Who is the most famous middle reliever ever? For the entirety of baseball history this has been an unanswerable question, for no middle reliever has ever really attained any kind of fame whatsoever.
Middle relievers ride unrecognized on the Green Line to Fenway Park, slump in the shadows during the cheers of starting lineup introductions, and, even if they manage to get into a game, are already in the showers by any climactic moments of victory. By contrast, their pine-riding brethren in the dugout, non-starting positional players, such as Bernie Carbo, occasionally have moments of great renown. Middle relief, like the bulk of life, doesn’t really lend itself to special moments.
In recent years especially it has become abundantly clear that winning a World Series requires strong middle relief work, yet no middle reliever has ever won a postseason award (or a regular season award, for that matter). This could all change today, if the team featured in this preposterously titled Future Stars card from 1980 manages to close out the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series (FOX, 8:23 ET): the Indians’ best and most important player so far has been middle reliever Rafael Betancourt. By contrast, the Red Sox’ middle relievers have been frighteningly shaky. This disparity in the area of middle relief does not bode well for the Red Sox, especially considering that their starting pitcher for today seems no longer capable of going deep into a game against a top-notch lineup like the Indians. That bullpen door is going to swing open at some point today and Red Sox fans are going to wish they’d spent more time praying to the underappreciated gods of middle relief.
Here are three of those gods, Future Stars that foretell of a future that will never escape the abundant limitations of the present. None of the men are that young, each with several seasons in the minors under their belt. One, Bobby Cuellar, had surfaced in the majors three years earlier but would never surface again. Another, Sandy Wihtol, would briefly seem the most successful of the three, appearing in 17 games in 1980 while his fellow Future Stars continued riding minor league buses, but Wihtol would be back in the minors the following year. The third Future Star, Larry Andersen, after seeming at first to be bound for the same oblivion as his cohorts, instead caught that long, steady wave that middle relievers sometimes catch, their major league careers stretching on and on for one franchise after another, their longevity finally imprinting some awareness of their name of the minds of casual fans, who are always surprised when these riders of the long, steady wave, who they thought had been jettisoned from the majors years ago, appear in a game.
Larry Andersen’s renown has increased beyond that of the usual long-tenured itinerant middle reliever, mainly because the Boston Red Sox once acquired him for the stretch run by trading away a minor league first baseman who had yet to show any signs of being able to hit for power. Since the Red Sox had another minor league first baseman, Mo Vaughn, who had shown ample signs of being able to hold down the middle of a lineup, it didn’t seem like a bad gamble to trade Jeff Bagwell away.
Many jokes have been made about the trade, some of them by the witty Andersen himself, but the truth is, as a Red Sox fan, if I could have just one of the two players in their prime on my team for today’s game, based on the relative strengths and (glaring) weaknesses of the 2007 team, I’d pick Larry Andersen over Bagwell.
I’d pick the middle reliever.