Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats, Part Three
Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats. I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/BkxPPk)—-the product of research first undertaken in 1988.
30. Rufino Linares, October 6, 1985. Linares’s slogan was “I hit in any league.” Until his 30th birthday, however, the only ones in which he got the chance were the minor and the winter leagues. In 1980, the outfielder hit safely in 43 of his first 44 games for Savannah, finally attracting some attention. A year later, he was a 30-year-old rookie on the Braves, with a swing that reminded writer Furman Bisher of “a house painter falling off a ladder.”
Linares batted .265 for the Braves in 1981, and .298 in ’82. That winter, he suffered a devastating ankle fracture in winter league play, causing him to miss most of the 1983 season. After slipping to .207 for the Braves in ’84, he was released, winding up back in the minors. A year later, he was picked up by the Angels.
Linares homered in his first at bat for California on July 20, and in his last on October 6. He came to bat just 43 times for the Angels, but collected three game-winning homers. The last came off Rick Surhoff at Texas.
Going into the eighth inning of the season finale, the Rangers held a one-run lead. Linares, who had already singled twice and scored a run, now connected for a three-run homer. The Angels won, 6-4.
Linares returned to the minors for two more seasons. In his last, 1987, he finished second in the Mexican League in doubles and batting average, hitting a blistering .389. Rufino returned to his native San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, where he died in a 1998 auto accident.
37. Gregg Olson, April 20, 1998. Pitcher Gregg Olson led his high school team to four straight Omaha State championships with a 27-0 record. He went on to Auburn University, earning two All-America selections. At age 21, he became the fourth overall pick in the 1988 draft.
Olson was pitching for the hapless Orioles less than three months later. In 1989, Olson helped the O’s improve from 54 wins to 87 with a 5-2 record, an AL rookie record 27 saves, and a 1.69 ERA. He did not allow a run after July, and won the Rookie of the Year Award over Tom Gordon and Ken Griffey, Jr.
In 1990, Olson completed a run of 29 straight scoreless appearances, encompassing 41 innings, and made the All-Star team. He went on to become the first man to earn 20+ saves in each of his first four full seasons, and extended it to five in 1993. On September 21 of that year, he became the first Oriole pitcher to bat since 1972. He struck out.
But also that year, Olson suffered a partially-torn ligament in his pitching elbow. Over the next four years, he bounced from the Orioles to the Braves, Indians, Royals, Tigers, Astros, and Twins, plus a stint in the minors, earning a total of just 12 big league saves.
Olson made a nice comeback with the Diamondbacks in 1998. He saved 30 games with a 3.01 ERA over 64 appearances, and he even contributed with the bat. On April 20, Olson came to the plate for just the fourth time in his career, and slammed a 403-foot home run, helping Arizona pad a 15-4 victory.
Olson appeared in 160 more games over the next four seasons with the D’backs and Dodgers, but never again came to bat. He finished his career with 217 saves and a 1.000 slugging percentage.
39. Albert Belle, October 1, 2000. Few players have encountered as much controversy as Albert Jojuan Belle. After playing parts of two seasons as .220-hitting Joey Belle, the youngster went through alcoholism treatment, returning in 1991 as Albert Belle, and becoming one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Over the next decade, Belle would average 37 homers, 120 RBIs, and a .298 average each year.
But almost every year was marred by controversy linked to his erratic behavior and temper. In 1991, Belle was suspended for throwing a ball at a fan’s chest. He was suspended in each of the next three seasons as well, for infractions including a corked bat, charging the mound, destroying a bathroom, and hitting a fan with a Ping-Pong paddle. In 1995, he was fined for a World Series clubhouse tirade against reporter Hannah Storm, and sued for knocking down a kid who had egged his house on Halloween. In 1996 he fired a ball at a Sports Illustrated reporter’s hand, and earned a suspension for stiff-arming 170-pound second baseman Fernando Viña on a force play. In 1997, he was fined for an obscene gesture toward fans, and named in a gambling scandal. In 1998, he was charged with battery in a domestic dispute. He staged a clubhouse tirade in spring training, 1999. Along the way, Belle beat out Barry Bonds in a sportswriters’ poll to name “Baseball’s Biggest Jerk.” Even after his career, Belle made headlines with a DUI in 2002 and a stalking charge in 2006.
