Steve Renko

April 7, 2009

steve-renko-751One 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.


  1. Well done, sir.

    Steve Renko is indeed, very reminiscent of those Ralph Houk, comme ci, comme ca, whatever whatever teams between 1978 and 1986. Gonna win some, gonna lose some. Gonna light up the scoreboard, gonna get shut out on 4 infield hits.

    I love that phrase, too: “pondering his options”, with the Globe caustically noting that he doesn’t, well, have any.

    Brad Wilkerson, Professional Hitter(TM), Bat Without Portfolio(TM), Minister of Opposite Field Singles(TM), we hardly knew ye.

  2. Without looking it up I’m going to guess Rusty Staub, who I think was around through 1984, possibly later.

  3. “Without looking it up I’m going to guess Rusty Staub”

    Ding! Nice job. I think Le Grande Orange kept it going all the way to ’85. I don’t have time to look into this right now, but I wonder now if he was also the last member of the Colt 45s in the majors.

  4. There was a great article in the November 1977 Baseball Digest (with Bump Wills on the cover) tracing the original 1969 Expos players to the then-current 1977 Expos Rosters. Was kind of like a family tree. I can’t recall exactly, but something like only 3 of the 1977 Expos players could be directly traced through trades back to the 1969 squad.

  5. As a kid, I always confused Steve Renko with Steve Rogers, as they were both righthanded Expos pitchers who seemed to strike similar poses on their cards.

    As far as cardboard-dom relates to your immediate family Josh, your brother, in particular, could fare worse than the World Hockey Association goaltender Ian Wilkie, whom I can remember, though barely, playing for the old New York Raiders back when I was a wee tot and we used to attend the upstart league’s cheap matinees at the Garden when the Rangers were out of town. (Following a name change, they were evicted the following season.)

    I can empathize on the name thing. I follow the career of Aussie hurler Peter Moylan, perhaps because it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a Major Leaguer bearing something-remotely-similar to my name. (He was also born in December like I was, wears glasses, like I do, sports the occasional goatee, had some involvement with pharmecuticals, and has proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. Check, check, check…)

    Hey, look on the bright side, there’s always the chance that Josh WIL-lingham could end up on the Red Sox some day…

  6. good stuff.

    Jeff Frye’s my Steve Renko. 🙂

    Tom Maher is the the only MLB name near mine… and he was last seen in 1902. There have been 15 minor leaguers threaten to be the 2nd, Caleb Maher being the most recent.. but that’s it!

  7. I think Juan Pizarro is the closest to my name…..

  8. dw17:
    I’m going to look for that article in the Baseball Digest archives.

    Good ol’ Ian Wilkie. We didn’t know about him, but during the ’70s I did feel a kinship of sorts with Bobby Wilkerson of the last undefeated college hoops champ, Indiana, and Jamaal Wilkes, who I was a big fan of even though he was on the Lakers.

    Not that this has anything to do with anything, but according to BR Bullpen, Steve Renko played quarterback at U of Kansas, where he handed the ball off to just about the most exciting player you could ever hand the ball off to, Gale Sayers. Renko was also a good-hitting pitcher, which lends a sad air to his A.L. post-Expos exile.

  9. One of the biggest disappointments you could have back then was to have tickets to a game and find out Steve Renko was pitching. If it wasn’t him, it was Chuck Rainey. I think I saw Steve Renko pitch about a thousand times and I can’t remember a thing about any of the games. There was a mediocre desperation to the pitching staffs of the Red Sox back then that makes me frustrated even today– as if anybody could be duped into thinking that the dozen or so Chuck Rainey clones they kept on hand were ever going to develop into anything.

    I personally miss the Expos. They were always a National League team I liked. I saw a game in Montreal in 2002 and I was completely disoriented watching a game in a dome.

  10. Nobody wrote catchy rhymes about Renko and Rainey. Renko and Rainey and pray for an end to the pain-y.

  11. Wasn’t Renko a former college QB at Kansas? Or was that Burgmeier?

  12. “Wasn’t Renko a former college QB at Kansas?”

    Here’s what seems to be a page from the 1964 U of Kansas yearbook that mentions, among other things, Renko throwing a touchdown pass to Gale Sayers.

  13. Rip Repulski, who played for the Red Sox in 1960 and 1961, is the closest to my name. Off by one letter! 🙂

  14. Without looking up Renko’s numbers my memory of him is as an inning eating pitcher who could be a #1 or #2 on the staff of a bad team and #3 or #4 starter on a good team.

    Unfortunately my lasting impression of Rusty Staub is the game late in his career with The Mets when they ran out of outfielders and had to put Staub out there. They moved him back and forth between LF and RF depending upon if the hitter was a righty or lefty. How humiliating.

  15. SB1902- I had that problem with Bob Stanley. Buy the tickets months in advance-when did Clemens pitch? Day before or day after. Boddicker? Viola? Nope-Steamer, every time.

    I actually have a holder of a league record who shares my name-Earl Webb, who set the record for doubles in a season (67) with the Red Sox in 1931.

  16. “I wonder now if he was also the last member of the Colt 45s in the majors.”

    He was, although Joe Morgan gave him a run for his money. Joe lasted until ’84; Staub, ’85.

  17. bosox8:
    Knowing little about either player, I confuse Rip Repulski with Ray Narleski. I think of both of them as tough guys.

    I didn’t know that Staub had to endure that indignity. I imagine him getting winded during the walks across the outfield, eventually having to double over with hands on knees as he caught his breath near an embarrassed Mookie Wilson.

    The guy I have seen pitch the most by far is Wakefield, and he’s my favorite player in part for that reason, even though, on average, he’s pitched below his norm when I’ve seen him.

    Thanks for confirming that. Staub must have also been one of the last of the ’73 NL champ Mets drawing a major league paycheck. (Seaver’s the only guy I can think of off the top of my head who outlasted him.)

  18. I find that Rusty Staub is the answer to a lot of odd trivia questions.

  19. Sonny Siebert. My first year going to games in Fenway was 1969, though I wanted to stay home and watch Batman. Anyway, every time we went – Sonny Siebert. No Lonborg. Always Sonny.

  20. I went to 4 Tigs games at Comerica last season and caught Armando Galarraga thrice. No complaints, but I’ve also thought about the odds.

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