Steve RenkoApril 7, 2009
One of the stories I followed throughout spring training this year was the attempt by Brad Wilkerson to hook on as a bench guy with my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. No one with my last name has ever played for the Red Sox, or for any team in the major leagues, but Brad Wilkerson would have been pretty close, or as close as it’ll likely ever get unless perhaps my brother allows me to begin mixing human growth hormone into my young nephew’s spaghettios. Interestingly, the news that Wilkerson would not be breaking camp with the Red Sox was somehow somberly ambiguous enough to widen my self-centered disappointment to a more general consideration of Things Ending. Here’s how it was reported in the Boston Globe:
Before yesterday’s 3-1 win over the Phillies, Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged that Wilkerson has left the club to ponder his options leading up to an April 1 contract deadline. At that time, Wilkerson has the right to opt out of his deal, though it remains unlikely he will have better options elsewhere.
The casting adrift of Wilkerson to dubious “options elsewhere” led me to wonder if we are already nearing the end of the last traces of the Montreal Expos in the major leagues. It wasn’t that long ago at all that the team fielded its final edition in 2004, but major league lives are short: Brad Wilkerson, the best offensive player on that 95-loss team, seemed to be just entering the prime of his career at age 27, and now he’s already edging into his twilight years (and that actually seems to be a best-case scenario).
So now I’m wondering: Who will be the last Expo standing?
I don’t know, but as the numbers of Expos dwindle, I’ll try to keep a close watch, like a naturalist sadly tracking the last limping members of a species that is without hope of staving off extinction. It will be a dark day when the final player to wear an Expos cap plays his last game.
The strapping journeyman Steve Renko stuck around long enough to put himself in the running to be the last active member of the Expos’ inaugural 1969 team. He actually started the 1969 season as a member of the Mets organization, but was shipped to the Expos in midseason, where he broke into the bigs with a decent showing for a rookie, going 6 and 7 with a 4.02 ERA. As far as I can tell, he seems to have outlasted as a major leaguer all but one of his fellow members of that first Expos squad. (Off the top of your head, can you identify the last member of the 1969 Expos to be active in the major leagues?)
Renko had an interesting major league career. (This of course is a statement that has a redundant element; who could have a major league career that was not interesting in some way?) After traveling with the Expos through their first seven seasons, he never spent more than two seasons with any one team after that, the epitome of his itinerant career coming in 1977 when he had the distinction of playing for both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox in what is a very fondly remembered summer for the fans of both teams. (During my daily commute here in Chicago, I sometimes sit in the back of the public transit bus with some fellow baseball fans, and just the other day one of them, a guy about my age, was rhapsodizing about the 1977 White Sox who, along with the Cubs, were contenders for much of the season before fading.)
Steve Renko was obscure to me until he joined the Red Sox for the 1979 and 1980 campaigns. I was surprised to see that he only played for those two years, because in my mind Steve Renko in a Red Sox uniform epitomizes a certain prevailing feeling surrounding the team in my late childhood: a glum certainty that the team just didn’t have enough to contend. He was the kind of guy, it seemed to me then, who would lose as many as he won, and in that mastery of mediocrity he was the forgettable face of a team destined to finish far out of the money. He ended up helping to form a key part of my psyche, and not in an altogether bad way, for after the era of Steve Renko my primary hope for a given season was simply to have a chance. My guess is that the nature of being a Red Sox fan has changed for some in recent years, especially for younger fans who have grown up watching the team make entry into the playoffs almost routine, but for me I’m still always grateful whenever the team is simply in the race throughout the season, grateful that the games haven’t turned into a parade of Steve Renko appearances that just don’t mean that much.
In looking at his stats, I see that Renko deserved better from me. He didn’t do poorly in 1979 and 1980, certainly not poorly enough to be the bland figurehead of the team’s failure to win (or even contend for) the division crown. I don’t think I even really noticed when he left (perhaps because the player he left with, Fred Lynn, seemed to be a much more significant loss), and I certainly didn’t follow his career afterward, as he soldiered on for the Angels for a couple years before finishing up with the Royals. After going 1-10 back in 1972 he was never able to climb back to a lifetime record at or above .500, but he did finish just on the sunny side of the line that at that time was thought to suggest mediocrity: he called it a day with his career ERA at 3.99.