 WAR. That's an average of 4.5 wins above replacement for eight straight seasons. In context, if you compare him against all other outfielders during that span who made at least 4,000 plate appearances, Van Slyke ranks just behind the likes of Kirby Puckett and Tim Raines but ahead of guys like Tony Gwynn, Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler, Jesse Barfield, and Jose Canseco. Not bad company.
And yet, when the Baseball Writers Association of America got together to vote for the Hall of Fame, members voted for him exactly zero times. Even Steve Bedrosian and Tom Henke got votes that year. Now I'm not saying that Van Slyke should be in the Hall of Fame, but he never seemed to get the recognition he deserved as a player. But I did say Tom Henke, so there's that.
Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the 1979 amateur draft out of New Hartford High School, Van Slyke didn't spend much time in the minors, making his major league debut at age 22 about half way through the 1983 season. Van Slyke started in right field opposite Lee Elia's Chicago Cubs and managed a double, an RBI, and a run scored. He'd be a mainstay in the lineup for the rest of the season, playing all over the field -- left, center, right, first base, and third base. As far as his third base play was concerned, Van Slyke said "they wanted me to play third base like Brooks, so I did play like Brooks -- Mel Brooks."
To be sure Van Slyke was always known as a colorful guy -- the kind reporters would crowd around after the game because you didn't want to miss some of the one-liners he was notorious for. And in fact, when he heard he got traded on April 1st, 1987 from the Cardinals along with Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Tony Pena, he dismissed it as an April fools joke. But it would be his days in Pittsburgh where Van Slyke would blossom as a player and a hitter, mostly playing center field flanked by Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla.
Speaking of Barry Bonds, in one of the more interesting, and candid, interviews you'll ever hear a player give, Van Slyke threw Bonds under the proverbial bus when recounting the memorable 1992 NLCS versus the Atlanta Braves. You probably remember this NLCS as the "Sid Bream" game as the lumbering Bream slogged around third to beat Bonds' throw home, winning the game in the bottom of the 9th.
But as Van Slyke tells the story, with Francisco Cabrera at the plate who was a notorious pull hitter, Van Slyke took several steps towards home, anticipating a play at the plate, and motioned to Bonds to do the same. Bonds took exception, indicated to Van Slyke that he was #1, and Cabrera lined a ball to Bonds with Sid Bream beating the throw by a nanosecond. Van Slyke apparently sat in disbelief in center as the crowd erupted. Watch the whole interview for additional detail, it's fascinating. Plus, Sid Bream looks like he's about to throw up.
Other things you might already know but I should note for due diligence:
- In 1995 Van Slyke was traded by the Baltimore Orioles to the Philadelphia Phillies for Gene Harris. Harris, you might recall was traded to the Seattle Mariners from the Montreal Expos along with Brian Holman and some tall dude called the "Big Unit" for Mark Langston.
- Van Slyke has a kid who plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers named Scott Van Slyke whom many Mariner fans would like to see in Mariner blue rather than Dodger blue.
- Van Slyke served on Jim Leyland's coaching staff along with Lloyd McClendon, whom he played alongside in Pittsburgh for five seasons from 1990 to 1994. Duh.
- Van Slyke is a published author. He co-wrote books about the Cubs and one about his time as coach with the Tigers. One wonders if he's working on a book about the value of obvious semi-pornographic hand gestures as a vehicle for team camaraderie.
- At one time in his career, he wasn't a huge fan of Canada.
- He actually shares a birthday with Tom Henke. And now that Van Slyke is wearing glasses, he actually looks a lot more like him.
(References and sources: Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseball-Reference.com, mlb.com, my personal collection of Tom Henke cards, Amazon.com)