But, oh, how Belle could hit a baseball. In 1993, he led the AL with 129 RBIs. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he batted .357 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs (projecting to 52-145 over a full season). In 1995, also abbreviated by strike, Belle led the league in runs (121), doubles (52), homers (50), RBIs (126), and slugging (.690), becoming the first man ever to hit 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season; pro-rated for 162 games, he might have amassed 59 doubles and 56 homers. In 1996, he won his third RBI title, collecting 48 homers and knocking in 148 runs. After joining the White Sox as a free agent, and becoming the highest-paid player in the game, Belle came through with 49 homers, 152 RBIs, and a league-leading .655 slugging average in 1998.
Late in 2000, Belle was en route to his ninth straight 100-RBI season, but suffering from the pain of an arthritic, degenerative hip. Few could have guessed that his career was coming to a close at age 33. Belle’s home run off Denny Neagle, helping the Orioles to a 7-3 win, proved to be the final swing of his career. He retired the next spring, naturally amidst controversy: he fought to have insurance pay his salary for the remaining years of his contract.
Belle finished his career with 381 homers and a .564 slugging average over 1539 games.
39. Todd Zeile, October 3, 2004. Todd Zeile was born in Dodger country – Van Nuys, California – on the same day Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game at Dodger Stadium. He grew up wanting to play for the Dodgers, and got his wish – but they were only one of 11 teams Zeile played for.
Zeile began his career with the Cardinals in 1989, replacing popular catcher Tony Peña. He would be converted to third base in 1991 and first base in 2000, also playing the outfield and pitching during his career.
Zeile had his ups and down in St. Louis. After a decent rookie year and solid second season, he slumped in 1992 and was demoted to the minors. He came back to knock in 103 runs for the Cards in 1993 and 75 in the strike-shortened ’94 season, but a dispute with management the next year sent him packing. Thus began the most nomadic decade in any player’s career, as Zeile went from the Cardinals to the Cubs, Phillies, Orioles, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers, Mets, Rockies, Yankees, and Expos – 11 teams in a little over eight years.
But he produced almost everywhere he went, including 99 RBIs in 1996, 90 in ’97, 94 in ’98, and 98 in ’99. He reached his career high of 31 homers with the Dodgers in 1997, and became the first player ever to hit home runs for ten and then eleven different teams. Two of his bats made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Zeile returned to the Mets for one last season in 2004. He planned to pursue a career in film-making after the season. He couldn’t have written a better script for what happened on his last day in the majors.
Before the game, the Mets honored Zeile with a ceremony, including a video tribute to his career and a framed uniform. Wanting to go out the way he came in, Zeile donned the tools of ignorance to catch one last game. It was also reliever John Franco’s final game, and Zeile made the putout on Franco’s last pitch.
Zeile came to bat with two on in the sixth inning, and blasted a 3-1 pitch off the Newsday sign on the facing of the mezzanine level in left field for a home run. Two innings later, he strolled to the plate for one last ovation, then was replaced by pinch-hitter Daniel Garcia. The Mets won, 8-1. Zeile finished his career with 2004 hits and 253 homers.
“I can’t tell you how special it was,” Zeile said after the game. “I can’t even describe that at bat right now. The moment doesn’t seem real. I don’t think anything went through my mind. You can’t process things at moments like that. I’m glad I went out this way [instead of somebody] telling me to take the uniform off.”
