Just uttering the word results in pleasant thoughts about hot dogs, fruit pies, and youthful wonder. We often need those thoughts of sunshine and yesteryear, as life can be a bit of an old horse at times. And yet, baseball too can be a fickle mistress.
Every once in a while, your favorite baseball team will pull in your attention, energy, and passion like some inexorable vacuum. Then, with little or no warning, their success will run its course. They will fall in defeat. You will sit in in front of your television, by your radio, or in your stadium of choice with a glazed expression of mournful disbelief. You will attempt to remind yourself that you are working yourself up over men hitting knit orbs with sticks, but logic will fail to drown out the emotion.
The next step in this process is usually blaming the opposing player (or at times a bumbling member of your own team) for the damage or loss he has inflicted on your team of choice. In rare cases, particularly if the injurious deed is dealt in a particularly important game – that animosity will flower and grow. At that juncture, this player will enter a special place in your proverbial doghouse – the ‘most loathed list’.
As a lifelong devotee of two major league squads – the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves – my list spans both leagues and a bit over a decade. I wasn’t too angsty before the age of ten, but my parents tell me that at the age of two I was watching the 1987 World Series and beginning to learn how to mutter the name of Twin Steve Lombardozzi. Both clubs have seen a great deal of big games – and more than a few big game disappointments – in that amount of time, which adds to the length and the breadth of the list of the loathed. Since I feel it’s important for people to know who they should be giving dirty looks and also to have some company in well earned baseball sorrow… here I have whittled to 10 my list of most loathed major leaguers.
#10 – Livan Hernandez: Starting Pitcher – Florida Marlins
Livan Hernandez has had a very pleasant career, winning 152 games to go with a respectable ERA in the mid 4s. Pitching for seven teams, including the Twins for a short stint last year, he’s mostly just been a solid and craftly fellow making a living with a hilariously slow breaking ball. In 1997 however, he forever ensconced himself in the position of my 10th most loathed modern major leaguer.
As a member of a Florida Marlins team hastily cobbled together with millions and millions of offseason dollars, Hernandez earned 2 of the 4 victories the Marlins captured in upsetting the Atlanta Braves in the ’97 NLCS. Although Hernandez was overshadowed by rotationmates like currently pitching for the New York Metroplitans Also dealt Atlanta a crucial loss in the ’02 NLDS
#9 – Craig Counsell: Infielder – Marlins, Arizona D-Backs
This goofy infielder with a psycho batting stance is the last person you expect to cause your team pain on the baseball field. And, unexpectedly enough, he bears a pedestrian .257 carrer batting average. In his postseason career, Counsell has logged an even more mundane .237 average. But ahhhh… do not be deceived. Craig Counsell became Babe Ruth when he faced the Atlanta Braves in the postseason. In 1997 with the vile Marlins of Florida, this pain inflicting hoser batted .429 with a .529 on base percentage during the NLCS against Atlanta. He drove in two all important Marlin runs.
But the wee terror wasn’t done. In 2001, he appeared once more. Now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, this pesky creature appeared in yet another National League Championship Series. He natually forgot once more the fact that he was Craig Counsell and channeled the Great Bambino for a second time. He hit for a .381 average, drove in 4 runs and scored 5 times. The D’Backs beat the Braves 4 games to 1.
#8 – The Minnesota Twins Bullpen
From 1992, the Twins endured almost a decade in the baseball wilderness with the likes of Denny Hocking, Pat Meares, and Marty Cardova. But beginning in 2002, Minnesota awakened and would appear in three consecutive (and four of the next five) postseasons. These teams were built around tremendous fielding, sufficient starting pitching, and a surprisingly effective offense. And while you will hear good things said about the bullpen the Twins were fielding over this run, it was their relief pitching (along with some other New York hosers we’ll discuss in a moment) that bears the brunt of blame for their early playoff exits in the early 2000s.
While 2002’s Twins’ season was an enormous success just by getting to the ALCS, ’03 and ’04 were real disappointments. In both of the latter, the Twins’ fell to the New York Yankees in the playoffs’ 1st round. As you are no doubt beginning to see, the Yankees are equal opportunity soul crushers in my sporting world. Particularly in the ’04 ALDS, it was the Twins’ bullpen doing nearly as much crushing as the evil empire. Starting for Minnesota, Johan Santana bested the Yankees’ Mike Mussina in game 1, just as he had in ’03. In game 2, the Twins battled the overpaid East Coasters tooth and nail (even getting to the legendary evil empire stopper Rivera who appears later in this tale) and handed their newly minted closer Joe Nathan the ball in the bottom of the 12th inning with a chance to go up 2 games to 0 heading back to the Twin Cities. Instead, Nathan and JC Romero combined to give up 2 runs in the bottom of the inning.
