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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Many players forever known for not stepping up to the plate

It may surprise you to know that the Stat Guy isn't really a statistician who writes but is more like a writer who is fascinated by statistics.

The curiosity is not so much about numbers as it is a curiosity about people and history. Yes, there is analysis and projection, but what historian doesn't try to use knowledge from the past to gain insight on the future?

It's hard to find a group of people who are more defined by numbers than baseball players. The statistical record of ballplayers dates to a time before T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller, which, in the literary sense, means that it traces back before the birth of modernity.

This week, we are reminded of the historical richness of the baseball statistical record. Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the only big-league appearance of Archie "Moonlight" Graham.

Immortalized in the book Field of Dreams and the subsequent movie version, Graham played one inning for the Giants on June 29, 1905, in right field. In the last half of the ninth inning, he was left standing in the on-deck circle when the game ended. He was then sent back to the minors and never played another big-league game.

In the Baseball Encyclopedia, under the AB column (for at-bats), there will forever be a zero for Moonlight Graham.

The story sets the curious mind in motion. How many Moonlight Grahams have there been?

A great tool for answering these sort of questions is Lee Sinin's Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia. If there's a list you want to generate, this is your program. In this case, we’re looking for a list of non-pitchers, since 1900, who played at least one career game but, like the erstwhile Graham, did not have an at-bat.

It seems that beyond the corn rows, behind the field of dreams, Doc Graham is not so lonesome - there have been 96 such players.

At the top of the list are three players who make Graham's torment look like a minor irritation.

Jack Cassini was a speedy, once-promising middle infielder whose big-league hopes were largely derailed by a four-year stint in the military during World War II. He did, however, make it to Pittsburgh in 1949 at the age of 29. His career line: eight games, zero at-bats, three runs scored.

Cassini spent more than 40 years in professional baseball as a player, manager and coach. But he never batted in the big leagues.

Eddie Phillips could appreciate Cassini's plight. He played nine games for the Cardinals in 1953 - all as a pinch runner. He scored four runs but never played in the majors again and never got to pick up the bat.

None compare in this category to Herb Washington.

Baseball aficionados probably remember Washington. He was a world-class sprinter who once held the record in the indoor 50-yard dash. In 1974, colorful Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Washington to a contract to be the ultimate specialist - full-time pinch runner.

"I estimate Washington will be good for 10 wins," Finley told The Associated Press at the time.

This was in the pre-Bill James era - there was no Stat Guy to point out the folly of such analysis. Washington played in 105 games over two seasons for the Athletics. He never played the field and never batted.

Washington did steal 31 bases (out of 48 attempts) and score 33 runs. But his most memorable moment was a mistake. He was picked off first base by the Dodgers' Mike Marshall in the ninth inning of a game in the 1974 World Series - with the Athletics trailing by a run.

The beauty of baseball statistics is that they mark players forever. These three players have probably never met. They probably aren't aware that they are the career leaders in any category. They are. Most games played, zero at-bats: Herb Washington, Eddie Phillips and Jack Cassini.

In a sense, they will be forever linked. Like Moonlight Graham, they will always be remembered, whether or not they got to bat.

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