40. Ray Lankford, October 3, 2004. Duplicating the feat of long-time teammate Zeile earlier in the afternoon, Ray Lankford ended his colorful career with a home run. Lankford batted for pitcher Dan Haren with a 4-3 lead, helping the Cardinals to a 9-4 victory. Lankford came up once more in the game, but walked. “It might be my last regular-season game,” said Lankford of finishing with a bang. “Yeah, I thought about that.” Lankford finished as the all-time Busch Stadium home run leader (123), a record later broken by Albert Pujols. The Cards went on to the World Series, but Lankford did not play in the postseason.
Lankford began his career with the Cardinals in August, 1990, replacing Willie McGee in center field. Retaining his rookie status for ’91, he led the majors with 15 triples, stole 44 bases, and hit for the cycle. He had a dozen mostly productive seasons with the Cards before landing in Tony LaRussa’s dog-house in 2001. He was traded to San Diego, but played only 121 games there before sitting out the 2003 season with a hamstring injury.
Lankford returned to the Cardinals for one last shot in 2004, but lost his starting job due to nagging injuries. He finished his career with 238 home runs, 258 stolen bases, and a .272 average.
46. Jim Edmonds, September 21, 2010. With 393 career home runs, Jim Edmonds ranks behind only Ted Williams among players who homered in their final at bats.
Edmonds made it to the majors with the Angels in 1993, remaining with the team through 1999. Rod Carew took him under his wing early on, and Edmonds blossomed as a hitter, averaging 28 homers, 86 RBIs, and a .298 average from 1995-98. He also became one of the best defensive center fielders in the game’s history, winning his first of eight Gold Glove Awards. Many consider his 1997 catch against Kansas City’s David Howard – Edmonds sprinted back and caught the ball over his shoulder while diving into the warning track – the greatest of all time.
Edmonds suffered a severely injured right shoulder in 1999, and missed the first four months of the season after arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum. His shoulder, as well as the foot he broke (but kept playing on) in 1995, plagued him the rest of his career. For some reason, Edmonds had also acquired a negative reputation in Anaheim: someone who didn’t always play hard, who showed off, who wasn’t a team player. In March, 2000, the Angels traded him to the Cardinals for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy.
Edmonds played with the Cardinals from 2000-07, helping them to two World Series, and earning the nickname “Jimmy Ballgame.” He finished in the top five in MVP voting in 2000 (42 homers, 108 RBIs, .295) and 2004 (42, 111, .301). Edmonds starred in the 2004 NLCS, hitting a 12th-inning homer to win Game Six, and making a miraculous catch to save Game Seven.
Injuries cut into Edmonds’ playing time in his last two years with the Cards, and they dealt him to San Diego for future postseason hero David Freese after the 2007 season. Edmonds lasted barely a month with the Padres before they released him. Picked up by the Cubs, Edmonds had a strong performance in a reserve role, but then took the 2009 season off. He returned to play in 2010 for the Brewers and Reds, finishing his career with 1949 hits, 437 doubles, 393 homers, 1199 RBIs, a .284 batting average, and a .527 slugging mark.
Edmonds’ final homer was a second-inning solo shot off Milwaukee’s David Bush. He was signed by the Cardinals to a minor league contract in February, 2011, but retired for good two weeks later. He threw out the Cards’ ceremonial first pitch in Game Four of the NLCS that October.
47. Adam Kennedy, September 7, 2012. Adam Kennedy was never considered a power hitter, yet he had several home run highlights. In 2000, he narrowly missed becoming the 12th player to hit two grand slams in one game. In 2002, he became just the fifth player ever to belt three homers in a postseason contest. And in 2012, he finished his career with a four-bagger in his last at bat.
A shortstop-second baseman, Kennedy was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1997 draft. He moved up quickly and was named the Cards’ minor league player of the year in 1999, after batting .327 in 91 games. That earned him his first call to The Show.