Game 3 was an unfortunate reminder of why Carlos Silva is indeed Carlos Silva (an obscene 6 earned runs on 10 hits), and the Twins lost 8 to 4. But game 4 was far worse – and yet another example of baseball’s aforementioned cruel mistress aspect. The great Johan Santana returned on short rest to hurl 5 excellent innings. Entering the eighth, the Twins led 5 to 1 and handed the ball to the man who had gallantly handled the three outs before Nathan all year. Juan Rincon instead could only muster one out, and gave the Yankees 4 runs – including a three-run home run to the artist formerly known as Ruben Sierra. Nathan came in and managed to hold the Yankee bats silent for the rest of the eighth and ninth. It was all for naught as Twin legend (not in a good way) Kyle Lohse surrendered the lead, and the series, in the top of the 11th inning.
#7 – Mariano Rivera: Closer – New York Yankees
Here we come to the first individual who has abused both Twins and Braves equally. Rivera, since taking over closer duties from the late great John Wetteland, has earned a foreboding distinction. When he enters the game, there is simply no chance. His hopeless arrivals late in the game helped do in the Braves in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. Likewise they spelled the end for the Twins in the ’03 and ’04 ALDS. The man is a machine.
#6 – Randy Johnson: Starting Pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Johnson had only 2 wins and 7 losses entering the 2001 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. Stop me if you’ve heard something similar to this before, but the giant, surly hurler went on to beat the Braves twice in the series with a 1.12 ERA and 19 stikeouts in 16 innings of work. It was emotional. His 2 to 0 defeat of Greg Maddux and the Braves in game one of the series also goes a long ways to understanding the #4 entry in this list. And ya, the Braves went on to lose that NLCS and squander another opportunity to make the World Series.
Johnson makes the top ten instead of his former teammate Schilling because he caused the Braves a great deal of regular season pain too. And his run of success also took a lot of attention away from my favorite hurler – Maddux.
#5 – Kevin Brown: Starting Pitcher – Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, New York Yankees
Brown threw in the high 90s with devastating sink on his fastball. The man was insanely, dare-we-say ‘unnaturally’ (see below) good. In 1997’s NLCS, he earned the half of the Marlins’ victories that Livan Hernandez didn’t. But this Brown creature earns particular disrepute because, after the Marlins’ owner sold off his team like so many oil futures in the offseason, he made his way to the San Diego Padres. The Padres are usually harmless enough, minding their own business and losing a trove of games. Not in 1998. That year, they just happened to find their way back to the NLCS… against the Braves. Brown pitched great, the Braves offense did their playoff thing (see #4), and many of us were sad.
In a way, it was a relief to see Brown named in the Mitchell Report as a user of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). To know that such a big part of the reason that one’s team didn’t make the World Series in two consecutive years was probably cheating is vindicating in a way. But it’s also extremely frustrating and sad what with the ‘what could have been’ business. And this will not be the last entry to be heartily linked with PEDs.
#4 – The Atlanta Braves’ Offense
The Atlanta Braves of the ’90s had the greatest starting pitching rotation of their era and one of the very best in the history of history. With a 1,2,3 punch of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, the Georgians made fourteen consecutive postseasons. Unfortunately, their offense from 1 through 9 was perennially one of the weakest hitting playoff teams. Time and again, the Braves would get masterful postseason pitching performances from their three aces only to lose 1-0, 2-1, or 3-2. This phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by two sets of statistics. In his whole playoff career, Greg Maddux sported a sterling Earned Run Average of 3.27. However, his record was 11 wins and 14 losses. Glavine’s career playoff ERA stands only slightly higher at 3.42, but he only netted 14 wins against 16 losses. The run support just was nowhere to be found in game after game, series after series.
Atlanta too often relied on a small core of one great hitter – Chipper Jones (postseason career .288 with 13 home runs) – coupled with two or three really quite good hitters like Andres Galarraga, Andruw Jones, or Javy Lopez. The top and bottom of the lineup were usually rife with diminuitive speed demons (think a youthful and mostly lite hitting Raffy Furcal, Michael Tucker, Keith Lockhart, and… Kenny Lofton?!) who often seemed loathe to reach first base. Interestingly enough, Atlanta’s 1995 squad – and lone world championship team – sported two great hitters in Chipper and Fred McGriff (the “Crime Dog”) that teamed with David Justice and Ryan Klesko to form a very potent middle of the lineup.
