Thursday, March 02, 2006

Remember the Maine Guides

I suppose I should offer my usual Top 40 list of alibis for not checking in the past week, so here goes: my work schedule was nuts, my sugar-fueled 2-year old wore me out, I spent every free moment devouring the new Baseball Prospectus that finally showed up on my doorstep this week, I was watching, re-watching, and re-re-watching Jenna Fischer's various talk-show appearances, etc., etc., etc.

So with my so-called apology, I offer you this: a column on the 10 greatest players in the history of the Maine Guides. Yup, after taking a hiatus during a New England sports fan's most optimistic time of the year - the beginning of spring training - I come back with this silly vanity project that me, my family, former Guides beat writer Steve Buckley, and roughly .000000087 percent of TATB readers will give a damn about. And I wonder why this blog hasn't made me millions.

For the three of you that didn't just log off - what's up, dad! - a little about the Guides: they lasted just five years in Old Orchard Beach, Me. (1984-'88) before bolting for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. They were quite successful initially (aka The Rodney "Buckethead" Craig Era), but by the end of their run, you could get tickets for $2 and join 200 other fans (and about 10,000,000 mosquitoes) at the game. I'm still not sure why it all went wrong, though building a ballpark for a Cleveland farm team in a French-Canadian tourist trap might not have been the best game plan.

The Guides spent three years as the Triple-A club for those pathetic Indians teams of the mid-'80s, before switching affiliations to the much more professionally competent Phillies in '87-'88. Talent, particularly in the pre-Phillies years, was about as rare as a Curt Schilling "no comment," so this list isn't exactly a Who's Who In Baseball. Further diluting our "talent" pool, we've excluded players whose best days came long before they staggered to Maine; among that collection of retreads and hangers-on are Dave Rozema, Chris Bando, Carmen Castillo, Steve Jeltz, Joe Cowley, John Russell, Doug Bair, and TATB Hall of Famer Jeff Stone.

Anyway, thanks for our indulgence. I'll try to get a more timely column posted tonight, but you know me. In the meantime, the 10 greatest Guides:

1. Doug Jones, Maine '86: Threw at three speeds - slow, slower, and "is that *$&@*@** thing ever going to get to the plate?" His strengths - spot-on command and that time-altering, mind-bending changeup - might bring to mind the style and repertoire of Keith Foulke, but in truth the Sox closer is Nolan Ryan by comparison. Yet after spending seven seasons in the minors with but three innings for the '82 Brewers to show for it, Jones broke through with the '87 Tribe, and he used his guts, guile, vaseline, a time machine, his mighty mustache, sheer luck and anything else he could to confound hitters and save 303 games over 16 years. Gotta respect someone who accomplished so much armed with so little.

2. Otis Nixon '84: No, we never saw him snorting the third base line, har-har. Yes, we did see him walking downtown on a sweltering summer day in a black leather suit that looked like a knockoff from the Jacksons' Victory Tour. No, we will never forget that jaw-dropping, gut-busting image, particularly because a similarly attired Buckethead was his wingman. And yes, we do admire him in spite of it all, for the Original O-T-I-S was one of a kind, and bad taste and bad habits aside, he ended up having a career worthy of his pride.

3. Mike Jackson '87: Let's see . . . he was a mediocre starter who became a lights-out closer . . . he wore his hat low over his eyes . . . he made a nice living throwing hard, straight fastballs and snapping off duck-for-cover breaking balls . . . nope, I still don't understand why some conspiracy theorists wonder if he'd ever been seen in the same room as Tom Gordon.

4. Darren Daulton '87: Adequate-field, occasional-hit, creaky kneed catcher with the Phillies who suspiciously morphed into a muscle-bound slugger for the '93 NL champs. Currently hocking all of his memorabilia on eBay and waiting for his spaceship to arrive.

5. Steve Farr '84: The first Guide called up to the majors. And how did the moronic Indians reward him for such a historic achievement? Not by giving him a plaque or a gift certificate to a cheesy men's clothing store or even some commemorative cigarette-butt-filled sand from Old Orchard Beach, but by releasing him the following spring. Naturally, he went on to pitch 11 years in the big leagues, saving 132 games, including 30 saves with a 1.56 ERA for the Yankees in '92, before finishing up with the Sox in '94. And the Indians wondered why they were the inspiration for "Major League."

