Thursday, April 27, 2006

Colbert's Meltdown Another Of Those Great Baseball Mysteries

Like I may have mentioned in the past, I'm fascinated with ballplayers whose skills erode and vanish suddenly, often even mysteriously. It seems like only in baseball does this phenomenon happen with any consistency. In other sports, players retire or are forced out of their respective games because their end has come on slowly, like a disease that eats away at their abilities to the point where it becomes obvious it's time to move on. But in baseball, many times has a player seemed to have "had it" one day, and "lost it" the next.

Sometimes there are physical explanations. The most famous, of course, was Lou Gehrig. Folks suspected the Iron Horse was beginning to tarnish after his pedestrian performance in the 1938 World Series as a 35 year-old. And when he struggled in 1939's spring training, then followed that up with a 4-for-28 start in the regular season, Gehrig's performance suddenly became startling in its putridness. Later on everyone knew with frightening clarity what was causing Lou's demons: a debilitating muscle disease.

In 1990, a slugger named Nick Esasky joined the Atlanta Braves after signing a fat free agent contract in December 1989. Esasky signed with Atlanta after some impressive seasons in Cincinnati and one great year in Boston.

He opened the season well, going 3-for-6 in an Opening Day doubleheader (how many of THOSE do you see?), but then it was gone. A 3-for-29 slump -- which included an alarming number of strikeouts -- raised eyebrows, and I'm sure the blood pressure of Ted Turner, who was forking over the dough for the 1989 version of Nick Esasky. But this 1990 model was resembling an Edsel. Baseball-wise, it was actually closer to the 1939 Lou Gehrig.

And with good reason. Esasky, it turned out, was suffering from vertigo. And despite repeated attempts to treat it sufficiently for him to return to the field, his last game was April 21, 1990. End of career. At age 30 and two months.

But it isn't always a physical illness that slams the brakes on a baseball career. In fact, usually it isn't. Which makes the stories of players like Nate Colbert mesmerizing to me.

Colbert was the worst disappointment to come out of Detroit since the Edsel

The Tigers traded for Big Nate before the 1975 season, acquiring him from San Diego. He was a slugging first baseman whose notoriety was that he had slammed five homers and driven in 13 runs during a doubleheader in 1972. Both are still major league records for a DH. Anyhow, he was going to be the next powerful first baseman in Detroit, supplanting Norman Cash, who'd been "cashiered" the previous August.

Colbert was one of those guys who always wore a batting helmet -- even playing first base. Funny how only the homerun hitters could get away with that, like George Scott, or even Willie Horton, who wore a helmet in left field later in his career. And Nate started out well -- hitting two homers in his first few games as a Tiger. GM Jim Campbell was looking brilliant.

But even as the Tigers as a team got off to a surprisingly good 10-5 start, Colbert went into the toilet. He struck out a lot. His power went away. In fact, he could barely muster a single most days. As the oh-fer collars piled up, Tigers fans started scratching their heads. We didn't know much about Colbert, since he came from the National League, but still we wondered: Isn't he supposed to be better than this?

Finally, his average an unsightly .147, Colbert was traded to the Expos in June. He had four homers in 156 at-bats, far more plate appearances than he deserved, but he was granted them, since he was the Tigers' big-name offseason acquisition.

Colbert didn't fare much better in Montreal, hitting at a .173 clip in 81 at-bats. He was out of baseball a year later. Just three seasons before he became a Tiger, Colbert slugged 38 homers and had 111 RBIs. But he, too, was done at age 30. But why? How? Where did it all go? How could Nate Colbert suddenly not have a clue against big league pitching? It's like some of these guys have leases with someone either up above , or down below, and when that lease runs out -- BOOM. Done, like dinner.

Colbert's meltdown, however, paved the way for another lefthanded-hitting, slugging first baseman to make it as a Tiger: Jason Thompson. And like Cash, Thompson knocked a few balls over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium. But then he eventually fell into disfavor with manager Sparky Anderson -- just like Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub, and eventually Steve Kemp -- and was traded in 1980, to the Angels.

Sparky ended a few careers, too -- sometimes before they even started.

Isn't that right, Torey Lovullo? Chris Pittaro?


Blogger Ian C. said...

It's not Tigers-related, but my personal "favorite" meltdown is Rick Ankiel. This guy looked unhittable when he hit the majors. Then, the "unhittable" referred to his inability to hit the strike zone.

What happened in that guy's head to make him suddenly look like Ricky Vaughn before he got his glasses?

2:54 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Then didn't he try to become an outfielder?

2:56 PM  
Blogger Ian C. said...

Yes, I believe he's still in the Cardinals system as an outfielder.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Ozz said...

Here's another more recent Tigers flop: Chris Brown. They traded Walt Terrell to San Diego for Brown and Keith Moreland after the 1988 season. Brown was the Opening Day third baseman. (Tom Brookens had also been traded away after 1988.)

I'm sure Sparky probably had wonderful things to say about him, even though his stats prior to coming to Detroit weren't exactly great. He had a couple OK seasons with the Giants, but nothing stands out.

The dude went 0-4 on Opening Day. He ended up hitting .193 in 17 games and was released in May, never to play in another Major League Game.

1975 and 1989. Not too much went right in either of those seasons.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Yes -- Brown was a stiff and his effort was roundly criticized.

Moreland did okay and was hitting around .300 when he was traded late that summer to Baltimore for a young pitcher named Brian DuBois, a lefty with some promise but who flamed out (arm trouble?)

11:23 PM  

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