Thrill of Victory

Nashville's greatest baseball players: the best of the rest

Over the last week, Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine looked at the three greatest baseball players who called Nashville “home” by our qualifications that the 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 are links to part one and part two of that series.

Today, we wrap up the series by talking about the other notable players who missed the cut for a variety of reasons.

The best of the rest
Almost 700 former Sounds have played at least one game at the big league level. Add in other players with ties to Nashville – former Vols and Xpress players, players who were born or raised here or played college ball in town – and that list easily eclipses 700. Obviously, we can’t mention them all, but here are a few of the better players who didn’t get a spot in our top seven.

Among former Sounds players, there have been surprisingly few pitchers who had big success at the MLB level – in fact, Brad Radke was the only Sounds pitcher to make our top seven. Among starting pitchers, Bob Tewksbury probably had the next-best career, going 110 -102 over 13 MLB seasons and finishing third in the 1992 Cy Young voting.

Tewksbury was never a highly-regarded player, lasting until the 19th round of the 1981 draft, and then had multiple arm and shoulder issues to boot. He never threw hard, but because he walked only 1.5 guys per nine innings, he was able to make a long living letting hitters get themselves out.

Nashville did groom a number of good relievers, though. The two best-known were former Cincinnati pitchers Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble, both of whom played for the Sounds in the late-‘80s before comprising two-thirds of the Reds’ famed “Nasty Boys” bullpen in their World Series championship season of 1990.

Charlton, who incidentally holds three degrees from Rice University, had a 13-year MLB career that included one All-Star appearance and a 3.71 lifetime ERA.

Dibble has become almost as famous for his work in radio and TV as he was for being a pitcher, and his career lasted just seven seasons due to arm problems. In those seasons, though, Dibble was brilliant, making two All-Star teams and striking out an amazing 12.2 hitters per nine innings. In his first full major league season of 1989, he fanned an incredible 141 hitters in 99 relief innings.

As far as hitters are concerned, few hitters passing through Nashville have ever been more fun to watch than Otis Nixon. Sounds fans had a good look at what Nixon could do in 1981 and ’82, when he stole 133 bases in 199 games in his time here. Nixon made the majors as a reserve in 1984, but by 1987, his career was on the skids due to persistent drug problems. Still, the Expos gave him a chance as a part-time outfielder, and were rewarded when he stole 133 bases over the next three years.

His career took off in Atlanta between 1991 and ’93, when at age 32 he finally got the left-handed at-bats in a center-field time-share with Deion Sanders. That first season, he had career-highs in steals (72) and on-base percentage. However, Nixon’s drug problems also re-appeared that season, and he had to sit out Atlanta’s surprise run to the World Series. Nixon finally managed to beat drugs, and eventually played until 1999, when he retired at 40. He ranks 16th all-time with 620 steals.

Other Sounds hitters with successful long-term careers include Pat Tabler, who played 12 MLB seasons, knocking in 512 runs and earning a minor claim to fame as one of the best hitters ever with the bases loaded (he went 43-for-88); Marty Cordova, who drove in 540 runs in nine seasons and was the AL Rookie of the Year with the Twins in ’95; Steve Balboni, who smashed 181 career home runs (but hit just .229); and Matt Nokes, who caught 902 career games and was the AL’s Rookie of the Year for Detroit after hitting 32 homers in 1987.

A number of former Nashville Vols also made the majors. However, the minor leagues were different through most of the Vols’ era than it is in the modern era of the farm system. In fact, the Vols spent 34 of their 61 years without a major league affiliate, and players sometimes played minor league ball as a way to collect a paycheck – many times, long after their major league careers had ended – more so than as a way to make it in the big leagues.

So, while the Vols also had hundreds of players play at the major league level, most had unremarkable careers, and many of those players played for the Vols long after their major league careers were over, with several playing well into their 40s.

The list of more famous players who were Vols before they made the majors includes catcher Smoky Burgess, who hit 126 career home runs and at one time held the all-time MLB record with 145 pinch hits; Jake Daubert, a star first baseman for the Reds and Dodgers between 1910 and 1924 who scored 1,117 runs and had a career .360 on-base average; former Reds fireballer Jim Maloney, who between 1960 and ’71 went 134-84 and fanned 1,605 hitters; Daryl Spencer, the versatile infielder who played 10 years for four different teams and launched 105 homers; and Johnny Sain, whose war-shortened career included four 20-win seasons for the Boston Braves between 1946 and 1950.

Vanderbilt has also had a number of players who went on to substantial MLB careers, including pitchers Rip Sewell (1932-49), who went 143-97 with a 3.48 career ERA in 12 years for the Pirates and one for the Tigers and twice winning 20 games, and Scott Sanderson, who pitched 19 years between 1978 and ’96, going 163-143 with a 3.48 ERA. Infielder Joey Cora played 11 years in the big leagues and made the AL All-Star team in 1997.

Belmont, Lipscomb and TSU have all put players in the Major Leagues, too, but the only career of real note was TSU’s George Altman, who smacked 101 homers as the Cubs’ regular first baseman for much of the 1960s. Incidentally, TSU has since dropped baseball.

Great players who didn’t meet our qualifications
The greatest player to ever call Nashville home for any period of time has to be former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who was rightfully elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this winter. Larkin, though, doesn’t really belong on the list: he played a pair of rehab games with the Sounds in 1989 while recovering from an injury, and had already established himself as a starting major league shortstop two years prior.

