Growing up, my favorite player was the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder and base running speedster Vince Coleman. It seems appropriate, I guess. When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly strong, so I never identified with the hitters like Dawson, Schmidt, or McGwire, and the pitchers seemed too patient, and the fielders seemed too coordinated.
When Coleman entered the majors, I was six years old. And what does a six year old want to do, really? Run around a lot. Be mischievous and avoid getting caught. That’s Vince Coleman in a nutshell. Because he could fly. In 1985, he set a rookie record for stolen bases with 110. From his rookie year until 1990, he led the National League in stolen bases in six consecutive years. From 1985-1987, he had more than 100 steals in three consecutive seasons. From late-1988 until mid-1989, he went for 50(!!!) consecutive steals without getting caught. All these records still stand.
And there was this: one day when I was seven, I got a letter in the mail. I opened it up, and it wasn’t a card. It was a picture of Vince Coleman. It read, “Hey Mike, Sorry I missed your birthday last year. Vince.” I ran into the house, whooping most likely, and showed it to my parents. They said they actually invited him to my birthday party the year before. He couldn’t make it, because (they said) he had an away game that day* and (my parents didn’t mention but I realize now) what’s the Rookie of the Year going to want to do at a six year old’s party anyway? I think we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s that year.
But does it matter, really? Even though a year had passed, Vince Coleman sent me a personal card. He didn’t make it to my sixth birthday party, but he didn’t forget it either.
I became an autograph hound after that. I sent a letter to utility man John Morris and got a response within a week. I ran into Tito Landrum at my favorite restaurant. But I sent a baseball cards to Tommy Herr and Willie McGee, who never returned it. Ozzie Smith asked for a $10 membership to his fan club. The line to meet 1986 Rookie of the Year Todd Worrell at the local grocery store was 200 people deep.
And Vince was the only one to send a birthday card.
I was convinced he was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and maybe the greatest player of all time.
Of course, I was too young to understand the hubbub when Coleman said of Jackie Robinson, “I don’t know nothin’ about him.” And this was before he was traded to the New York Mets, where he performed his most well-known (and infamous) feat: throwing a lit firecracker into a crowd of fans, injuring three children.
And this is well before I understood sabermetrics**, which show that Coleman had a pedestrian 13.1 career Wins Above Replacement. And judging by his 8% walk rate, pitchers didn’t fear him too much. His Fielding Runs Above Average career total is a very poor -12.0. Most damning, the sabermetricians seem to have de-emphasized the stolen base statistic by showing that the potential risk isn’t worth the possible payout. How do we frame Vince Coleman’s career in that context?
Still, he holds many stolen base records that stack up favorably with many Hall of Famers. Of career stolen base leaders in front of him, four are in the hall of fame. The fifth, Tim Raines, is above 50% in BBWAA voting in his fifth year of eligibility.) And he’ll always be the only player who never forgot my birthday.
*I’ve always wanted to go to a baseball game on my birthday. But every year since I was six years old, no matter where I lived the home team always had an away game. That’s a streak of 27 years, one that puts any of Coleman’s records to shame. But it’s also a record that’s coming to an end this year. The Albuquerque Isotopes released their 2013 schedule, and they’re playing the New Orleans Zephyrs at home.
**Which I still admittedly don’t have a perfect grasp on. But I’m learning, which I’m sure will be the subject of future posts.
Statistics, et cetera culled from a variety of sources, including Baseball Almanac, FanGraphs, the ;BBWAA, and Wikipedia. Image via Mister Irrelevant. I didn’t see any copyright information on the website for the photo, but 1987 Topps was my all-time favorite deck.