6. Cory Snyder, '86: The closest thing to a phenom that passed through OOB, he was a first-round pick and '84 Olympian whose powerful arm and bat helped him blast through the minors. After just a half-season at Maine, he quickly emerged as one of the linchpins of that then-stellar '86 AL rookie class. But even though Snyder slugged 24 homers in 103 games in '86 and 32 more in '87 (when Sports Illustrated put him on their cover while, in a transparent gimmick, picking the Tribe to win the World Series), he struck out 289 times while working just 47 walks over those two seasons. Not to get all Baseball Prospectussy on you, but after running the numbers through my abacus and my protractor, I can only come to one conclusion: Snyder's career 1-to-4 walk-to-K rate sucked, and that lack of plate discipline ruined his career.

7. Ricky Jordan '88 and Ron Jones '87-'88: I suppose it's somewhat of a cop-out to lump these two together, but I always associated them with each other. They were easily the two most impressive hitters that ever played for Maine, they batted 3-4 in the '88 lineup, they were good friends, and neither lived up to early big-league promise. Jordan was pegged as a future star when he burst onto the scene in Philadelphia in midsummer '88 - I recall him hitting a bunch of homers upon his recall and getting the feature treatment on "This Week In Baseball," which is about as good as it got in those days. He eventually ceded his first base job in Philly to some fat dude named Kruk, but to be honest, I'm not sure why he didn't survive longer in big leagues. He could swing the bat. But not as well as his buddy Jones. We've elaborated in the past on Jones's terribly bad fortune after a spectacular start to his big league career; suffice to say that we believe the Tony Gwynn comparisons he frequently drew in the minor leagues would have proven accurate had he not destroyed both of his knees. Yes, he was that good.

8. Dave Clark '86: Outfielder had a classic, Tom Emanski-approved lefty swing, but he got stuck with the platoon player/pinch hitter/spare-part label early. He batted .264 with 62 career homers over parts of 13 big-league seasons. The argument could be made that Dave Gallagher '84-'86, belongs in this slot, but Clark, a future big-league manager, is that TATB choice for one three subjective reasons: 1) he survived a collision with Pirates teammate Jacob Brumfield so frightening that the Johnny Damon-Damien Jackson looks like a celebratory chest bump by comparison. 2) He was a college teammate of Oil Can Boyd, so you know he has some stories to tell. 3) He's just about the friendliest ballplayer we've encountered.

9. Mike Maddux '87: Pitched 15 years in the majors, including a mostly successful stopover as a middle reliever with the Sox in '95-'96. Combined with his brother What's His Name for 357 career wins. Thirty-nine of 'em belong to this guy, the current pitching coach for the Brewers.

10. Scott Service '88: A 12-year big league journeyman who did absolutely nothing of note beyond lasting 12 years, he cracks this list for two reasons: He was the last Guide left in the big leagues, his career coming to a close in '04. 2) He plays a pivotal role in one of my all-time must-reads, Mark Winegardner's "The Prophet Of The Sandlots." (Have I mentioned that book enough lately? I have? Well, dammit, read it already.)

Honorable mention: Gallagher; Starvin' Marvin Freeman (the rare pitcher who actually succeeded in Colorado, albeit briefly); Chris James (brother of ex-Patriot RB Craig James, and one of countless here-today, gone-tomorrow members of the '95 Red Sox); John Farrell (promising career cut short by arm problems); Roy Smith; Luis Quinones; Jerry Reed; Kevin Rhomberg (Don't touch me! Don't $*#&$*@* touch me I said!); Wally Ritchie (an effective lefty relief specialist who didn't pitch til he was 47); Bob Scanlan, and Todd Frohwirth. Yes, Todd Frohwirth. Hey, I told you they had little talent.

As for today's Completely Random Team Photo:

(Second row, second from the left, head the size of Sputnik): "Ahem . . . forget someone, #%$%#@#$%$%?"