In honor of Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player in the comic strip Peanuts. Every off day, we honor a Senators/Rangers Non-Star- a long-time regular whose jersey would never rank highest in sales.
OK, so technically Dave Nelson isn’t really a Non-Star, since he did make the American League All-Star team in 1973. But considering the Rangers were 57-105 that year, someone still had to make the team (actually Jim Spencer also was a Rangers All-Star in ’73. Amazing that such a bad team could get two players on the All-Star squad.)
Even though he played his high school ball in San Mateo, California, Nelson’s popularity among the few Rangers fans at the time was probably due in part to being a native of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, just a couple hours from the Metroplex.
Nelson was signed out of high school as a free agent by the Cleveland Indians in 1964, the year before MLB instituted a draft. Working his way through the Indians system, he made his major league debut with the Tribe in 1968.
Following the ’69 season, Nelson was traded to the Washington Senators, along with Ron Law and Horacio Pina for Dennis Higgins and Barry Moore. Who, you say? Exactly. This was a trade that definitely worked out in the Rangers favor.
In ’71, the Senators had a revolving door at third base, and Nelson, despite only 84 games there, was the most regular of all the third sackers. His first season, during the Senators’ last season in DC, resulted in a .280 BA with 5 HR, 33 RBI and 17 steals.
When the Senators moved to Texas, Nelson made the move to second base, where he thrived for three seasons as a regular. Well, maybe thrived isn’t such a good word. Fact is, the Rangers’ inaugural season in Arlington saw them compile a record of 54-100 and, while Nelson appeared in 145 games, he was a contributing factor to that poor record, hitting a meager .226. On the bright side, he was a threat to steal when he was on base, finishing second in the AL with 51 steals. Sadly, he also finished first in the AL by being caught stealing 17 times. And defensively? At second base, Nelson committed 19 errors for a meager .945 percentage.
Nelson’s watershed year was 1973. While the Rangers were only marginally better that year at 57-105, Nelson had a year that got him named to the AL All-Star squad. Playing in 142 games, Nelson’s average went from .226 to .286 with 71 runs, 7 HR (his career high), 48 RBI and 43 steals (3rd in the AL). Most significantly, Nelson’s errors at second dropped from 19 to 11, bringing his fielding percentage to a respectable .984. While it only represented 1% of the vote, Nelson even garnered 33 votes in the AL MVP voting in ’73.
The last year for Nelson as a Rangers regular was 1974, which showed that 1973 was apparently an apparition. The Rangers actually had their first winning season in Texas that year at 84-76, but Nelson regressed back towards his numbers of 1972. In 121 games, the batting average plummeted from .286 down to .236 and, though his runs and RBI totals were about the same, Nelson’s steals dropped from 43 to 25. Defensively, Nelson also took two steps back, committing 20 errors for a .969 fielding percentage.
Following the 1975 season, when he appeared in only 28 games, the Rangers dealt Nelson to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for pitcher Nelson Briles- Nelson for Nelson, pretty cool! Dave Nelson ended his major league career with the Royals in 1977, compiling a career .244 average with 20 HR, 211 RBI and 187 steals.
Instead of one “best day” at the plate, I’d have to give Dave three different “best days.” The best RBI day was April 17th, 1973 against the White Sox, when he went 3-5 with a double, two HR, two runs scored and 5 RBI. He also had two four hit games in his Ranger career: May 6th, 1973 against the Tigers, when he was 4-4 with a double, a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored; and Cinco de Mayo in 1974 against the Red Sox, when he was 4-5 with a homer, two runs scored and 2 RBI.
Next Off Day: Third Base
In the interest of all fans of perennial losing teams, we bring you our next recipient of the Texas Rangers/Washington Senators Shlabotnik Non-Star Awards (named after Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player in the Peanuts comic strip). Pat Putnam was a close choice at first base, just nosing out Mike Epstein.
After two cups of coffee with the Rangers, 1979 was the year of Pat Putnam. The left-handed hitter was the Rangers first round draft pick in 1975, coming out of South Alabama University, so he came with high expectations. Putnam did not disappoint his first year.
Playing 96 games for manager Pat Corrales at first base and another 32 as the team’s DH, Putnam’s official rookie year was respectable- a .277 average with 18 HR’s and 64 RBI’s in leading the Rangers to an 83-79 record.