But on March 21, 2000, Kennedy was traded to the Angels along with pitcher Kent Bottenfield – ironically, in exchange for Jim Edmonds, another future “Out with a Bang” player. Kennedy wasted no time in making his mark in Anaheim. On April 18, he knocked in eight runs in one game, with a grand slam, a bases-loaded triple off the center field wall, and an RBI single among his four hits.
Kennedy’s career highlight came on October 13, 2002, in the final game of the American League Championship Series. He slammed three home runs – the last after a failed sacrifice bunt attempt – in a 4-for-4 day that clinched the pennant. Kennedy was named ALCS MVP, and his bat wound up going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He then helped the Angels to a World Series win over the Giants, finishing with a batting average of .340 and slugging percentage of .660 in postseason play that year.
Kennedy had a nomadic career after that, going to the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rays (minor league organization), A’s, Nats, Mariners, and back to the Dodgers between 2005-12. He batted .312 in 2002 and .300 in ’05 (helping the Dodgers to the NLCS), but never hit more than 13 home runs in a season.
Kennedy’s final homer came in the sixth inning with no one on base, off the Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award-winner, Tim Lincecum. It was pulled down the right field line at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Kennedy was replaced by Luis Cruz, and the Dodgers went on to lose, 5-2. Kennedy never played again, finishing his 14-year career with 80 homers and a .272 average.
53. Nyjer Morgan, May 11, 2014. Morgan was not a strong candidate to homer in any at bat, never mind his last. He had only 12 round-trippers in 1953 major league ABs, in one season failing to homer in 509 trips.
While not a power-hitter, Morgan was a dynamic leadoff man and center fielder with an equally dynamic personality. He could be the most popular player on a team, or the biggest troublemaker. He gave colorful nicknames to his teammates, and even created one for himself: “Tony Plush.” In a 2012 Sports Illustrated poll of 297 players, Morgan was easily voted the most eccentric player in the bigs, receiving 19 percent of the votes; Giants’ closer Brian Wilson was a distant second with 12 percent.
Morgan’s first love was hockey, and he pursued a pro career in that sport. By age 20, all he had to show were seven games in the minor Western Hockey League, and he shifted his focus to baseball. Morgan was drafted in the 33rd round in 2002, and was 27 when he finally reached the majors with the Pirates in 2007.
Morgan was traded to Washington in a four-player deal on June 30, 2009, and thrived for his new team, batting .351 the rest of the year, though he was sidelined after breaking his hand sliding on August 27. He still finished the season second in the NL in stolen bases (42) and tenth in batting (.307).
Morgan’s 2010 season was not as good (.253), and was punctuated by an eight-game suspension for multiple altercations involving opposing players and fans. He was traded to the Brewers on March 27, 2011.
Once again, Morgan had a rebirth in his new surroundings. He batted .304 and became a fan favorite. Morgan’s walk-off single in Game Five of the NLDS sent the Brewers to the League Championship Series.
But once again, he sputtered (.239) in his second year with the team. Morgan wound up going to Japan for the 2013 season.
Morgan resurfaced with the Indians in 2014 and, true to form, got off to a fast start. After his homer to deep right-center field on May 11, he was batting .341. But in his next game three days later, Morgan sprained his right knee in the outfield before he could bat again. When he finally got off the DL in August, the Indians released him.
Morgan signed to play in South Korea for 2015, but after just ten games there he hung up his spikes.
56. Ramon Santiago, September 27, 2014. The Dominican-born Santiago joined the Tigers in 2002, starting a 13-year career as a good-field-no-hit reserve infielder. Other than stops in Seattle (2004-05) and Cincinnati (2014), his whole career was with Detroit.
Santiago had just 30 homers in 2436 career at bats, but the final one stands as the most dramatic final at bat in baseball history. On September 27, 2014, he connected for a tenth-inning, walk-off grand slam to give the Reds a 10-6 win over the Pirates. He is the only man to hit a bases-loaded homer in his final at bat.
Santiago signed with the Blue Jays on February 3, 2015, but hit just .202 in 33 games with their AAA team in Buffalo.