Thrill of Victory

Nashville's greatest baseball players ever, part two

On Friday, Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine took a look back through Nashville’s tremendous baseball history and honored the three top players who’ve ever spent significant time playing in the Music City. Today, we continue part two of that series with a look at the four players who finished just a step behind the others.

4. Brad Radke, Nashville Xpress, 1994
1995 – 2006 (pitcher, Twins) 148 – 139, 4.22 ERA, 1,467 strikeouts

Radke played in Nashville for a two-year period in which the Music City has the rare distinction of hosting two minor-league teams, with Radke’s club, the Xpress, being the AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Twenty-two players from those two squads went on to make the big leagues, but Radke was unquestionably the best.

Radke’s story is probably the most unlikely of any player on the list. He was an eighth-round draft pick of the Twins in ’91, and never struck out more than 145 hitters in a minor league season. But his 1994 season in Nashville changed everything – he posted a 12-9 record with a 2.66 ERA in his time there, and was in the majors to stick the following year.

His big-league numbers were not that impressive at face value; he gave up a lot of home runs and had an unimpressive ERA. But once Radke’s numbers are placed in context of the Steroid Era, he was one of the better pitchers of his time; estimates that Radke meant 41.4 extra wins to the Twins than a “replacement level” major league pitcher (defined as someone barely good enough to play in the Majors) would have given Minnesota over his career. That number is higher than anyone else on the list except Kiki Cuyler.

Radke’s best attributes: his control and his durability. In his 12-year career, he averaged 34 starts and 40 walks per season.

His career came to a sudden end at age 33, when he tore his labrum and had a stress fracture in his shoulder late in the 2006 season. He was elected to the Twins’ Hall of Fame in 2009.

5. Ray Durham, Nashville Sounds, 1994
1995 – 2008 (second baseman, White Sox, As, Giants, Brewers) .277 / .352 / .436, 192 HR, 875 RBI

The White Sox plucked Durham out Harry P. Harding High School in Charlotte, N.C., in the fifth round of the 1990 draft. Early in his minor league career, there wasn’t a lot to be excited about other than Durham’s ability to take walks and pound out singles with regularity, but the Sox saw something to like and promoted him to AAA Nashville in 1994.

That season was Durham’s bust-out year; after hitting just three minor league homers before his time in the Music City, Durham smashed 16 that season, fielded .973 and slugged .495. Prior to the next season, Baseball America named him the game’s 28th-best prospect.

He wouldn’t remain a prospect much longer; in fact, he had only 20 minor-league at-bats the rest of his career. The White Sox plugged him in at second for 125 games in 1995 and saw him knock in 51 runs and score 68, good for sixth in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting.

For the next six-and-a-half seasons, Durham occupied the leadoff spot for the ChiSox, and was remarkably consistent. In those seasons, he generally posted on-base averages around .360, hit double-digit homers, scored over 100 runs and stole at least 20 bases before being traded to Oakland in 2002.

From 2003 to 2008, Durham spent his career with the Giants where he remained the same player he’d always been, though his run totals dropped and his RBI totals rose as he hit fifth in San Francisco’s order. But Durham started to suffer nagging injuries, including a hamstring injury in 2003 that limited him to 110 games, and never played more than 142 again.

For his career, Durham had 2,054 hits and .273 steals, played in the All-Star Game twice, and had a.354 on-base percentage.

6. Aramis Ramirez, Nashville Sounds, 1998 – 2000
1998 – present (third baseman, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers) .284 / .342 / .500, 315 HR, 1124 RBI

With some of Nashville’s great players like Radke, Don Mattingly and Willie McGee, future major league success was no foregone conclusion while they bided their time in the Music City. That was never the case with Ramirez, who was signed by the Pirates outside of Puerto Rico in 1994 at age 16. By 1997, Baseball America had named him the game’s 28th-best prospect, and by the next year, he’d risen to fifth.

In ’98, he got promoted to Pittsburgh as a 20-year old, and spent parts of three years there. The problem was, Ramirez didn’t hit for the next three seasons, and therefore spent as much time in Nashville those years as he did in Pennsylvania. During that time, Ramirez didn’t disappoint Sounds fans, mashing 30 home runs in parts of three seasons between 1998 and 2000 with an on-base percentage over. 400.

By the time Ramirez turned 23 in 2001, it all came together. He hit .300 with 34 homers and 112 RBIs with an .885 OPS. It was the start of an every-day career as a National League third baseman that continues to this day. Most of that time was spent with the Cubs, where he was traded in 2003. This winter, Ramirez signed a three-year, $36 million contract with the Brewers.

Over his career, Ramirez has typically been one of baseball’s poorer defensive third basemen. However, with on-base averages annually north of .350 and consistent 30-plus home run seasons, his bat more than makes up for it.

7. Willie McGee, Nashville Sounds, 1981 – ‘82

1982 – ’99 (outfielder, Cardinals, As, Giants, Red Sox) .295 / .333 / .396, 79 HR, 856 RBI

The St. Louis teams of the 1980s were built around jackrabbits like Vince Coleman, Tom Herr, Lonnie and Ozzie Smith, and one 6-foot-1, 175-pound gazelle named Willie Dean McGee, who patrolled center field at Busch Stadium for most of the ’80s and then roamed the outfield there again in the late-90s.

McGee burst upon the national scene during October of his rookie season of 1982, turning in one of the best performances in World Series history by hitting a pair of home runs in Game 3 and robbing Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas of a bomb of his own in the Cardinals’ 6-2 victory. It’s still considered one of the greatest single-game World Series performances ever.

McGee almost never got the chance to make it in St. Louis; although the Yankees had selected him in the first round of the 1977 draft, McGee languished for five years in the minor leagues and never got above AA Nashville, where he spent the 1980 and ’81 seasons. That last season, he hit .322 and stole 24 bases, but Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was going through a phase where his focus was on spending big money for free agents rather than developing prospects.

But in the meantime, McGee’s two years in Nashville had impressed Cardinals scout Hal Smith. “When I saw Willie in Nashville, he really impressed me with his speed and his defensive ability and he was a switch-hitter. Whitey Herzog was manager at that time and I knew that Willie was his kind of player,” Smith told author Billy Higgins in his book The Barling Darling: Hal Smith in American Baseball.

Smith told the St. Louis front office about Smith, and the rest is history. On Oct. 21, 1981, the Yankees shipped McGee east for relief pitcher Bob Sykes, who never played Major League ball again.

As for McGee, he went on to play in four All-Star games, win three Gold Gloves and two batting titles, and amass 2,285 hits.For fans who grew up with the 1990s and 2000s style of baseball, where teams built offenses around home-run hitters, watching the 1980s Cardinals would be a strange site now. The 1982 World Series champions hit just 67 home runs, but that wasn’t how the team was built; Herzog built his team around line-drive hitters who could hit the gaps on the artificial turf at Busch Stadium, and use their speed to score runs. That team stole 200 bases in the championship season.

Smith, of course, was exactly right about McGee’s style of play fitting in with “Whitey Ball.” McGee hit 18 triples, stole 56 bases, and hit .353 in 1985, when he was selected the National League’s MVP. Defensively, McGee had more errors than any other center fielder in the NL in five different seasons – but of course, he got to more balls than most of them, too.

Coming later in the week: a look at other notable figures in Nashville’s baseball history, as well as the current players with Nashville ties who have a chance to achieve future greatness.