Another Hall of Famer, Waite Hoyt, pitched 137 innings for the Southern League’s Vols in 1917 before being promoted to Newark of the International League later in that season. Hoyt pitched for six Major League teams, compiling a 237-182 career record with a 3.59 ERA and 52 saves.

Many believe that Larkin and Hoyt will have company in the Hall by another guy who called Nashville home for part of a season: pitcher Trevor Hoffman, who spent most of the 199 campaign as a Sound, and also pitched two games here in 2009. Hoffman pitched 65 1/3 innings in Nashville after being promoted from Chattanooga earlier in the season and saved six games for the Sounds. Hoffman was the all-time Major League Baseball leader in saves (601) after his retirement following the 2010 season, though Mariano Rivera passed him last year.

Had Mike Cameron not played so well in his 30 games for the Sounds in 1997, he’d certainly have made the list. Instead, Cameron mashed his way to a .911 OPS early that season and got promoted to the White Sox, where he finally stuck after two brief call-ups. He went on to become an MLB regular for that season, and the next dozen that followed. He hit just .249 for his career, but had 278 homers and was an outstanding fielder who could play all three outfield spots.

Outfielder Paul O’Neill played 15 games for the Sounds in the late-80s, and went on to a fine career in the majors that lasted 17 seasons. O’Neill appeared in 85 post-season games, and hit .288 in his regular-season career with 281 homers. O’Neill played in an era where the offenses dominated, so despite those gaudy numbers, he drew just 2.2 percent of the vote in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2007.

Like Cameron, current big league stars Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks were also victims of their own success in Nashville, and got promoted before they could meet the full qualifications. Braun, of course, was the NL’s MVP last season and its Rookie of the Year in 2007, and could be on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Fielder just missed our qualifications, playing 103 games with the Sounds in 2005 before being promoted to the majors for 39 games later that season.

As far as starting pitchers with Nashville ties who didn’t meet our qualifications, Doug Drabek was probably the best. Drabek won the Cy Young Award with the Pirates in 1990 when he went 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA. The native Texan hurled 31 innings for the Sounds in 1984, and went on to go 155-134 with a 3.73 ERA in a big-league career that spanned 13 seasons.

Other guys who made their marks in with the Sounds for bits and pieces of seasons include National League Rookies of the Year Chris Sabo and Jason Bay, and Jose Rijo, the NL’s 1997 strikeout leader who won 116 games over 14 seasons with a 3.24 ERA.

Former Nashville Vol Larry Doyle also had a notable major league career, playing 14 years for the Giants and the Cubs and hitting .290 with a career on-base percentage of .355. “Laughing Larry” was the NL’s MVP in 1912, hitting .330 with 10 homers and 90 RBIs. In 2001, baseball historian Bill James named him the 20th-greatest second baseman ever. His tie to the city: he played 38 games with the Vols in 1922, two years after his MLB career had ended.

Bucky Walters also spent some time with the Vols in 1931. Later, he went on to a remarkable 19-year career as a hitter and a pitcher, winning 198 games and taking home NL MVP honors for his 1939 season, when he pitched 319 innings and won 27 games.

And here’s a bet-you-didn’t-know: beloved former Cubs first baseman Mark Grace (2,445 hits, .303 career average) spent time in the mid-1970s playing in Nashville’s Una Recreation League as a child.

Could make the list some day
A number of former Sounds are still making their marks on the big leagues. Corey Hart has twice made the All-Star team, and hit 127 homers while slugging .490 in the majors. He’s only 30, so he should have some good years ahead. Twenty-six year old Yovanni Gallardo already has 54 major league wins and a 3.66 ERA, and has established himself as one of the National League’s best starting pitchers. Nelson Cruz didn’t make the majors as a regular until he was 28, but with 107 homers and a .501 career slugging average, he’s had a nice career so far.

As Vanderbilt has risen to national baseball prominence, it has also started to place a number of players in the majors. The best so far is David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, who’s 42-26 with a 3.37 ERA and finished as the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award in 2010. Atlanta’s Mike Minor and Oakland’s Sonny Gray joined Price as Vandy hurlers selected in the first round of the MLB draft since then; Minor is currently in the starting rotation for a Braves team that’s loaded with pitching, and Gray should make his big-league debut later this year.

A number of Vandy hitters are also playing professionally. At the big-league level, Pedro Alvarez, the second pick of the 2008 draft, starts at third for the Pirates, but has struggled to hit major league pitching. In the minors, watch out for Aaron Westlake, who led VU to the College World Series last year. The first baseman is considered one of Detroit’s best prospects, and can hit and field well enough to be a competent major leaguer one day.

Just a couple of miles away at Lipscomb, Rex Brothers had a great career at Lipscomb, and was Colorado’s first pick of the 2009 MLB draft. With a fastball that sits in the upper-90s, Brothers has already become a valuable member of the Rockies’ bullpen.

Also worth a mention is former Montgomery Bell Academy pitcher R.A. Dickey. Dickey was a standout at the University of Tennessee in the mid-90s, but was over-worked in college and eventually ruined his arm. Dickey re-invented himself, and at 37, is part of the Mets’ rotation as one of the few knuckle-ballers in baseball.

This concludes the final part of our series on Nashville’s greatest baseball players. With roughly 1,000 players with Nashville ties who played at the MLB level, we’re bound to have missed someone; feel free to chime in and tell us where we missed the mark.

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