#3 – Andy Pettitte: Starting Pitcher – New York Yankees, Houston Astros
It is this fowl’s contention that no one man bears more responsibility for grasping the Atlanta Braves’ playoff fate from their Georgian palms and flinging into misery for the foreseeable future than this tall Yankee. To understand meaning I direct you to October the 24th of 1996. Bill Clinton was President! That was a trip – or a Tripp (Linda) if you want to go all Lewinsky scandal on the issue -I digress. So Monica Lewinsky… wait… no, Andy stinking Pettitte! The situation on that October eve was that the Atlanta Braves were defending champions, having won the Fall Classic against the Indians the previous year. Many of the media tribe predecited that the Braves would repeat the experience, especially in consideration of their lethal pitching rotation.
The Braves went into the House that Ruth Built and took the first two World Series contests from the Yankees with stellar pitching performances from John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. After emotionally taxing reversals in games 3 and 4, the series was tied at 2 to 2. But the Braves, as they were wont to do, had an ace up their sleeve. John Smoltz, the ’96 Cy Young Award winner and winningest postseason pitcher of all time, was their game 5 starter. With Smoltz going at home in Altanta and Maddux scheduled to follow for game 6 in New York , Braves fans were still in fairly good spirits. The Yanks countered with second year major leaguer Pettitte, who at this juncture was only a household name in his own mother’s abode. The game was one for the ages. Smoltz hurled 8 innings, struck out 10 Yankees, and allowed 1 un-earned run. Alas, in a situation eerily remeniscint of a certain other seemingly identical World Series defeat suffered by Smoltz exactly five October’s earlier, the youthful and irritating Pettite pitched 8 and two-thirds innings of shut out baseball before giving way to John Wetteland for the final out of the ninth as the Braves fell to the Yankees 1 to 0. The difference between going to New York up 3 to 2 to going down 3 to 2 is significant.
While Pettitte actually pitched poorly against the Braves in the 1999 World Series, he made up for this by defeating the Twins in his start in the ’03 ALDS. Then, as if he hadn’t done enough, he repaired to the National League with his goody buddy Roger (see #1) and defeated Atlanta again in Game 1 of the ’05 NLDS. As you can see, the man was relentless.
Later in his carrer, Andy Pettitte was named in The Mitchell Report as a user of performance enhancing drugs. The pitcher’s inclusion surprised a lot of folks, including myself, who thought that – despite his inherant evil as a member of the New York Yankees – he was a actually a pretty good guy. Soon after, Andy confessed. Again, one can’t help but note that quite a few key Atlanta and Minnesota setbacks were dealt by players who may have been performing beyond their natural ability. Emotional stuff.
#2 – Derek Jeter: Shortstop – New York Yankees
While a sense of equality and prudence might dictate that one refrain from making each of ones’ top four, most loathed major leaguers a member of the same team, you will note that this is precisely what I have done. In defense – it is not every day that one team defeats your favorite baseball club twice in the World Series over the course of four years. Even less probable would be that same onerous team defeating your other dearly beloved baseball squad several years later in the 1st round of the playoffs -for 2 consecutive years. So there’s that.
Jeter has been the constant of the Yankee offense from the mid-’90s to the present day – an ever present, ever arrogant, always clutch burr in the side of truth, justice, and the American way. He is the epitome of all thinks Yankee, and for that alone he could make #2 on this list. But there are also the numbers detailing the merciless pounding he inflicted. In the ’96 World Series, a youthful Jeter batted only (for him) .250. That was counteracted by a healthy dose of walks that saw him reach base at an obscene rate (.400 on base percentage) and score five Yankee runs in the series. In the ’99 series Jeter .350 with a home run. Against the Twins in ’03 and ’04, the Yankee Captain (if I had an airline illness bag for every time I’ve heard that…) batted .429 and .316 respectively.
#1 – Roger Clemens: Starting Pitcher – New York Yankees, Houston Astros
First the numbers. As a Yankee in the ’99 World Series against Atlanta, Clemens beat the Braves in the clinching game four of the Yankee sweep. He beat the Twins in a crucial game 3 in the ’03’s ALDS 3 to 1. Then, the burly Texan flew his New York coop and dealt the Braves two more losses in the ’04 and ’05 NLDS respectively. Clemens did some pretty heavy damage to folks like me in the postseason. But there are two things that separate Clemens from the rest of the pack and earn him the title of our ‘most loathed’.
For starters, the guy did steroids. His trail of deeds is long and well documented, and his career arc clearly was given an unnatural boost by the drugs. He quite probably cheated other players and teams who were doing the things the right way of awards and postseason success. Numbers like the very ones mentioned above are now rightly called into question. Additionally, Clemens was also competing with Atlanta ace Greg Maddux for the title of best pitcher of the generation. Though many more baseball people now argue in the Maddux direction on that debate, Clemens still gets many nods. The fact that this disagreeable Clemens creature could still be overshadowing a guy like Maddux just irks fair-minded folks – and me. Roger Clemens is a bad dude.