Putnam finished 4th in the 1979 Rookie Of The Year voting. Before getting too excited over this, time has shown the rookie crop of 1979 left a little to be desired. The players finishing above or tied with Putnam in the voting were John Castino, Alfredo Griffin, Mark Clear, Ross Baumgarten and Ron Davis (father of current Mets rookie Ike Davis).
In the 1980 follow-up campaign, also with Corrales managing, Putnam regressed in almost every category, not enough to give up on him, but enough to make a difference. The average dipped 14 points to .263, the home runs to 13 and the RBI’s to 55. His error totals at first base also increased, so his fielding got worse as well. As Putnam’s fortunes sank, so did the Rangers, as they finished 76-85 on the year, 20 ½ games out of first.
The strike-shortened 1981 season was Putnam’s last as a Rangers regular. Putnam put up a line of .266 with 8 HR and 35 RBI’s in leading Texas to a 57-48 record and a 2nd place finish under new manager Don Zimmer.
Putnam slumped horrifically in 1982. By May 26, his average had sunk to .210 with 2 dingers and only 4 RBI’s, so the Rangers sent him down to AAA Denver. After getting a September call-up and hitting .268 the rest of the way, Putnam was traded to the Mariners in the off-season. He ended his big league career in 1984 with the Twins.
Putnam’s best day as a Ranger: September 11, 1981 vs. the California Angels- 4 hits in 5 at bats with a double, 2 homers and 4 RBI’s.
Next: Second Base
In the interest of all fans of perennial losing teams, we bring you the first recipient of the Texas Rangers/Washington Senators Shlabotnik Non-Star Award (named after Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player in the Peanuts comic strip). The catcher for our team is Dick Billings (also known as Rich Billings, if memory serves).
For three years, from 1971 to 1973, the Detroit native and former Michigan State player was the Rangers/Senators main catcher and he was a true Shlabotnik. His best year was 1972, when he hit a robust .254 with 5 homers and 58 RBI in 133 games. Not just a catcher, Billings also managed to get into some games in the outfield, at third base and at first base. Mainly, though, he was the catcher.
Wearing the number 8 on his uniform, Billings wasn’t particularly stellar on defense either. In 1972, his biggest year as a starter, he committed 10 errors and added 12 passed balls in 92 games. By comparison, in 2009 Jarrod Saltalamacchia had seven errors and two passed balls in 81 games.
Billings‘ last full season with the Rangers was in 1973, when he batted an anemic .179 in 81 games. However, he did have the distinction that year of catching Jim Bibby’s no-hitter, the first no-no in Rangers history. His best day at the plate came on August 13, 1972, when he had the only four-hit game of his career, against the Royals, with two doubles and 5 RBI.
In 1974, Billings was sold, not traded, to the Cardinals, with whom he ended his major league career in 1975. His career batting line: Career average of .227 with 16 HR’s and 142 RBI over 400 major league games.
Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player was Joe Shlabotnik. We don’t know who Joe played for, but because he was Charlie Brown’s favorite player, we knew he couldn’t be any good.
This blog is for Charlie Brown-type Rangers fans. When it comes to the Rangers (and the Senators before them), they are your team, through thick and thin. Every Ranger is your player and you treat them as if they were an All-Star. Through the years, you eventually find out they weren’t quite as good as you remember them, but you cheered whenever they knocked in a run, stole a base, or notched a W and it gave you hope they would do the same the next time they were in the line-up.
The Rangers/Senators have had a lot of All-Stars through the years and some very good players that played on not so good teams. But if there are some not-so-good teams, that must mean there were some very average players at best.
So, for you die-hards, off days in the schedule will be days to honor the Joe Shlabotniks in Rangers/Senators history- the working-guy type talents that we nonetheless rooted for every night.
There are criteria. First, they player had to have been with the Rangers/Senators for at least three seasons, thus eliminating the Doug Stranges and Pepe Friases of the world. And they couldn’t be small-time bench players, either. These are true Joe Shlabotniks- everyday players with some 400 at bats every year for at least two of the minimum three seasons they were with the franchise, yet we barely remember them when thinking back over the years.
The first Shlabotnik Award winner will be named right here on April 13th or 14th.
In the meantime, tonight it’s the Blue Jays and Rich Harden making his Rangers debut. Can’t imagine anything more dramatic than the opener, so I’ll be happy with us giving the Blue Jays an old-fashioned butt-kicking!