Thrill of Victory

Nashville's greatest baseball players ever

Nashville doesn’t have a Major League Baseball team, but it does have a grand history with baseball that stretches back to Civil War times, when Union soldiers introduced the game of baseball to Nashvillians. By 1886, Vanderbilt University was fielding organized teams, and by 1901, the city had a professional team when the Nashville Vols began playing at the area that would later be known as Sulphur Dell.

In celebration of the opening of baseball season, Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine is honoring Nashville’s greatest players. To qualify, a player had to either reside here for most of his formative years, or play at least a full season for one of Nashville’s college of minor-league teams.

Here’s a look at Nashville’s best, in order of greatness.

1. Don Mattingly, Nashville Sounds, 1981
1982 – ‘95 (first base, Yankees) .307 batting average / .358 on-base / .471 slugging , 222 HR, 1099 RBI

Former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was fond of telling how, in 1979, he discovered Mattingly in the “Faces in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated and dispatched a scout to Evansville, Indiana to see him play. There’s one problem with that story: the Yankees had already drafted Mattingly in the 19th round of the MLB Draft a month earlier.

As a 20-year-old playing for the Sounds in 1981, Mattingly hit .316 with 98 RBIs, but just seven homers. However, his 35 doubles that season hinted at home-run power to come.

After a full season at AAA Columbus the next year, followed by a brief call-up to New York, Mattingly spent 43 games in the minors in ’83 before earning the call to The Show for good. In his first full season in 1984, Mattingly led the American league with 207 hits and 43 doubles, won the league’s batting title with a .343 average, and became a legitimate power threat with 23 home runs. He finished fifth in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting.

It was the start of a three-year run in which Mattingly was probably baseball’s best player. In ’84, the lefty smacked 35 homers, knocked in a league-leading 145 runs, and hit .324 in winning MVP honors. The next year, Mattingly amassed 238 hits and led the AL with a .573 slugging average while hitting .352. He finished runner-up in the MVP voting.

Mattingly followed up with a great ’87 season – 30 homers, 114 RBIs, and a .327 average – but finished seventh in the MVP voting because a number of players put up spectacular offensive numbers in a season where many experts speculated that the ball may have been juiced.

However, that season would be the beginning of a slow, three-year decline for “Donnie Baseball.” It was rumored that Mattingly hurt his back that ’87 season while engaging in horseplay with a teammate, though he denied it. By 1990, the back problems put him on the disabled list, as he played 103 games and hit just five homers.

Mattingly had a pair of solid rebound years in 1992 and ’93, but greatness never returned. After playing 128 games at age 34 in 1995, Mattingly hung up his spikes for good.

By the time Mattingly was eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2001, voters didn’t think his greatness had lasted long enough, and Mattingly was named on just 28.2 percent of the ballots. The same year, Mattingly was named the 12th-greatest first baseman of all time in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.The Yankees retired his number 23 in 1997.

Today, Mattingly is the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

2. Magglio Ordonez, Nashville Sounds, 1997
1997 – 2011 (outfielder, White Sox, Tigers) .309 /.369 /.509, 294 HR, 1,236 RBI

Ordonez spent one year in Nashville in 1997 when he was 23, hitting 14 homers, knocking in 90 runs, and hitting .329. That got the attention of the Baseball America staff, which named Ordonez as the game’s No. 56 prospect before the next season. Ordonez made the White Sox out of spring training the following year, and began a run as an every-day player that lasted until 2009.

While Mattingly’s career was highlighted by a few brilliant seasons in which he was at the top of his game, Ordonez was simply a very good player for about a decade, starting in 1999, when for the next five years he hit at least 29 homers and knocked in 99 runs each season. A collision with a teammate in 2004 cost him two-thirds of that season, and about half of the next year, and resulted in a pair of knee surgeries. By 2006, he played full-time again, and drove in at least 100 runs for the next three campaigns.

Ordonez’s best season came in 2003 with the Tigers; he hit .363, pounded out 216 this, walloped 28 homers, knocked in 139 runs, and had a fantastic 1.029 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He finished second to Alex Rodriguez in the MVP voting.

Ordonez couldn’t find work with an MLB club this spring, and hinted through Twitter last week that he may retire. If so, it raps up a fine career for the 38-year old, whose only real blemish came off-the-field in an endorsement of the president of his native Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. That made him unpopular with his country mates, who booed him at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

3. Kiki Cuyler, Nashville Vols, 1923
1921 – ’38 (outfield, Pirates, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers) .321/.386 /.474, 128 HR, 1065 RBI

Among players who fit my “Nashvillian” qualifications, Cuyler is the only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (he was elected in 1968). Cuyler spent a full season with the Nashville Vols in 1923, belting nine homers and 17 triples and hitting .340. Previously, he’d played with the Pirates for one game in each of ’21 and ’22.

In 1923, Cuyler played 11 games for Pittsburgh, but by the next season, his career took off and he became a starting major leaguer for the next 14 years. Historian Bill James considers him the National League’s best outfielder from 1924 to ’26. His best season was 1925, when he led the NL with 144 runs and 26 triples, hitting .357 with 18 homers and 102 RBIs and finishing second in the MVP voting.

After a quarrel with manager Donie Bush in 1927, Cuyler was benched, then traded to the Cubs the next year. He led the NL in stolen bases the next three seasons, and had 328 for his career. Bill James named Cuyler as the 39th-best right fielder of all time in 2001.

Cuyler was widely regarded as a clean-living gentleman, and was captain of a team of players that entertained troops during World War II. His real name was Hazen Shirley Cuyler, and he got the name “Kiki” because he stuttered, but ironically, he was said to have a fantastic voice and sang constantly around his teammates.

Coming Monday: a look at the rest of Nashville’s best baseball players