Not much going on in the way of a race for the pennant in 2009, save for a late surge by the Minnesota Twins that has narrowed the Detroit Tigers’ lead in the A.L. Central to 2.5 games. Barring the always possible total collapse by any of the other playoff frontrunners, the schedule for October is pretty much set, which leaves the drama of the last couple weeks of the season to individual races and the possible setting of seasonal records. In the National League, the likelihood of a Triple Crown by the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, seems remote considering Hanley Ramirez’ 22-point lead in the race for the batting title. Meanwhile, the player who should be as much as a shoo-in for MVP honors in the A.L. as Pujols is in the N.L., Joe Mauer (.373), seems to be in good position to surpass Bill Dickey and Mike Piazza’s shared mark for the highest batting average ever recorded by a catcher (.362).
And at the other end of the spectrum from budding All-Time greats Pujols and Mauer chasing down the accomplishments of legendary figures from baseball’s past, there is Brent Lillibridge attempting to free himself from the clutches of the ghosts of obscurity and impotence on the following list:
1. Steve Staggs, 1978 Oakland A’s 97
2. Mike Fischlin, 1978 Houston Astros 95
3. Eddie Lake, 1941 St. Louis Cardinals 92
4. Brent Lillibridge, 2009 White Sox 90
5. Lou Camilli, 1971 Cleveland Indians 89
The numbers at the right of the list refer to the players’ plate appearances in the listed season, and inclusion on the list rests solely upon the persisting inability throughout the season to push a single teammate across home plate via a base hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, fielder’s choice groundout, sacrifice bunt, or sacrifice fly (thanks to Joe Stillwell of STATS for passing the list along to me). Lillibridge’s latest chance to alter the zero under “RBI” in his season totals came several days ago, on Friday, when he pinch-hit late in an 11-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals. He struck out looking. The effort, or lack thereof, nudged him past Lou Camilli and into fourth place on the all-time list of RBI-less guys.
Lillibridge at least has the memory of driving in a run in a major league game, something that the player he just passed did not have at the time of his record-threatening season in 1971 (which actually did set the American League mark at the time). In 1969 and 1970, Camilli had preceded his 1971 haplessness with 15 and 17 plate appearances, respectively, without an RBI. In 1972, in his 151st career plate appearance, he finally broke through by grounding into a forceout of Ray Fosse at second base in such a dynamic, powerful way that the runner at third, Alex Johnson, was able to lumber across the plate for a run. Camilli added two more RBI to his career record before passing from the major league veil.
Eddie Lake, whom Lillibridge seems to have a decent chance of surpassing, was, like all the others on the list, primarily an infielder, but perhaps because he was not only an infielder but an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, he seems to have escaped the defining fecklessness of the list. If you were an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, you by law had to make yourself useful by drawing a prodigious number of walks. A few seasons after Eddie Lake’s 1941 campaign without an RBI, he fell in line with serial-walking, infielding contemporaries Eddie Yost, Eddie Stanky, and Eddie Joost and recorded three straight seasons of over 100 bases on balls.
While Lillibridge seems unlikely to follow in Eddie Lake’s jogging-toward-first footsteps, he could do worse than Mike Fischlin, who after having a start to his career that was almost as unproductive as Lou Camilli’s (he knocked in a run in his 126th career plate appearance) kicked around for several more seasons (he lasted ten years in all) as a utility infielder.
All things considered, the one player Brent Lillibridge most wants to avoid mimicking is the player pictured at the top of this post, Steve Staggs, who in his 1978 card seems to not only have some preternatural awareness of the season to come, but of the darkness beyond that dusk. After failing to drive in a run throughout 1978, Steve Staggs’ major league career ceased.
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(Love versus Hate update: Steve Staggs’ back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)